Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?”, a loving and poignant tribute to the victims of the 9/11 atrocity, is country’s version of Billy Collins's poetic memorial "The Names." Like Collins (“Yesterday I lay awake in the palm of the night”), Jackson is modest and understated (“I’m just a singer of simple songs/I’m not a real political man”), but the political and communal messages in his work are powerful.
For Jackson, the assumption of inviolability and non-involvement had crumbled with the Towers and been replaced by an unexpected feeling of responsibility, coupled with a deep sense of anger, sorrow and resilience. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” John Donne wrote in the 17th Devotion, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Wherever many of us were on the day the world stopped turning, we were also in New York. I was marooned (no boats, no planes) on the Greek island of Tilos, but rapidly understood that Tilos was a part of the North American continent.
Jackson may not be a “real political man” but he’s the real thing, a man with a big heart and clear mind, so indefeasibly different from our complacent and wrong-headed intellectual elite, whose range of responses ran between outright commiseration with the terrorists and a kind of Houyhyhnm-like complacency—that is, between palpable madness and ineffable foolishness.
One recalls that, while Ground Zero was still smouldering, influential “rights activist” and former head of the University of Colorado’s Ethnic Studies Program Ward Churchill published an online essay praising the “gallant sacrifices” of the terrorist “combat teams” and referring to the victims of the attack as cell-phone-toting “little Eichmanns.”
Shortly afterward, Susan Sontag, in an article for The New Yorker, claimed that 9/11 “was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack … undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” Similarly, and on the same day, Peter Dale Scott, a transplanted Canadian and the author of several books of crepuscular verse, jumped on the anti-American bandwagon, proclaiming to a class at the University of California at Berkeley that the terrorists “aren’t cowards, if nothing else, it surely isn’t cowardly to ride the plane in for something you believe.”
Less than a month later, Naomi Klein, writing in The Nation, responded to the bloodbath of 9/11 by considering that “Now seems like a good time to challenge the forces of nihilism and nostalgia within our own ranks”—by which she meant people like Billy Collins and Alan Jackson. In a speech delivered at M.I.T. in the same month, titled “The New War Against Terror,” Noam Chomsky asserted that the American retaliatory strike against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden should be understood as “some sort of silent genocide.”
Obviously, the majority of the scribbling class had (and have) no compunction about trading in accusations as ill-timed and manifestly absurd as they were (and are) brazenly false.
We know where these people were when the world stopped turning. The singer of simple songs sees more clearly, feels more deeply, speaks more eloquently, and knows the “country” far better than the smug patricians who have neither music nor love in their souls.