Eleven Writers on the First Week of a New Era
Welcome Back to the United States of America
On Being Caught Off Guard
by Sarah Vowell
Even though I spend so much of my working life thinking and writing about American history, I confess that the historical import of electing the first black president caught me entirely off guard. When it comes to electioneering, and especially governing, I'm decidedly non-narrative. I voted for Barack Obama because he's a reasoned, reasonable, fairly traditional Democrat who has spent his whole life doing his homework. But after the networks called the election in his favor and all the old civil rights veterans started crying on national TV, I was floored. Which is to say moved and proud and plain old happy. Then, a little after midnight, Cory Booker, the rather riveting young mayor of Newark, appeared on NBC. Then it hit me that not so long ago I used to think that Booker would be the first black president—in 20 or 30 years.
The Triumph of Reality in the Age of Bull (an Age That Has Been Good to Me)
by John Hodgman
I have been exhausted since the election. I went back on book tour, smelling of planes, barely able to follow the Maddow and The Daily Show and the many blogs that had been my full-time job until recently. I have been alone in the strange monastery of constant travel. Thus, the actualness of the election only seeps in from time to time. Seeing the words "President-Elect Obama" on the USA Today in front of the hotel-room door as I step over it. Catching fractured bits and takes of the news on the flat screens scattered around the airport, like a hundred mirrors reflecting something I can't see. I feel a little hollowed out and amazed it's all over.
Generally, I make jokes for a living. I make up fake facts for my books and The Daily Show. I lie. But the Obama campaign tempted me toward stultifying sincerity. I yearned for an Obama victory not so much because of any particular policy, though I agree with most of his, and not so much because of his personality, though he seems like the sort of person I'd like to watch Battlestar Galactica with. Rather, he appealed to the geek in me—not in his tastes (he likes sports), but in his seeming commitment to reality. Even though I've profited from it, I haven't entirely joyously been riding the make-stuff-up-and-say-it-with-a-straight-face wave.
As I have written on the internet, the last eight years have been dominated by a kind of jocklike bluster, on both sides of the aisle. We attempted to win a war with a hopeful banner. Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain campaigned with all the logic of a Successories poster: that they could will their presidency into being simply by desiring it. That no matter how behind they were by every real-world metric, they could still win the big game by wishing it so. On the plane today, I have been reading Newsweek, trying to catch up. (Have you heard of it? It is something called a magazine, and you don't need to turn it off when you're flying.) I read that on the night of the New Hampshire primary, John McCain booked the same room that he had back when he won New Hampshire in 2000, out of superstition. He also wore the same sweater, and carried a lucky penny and "an Indian feather." I have never been more relieved to know that he is not our president.
Obama, meanwhile, did the most geeky thing possible: He worked the math, Spock-like. While many would try to anoint him a liberal savior, he showed himself a pragmatist, even when it was painful. His compromise (some say "caving") on telecom immunity on FISA was queasying to the liberal blogosphere, but would we really have wanted to trade an Obama presidency for a lawsuit against AT&T? His defense of Donnie McClurkin singing his gay-recovery gospel at an Obama event was disappointing, but his underlying point—that we can't address homophobia in churches simply by ignoring it—now seems all the more urgent after Proposition 8. And while some tried to damn him a commie terrorist, the efforts were crumpled by reality, the common sense of his positions, the simple sincerity of his smile—the first smile in politics I ever thought was real.
When the results came in, it felt like the sun coming up: a pleasant relief after a long, long night. As it continues to come up, we will feel the magic and happiness of this week ebb. Some days we will be happy with Obama and some days we won't. But at least he is not walking around with a feather in his pocket.
On Being from a Failed Empire
by Gary Shteyngart
Past seven years I've been joking about how I was born in one failed empire (the USSR) and how someday I'm going to die in another one. Is it time to retire that joke? I came to America as a child. I studied hard, got circumcised, wrote two books, and then W. happened. I remember how excited I was to get my first U.S. passport, how happily I brandished it when going off to some ridiculous country where the ruling elite gorged itself on oil profits while enemies of the state were sent to roast in a dank tropical hell.
And then we became that country. Mr. Obama: Please make it better. All that work, all that lost foreskin, all those years of mooing the Pledge of Allegiance with one hand on my fast-beating immigrant heart—give me some pride back. Raise our taxes, if you must. We'll write even more crap for The Stranger to make up the difference. We'll do anything to redeem our butchered ideals. Let us throw off this threadbare imperial mantle. Weren't we a nation once?
What James Baldwin Taught Us, the Tears of Jesse Jackson, and the Places Where Hope Is a Menace
by Adam Haslett
On September 25, 1957, President Eisenhower had to use the 101st Airborne division of the United States Army to force the State of Arkansas to admit nine black students to a public high school in Little Rock. In 2009, two little black girls will play on the White House lawn as their father sits in the Oval Office, commander in chief of that same army. For this, I'm proud of my country. Proud of it for having the nerve and the longing and the faith to bring Obama to where he is. So much has been said about what this means for African Americans. But thankfully their feeling of redemption is a shared one. As James Baldwin taught us, black liberation was never only about black people. It was also about whites being liberated from the tyranny of their own white supremacy. I cried watching Jesse Jackson as he wept in Grant Park. Jackson, the man who stood on the balcony in Memphis beside King the day King was murdered. Obama's gift to me is that Jackson's tears can now be mine. We're crying about the same thing, without artifice or fear, as you cry at any overwhelming joy—with happiness but also allowing in, at long last, the ache of the time lost before joy arrived. Only in joy do we allow ourselves to feel rather than simply describe the darkness that preceded it. And so the political emotion of hope contains within it our grief over torture and lies and needless slaughter.
At noon on Election Day, in the windowless back room of a car dealership in East Toledo, my boyfriend and I chatted with a UAW worker named Sam and a shy, mixed-race queer kid. The two of them had just finished their first get-out-the-vote canvassing shift that morning. Sam ate his sloppy joe and talked about his Republican brother-in-law losing his job of 27 years at Champion Spark Plug. The queer kid had been texting his friends, and then he peered up, blushing, to admit he'd never done this before and that it felt good.
What he'd never done, what we were all doing that day, was knocking on the doors of working people—black, white, and Latino—in housing projects and poor neighborhoods, where for every modest, decently maintained house or apartment there were three or more badly disheveled or vacant. Snarling dogs kept for protection rather than companionship barked from behind many a closed blind. These people had been struggling long before George W. Bush came into office, and their circumstances are unlikely to change dramatically with the inauguration of a president constrained by two wars and a government in the fiscal ditch. Here, it seemed, hope could be a menace. A taunt. But in many homes, mostly those of black folks, there were black-and-white posters of Obama in profile, hand raised to his chin in contemplation, the words VOTE NOW emblazoned across the top, and along the side a quote of his reason for running, including the phrase, "because I believe there is such a thing as being too late."
Around the world, Americans are often ridiculed for their naiveté, for their ignorance of the grim power of history to cut idealism down off its pedestal. And indeed, mixed with ignorance and incompetence, our naiveté is deadly, as we have come to see in Iraq. But there is a reason that people from all over the world look at us differently now than they did on November 3. Because in our endless innocence we once again took the risk of believing.
A Report from the Neighborhood Where Obama Lives
by Annie Wagner
I'm pretty sure I can see Barack Obama's house from my fire escape. It's hard to make out details through the trees beyond the synagogue, though, and I can't walk over to check it out, because as of Election Day, the Secret Service has expanded Obama's security perimeter.
Hyde Park isn't glamorous. The most popular eatery is a steam-table restaurant where five bucks gets you a vegetable omelet (American cheese, baby) and delicious hash browns. A few weeks ago, a block away from me, a woman was captured on surveillance camera being trapped by a stranger in the lobby of her apartment building and then sexually assaulted in the garbage room. So the fact that one of my other neighbors will be the 44th president is taking a while to sink in.
If it's hard for you to believe that this country actually elected president a black man, an intellectual, a city dweller, and a second-generation American, try living in Chicago, where people are still dizzy. Downtown simply shut down after the rally Tuesday night: Thousands of pedestrians shunned the sidewalks, dancing and high-fiving and hugging strangers while stranded motorists looked on, grinning. The next day, the mayor festooned city hall with Shepard Fairey banners. And my law school posted a dinky color printout in the student lounge, congratulating "former Senior Lecturer Barack Obama." Unreal.
Africans Now Live in Another Kind of Africa
by Charles Mudede
An old black man is slowly walking down a steep hill. Two white women in a new but already dented BMW stop and let a very pregnant Asian woman cross the street—she seems ready to drop her load on the spot. As a plumber's truck passes, I read on its side: "Away goes trouble down the drain." In the distance, cars flowing up to the freeway. Further still, a string of airplane lights. Then it seizes me. A rush of joy. It emanates from a warm area deep in my being and terminates with tingles on my flesh. I have been activated by the big event. This man, this grandson of Kansans, this son of a Kenyan, this husband of a black American, this half brother of a half Indonesian, this man raised on an island that was formed from volcanic eruptions on the seafloor—this person is the president of "my person, all my friends, and these United States."
Before this realization (with Auden's words) hit me on the street, I lived in one kind of America; after the realization, I knew I lived in another kind of America. I also knew this: Africans now live in another kind of Africa. Why is Africa, where I was born, so excited? Because a man with roots in the poorest continent is the leader of the richest continent. And this spectacular achievement has brought light to the darkest continent. Obama is living proof that Africa can become something other than "poor, nasty, brutish." Africa can become the United States of America.
My father was much like Obama's father. Both traveled to the United States to be educated, both returned to Africa as economists and worked as civil servants. The historical situation of this postcolonial figure: dreams (developing a backward nation), difficulties (making Western standards meet African ones), and demise (corruption). Confronted with this failure, many in my father's generation either died bitterly (Obama's father) or returned to the countries that educated them (my father). "Why did I ever leave America?" my father often says to me as he prepares food in his small First Hill flat. Not one of his plans or programs to industrialize/Americanize Zimbabwe's economy was realized. The country is a total failure.
Tears filled my father's eyes when Obama gave his victory speech. We were in the Columbia City Theater. The hall was packed with all sorts of people: rich, poor, black, white, young, old. He watched the president-elect with the amazement that one watches a miracle—a man walking on water, a thousand golden steps rising to the clouds. He lived to see something great emerge from the broken promises of his generation.
A Glamorous Party and a Gloomy Cab Ride Home
by Edmund White
Went to a glamorous party on election night down near Wall Street at the apartment of Patrick McGrath, the novelist, and his wife, the director Maria Aitken. Ian McEwan was there, over to cover the election for the Wall Street Journal, and Zadie Smith, though she lives in Rome now. Liam Neeson was in the corner. The Irish novelist Colm Tóibín and the Australian novelist Peter Carey were in attendance. Producers, actors, and agents were swarming about. I parked myself in the bedroom next to the TV. Everyone seemed to be covering everyone else's reactions for some publication or other. I'd attended election parties in 2000 and 2004 in this apartment—and both times left horribly depressed. Especially in 2004 I was in a rage against my fellow Americans for being so stupid as to reelect Bush! It seemed that even the poorest Americans were voting for this cynical pawn of the oligarchy.
This time everyone was up, up, up, though Betsy Sussler, the editor of BOMB, was nervous and guilty—her mother down in Boca Raton had voted for McCain! Those of us who'd lived through so many Democratic defeats dared not to trust in victory till Ohio and Wisconsin came in—that was the turning point. My agent called from London and said we were obviously at the red-hot center of the world. But as I took my taxi home past groups of revelers, I thought that gays had no reason to celebrate. True, Obama did mention gays in his acceptance speech, as he mentions them in almost every major speech, but the defeat of gay marriage in California became a certainty as the dawn approached. So the black ceiling had been broken and the glass ceiling had been cracked, but the violet ceiling pressing down on gays was still firmly in place.
African Americans and the Mormon Church
by Dan Savage
African Americans in California voted disproportionately in favor of Proposition 8, joining other demographic groups—the elderly, the rural, the religious, Hispanics—to help write discrimination into California's constitution. Seventy percent of African-American voters approved Prop 8, according to exit polls, compared to 53 percent of Latino voters, 49 percent of white voters, and 49 percent of Asian voters. African-American women backed Prop 8 by nearly 75 percent.
I'm thrilled that we've just elected our first African-American president. I cried when CNN called it for Obama. I cried reading the papers the morning after. I started crying again when my son came down to breakfast and asked me why I wasn't crying "like the last time" we elected a president. And I wasn't the only one out there weeping for joy: This was a historic election.
But the African-American community's reinforcement of bigotry against gays and lesbians sounded a discordant note on an otherwise inspiring night. Writing this online the next day brought charges of racism down on my head, but here it is in print: The relative handful of racist white gays and lesbians—and they're out there, and I think they're scum—are not a bigger problem for African Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color. (Read that carefully: I did not say that black homophobia is a bigger problem than white racism; I said that the huge numbers of African-American homophobes are a bigger problem for gays and lesbians—including gays and lesbians of color—than the comparatively small number of racist gays and lesbians. Which does not excuse racism among gays and lesbians, of course.)
Do I blame African Americans for the passing of Prop 8? No. But I agree with Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University: "They didn't do enough work in the communities of color," she said on The Rachel Maddow Show, referring to gay-rights groups. "On the other hand, the communities of color demonstrated an awfully bigoted vote." Gays and lesbians have work to do, and straight African Americans have bigotry to get past.
Another depressing irony: Prop 8 was bankrolled by the Mormon Church, which has a history awash with racism. Brigham Young, the founder of Salt Lake City and Joseph Smith's successor as church leader, said: "Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so." African Americans were excluded from temple rites in the Mormon Church until 1978, when church leaders received a new revelation from God to end the practice of racial discrimination, a "revelation" that came just as the IRS was threatening to revoke the church's tax-exempt status.
The calls this past week to investigate the Mormon Church's tax-exempt status aren't likely to accomplish anything—the church has been active on this issue for years—and calls for a boycott against Utah seem to be petering out quickly. Still, I can't see myself stepping foot in Utah in the foreseeable future. Which is going to disappoint my son. My boyfriend and I were talking about taking a trip to Utah this winter to go snowboarding. We've heard great things about the snow there, and our kid wants to go, and we've never been. But you know what? We've never been to Whistler either. Or Bear Mountain in California. Or to any of the resorts in Colorado.
So fuck you, Brigham Young—we're going to Colorado.
Or, the Problem with Happiness
by Christopher Frizzelle
In the hours after CNN called it, the unbridled joy, the energy of victory, and a sudden vacuum of irony/sarcasm/guardedness led revelers into Seattle streets to pour champagne into strangers' mouths, raise toasts with PBR tall-boys in front of grinning cops, hoist laughing girls onto shirtless boys' backs, monkey up onto street utilities to wave flags and drum street signs, sing the national anthem in loud unison, etc., etc. But those were the peak moments of the feeling, and in the days following, a formless, nameless other feeling is taking hold. For those who were watching it closely, the story of the election was a way to organize life, a string on which to hang whatever else was happening, a shared anxiety, a purpose, a goal. Objects in motion want to stay in motion. What happens after the end point? What do I take an interest in/feel inspired by/worry over/volunteer time to/talk about at parties/think about when I can't sleep/stand for now? Hegel says, "The history of the world is not the theatre of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages in it." The singer in Harvey Danger sings, "Happiness writes white." The Declaration of Independence says that the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself, is the thing. Why is happiness so empty, so contentless, so hard to hold?
How They're Dealing with It
by Brendan Kiley
In a small suite of the Bellevue Hyatt, a half-hour drive from downtown Seattle, a Republican named Marcia McCraw was gracefully losing her bid to become lieutenant governor. Six or seven people sat around a television on mute, talking. I was the only reporter. McCraw handed me a glass of wine and told me about her recent seven-day car race across Mexico and her car catching on fire. An Asian man in a suit walked into the suite and she greeted him in a language I didn't recognize. "It's Mandarin Chinese," she smiled. Words flashed, white letters over a blue background, on the screen: "Barack Obama elected president." The Republicans didn't seem interested. Our first black president was giving his acceptance speech, but they left the TV on mute. Suddenly, the room seemed too small. I was having gigantic emotions, a kind of happy panic attack, and I had to get out of there. I ran to the elevator, ran across the lobby, stepped into the rain, and saw a gold silk tie on the sidewalk. It was bright and thick, made by Geoffrey Beene. I imagined a Republican yanking it off his neck in disgust. I stuffed it in my jacket pocket—a trophy. Then I unscrewed my flask of whiskey, cursed my editor for banishing me to the suburbs on the happiest night of our recent lives, and drank a small toast.
A few days later, I called relatives who live in Southern Virginia, in the town of Suffolk, near the Dismal Swamp. They are deeply conservative, the-South-shall-rise-again Southerners. Before the election, one of my aunts said that if Obama won, she would "fall down on the floor and cry." When I called, she announced she'd been crying for days. "I told her to quit it," another aunt told me. "Tears won't help you and they won't hurt him. You should pray instead. Pray that Obama doesn't appoint Supreme Court judges who are as racist as he and his wife are."
What Are You Going to Do with It Now? Wear It?
by Lindy West
A lot of people I know purchased or crafted T-shirts with Barack Obama's face on them. They wore the T-shirts on their bodies because they were excited about the idea of Barack Obama, and what he represents, and his potential for changing the country and saving us all, and because he is handsome and brave, and they wanted him to win so badly that they donated their torsos to spreading the word about his face. Vote for this face, they said. Make this face your president. And so we did.
Maybe you are one of these people with one of these shirts. If you are, it's time for me to deliver some bad news: Your shirt is awkward now. I mean, what are you going to do with it? Wear it? Wear a T-shirt with the president's huge face on it? UM! That is WEIRD. The moment Barack Obama won the presidential election, your shirt became creepy. It's weird enough that those Shepard Fairey posters are still plastered everywhere, Chairman Mao style. Like that crazy "President for Life" dude (dead now) in Turkmenistan who invented his own alphabet and banned all things that were not a giant gold statue of his own head (unverified). It's like that. Do you want that?
Please put your shirt in a drawer for 20 years, and then, if Barack Obama does all the things we want him to do (fix everything, destroy pinkeye, replace all rain clouds with money cannons), some child of the future can find it and wear it under his or her spacesuit as a symbol of dark times overcome—times when everything was broken, times when people had pinkeye. Or, if Barack Obama totally disappoints (maybe gays can have equal-rights-full-stop, please? Approximately now?), that future-child can wear that T-shirt ironically, like how, for kitsch purposes, people pretend that they enjoyed watching the television show Knight Rider even though it was obviously never good. That would work. That is, if they still have irony in the future. Perhaps Barack Obama will eradicate it. God, I love him.
Sarah Vowell is the author of five books including, most recently, The Wordy Shipmates, which is about the Puritans. John Hodgman is the author of More Information Than You Require and the resident expert on The Daily Show. Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novels The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan, both of which are fine if you like that kind of thing. Adam Haslett is the author of You Are Not a Stranger Here, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and recently completed a novel, First Atlantic, to be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. Annie Wagner does an amazing seal impersonation. Charles Mudede left Zimbabwe in 1988 and has been a staff writer and editor at The Stranger since 2001. Edmund White has written 20 books. His most recent are Hotel de Dream and a short biography of Rimbaud. Dan Savage is the author of four books including, most recently, The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family. Christopher Frizzelle is the editor of The Stranger. Brendan Kiley is handsome and brave. Lindy West is The Stranger's film editor. Tim Sanders is a playwright, graphic designer, and occasional preschool teacher.