When I was little, I have a distinct memory of my father standing by the entrance of the living room, still in his work clothes, watching the news. The TV showed a clip of the president, dressed in a full suit, giving a speech about Iraq.
Congress had recently given the president a green light to wage war on terror anywhere in the world, and he was already abusing the power with Operation Iraqi Freedom – a severely misguided response to 9/11 that was so openly jingoistic, it even had a made-for-TV brand name. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis were being killed for the sin of living under an oppressive regime that wasn’t even responsible for 9/11.
Dad started to say something mean about the president, then reluctantly stopped short, explaining that no matter how much you may dislike or disagree with the person in power, people with such a high level of distinction deserve a baseline attitude of civility and respect.
Years later, in the same room, I witnessed his father also stop himself short of expressing contempt for the commander in chief. "Far be it for me to say something mean about the president of the United States."
The notion that the president still merited a minimum level of respect from people, even while speaking in the privacy of their own homes, struck me as a little odd. Their comments stood out to me, because I grew up around people who erred on the side of questioning authority, including both of them.
Though I didn’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, their attitude seemed like a product of the rapidly fading, old-world order of the 20th century: A world where most men in white collar jobs were expected to wear ties to work every day. A world where wars were declared against other countries and fought only after being formally authorized by congress. A world where massive companies controlled all of the media’s distribution channels and spoke about the country’s leaders with respect, even when being critical of their performance.
I remember a certain resignation in Dad’s voice and body language. In that moment, he seemed to have realized that the onslaught of 24 hour cable news channels, emboldened in the aftermath of 9/11, and combined with the internet’s rapid democratization of the media’s distribution, meant that his attitude would soon seem anachronistic.
Dad finished his remark and went to the kitchen to make dinner, since Mom would be home from work soon. This household may have adhered to traditional social expectations of civility, dignity, and respect, but that didn’t mean 20th century gender norms had to stick around too.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now over. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil, it's clear that the post-9/11 era has come to a close. Earlier this year, the events of January 6th – fueled by sensationalist media and the rhetoric of elected officials – showed the world that the biggest threat to American democracy is no longer external.
Dad rarely wears a tie to work anymore, even when he does go into the office. I wouldn’t either, if I were him, and I don’t miss the world where that was the norm.
But we’ve lost something valuable since then. And it’s up to each of us to bring it back.
Postscript: Jon Stewart's emotional first address to his audience in the aftermath of 9/11 is worth watching today. "Any fool can destroy, but to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen, and people from all over the country literally with buckets rebuilding, that's extraordinary. We've already won."