Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
A couple of days after flying back from Japan on September 4th, 2001, I'm arranging my New York Chinatown apartment. I set up the flat screen monitor, plug it into the DVD deck and drop in a DVD. It's 'Stop Making Sense' by Talking Heads. I sing along to 'Life During Wartime':
Life During Wartime
Heard about Houston, heard about Detroit
Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?
Little do I realise that in a few days the world itself will stop making sense, that lower Manhattan will be experiencing 'life during wartime' in all too real a sense, and that we really will be asking 'What happened in Pittsburgh, PA' (did the US Air Force really shoot down a US civilian plane in US air space)?
A couple of days later I run into Arto Lindsay on Lafayette Street. I tell him I saw 'Downtown 81' in Tokyo. 'The whole downtown area looks like a bombsite in that film,' I say. 'Was it really like that?' Arto gestures around and says 'This was all completely different. It really was like a war zone back then.' I tell him I saw the movie at much the same time that my flatmates rented John Carpenter's 'Escape From New York', and that now the two warscapes are fused in my mind. 'I wish I could have seen it. I wish I'd moved here at 21,' I rave. Little do I know that in four days my foolish wish will come true.
Heard Of Some Gravesites, Out By The Highway
Exactly one week after my return from Japan I'm in my Chinatown apartment on Orchard Street. It's a sunny morning and I'm listening to Schubert's settings of Goethe lyric poems. I've bought five Schubert CDs on the Naxos label with the idea that I want to expand my electronic Chamber Pop in the direction of Lieder and German 19th century art music.
About ten minutes in, the German baritone and piano is interrupted by an explosion outside. Orchard Street often resounds to bangs, clangs and thuds -- there are construction sites in the area and trucks bounce noisily along nearby Allen Street. But this sounds different. For some reason, I immediately think of the World Trade Center.
I switch on TV and hit New York One, the local real time news channel. Before long there's a breaking report about a fire in the World Trade Center.
I run up onto the roof and sure enough there's an apocalyptic fire raging in the northern tower, casting a thin plume of dark smoke up into the clear blue morning sky. Jesus! Helicopters are already hovering above, paper flutters from the smashed, strafed fabric of the ruptured building. There are heavier objects falling too. I'm wondering how they're going to put this inferno out when I see what I assume is some sort of police plane flying low between the buildings. My view is blocked by Confucius Mansions, but the plane never emerges from the gap. Instead there's a huge explosion and a mushroom cloud above the southern tower. At this point I realise I'm witnessing a terrorist act.
I realise the heavy objects I've seen falling from the tower are people. Twice I run outside to watch from Division Street. I shoot a few seconds of video. The Chinese are watching without panic.
Back at my apartment I learn from TV that the Pentagon has been hit and the White House evacuated. Suddenly it all starts to remind me of the ending of Douglas Coupland's novel 'Girlfriend In A Coma', a novel whose descriptions of global armageddon touching the lives of dot.com yuppies seemed too far-fetched and religious when I read it.
'A thin layer of grey dust coats houses in the suburbs of Tokyo. Volcanoes erupt in South America. In a Vancouver hospital ward people unconscious in consecutive beds begin making synchronised movements...'
TV is reporting that one of the towers has fallen. I run back onto the roof in time to see a pillar of smoke where it once stood. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
Day 2: Life During Wartime
Manhattan is like a war zone. It's as if the Middle East conflict moved 'to the mainland' just as the Irish conflict did in Britain.
The air smells of smoke, jet fuel, even (suggests one Vietnam vet on TV, unhelpfully) decomposing human flesh. To get to my apartment in the Lower East Side I have to pass two police cordons, one at 14th Street, one at Delancey Street, at which I have to show papers with my address. Military jets fly overhead from the battleships poised at the mouth of the Hudson and the smoke changes direction each time the wind changes.
Mayor Giuliani (who is dealing with this crisis with admirable poise, giving out information and leaving out any sententious or vengeful political humbug) has requested 11,000 body bags.
Nasty rumours have been circulating; that there is anthrax in the air (in which case you die within 36 hours of the first flu-like symptoms), or that there's a danger of missiles or gas explosions. Buildings in the World Trade Center area continue to collapse. It seems clear there's no anthrax, but there is asbestos, fine particles of which can lodge in your lungs and damage them permanently. On the deserted streets of SoHo people are wearing gas masks.
Nevertheless, the city is tranquil. The sun is still shining and the weather is beautiful. Because everything south of 14th Street is closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles, the city has a festive air. More children than usual are playing in the road. It feels safer than usual. Traditional Jews and Muslims on Orchard Street are mingling side by side, unshuttering their shops, open for business, working in peaceful harmony.
Up in Union Square people are making peace banners while others debate in a polite way what kind of reprisals the US should take. In the East Village people walk chic little chihuahuas and sit at sidewalk tables in cafes. The TV is wrong when it tells us that all businesses below 14th Street are closed. BBC World even states, completely incorrectly, that the whole of Manhattan is being evacuated.
I'm Getting Used To It Now
Instead, Central Park is full of kids sailing toy boats and people riding bicycles. Up here, apart from the odd whiff of sour-smelling smoke when the wind changes, you wouldn't know anything had happened. The Boathouse Cafe is open and doing good business -- you can't get a table. On 5th Avenue souvenir hunters are buying postcards with the World Trade Center on them. The block around the Empire State Building is closed. The venerable old skyscraper, unexpectedly New York's tallest structure once more, looks strangely vulnerable today. 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall' never rang more true.
Japanese bookstores Asahiya and Kinokuniya are open for business, and there are crowds of anxious Japanese reading Japanese newspapers which have been posted in the doorway. The subways are running almost as normal. Some lines are more crowded than usual, others almost empty. Oddly enough the police controls which exist up on the street are completely absent on the subway. You can get way downtown without any control of papers.
I've heard at least two artists say that the sight of the collapsing towers was inspiring on a formal level, even while it disgusted them morally. MoMA and the Whitney Museum are closed but the New York Public Library on 53rd Street is open. I borrow a novel by Yiddish writer I.V. Singer and ask if I can return it further downtown. The Jewish lady on the check out says 'You can even take the Staten Island ferry and return it there. Of course, the view from the boat will be different.'
On Lexington Avenue grafitti artist De La Vega has written in chalk a saying of Gandhi: 'An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.'
I've Got Some Groceries, Some Peanut Butter, To Last A Couple Of Days
This week I was supposed to be performing at Fez as part of the annual CMJ Festival. Toog (my friend and labelmate Gilles Weinzaepflen) was to have flown in from Paris with his girlfriend Florence Manlik. They were both going to stay with me for several days.
But with the airports closed and New York under lockdown the whole festival has been rescheduled for October 10th to 13th. I speak to Toog on the phone and he reminds me of the first time he, Flo and I were in New York together, back in 1998. We were staying at the Off Soho Suites Hotel. I remember watching a documentary on the hotel TV about the Soviet Concorde disaster. And I remember how we decorated the suite with an apocalyptic Howard Finster-style painting by Andrew Prewett, a canvas Florence bought in a junkstore depicting the apocalyptic scene of some future US armageddon. In the painting the World Trade Center was on fire.
Terrorism and disaster are exceptional events, but, in the forty years I've been alive -- a time of so-called 'peace' -- they've also been weirdly constant in my life.
1962: I'm two years old. The world comes close to a nuclear holocaust over the Cuba crisis. 'One swallow makes a summer / The moon rises, luminous with terror / We are like a bunch of spiders, all clinging together in a corner and crying' writes the poet Robert Lowell.
1973: IRA bombs, energy crisis and recession. My family decides to emigrate from the UK to Canada. We're due to leave Britain on the liner SS France. The very night before our departure from Southampton there's a bomb scare in our hotel.
1979: Watching Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan on TV, I'm convinced this is World War 3 in the offing. The price of gold soars.
1981: Race riots throughout Britain. I join anti-Nazi league marches.
1982: The Falklands War. I'm in a pub with Mark E. Smith when it breaks out.
1985: Riots in Brixton. Rather rashly, I walk right through the middle of them. Police are charging at little knots of black youth by Brixton Town Hall, waving their batons and shouting 'Black bastards!' I turn and run.
1986: The Challenger space shuttle explodes. Like everyone else I'm watching it on TV.
1986: The Chernobyl nuclear reactor leaks and a cloud of radioactivity travels across Europe. I remember walking without my umbrella one day in Clapham and worrying if the rain soaking me was radioactive.
1991: The Gulf War. The night it begins I'm at the Fridge in Brixton. The acid house graphics in the lobby are switched to CNN. I'm with an enraged dissident American journalist who kicks bollards half way down Brixton Road.
1993: The IRA bomb the Baltic Exchange at Bishopsgate in the City of London. I hear the blast from my flat in Fitzrovia. This is just the most deadly of many IRA bombs to explode in London during my thirteen years there.
That same year the first bomb explodes beneath the World Trade Center.
1995: A major earthquake strikes Kobe, Japan. I'm negotiating a contract with Nippon Columbia at the time. The tone in the faxes I'm receiving changes: 'We are in a crisis here in Japan. Please be patient.'
1995: Algerian terrorists bomb the Champs Elysees. My wife Shazna (we've married just the year before after I help her escape from a forced marriage in Bangladesh) works on the Champs Elysees. Luckily she's not hurt.
2001: While I'm in Tokyo there are several earth tremors serious enough to have me and my two Japanese flatmates running for the door in the middle of the night. There's a typhoon. And there's an explosion on the Kabuki-Cho, Shinjuku. Just two days earlier I've been there with the Parisian gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin and some other friends.
The list is incomplete. These are just the events which affected me the most.
As I write, early on Friday morning, I'm hearing that two more teams of terrorists, ten people in all, have been taken at gunpoint from planes at La Guardia and JFK airports. Disguised as flight crew, bearing tickets issued for flights originally scheduled for the 11th, they were armed with plastic knives like the ones used by the terrorists on Tuesday. Some of them were registered at the same Florida flying school.
Meanwhile, it seems likely that military forces are gathering for an attack on Afghanistan. It's not over.
I Might Not Ever Get Home
I just wanted to end with a couple of observations about the Islamic world and American globalism. First, it seems that whoever is behind this attack has found a devastatingly effective way of striking at the two most important resources of American globalism: international finance and jet travel.
Now I've been unsettled by American triumphalism ever since Bush senior declared, at the 'end' of the Gulf War, that we were entering 'a New World Order'. If that 'New World Order' is nothing but the global hegemony of Exxon, AmEx, McDonald's and Coke, I personally want no part of it.
The New World Order is a political meme from the early 90s. In its time it has been almost as successful in serving right wing ideology as its cousin, the Political Correctness meme.
Memes, from Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas to today's PowerPoint presets, are the replacement of thoughts by infectious prefabricated pat phrases. In times of peace, memes are no more than an irritation, symptoms of human mental sloth, no more annoying than the hit records which, once they've attained the status of classics, become ubiquitous, toxins saturating the commercial environment. But in time of war, if they're allowed to infiltrate policy, memes become fatal.
The events of this week have terminated the virulence of some memes -- 'the end of history' and 'missile defence shield' are now looking pretty laughable -- whilst giving birth to others just as toxic. I've spotted three dangerous tropes being used by politicians and parroted by the commentariat:
1. This is 'an attack on civilisation' (attributed approvingly by Moby to Simon Perez).
2. This is 'a second Pearl Harbour'.
3. Bush Junior is 'the leader of the free world'.
As I see it, any attempt to demarcate some people as civilised and others as 'savage' or 'bestial' leads us not only to the argument 'people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones' (after all, is it 'civilised' to bomb Indo-China back to the stone age rather than let its people decide their own political future? Is it 'civilised' to carry out surgical strikes against Baghdad and Belgrade from 15,000 feet?), it leads us straight to Joseph Conrad's 'Heart Of Darkness' with its chilling reductio ad absurdum of this argument: 'Exterminate the brutes'.
Why Stay In College, Why Go To Night School?
We should seek to understand (which is not the same as apologising for or justifying) these acts as a part of the value-free rather than the value-loaded sense of 'civilisation'. Islamic civilisation is deeply entangled with Judeo-Christian civilisation at every point. It was Islamic civilisation which gave the world the mathematics and geometry which allow planes to fly in the first place.
If the Islamic world has, since the 1970s, entered a regrettable phase of fundamentalism in which it destroys difference (in the form of the Taliban blowing up Buddhist treasures, or Iranian leaders menacing the lives of British authors) this is because it has moved from being simply 'un-American' to being 'anti-American'. And this is partly because America has, in the last three decades, become inescapable. If you don't go to it, it will come to you. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam has had to bear the burden of being the crucible of all difference, the harbinger of all dissent against the American model. Ironically, by becoming 'that which is not the US', the Islamic world has forgotten its true identity. By becoming antithetical to the US rather than merely different from it, it has become America's harder, darker shadow.
I'm not against globalism, quite the contrary, I revel in my ability to travel and experience other ways of life. What I reject, though, is the assumption that globalism has to be Americanism, that the American Way is the only correct one, that the American president (whether we can elect him or not, and, in the current case, whether the American people elect him or not) represents 'freedom', and that there is only one definition of justice, happiness and progress, which is the American one.
While my own definition of freedom is much closer to the American Way than to Islamic Fundamentalism, I don't for a moment think that America represents 'freedom' or that it should be seen as the sole hope for 'progress' in the world. The more I travel, the more I'm disturbed by this assumption, and it ashames me that my own country, Great Britain, is ruled by people who seem incapable of refusing the American state anything, even when such co-operation (in the form, for instance, of US jets treating the UK as 'Airstrip One') opens British cities and British citizens to attack.
We've Got Computers, We're Tapping Phone Lines
Too many reactions to this crisis have been religious. One commentator on PBS' Charlie Rose show put this very well when he said 'This is not about the civilised versus the uncivilised. It's about the values of the 12th Century versus the values of the 18th. It's the Middle Ages versus the Enlightenment.' That line does not run neatly down the map dividing the Middle East from the West. Some US and UK reactions to Bin Laden's medieval crusade have been, themselves, medieval.
The image of Billy Graham preaching on all channels simultaneously is a 12th century image. The anonymous woman who said 'We must show these terrorists that we believe in God too' is a 12th century woman. The book buyers who gave medieval doom-monger Nostradamus the top three slots at Amazon.com's best-seller list this week were clearly predicting a return to 12th century values. Ascetic religious rock star Moby venting his spleen on his website about this 'attack on civilisation' is broadcasting live from the Middle Ages. Committed Christian Tony Blair seems to aim Britain straight for the Crusades with his vehement speech telling the UK parliament that Britons, too, must show they are willing to die for their beliefs. Nobody seems to have learned the essential lesson: that this crisis came about because of a lack of intelligence (in all senses of the word), not a lack of fervour. (Some possible reasons for the inadequacy of our intelligence in the military sense about Bin Laden are spelled out here. They have to do with oil, as toxic and as flammable an element in this crisis as religion.)
The Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, the Encyclopaedia) is an unfinished project, and the achievement of its luminous rationality slipped further away on Friday, the 'Day of Remembrance', when the poisonous memes of religion were multiplied and the British royal family sang, nonsensically, that anthem of republican defiance of their ancestors, 'The Star-Spangled Banner'.
The religious and the royal, the Muslim and the Christian; they're all on the wrong side of the line dividing the 12th century from the 18th. As a result we're all now stuck in the Dark Ages, waiting for a cancelled flight to the Enlightenment.