On the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, former R.E.M. frontman and New York City resident Michael Stipe has penned an essay that parses the effect the attacks had on him and the United States as a whole. The article, which he wrote for The Guardian, was inspired by artwork that novelist and artist Douglas Coupland made from images of the attacks. But it also allowed the singer to reflect on how our cultural paradigms have shifted in the years since a phone call woke him up in his apartment, just north of Ground Zero, to tell him the city had been attacked.
“The Freedom Tower was meant to inspire patriotism and instead embodies the darker sides of nationalism,” Stipe wrote. “The 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s response, buoyed by the media, and our shock at having finally been direct victims of terrorism, paved the way for a whole new take on ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ There was no longer any need to explain or publicly debate militaristic power, or the police state mindset. To do so was to be the opposite of a patriot.”
The R.E.M. frontman says the name of the tower is irrevocably linked in his mind to the phrase “freedom fries,” a term for French fries that came into parlance after the French refused to help the U.S. invade Iraq in the months after 9/11. “Anything attached to the word ‘French’ in the U.S. was then relabeled with the word ‘freedom’: freedom toast, freedom fries, freedom kiss, for fuck’s sake. French wine was banned, French people were spat upon, their heads in photographs replaced with heads of weasels. Forget the Statue of Liberty and where it came from.”
Stipe calls that short-lived precedent a “disastrous response” and condemned the way conservatives adopted the “formerly leftist act of boycotting” as a form of social protest. “I’ve never been more embarrassed by my country, (except when we re-elected George W. Bush and Dick Cheney),” he wrote. “I largely blame the media for this egregious abuse of power and influence.”
He also wrote responses to some of the cultural slogans that emerged in a bigger-than-usual way in the years since 9/11, including “Never forget,” “God bless America” and “Support our troops.” Regarding the last one, he sarcastically wrote, “Oh, no…really?” before posing a number of questions about the American cultural identity: “Is that who we are now? Blind, unquestioning, warlike? Are we that violent, that childish, that silly, that shallow? Are we that afraid of others? Of ourselves? Of the possibility of genuine change? Are we that easily swayed, that capable of defending ‘American interests,’ whatever ‘American interests’ means? Are we that racist, that terrified, that protective of an idea that we don’t even question what the idea has come to represent?”
Since R.E.M.’s disbandment in 2011, Stipe has remained active with social causes, recently supporting Ugandan civil rights pioneer John Abadallah Wambere at Logo TV’s Trailblazers event, which honored LGBTQ activists. In the music world, he put out his first recording since the group’s breakup – an instrumental – in June, and inducted Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a moving speech, the transcript of which is available here, in April.