Inhuman Swill : september 11

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You Are Here - Roosevelt Island - New York City

you are here

the southern tip of roosevelt island
east river easing by to either side
beside your wife astride the bikes
you rode like phantoms through
the hushed streets of queens
over the red bridge at 36th ave

you are here

inside the four mile ring of the
concentric circles of immediacy
and inverse kneejerk jingoism
the two towers at their center
their sides pierced by spears
gushing ash into waterclear sky

you are here

holding hands in the swelling
congregation of silent cyclists
a u.n. of observers stunned and numb
distant sirens the only sounds
besides the murmuring river
or the murmurs might be yours

you are not here

to see or hear the first collapse
you're riding back over the bridge
retracing miles unwinding the clock
restitching time with no success
at home your t.v. sees just one tower
a dustblinded eye about to close

you are not there

originally read at Tuesday Funk, September 6, 2011 [video]

My first reaction this morning upon hearing the news that Osama bin Laden is dead was elation. I wasn't in Manhattan on 9/11, but Laura and I were in Queens, and we rode our bikes to the southern end of Roosevelt Island in the East River from where we could clearly see the smoke pouring from both towers of the World Trade Center a few miles away. Bin Laden being shot in the head by special forces feels like justice, though inadequate justice compared to all the death, suffering and hatred he ignited.

But at the same time, I have to wonder about the timing and importance of this event. I know the operation has been in the works for a very long time, but it comes as Al Qaeda seems to be fading into irrelevance. The Islamic world, as evidenced by the Arab Spring, seems to have taken to the idea that protest and civil disobedience are more effective at bringing down oppressive regimes than terrorism, which has been demonstrated as entirely useless in that regard. Al Qaeda will soldier on, no doubt, but it's not the power it once was.

All in all, with the election season starting up, the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 approaching, and the U.S. letting itself be drawn more and more into the Libyan conflict, the raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan seems almost like a distracting piece of theater.

But I do hope President Obama got George W. Bush on the phone and broke the news to him personally.

I never enjoy writing a blog post for September 11th, but also don't like letting the day pass with saying anything. Happily, our social calendar last night handed me the perfect topic to share today.

Last night Laura and I attended one of the Art Institute of Chicago's occasional "After Dark" nights. This one turned the Modern Wing into an Indian-themed night club of sorts. We arrived early and slipped away from the festivities just in time to catch a preview of a new art installation, Jitish Kallat's "Public Notice 3," about which we knew nothing. We were fortunate enough to be part, I believe, of the first public group to see it, and had unobstructed access that not many viewers will get when it opens today.

"Public Notice 3" is the first work to be installed directly on the Art Institute's Grand Staircase. You get there from the Modern Wing, as we did, by passing through the Alsdorf Galleries. This space used The view from Buddha to be crowded with armor and armaments but is now devoted to religious art from India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas. Buddhas from different ends of those regions welcome visitors at each end of the gallery. It's hard not to dawdle with all the gods and demiurges on display. But there, through a portal at the opposite end, you can already see the field of varicolored lights framing one last Buddha.

Past that sculpture, you begin to take in "Public Notice 3." Kallat has gained a reputation for recontextualizing historical texts. In this case, the text is the remarks delivered on September 11, 1893, by Swami Vivekananda to open the first World's Parliament of Religions, which took place in this very building in association with the Columbian Expo. Vivekananda offered a stirring plea for tolerance, which Kallat has set flowing up the staircase in 15,000 tiny electric bulbs reminiscent of a Lite-Brite set. The words are rendered in the five colors of the Homeland Security Threat Advisory System.

Buddha and Public Notice 3   Public Notice 3, in part   true not only in   Laura notice

It's a stunning journey to slowly climb the stairs, immersing yourself in the text, while following the flow of the words to their final elevation on the upper floor. The text is duplicated on every route you can take to the top, illuminating the swami's contention that "the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

I wish everyone could experience "Public Notice 3" today, but failing that I wish everyone would take the time read Vivekananda's address in its entirety:

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

"Public Notice 3" has been called "provocative." But I don't see what's so provocative about an impassioned call for worldwide religious tolerance. Prescient, yes. Provocative, it shouldn't be.

Eight years later

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I consciously realized something this evening that has been nagging at me for a few weeks now, which is that tomorrow morning, when the new episode of my podcast goes live, there's going to be a line on the front page of my web site that reads "September 11." I'm not looking forward to seeing that.

It helped this evening that Laura and I had a good friend over, and that date was one of the subjects we chatted about on the back deck amidst the wreckage of banana daiquiris, white Russians, and Tomintoul 27yo served neat with water back. I was glad to hear that I'm not the only one who gets so angry that he has to withdraw from conversations of the sort that I had a few weeks ago, when a random stranger at a bar I like to frequent on Friday afternoon tried to tell me that the American government was behind 9/11. (It's not exactly a counterargument, but my favorite statistic to trot out in such circumstances is that Manhattan [a/k/a New York County], the very borough that was attacked by foreign nationals, voted 80% for Al Gore in 2004.)

Anyway, if you have some time, browse over to my survivor registry tomorrow, read some of the posts from that confusing day, and try to remember what it was like to feel the world changing around us.

The Rorschach test

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Seven years on, what does September 11th mean? Nothing.

Perhaps it would be less confrontational to say it means everything, or anything.

I had a terrible argument with a relative of mine during those bleak last months of 2001. I said something to the effect that a person's experience of September 11th was more valid if he or she was there, or at least that's how, in my clumsy way of speaking, my words came across. My relative took great offense at the idea that he wasn't as affected in Utah as I was in New York City. "You're telling me," he said, "that you wouldn't feel bad if someone blew up the Church Office Building in Salt Lake?"

"Of course I'd feel bad," I said. "But I wouldn't feel the same way as a person in Salt Lake. It would be more abstract for me."

This got me nowhere, but I stand by the core argument I was trying to make. I was in Queens when the planes hit the towers, and as much terror and horror as I felt watching from the seat of my bike at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island as all that black smoke roiled into the air four miles away, my experience was nothing like that of the people who had to run for their lives through the debris cloud when the first tower collapsed, or, God forbid, like that of the ones who had to choose between burning to death or jumping to death. And my experience of that day—of seeing the city where I lived and worked and played be attacked and disfigured and transformed, of losing the ugly but somehow comforting giant landmarks that made orienting yourself in the urban maze so simple, of ghosting through the otherworldly hush of Manhattan in the days that followed, of rolling through the deserted and darkened subway station at Cortlandt Street—was quantifiably different from someone whose experience of that event was entirely mediated through television, radio, print, email, telephone, and word-of-mouth, and who maybe had never been to New York City at all.

This doesn't mean someone two or even twelve thousand miles away could not have been affected as significantly by September 11th as someone who was in one of the target zones. I can't even call the spheres of experience concentric, because someone in Japan who lost a family member that day is no doubt still more affected by it than I was. I don't think there's a person in the world who wasn't affected somehow, and to graph everyone's comparative experience would call for the most complicated Venn diagram ever devised.

Only if you grant my proposition that September 11th is in and of itself meaningless can you possibly say that John McCain and Barack Obama appearing together at Ground Zero is not political. Maybe I suffer from a lack of imagination, but I can't see how the sight of opposing presidential candidates, one young and black, one old and white, sharing a stage at the site of the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil can fail to be political. What that political meaning will be will of course be different to each person watching, but it will be there because of the individual emotional freight we all bring to such images as contrasting skin color, American flags, snapshots of the dead, and giant holes in the ground.

And that emotional freight will dictate how we feel, and how we feel will, in most cases, dictate how (or whether) we vote in November. The more I read and listen to voices on the radio, the more elections I live through, the more I'm coming to believe that we vote because of how we feel, not because of what we think. And I think we are feeling our way blindly into deeper disaster.

With Bush's approval ratings so dismal for so long, there is no logical reason for McCain and Obama to be so close in the polls. A Republican administration got us embroiled, bogged down, and distracted in Iraq, wrecked our economy, rolled back our civil rights, and ruined our standing in the world, and yet it's still working for Republicans to say that only they can fix the mess they got us into. McCain's recklessness in picking his running mate is confirmation of his "maverick" credentials, while Obama's long and fruitful relationship with his is swept under the rug. Obama's long experience is dismissed as non-experience, while Palin's non-experience is pumped up to levels of Jeffersonian statesmanship. Her family demands that its pregnant teen daughter's "decision" remain a private matter, while stumping for judicial change that would take that same private decision away from other families. McCain's erratic record is seen as consistency, and Obama's consistency is seen as dangerous. Outward signifiers like flag pins are more important than inward qualities like reason, compassion, and integrity. The levels of Orwellian doublespeak are remarkable, and the mind-bending contradictions make natural sense to way too many people.

Reason does not rule us as a species. The heart does, or some deeper, less specific organ of instinctual decision-making. That's why we're more likely to swallow big happy lies than sober assessments, galloping cowboys than careful blueprints, loaded buzzwords from an old white man than reasoned conclusions from a young black man. It's the same organ that tells us God can cure our cancer even though we know He will never restore our severed limbs. It's because we make our decisions with our guts, not our brains.

Of course, that's just my gut talking. It's just what I see in the meaningless image of those twin smoking towers, the greatest and most crucial Rorschach inkblot test in our nation's recent history. If I hope anything today, it's that we can all see through the inkblot, and not let our vision be clouded by it.

Walked to work

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Laura and I walked to work this morning. It was our own memorial service, to honor all the people who had to walk home from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens last year.

The Queensboro bridge pedestrian walkway wasn't very crowded. It took about an hour and twenty minutes for us to get to my office. It took Laura about another half hour after that to get to hers.

This editorial from The Guardian says exactly the words I've been fumbling for, exactly the words I'd have said if only I had a stronger grasp of international politics:

They can't see why they are hated

Frankly, I'm terrified listening to every American leader from George Bush down to Rudy Giuliani jabbering about how we're hated in America simply because we're a bastian of democracy. Bullshit. We have been bringing this on ourselves, and we've been arrogant enough all these post—Cold War years to think we were mighty enough that no one could possibly fuck with us, that our actions around the globe could never possibly redound to our own harm.

Well, five thousand people in New York City are dead because of those policies. The question is, what power does the average American have to try to change what our government is doing overseas. I frankly have no idea where to start, and I consider myself reasonably well-informed—probably hyper-informed for an American.

But we'd better damn well do something, because we're about to pursue a war that will only make the next attack on America that much more deadly.

The fact is, the American government doesn't play nice with third-world countries. We stomp around the playground like a bully, kicking sand in everyone else's faces, and we call it protecting our own interests. Do the terrorist networks need to face justice? Hell, yes. But let's find them and haul them off to the principal's office for punishment, and let's leave everyone else alone. For fuck's sake, let's not blow up the damn sandbox.

I suppose I wouldn't be the first to point out how screamingly funny The Onion was last week. Or what a fine, fine line they walked.

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Fast Company presents a modest proposal from Dan Pink, author of Free Agent Nation. I got to help.

Ebert on "Zoolander"

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From Ebert's movie review today:

"Responding quickly to the tragedy of Sept. 11, the makers of Zoolander did some last-minute editing. No, they didn't dub over the word 'Malaysia' or edit around the assassination of the prime minister. What they did was digitally erase the World Trade Center from the New York skyline, so that audiences would not be reminded of the tragedy, as if we have forgotten. It's a good thing no scenes were shot in Kuala Lumpur, or they probably would have erased the Petronas Towers, to keep us from getting depressed or jealous or anything."

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