I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
-W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”
What’s the Big Idea?
W.H. Auden, reflecting on the outbreak of the Second World War, famously labelled the 1930s “a low dishonest decade.” That decade, after all, saw a worldwide depression, the rise of totalitarian regimes and appeasement by the democratic nations. The decade that followed Auden’s poem is now remembered for the enormous amount of shared sacrifice on the part of the Allies that brought down fascism, and sealed a new era of international diplomacy and economic growth.
If Auden were around today, and could look back at the events of September 11, 2001, and consider both the decade that preceded it and the one that followed it, I would imagine he might be tempted to label both the 1990s and the first decades of the 21st century “low dishonest decades.”
On the other hand, if we are looking for a silver lining, as many unfailingly optimistic Americans are want to do right now, we can certainly find counter-examples of sacrifice and heroism that arose in the aftermath of 9/11, and Big Think was able to capture one particularly noteworthy perspective from former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens who, as Lea Carpenter described in a previous post, gave up lucrative offers in the private sector to serve his country with both “the heart and the fist.”
Is Eric Greitens an anomaly, or does he embody the fighting (and humanitarian) spirit of America following one of the worst attacks in the country’s history?
Watch Greitens on the legacy of 9/11 here:
What’s the Significance?
The line “We must love one another or die,” that concludes Auden’s poem, was deleted from The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden, published in 1945. In fact, Auden would come to distance himself from the entire poem (he came to regard it as trash he was “ashamed to have written”). Despite this, the poem remains highly relevant today, and the sentiment expressed in its final stanzas is powerfully echoed in Greitens’s remarks to Big Think.
As Greitens says, when Americans were challenged, “when we were assaulted, we were able to turn to each other and ask for help, and ultimately “find something greater than ourselves.” And that, according to Greitens, “is one of the greatest testaments to what it means to be an American.”