Saturday, 10 September 2011

Everything I Need to Know About 9/11 I Learned at the Last Night of the Proms

I am sitting here tonight watching the Last Night of the Proms - a great, if bizarre British tradition, and I am relishing the absurd costumes of the punters, the buzz in the hall. I remember that 10 years ago this event, formerly as imperterbable as the seasons, was overcome with a mood of sobriety. Instead of noisemakers, St. Andrews flags and the Fantasia on Sea Chanties, they gave us a program of slow and sombre reflection. Beautiful, stirring, mournful and utterly, utterly heartbreaking.

It couldn't have been further from the "posh people go wild" nonsense of the usual Last Night tradition, but we were only a week out from the watching the twin towers fall, and even here - even in London - we didn't know if we would ever laugh again.

I'm glad to report that we are. The singer currently performing "And This is My Beloved" is wearing more mascara than Dolly Parton gets through in an entire world tour. One man at the front of the Royal Albert Hall is wearing a lei composed of orange carnations, and someone has just blown a kazoo.

The fact that rich people in the West can shout along to classical music doesn't mean we have defeated international terrorism. Or that we will forget the lives lost - over three thousand on September 11th. Thousands more since then in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But at this moment, hours from the exact 10 year anniverary of the attack, as I watch Britons bouncing up and down in tune, wearing absurd waistcoats... with Osama Bin Laden unceremoniously slain and dumped into the sea after a decade hiding out with his pathetically predictable porn collection, I watch the prommers and I tell his ghost this:

We win. You lose.

And now the Chinese virtuoso pianist Lang Lang is playing Chopin's Grand Polonaise. His fingers are flying faster than the eye can see. The woman in the audience holding the yellow balloon animal is suddenly still and intently listening. Lang Lang's bright pink carnation is slightly askew on his chest. His final, solitary note rings out and the audience holds its breath for three long seconds before they applaud. Rapturously.

Because a young man can travel from his home in Communist China and exercise his talent with dignity in the midst of chaos. That's why we've won. That's why you've lost.

Later on, a soloist appears wearing an illuminated Viking costume bedecked with a rose on her shield, daffodil on her chest, and giant thistles and shamrocks on her headgear.

Because we can combine the ridiculous and the sublime. Because we allow for joy and sorrow and silliness and solemnity and patriotism with a healthy dose of scepticism, and because all of this can happen in the same evening.

That's why we've won. That's why you've lost.

Somewhere in London right now, a blogger is no doubt writing that the Proms are a decadent display of upper class privilege. But an event where millions sing Climb Every Mountain in swaying unison (a display which made me actually physically cringe) isn't upper class anything, it's as close to mass popular culture as we get these days.

I'm a believer in pop culture. Trash has redeeming social value. I remember as a pre-teen watching Labyrinth - as cheesy a fantasy film as you'll ever see - as raven haired Jennifer Connolly tells flame haired David Bowie in her moment of realisation that, "You have no power over me." And with those words she is free.

Pop culture tells truths.

This weekend I am supposed to be reflecting upon where I was 10 years ago. I'm supposed to be feeling the pain again that I felt as I huddled with colleagues around the grainy television to watch the towers come down. I'm supposed to relive the fear as I waited, one by one for my loved ones to check in, counted my friends in DC and New York, wondered if we were at war.

Instead, I choose to watch as a man in a sparkly purple bowler hat bounces along to Auld Lang Syne, arms linked.

On September 11, 2001 a pathetic group of misfits inflicted damage beyond their wildest dreams. And in the years that followed, we chased them down the rabbit hole, doing ourselves even more damage than they could do on that terrible day.

But the worst they could do didn't damage our economy even a fraction as much as the actions of a handful of our own  bankers and financiers. The President they attacked served out 2 hapless terms and was replaced by the son of an African ex-Muslim immigrant, who took down Bin Laden in a meeting sandwiched somewhere between solving the debt crisis and having dinner with a gay Congressman. The jihadist fantasy that they could by violence do anything that would wipe the grins off our absurd faces turned out to be just that. Absurd. Fantastical.

Which is not to say that the Arab world might not someday supplant the West. Life is long, and the world turns, and America will not always be a global superpower. It may be that an Arab nation will someday threaten the USA for economic and political supremacy - but if so it will not be because of any plan hatched in a secluded complex in Pakistan, but in the streets of Cairo, and Tripoli, and Damascus.

Because 10 years on from the greatest so-called triumph of the cult-of-death fanaticism that falsely claimed to represent the people of the Arab world - the actual people of the Arab world have stood up to their long-serving masters and demanded, in their own names, the right to be heard.

We don't know what the final outcome of the Arab Spring will be, but we do know that the people of these nations now have an opportunity - an opportunity that violent jihadism never gave them - to make their own fate.

I hope that someday they too will be able to gather together in a September night and sing patriotic songs, badly. I hope that they will be able to wear silly hats, and laugh and bounce, and take their freedoms for granted.

And I turn to the ghost of Osama Bin Laden and laugh in his face.

And I say, "You have no power over me." And with those words we are free.