"In the wake of tragedies, especially those that are as difficult to absorb as the events of September 11, we have a strong need to understand what has taken place and what has been taken from us," Pace University President David Caputo said. "We look to artists to guide us towards that understandingâ€¦" Caputo was speaking as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, introducing a panel discussion among New York artists and entertainers entitled "Confusion in a Time of Uncertainty: Life after September 11," which was held at Pace on Friday, May 10. What follows is edited excerpts from the transcript.
The moderator was the comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart, and the panelists were: Karin Batten, painter Spalding Gray, writer/actor/performer Susan Sarandon, actress Wendy Wasserstein, playwright. They were asked to attempt to answer the question as to whether artists have a special responsibility to respond to crisis.
The film festival included two films explicitly about the events of September 11. "Telling Nicholas" spends the first ten days after September 11 with the Staten Island family of Michele Lanza, who was killed in the World Trade Center, as it grapples in particular with the question of when and how to tell her seven-year-old son. "From the Ashes: 10 Artists," captures the impact of the attacks on ten downtown Manhattan artists. The director of that film, Deborah Shaffer, introduced both the panelists and the theme of the discussion.
Deborah Shaffer, filmmaker: On September 12th I went out of my loft to go and buy some food. Incredibly, Gourmet Garage was open despite all the other businesses in the neighborhood being shut down. And I ran into a painter friend who said she was on her way to her studio. I was stunned. She paints lovely floral things and I couldn’t imagine how or why she was going to continue to do that. But as I thought about it during the day I slowly changed my mind. And I realized that everyone had to seek solace in their own way. Several months later, a journalist turned the tables on me at the Sundance Film Festival when he asked me if I didn’t feel that I had jumped on doing a film about September 11 rather too soon. Of course I was incredibly insulted. I stayed calm and said, although it’s true that we had made our film very quickly, that if we had waited we could have never captured the feelings and the events of those early days.
So while the film is in no way a definitive statement, I hope it has a role to play in reminding us of those first days and weeks, but even more importantly, in raising questions about who we are as artistsâ€¦
It is a terrific honor for me to introduce a very distinguished panel today that is going to be discussing these questions with each other and all of you. So it is now my great pleasure to introduce the panelists: Wendy Wasserstein, Susan Sarandon, Spalding Gray, Karin Batten and Jon Stewart.
Jon Stewart, comedian and talk show host: Thank you, you are correct in applauding usâ€¦ I think we are going to have a fascinating discussion about art, and clearly I am unqualified to lead it so I will turn it over to a more distinguished panelâ€¦ Between the five of us we should be able to work out something relatively bizarre. So I will ask Karin since you are clearly sitting the nearest to me, who are we now as people? Are you excited to be here? What do you think? Tell me, in your painting, have you changed?
Karin Batten, painter: Well, I am glad I am here. I am glad I am alive. It has been very hard to get back to my work. I lost my studio on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center. I have lost all my work that I had done up there, and it was hard. I was in shock for about two months. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know where I was. Was I back in Europe after the war, the last war in Europe or was I here? Just like bombs falling on New York City, and here I thought it was a great place to be, very safe to come and immigrate to.
Jon Stewart: Which place are you from?
Karin Batten: Hamburg, Germany.
Jon Stewart: You were at the epicenter, Ground Zero.
Karin Batten: Right, but anyhow it was hard, and it still is, but what really saved me was my work, because after about two months, I decided that the only thing I could do is to paint, start painting again. And the only thing I could do is to paint the view from the World Trade Center the way I saw it when I was up there. I started painting North, towards the East, the river, from the photographs that I have saved. It helped, but you know I would paint and tears would just be running down my face. I had nightmares about me being up there, painting, and all of the sudden the towers would start crumbling. And those were my nightmares for quite a while. And I had to leave the city a lot, because I felt like I didn’t know if I wanted to be here. But I love New York City.
Jon Stewart: Spalding, are you responding the same way?
Spalding Gray, actor and monologuist: No, I wish I were. I suppose I was affected by being absent from it and my absence has been an enormous survivor’s guilt, because I wasn’t there to be a witness, and I feel my work is healing through narrative, to try to get stories of the people that workedâ€¦So I have been knocked out by it, I haven’t been able to workâ€¦ my town was being taken away from meâ€¦I feel like a New Yorker, but also as absentee. I haven’t been able to do work since then.
Jon Stewart: It is sort of an interesting luxury, because in many respects getting back to work isn’t an option for most people. What do you guys think of that — the luxury? Susan, you are the next in line. Are you sick of this topic, are you sick of us talking about ourselves?
Susan Sarandon, actress: Yesâ€¦I have little kids so that I have to deal with that. But I am kind of at a point now, where I am interested in following through with the families, the firefighters’ families in a very specific sense, because I visited a lot of houses. I think it was much easier to be here, because you could get right up to the elbows of what was going on here. And now I feel that it’s important to keep that outreach going. Once everybody leaves Ground Zero it’s going to be very traumatic for these families. They are all dreading it in a major, major way. [Sarandon appeared in a play called "The Guys" about a journalist helping a fire captain write eulogies for eight of his men who died in September 11] To be able to do that became the most interesting, because of the audience, and the actions that the audience would have, examining and finding a way to mourn as a group. People who are having serious, serious post-traumatic stress ramifications could remember that they weren’t alone. Sitting in a dark place where there is a film or a theatre becomes some kind of communal potential for healing or exploration. In fact,is there any way to turn the lights the lights on in here so we can see each other?
Jon Stewart: Uh, I think the audience is exploring right now so they can’t have the lights on.
Susan Sarandon: They’re exploring each other?
Jon Stewart: This is the first seminar that is actually going to turn into a full blown make-out session.
Susan Sarandon: It looks like a group that would be greatâ€¦
Jon Stewart: Wendy, do you think that you will deal directly with this issue or pass it on?
Wendy Wasserstein: I don’t think directly, [but] how it changes character. I have a daughter who’s two and a half and born on September 12. We obviously cancelled her birthday party. One of the father’s of one of her little friends died, and I thought how does this shape her life? How does this shape the life of that generation? And that’s something that takes a long time to think about. The other thing I thought about: I remember when the New Yorker had that issue with the black cover about the World Trade Center. There was no comedy in it, there was no comic writing. And I kept thinking to myself, I would be very, very interested in what someone like Paul Rudnick had to write about this. I don’t know how you deal with this comedically because there’s some things in life that just aren’t funny. But yet, in the long runâ€¦I think that even sitting here, we’re laughing, and you’re making out. I don’t know what the place of comedy is in this. I don’t think it’s direct; I think it’s a release.
Jon Stewart: Well I clearly don’t know the place of comedy. If you’ve seen ["The Early Show’], I think you understand what I’m talking about. I think, honestly, the biggest problem that I’ve had is the idea of defining the place of comedy. I honestly think it’s an exercise in self indulgence. I mean no disrespect, I just think that the idea of even something like this [panel discussion] is anathema to how I operate. The idea that we will be able to digest and define some sort of message from what happened is bizarre to me and it takes years and years to digest.
Susan Sarandon: Maybe we need comedy more than ever now, not in terms of explaining anything, but just in terms of helping us heal.
Jon Stewart: I think comedy [can heal] probably more than antibiotics. But I [think] that it’s embarrassing to have to decide how important we are to the process of healing. People say to me, what’s funny now? I don’t know and I never did. And that’s what you can’t define. I am sure in the Holocaust people cracked great Jew jokes, in the camps. They just did. But I am sure they didn’t sit around going, "Seriously Moisha, do you think that’s appropriate? Perhaps a seminar over by barracks 12."
Susan Sarandon: Well maybe we can just be here to find out what’s going on with them [pointing to audience].
Jon Stewart: Let’s open it up here because I think that would be a much more appropriate and fun and interesting way to do this â€¦ Does anyone have a question? Yes sir, please state your name and the film you’re trying to sell.
Audience Member: Wellâ€¦I’m not trying to sell a filmâ€¦ My question has to do with my personal feelings and I’d like to ask each of you how you have dealt with coping. I find myself getting angry quick, sometimes overreacting to simple things, freaking out. It has gotten worse rather than better as time has gone on. I’ve done certain things about that but I just wondered, in generalâ€¦ I was one of those people that the first two months everything was fine. I was like crisis control central and then it all fell apart. I’m wondering if anyone else had that kind of experience.
Karin Batten: I’ve had a lot of fear. I don’t know what next is going to happen. For the first two months I was numb and then all of a sudden the anger started. I hated everything. I hated smelling the air that was coming, I live downtown so I was smelling the air all the time. I have a son who’s twelve years old who saw everything. That’s his school down here at the World Trade Center, near the World Trade Center. He loves New York, but he was even saying: "Mom, I think we need to move. This is not good. It still smells." That was like in January. And so I have dealt with a lot of anger and I think the way I get it out is I work out all the time. I swim, I bicycle, I do a lot of physical stuff. I think that helps me a lot.
Jon Stewart: Have you changed your routine since that day? Have you been doing more of that?
Karin Batten: Yeah, I have been doing a lot more.
Jon Stewart: On the spiritual side, I can recommend fundamentalist Islam. I’m kiddingâ€¦
Spalding Gray: I was at a party last night, and there was a rock and roll band playing and for the first timeâ€¦ I realized I couldn’t release through dancing. I think any kind of you know, Dionysian release or physical exercise is totally important, but I feel as if it’s, you know..
Susan Sarandon: It’s sex you’re talking about Spalding?
Spalding Gray: Well, that too. If it’s possible because it was such a castrating act, the towers falling downâ€¦two of the largest erections of mankind in the contemporary world. So if that in itself isâ€¦you go to the pit now and it’s like aâ€¦
Jon Stewart: Don’t. We know where you’re going with this one so lay off. Yes, sir (to audience member).
Audience member: You’re speaking right now about the results of 9/11. How do you feel you should respond [as artists] to 9/11 as the result of something?
Jon Stewart: But isn’t everything the result of something?
Audience member: 9/11 is a result of something. So what do you feel is the responsibility of artists to address that?
Jon Stewart: Susan, that’s an interesting question, I think, for you as a — what do they call that — a pinko. I’m assuming you mean to point out the steps leading up to September 11, whatever your interpretation of those steps may be.
Audience member: Well, something is definitely wrong. What do you do as artists to address those forces?
Susan Sarandon: One of the first things I told my kids, when it happened, was you have now joined the rest of the world. I mean, it’s important to understand that one of reasons it was so debilitating was â€¦.there was this idea that we were beyond violence of any kind. But the fact of the matter is even in the United States, depending on what neighborhood you live in, there are kids that are living with violence all time, and at a magnitude which we can’t even fathomâ€¦. I think we’re privy to information as media connected people. We have a responsibility to get that information outâ€¦ I live not too far from Union Square and [in the beginning] it was just America at its finest that started happening there. The dialogue starting with a bunch of homeless kids and eventually got bigger and bigger. You had people chanting, you had people singing, you had everything. And then somewhere along the third week, John Wayne showed up -- an actual cut-out of John Wayne. And aâ€¦ jingoist kind of thing started taking over and then nobody could ask questions anymore. It was like a little microcosm of what happened around the countryâ€¦We’re not supposed to talk about how there might have been something leading up to this, that it could have been prevented, or that our actions have ramificationsâ€¦Unfortunately, we’re living in a lock-down in terms of information and a certain point of view. And if you challenge that point of view, you’reâ€¦ anti-Americanâ€¦ We just have to be a little flashlight that shines on that area that corporate America is not putting forwardâ€¦ You may not read about it in the Times, but people are still asking, so that’s a good signâ€¦
Karin Batten: My feeling is that it’s a lapse of education. In a way this country is very isolated. It’s very large. I grew up in Europe, [where] you get a much better overall worldly education. And I think my son, who has been through elementary school and now almost middle school, has had nothing of that. The only reason he knows is because he travels with me to Europe and he understands a little bit more, has a more worldly outlook. I think that’s something that we need to changeâ€¦Everything’s very specified and very much focused on one subject, it’s not an overall education that you get here.
Jon Stewart: If I can present just a slight variation on what they were saying. I don’t necessarily agree that we are uneducated or a country that squashes dissent. As a matter of fact, I think I probably say the opposite. â€¦Chomsky and Gore Vidal have both put out books terribly critical of the United States.
Susan Sarandon: Except they wouldn’t print Gore’s book up until just recently. It sold 40,000 and when he tried to get it released in the United States, it took months.
Jon Stewart: But within the marketing mainstream corporate whatever that is, they have no responsibility to print whatever, they’re basically there to sell coke.
Susan Sarandon: No, the Nation and Vanity Fair that he has a standing thing with would not print his article.
Jon Stewart: Right, but it’s out there. And he’s not in prison and the majority of countries â€¦ wouldn’t tolerate this. You know, in this countryâ€¦art is not a brave pursuit. It’s just not. It’s a pursuit we are afforded to do and it’s a luxury. In countries of real repression, art is a brave pursuit, but that’s not us. .. As far as education is concerned, in terms of Europe, I do wish maybe they’d study their own history because it’s not exactly pristine. So, I would suggest, it’s very easy to criticize and say what we did caused this. Certainly the actions that we take within the world have blow-back effect. But to look at that through myopic eyes is no better.
Audience member: I live down here in a dorm, NYU, and we were told we couldn’t come back down here on the 11th so I was hanging out in the park. What I was really, really sickened by that day was the mass of people running into drugstores buying disposable cameras to get shots of what was happening, smoke from the buildingâ€¦ And I was wondering if you could comment a little about the fine line between artistic documentation for historical or artistic endeavors and exploitation. Sidney Lumet, yesterday in a panel here, said something to the effect that all of it would be exploitative. And I was wondering if you agree or disagree on that.
Wendy Wasserstein: It’s a hard line. I remember when on the 11th I started watching television compulsively and then after three or four days of it, I couldn’t look at it at all because I thought there is some sort of exploitation going on here. I couldn’t get out the line really between wanting to hear what was happening and then suddenly thinking that this was about real lives going on here â€¦ I understand [why people wanted to photograph it] because it is a document of your time and it’s happening and you want to see it, you want to have it. There is a part of me that does find all of that [almost] offensiveâ€¦It’s almost a way of distancing it from your heart.For me, as an artist, things take time, they take time to settle... I really couldn’t sit on a panel and tell you here’s what happened, here’s who I’m angry at, this is why it happened, we’re a nation of isolationists, this is what I think of fundamentalists Islam and us and Israel. I think it’s something that is obviously leading somewhere, and I think it’s all of our jobs to know our history and understand the politics of the time we live in and be responsible for the time we live in. But I also think you don’t take the picture, put it on CNN and then think "I know [now], let’s move on."
Jon Stewart: Have you seen any works that incorporate these images or incorporate what’s going on that you thought was appropriate or healing, tastefully done or exploitative for that matter? Is there anything in your experience?
Spalding Gray: I don’t own a television so I didn’t get hooked into that. And because I missed that, I found the two downtown exhibitions of photos taken by local people to be extraordinary. The one on Worcester Street and the one over on Prince Street.. That absolutely saved the day for me. It made the eventâ€¦brought it backâ€¦it showed it to me visually. They were just really great documentation. And primitive and sincere because they weren’t all shot by professionals.
Jon Stewart: Right. I find that I tend to draw the line at commerce. And the media, CNN in particular, MSNBC and Fox have begun to use the World Trade Center images as bumpers in an ad or commercial. And I find at that point that’s just an utter loss of editorial control. And one that I find unbelievably mind boggling. And whatever story they bring up about September 11 now is followed by images of people running from the disaster. They’ll say "New Yorkers are losing sleep. We’ll have someone on to find out why," and as they’re saying that, they’re literally showing the towers coming down and people running out into the street. And I imagine if you’re sitting at home and watching it, you’re going "I can’t sleepâ€¦because CNN won’t stop running this."
Audience member: I never thought that I would find myself running for my life two times on September 11 along with being forced to be evacuated. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to encourage community involvement as a healing process. What we did, my husband and myself, was we went and we built a web site for engine 6, one of the first responders, and I’m proud to say that because of our efforts, with a lot of other people in downtown New York, we have been able to put a down payment on a new ambulance. Community involvement, I think, is a wonderful healing process. As I always say, we’re still on day one. Until we decide to fight, take action, we will not move to day two. And day two is when we start to heal. Thank you.
Jon Stewart: You’re welcome. Karin?
Karin Batten: I was sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Culture Council, which is very active in downtown and Tribeca. It’s a wonderful organization. And I also belong to an art group and we have received about 300 pieces of work concerning the World Trade Center attack. And they have come from all over the world and they will be exhibited. None the artists that I knowâ€¦ knew what to do after that happened. And then the only thing we could do was sort of deal with what we saw and what we have experienced â€¦Some people knitted pieces, some did collages, paintings, everything. And it has been really helpful because we’ve been putting this together and have gotten many, many pieces from all over the worldâ€¦None of the artists that I know has really gone back to [the work they were doing before]. Everybody is changing and thinking "what do we need to do now?" We talk about it in meetings. It’s really helpful to talk about it to other artistsâ€¦ That is part of the healing process for me too.
Jon Stewart: Does anyone else have an organization or something that they have been involved in that they would like to talk about?
Susan Sarandon: Yeah, there’s a group, the emphasis on refugee camps, it’s a great group called FilmAid that started in Kosovo and just recently has been working in Afghanistan that takes a big truck with a screen on the side of it that plays music, whether it’s in a bombed out building or a fieldâ€¦In Afghanistan the kids just saw the "Wizard of Oz." They show it to somebody first to make sure that culturally it’s OK. The only objection they had were the -- what do they call those little people -- the munchkins in tutus, that was a no-no. But other than thatâ€¦Rhe kids had never seen anybody singâ€¦because they don’t, in that culture, allow singing. And so when they saw Judy Garland singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," their jawsâ€¦we have film of them watching it, they were just dumbfounded.
Jon Stewart: If I may make a suggestionâ€¦don’t send them the Police Academy series. Because -- I can’t stress this enough -- these people have been through a terrible tragedy; I don’t think they should also have to face Guttenberg.
Audience member: Two blockbuster movies in the past few years were of recent tragedies in history, "Titanic" and Pearl Harbor. They kind of romanticize tragedies in past history, and I was wondering if you thought that it would be appropriate [to make a] blockbuster film [of the events of 9/11]
Jon Stewart: I think you just bummed out the panel, dude.
Susan Sarandon: I’m sure somebody will do it.
Jon Stewart: Everybody’s working on a script up here that’s whyâ€¦
Susan Sarandon: Somebody’s bound to do it, you know, and there’s no way of knowingâ€¦
Audience Member: Do you think it would be appropriate though?
Jon Stewart: Jerry Lewis made a film about being a clown in a concentration camp. I mean, you can’t avoid it. Whatever your internal barometer is, is your internal barometer. And if you try and set it towards other people’s phazers, you’re always going to go wrong. And all you can do is what you feel is right. But trust me, no matter what you do, someone’s going to think you’re a d***. I have that by the way embroidered on pillows. It’s a lovely saying.
Audience member: The Daily Show is a very popular showâ€¦
Jon Stewart: It’s not that popular.
Audience member: Well, I mean, it’s watched by millions of viewers all over the country and I personally think that it’s been respectful in regard to the comedy of September 11. Where do you think that the line should be drawn in regards to a comedic interpretation of the events of September 11? What crosses the line and stops being humorous and becomes offensive?
Jon Stewart: Where’s the line?
Audience member: Where’s the line?
Jon Stewart: I wish I knew, honestly. You know, I think the line is those Carrot Top AT&T commercials. Those are offensive to me, but only purely because they suck. ..I live downtown so I imagine my barometer is set relatively sensitively towards those events in terms of comedy, but I can’t honestly tell you that I haven’t made mistakesâ€¦But it’s the same line that existed before September 11. I guess that’s one thing I’d like to say. September 11 is an arbitrary line, just like the line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s just been drawn there, obviously not by the British, September 11. But I mean it’s an arbitrary line and you know, the day Jesus was born wasn’t the day they decided to go, "OK, now it’s AD." You know what I mean? It takes a long time to digest it and all you can do, again, is use the same intuition you used before. And maybe with a greater sensitivity and awareness just because you went through those events. I think the closer you live to it, probably the more sensitive you are to it. ..It makes me want to apologize to the people of Oklahoma City. Because I certainly watched that thing go down and went out and got myself a cheeseburger and that was probably due to geographic distance. But does that answer your question at all?
Audience member: Well, I just had one more thing. Saturday Night Live does skits involving Osama bin Laden, things that have happened. Do you feel that type of comedy, in regards to what’s going on in Afghanistan brings a light-hearted view to what happened? Does it make people feel better? Or is it just a distraction, something that shouldn’t be done?
Jon Stewart: The thing about television is they’ll tell you when it’s no longer appropriate because they’re no longer able to sell products off of what you’re doing. The issue with TV comedy isn’t whether or not it’s appropriate for an audience or whether its offensive. The issue is whether or not people will watch it, to allow you to keep producing it financiallyâ€¦ Unfortunately, that’s really the game. Any of us who think any differently are lying to themselvesâ€¦I bet there’s people who watch it and go: this is incredibly offensive. And people watch it and think: thank God someone has attacked this sacred Cow. C.F. Lewis said: mock the Devil because he hates to be mocked. And there are a lot of people out there who say: don’t mock the devil, he loves thatâ€¦.It’s such an individual response.
Susan Sarandon: They just had a thing in New York where the Library Asssociation was trying to get everybody to get to read the same book together in the city. They had to cancel the whole thing because the 15 people on the committee could not come up with one book. They got it down to two, and half of them found one book offensive and the other ones thought the other book was stupid. So I thought, thank God, I mean why would they think they could get all of New York to read one book. We’re in New York, you know.
Wendy Wasserstein: I think it depends, I think if you in 1944 put on a musical that featured "Springtime for Hitler," I don’t think that would have gone over. You know, and [now] you have the biggest hit on Broadway. ["Springtime for Hitler" is a musical number in the Broadway hit "The Producers"] So I think it also depends on how it’s done and time.
Jon Stewart: But Chaplin’s film about Hitler was during that time â€¦
Audience member: But he was deported.
Jon Stewart: He was deported for ***** children. He wasn’t deported for making a film about Hitler. â€¦There’s so much talk about globalization and typically it comes in the form ofâ€¦ protests in front of a Starbucks. Which by the way, they do, not because they’re protesting Starbucks because it’s awfully hard not to protest in front of a Starbucks; there’s so many thousands of them. You can just be protesting and "oh, wow, it’s a Starbucks." [But there is a positive aspect of globalization, where people have] great empathy and a great feeling and experience for what we went through. Is that is a positive aspect, Karin?
Karin Batten: Yeah, I think it really is because I noticed it very much so after the event. Most of my family called me immediately. Everybody emailed me from Europe and from other parts of the country and said how much they were feeling for us. How much they were part of it. And how it really became just one large New York City. Everybody was trying so hard to get through, but the lines were blocked. Everything was falling apart in New York, but they were with usâ€¦I went back in March to visit my family and they still felt that wayâ€¦. They all watched it on television. And there was no ocean. Everything had shrunk to one land.
Jon Stewart: In the aftermath, a lot of the commentary was how people’s opinion of New York had changed. All of us who lived here thought we always known there was a great kindness and a great compassion and a great strength in the city. But as misunderstood as New York is in this country, do you think this country is as misunderstood around the world?
Susan Sarandon: I think we misunderstand how we are understood outside of the United States.
Jon Stewart: But does that necessarily mean that that’s a fair perception of us?
Susan Sarandon: No, it doesn’t necessarily..[but] it’s very, very different.
Jon Stewart: In other words, like the misperception of New York, for instance, in the rest of the country, was it something that New York brought upon itself. Because it’s interesting, I hear a lot about what we brought upon ourselves. And it always reminds me of, you know, perhaps how black people should take the time to really understand the Klan. And really understand, you know, why they made them so mad. I guess that’s not so popular here. But you know what I mean? I do think that there are some people out there who have misperceptions and it’s very difficult. The majority of the Arab world still doesn’t believe that Arabs did this. What do you do to change perception that’s that skewed?
Wendy Wasserstein: I don’t think we really know how we’re perceived in the rest of the world. I think we’re still back at the end of WWII and [we see ourselves as] the Americans [who come in with] candy and everyone’s happy to see us. And that’s really not the case anymore at all.
Susan Sarandon: We [can] thank our movies for continuing the myth of how we’re perceived. Wendy Wasserstein: But I also agree with Jon that this panel would not exist in so many countries in this world orâ€¦ I actually ppent a lot of time in Eastern Europeâ€¦. And you came home here and you wanted to kiss the ground, and you think this is a great democratic country.
Susan Sarandon: This is a great democratic country. [But] we have seen ourselves as being liberatorsâ€¦ andâ€¦ people have just settled with that, without the complications of what else is happening, as we put pipelines everywhereâ€¦Dissent is not just right, it’s a responsibility. That’s how things started in this country. It’s always been a tradition in this country and it should be everywhereâ€¦In other wars, people sacrificed. They didn’t consume, they didn’t wear stockings. And now we’re being asked to go to dinner and buy stuff in order to make things better. But what about looking at our energy policy, for instance?
Wendy Wasserstein: There is that danger of saying you brought it on yourself. I always think that’s a danger in disease as well. "Well, it’s your fault you got this." I think that what’s important from this is to realize we live in a global world and it is a community and the community extends beyond the United States.
Susan Sarandon: But I don’t know that when people say "this is the history leading up to this’’ that they’re saying therefore you are guilty. They’re saying, "as we proceed, let’s understand that it’s not that simple." I saw the quote of what Bin Laden said that we weren’t allowed to see on the video because there might be secret signals. Remember when that last video came out? And they have the text of what he actually said, if you can believe the translationâ€¦Somebody here could’ve said it. What he’s saying about what his people have been through and everything else. This is not to justify what he’s saying. But you know, in terms of our compassion, in terms of changing things, you have to get to hope first. You have to get to some kind of system that’s going to provide hope for a people in a country. Whether it’s this country, whether it’s some other country. You’re dealing with people who have lived in a certain way and feel that violence is an alternative. Where you get to the point where a guy in the prime of his life thinks the bets alternative is to go and blow up not only himself, but thousands of other people. What leads to that? How do you start to figure out how to solve the problem in some other way besides a cowboy-shoot-em-up?
Jon Stewart: I think it’s relatively naĂŻve to think that the disparity in wealth is what creates suicide bombings.
Susan Sarandon: No, I’m not just saying the disparity of wealthâ€¦
Jon Stewart: Or conditions without hope.
Susan Sarandon: Well, it might be just as naĂŻve to think that just violence is going to solve violence.
Jon Stewart: But I’m not sure that anyone thinks that violence is going to solve violence. That’s another thing, when Hitler was roaming across Europe, subdividing it for planned developments, there was at the time in Europe a policy of appeasement after WWI and the Versailles treaty. There was that sense that that was the war to end all wars and the league of nations was going to take care of business.
Susan Sarandon: Now who are you comparing to Hitler? [The U.S.] going through these countries or you’re talking about bin Laden?
Jon Stewart: Well, going through countries with McDonald’s I don’t think is the same as going through countries with panzer divisions.
Susan Sarandon: Well, that’s absolutely true, but we neverâ€¦we didn’t kill thousands of people in Iraq to put in McDonald’s.
Jon Stewart: We didn’t?
Susan Sarandon: I don’t think so.
Jon Stewart: I thought we did it to liberate Kuwait.
Susan Sarandon: Yeah, they’re feeling really great, Kuwait.
Jon Stewart: But we act within our self-interest, I think that’s true. And I think most countries act within self interest, but I do believe that there’s a demagogue out there who believes this is a holy war.
Audience member: George Bush
Jon Stewart: Maybe, you may be right. But I do think that George Bush, and I’m not by the way, a supporter, but I do think that it’s very easy to classify that this country’s policy is demagoguery when I don’t think it is. I think we take great pains in this country to be responsible withâ€¦ I think there’s a certain recklessness, but we takeâ€¦you know the idea that the embargo in Iraq is morally equivalent to suicide bombing, I think is an irresponsible point of viewâ€¦Clearly Saddam Hussein has money to build golden palaces and mosques, why doesn’t he use it on sandwiches?
Audience member: Yeah, I’ve been waiting for a really long time.
Jon Stewart: I apologize, that was the Bush policy that kept you from speaking.
Audience member: It probably was the policy. I don’t think the Bush policy would want to hear what I have to say at all. Anyway, I had question, but I really wanted to respond to that last little bit there before I go into my question. I have to say that in reference to the sanctions on Iraq not being morally equivalent to a suicide bombing. Yeah, the deaths of Iraqi people, because I’ve done a lot of research on this, and I actually was supposed to go to Iraq just before September 11 hit, so it was very ironic that that happened.
Jon Stewart: Do you think it was about your trip?
Audience member: You know what, I don’t think it was about my trip, but it was definitely connected to my trip, I can say that. Because I definitely think that obviously was a major cause for what happened. There have been 1.5 million Iraqi people that have died, mostly children. And it’s the extent that, I mean, their complete infrastructure is destroyed, their water is poisoned. They have no food, they’re on a desertâ€¦They can’t develop their own medicine. They have the best doctors in the Middle East and they have people dying from the common cold and the most curable illnesses that there are. So, I just wanted to go a bit more into detail.
Jon Stewart: Nothing personal, but we have been embargoing Cuba for about 50 years and they seem OK.
Audience member: I’m aware of the embargo on Cuba, but it’s not to the extent of the embargo on Iraq?
Jon Stewart: Are you going there?
Audience member: I’m not planning on going to Cuba, no. Iraq is my issue. But anyway, I want to go into the question I have now that is connected to this. Basically, I was on a peace walk last December and I was obviously encountering a lot of people that I was trying to convince of the fact that I felt that our response to this was the wrong one. And I kept spewing out these facts and of course, people would just refute them and argue them and debate them. And it just wasn’t getting through. I bumped into this one woman and it started off the same way. And I said to her, well imagine, I said, you know America does have terrorist organizations within it as well. We have the KKK, we have the Michigan Militia. We have all of thesegroups. I said can you imagine these groups got together and thought to themselves, you know, we’re so sick of these Asians with their technology coming and taking all of our jobs. And we’re going to attack Asia, I said. And then can you imagine Asia, because Asia is a very technologically advanced continent, I said. Maybe just a single country, or maybe united, coming and bombing us. And can you imagine just living in your normal neighborhood and going about your normal life? And seeing these bombs come out of the sky because the KKK did something to an Asian country.
Jon Stewart: At that point, did it turn into a peace run, by any chance? Just kidding. I see your point.
Audience member: Wait, wait. You haven’t seen my point yet, I have got to my point. My point is, the thing that reallyâ€¦
Jon Stewart: Why do I feel like you’re about to break up with me?
Susan Sarandon: That’s just like one point away from, you’re so cute when you’re angry.
Jon Stewart: So your point is thatâ€¦ maybe we don’t all have the empathy to feel like what it’s like to live in Afghanistan? It’s a very valid point.
Audience member: The point that I’m trying to make is that all of the facts in the world did not have the impact of putting it in a creative user-imagination way. And the point that I’m trying to get at is that all of you are artists on this panel. And I’d like to see how you feel you can put this in a creative way and reach people on an artistic level rather than just giving them the facts.
Susan Sarandon: There’s a whole history speaking [of art during wartime in which people from a nation were vilified before they were attacked.] The way to slow things down is always to put human faces in those countries so when we’re sitting at home in Americaâ€¦ we talk about "destabilizing" Nicaragua, somebody shows the faces of the people that are being destabilizedâ€¦meaning ruining the infrastructure of Nicaragua and what exactly is going on thereâ€¦ You’re not just bombing the axis of evil, you’re actually having to deal with people within those countries who have a culture, who have faces, who have whatever. And then, you know, it may change them. Maybe that’s one thing people who are gifted in those areas can do is to humanize both sides of any kind of situation. So if there are documentary filmmakers or people have some writers that can do specific stories about people.
Wendy Wasserstein: I think what you do as an artist is eventually go back to work. â€¦ We may do something directly, like what Susan’s doing. Or you think about what is it like to live in these times with this event happening for the time. I keep thinking, Chekov is my favorite playwright who was not directly political. But if you see those plays, you know they are about people who lived in this society that was being transformed, on the brink of revolution, but we never talk about it. So I think what you’ll begin to see in art is both directly dealing with this time [and indirectly]â€¦ God hopes that in forty years no one’s going to make The Towering Inferno, but they will. But I also think you’ll see plays, art, that reflect people who come of age or have lived through this time, through an event that happened in this country that never happened before. How does it affect their daily life? How does it affect their falling in love? How does it affect their being funny? All of that will happen, and I think you will see it in their art, either directly or indirectly. But that will happen because you have a country that has to redefine its character because it’s redefining its vulnerability and fear. That, I think, any artist will instinctively take into account. That’s true of comedy as well because it’s your instinct that makes you judge, is this working, is this not working? And our instincts change because of this event, and I think you’ll see it in very important art that’s going to come out as a result of this period.
Audience member: Do you think we are a country that’s redefining ourcharacter?
Wendy Wasserstein: I do.
Susan Sarandon: I don’t know if we are publicly, mainstream. It doesn’t start from top down. It always starts from the people up. â€¦I think Wendy’s right...People are thinking, they are asking, they’re grieving, they’re sharing, they’re reaching outâ€¦In the very first days, there were so many people who came here from Oklahoma City, for instance. Ministers, firefighters, whatever, they were just living at the Javits Center trying to share their experiences. That kind of stuff’s still going on. We just don’t hear about itâ€¦ I think that we can’t go back. This is the new normalâ€¦ We’re not going to go back to normal. We can’t and we shouldn’t want to.
Jon Stewart: If I may say, I don’t think art defines our character. I don’t think any of it does. I think what defines us as a people, what defines our character already happened on that day. 19 flew into a building to blow it up. 350 ran into that building to save people and died. That’s our character and that’s how we define ourselves.
Karin Batten: And I think that’s how the rest of the world, most of the rest of the world, views us. I had a big part of that after the second world war. We saw America being very helpful coming in and trying to build everything up again. And that’s the first piece of chocolate I ever got.
Jon Stewart: First piece of chocolate? Was it a Riesen? Did you see those? They’re chewy, but not too chocolatey.
Karin Batten: I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was bread.
Jon Stewart: Seriously?
Karin Batten: I had never had a piece of candy until I was seven years old.
Susan Sarandon: My kids will not be the same kids they were, even though they are doing things the way they were. Of course, life goes onâ€¦we’ve returned to normal. We’re being productive. But all your experiences somewhat register in who you are. And they now have a perspective that they didn’t have. Now, what that turns out to be, I don’t know. And we will find out as we go along, but I don’t think that you can just ignore what happened. I mean, we appreciate different things.Some people are in denial â€¦I was with somebody who is a decorator and they had a client who called from Kansas and said, "I know you’ve got a little problem there, but these things haven’t arrived yet." I know you’ve got a little problem there?!â€¦Something definitely happened and you can’t go back as if it didn’t happen.
Jon Stewart: There was even a quote about Anna Wintour and Calvin Kleinâ€¦There was a time when he thought maybe he’d get out of the business now. And she begged him to produce his Spring line because otherwise the terrorists winâ€¦Pompous, indulgent people find a way to turn September 11 into a pompous, indulgent feelingâ€¦.And I think that’s the idea of change,people react to itâ€¦ My only point is there’s overwhelming good in this country, there is.And I am incredibly proud of that part of it. And are there horribly reckless policies out there? Yesâ€¦
Susan Sarandon: So why are you calling me naĂŻve?
Jon Stewart: I think it’s naĂŻve to simplify it. All I’m saying is that when the back is up against the wall, I think people are incredibly strong and incredibly passionate as a whole, but the majority of usâ€¦
Susan Sarandon: Not just in this country. Everywhere.
Jon Stewart: I’ m not saying other countries don’t have that. I’m sure they do. I haven’t been there. I’m from New Jersey. That seems nice too. All I’m saying is I believe in this world, and I don’t think there is this overwhelming cabal of evil. I think it’s an overwhelming cabal of cutting your lawn and raising your kids. And the general policies of this country are run by the extreme left and the extreme right because everyone else is busy cleaning their gutters.
Audience member: [talks about the women of Afghanistan and how there should be more attention paid to them]. I just sort of have a very idealistic view of still how to remedy the world, save the world. I sort of feel like there’s just a great wealth of heroes out there. I know a lot of them are probably very brainwashed. These terrorists, they had girlfriends, they had wives, they had mothers, sisters. I’m very interested in that. I wanted to throw that out there.
Susan Sarandon: You know we’re cutting the pay of firefighters this year. The city is cutting their pay. They’re getting theâ€¦what do you call it when you don’t get a raise?
Jon Stewart: The shaft.
Susan Sarandon: The shaft!
Jon Stewart: Do you know what that’s called?
Audience Member: I get your point. I think that we definitely have to focus here on our country, but it’s just an idea I wanted to throw out there.
Audience member: You’re all amazing storytelliers in each one of your mediums. I’m wondering how, if in any way, 9-11 is affecting your creative process. And if there are any other stories that you see coming out of this?
Wendy Wasserstein: I felt like Spalding. I found it very hard to write. I thought that whatever I’m doing here is irrelevant. In fact, because I thought whatever I’m doing is irrelevant, I started writing things that were even more irrelevant. I started writing, you know, "My Manicure" for fashion magazines because I just couldn’t deal with what I was thinking about. I didn’t even know what I was thinking about. And then when I did think about it, I thought this is ridiculous. It just can’t compare. I do think there’s a part of me, in terms of storytelling, I think that I hope will be more work that is about children and appeals to children because I think that that has to be thought about. Because when you talk about information and dealing with if that event defined our character, then who’s going to be the next generation of Americans? I think we don’t think about that that much or what we do is throw at themâ€¦stop it. We think, oh this will sell things and this will and they’ll all come to this. And I think maybe this event, in terms of storytelling, will make us think about that a little more and the quality.
Susan Sarandon: I think the New York Times should be congratulated for those obits that they put in writing. To be able to get a little bit of information and give you just a tiny glimpse of some of these people.
Audience member: What has been the challengeâ€¦ and actions for artists who have some principles and for artists who want to create work that has some social conscience to it? What is the challenge in actually trying to do that in a period where we are embarked on a war with no limits of time and space and critical thought itself is suspect?
Jon Stewart: So you’re talking about the artists of principle? Well, I’m going to have to pass on this one.
Susan Sarandon: You’re always supposed to be an artist of principle. You’re supposed to write and take responsibility because no matter what anybody tells you, every movie is political. The only ones that they say are political are the ones that challenge the status quo, but every movie tells people what women want, what it means to be a guy, what’s funny, what’s not. I think "Nutty Professor" is one of the most political films; they got everybody to root for that guy to stay fat. That’s a political film, what the values in that system is about. So you have to listen to your own bottom line and see that films at their best start a dialogue where people can examine some kind of subject or whether point of view is challenged a little bit â€¦. So everybody should just understand that their work puts something out there. â€¦You just have to always be principled, and I don’t think that has changed. It’s exactly the same thing as it was before the 11th.
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.
Last Updated (Jun 06, 2012)