Teju Cole on America’s Reader in Chief

Read Teju Cole’s essay “A Reader’s War,” which tries to square Obama’s reputation as a man “widely read in philosophy, literature, and history” with the White House’s policies of drone warfare. From the essay:

How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.

About these ads

I Try to Riff on Both Flesh and Not, DFW’s New Essay Collection, Which I Haven’t Read, as I Drink Red Wine to Numb the Election Coverage (Book Acquired, 11.06.2012)

20121106-203121.jpg

1. Today, I picked up Both Flesh and Not, a collection of David Foster Wallace essays and short pieces. I specifically ordered this book from my local bookstore (I didn’t get a review copy), and I bought it in hardback (I generally dislike hardbacks).

2. I should be reading it now—I’d like to be reading it—but I’m flicking between the five or six channels I have, usually stopping on PBS, and then scanning Twitter and other online media, because, hey, it’s Election Day in America.

3. I’ve already read several of the pieces in Both Flesh. You might have too. Here’s the table of contents:

20121106-203459.jpg

20121106-203507.jpg

4. But a lot of it I haven’t read. I’m eager to dig into the piece on David Markson, and the piece on Brat Pack writers, “Fictional Futures,” which was later repurposed in “E Unibus Pluram.”

5. I spent most of the afternoon riffling through it, trying not to think about the election results that would be coming in the next few years. I played outside with my kids, building a strange hut out of giant elephant leaves and then a small nest out of pine straw. I photographed the planes that daily fly over our neighborhood, slow, heavy supply planes that drift in lazy routine arcs from the nearby naval base, not loud as jets, but bulky. Elephant mothers, pregnant.

20121106-211636.jpg

6. I remembered that Wallace killed himself in an election year, in September. I remember how I felt.

7. (Please don’t think this riff is really about anything. I’m distracted. I’ve imbibed some wine. Some Xanax might be involved).

8. Speaking of posts in 2008—

I went back just now, and riffled through the site’s archives from November of 2008. (Back when I’d post like three, maybe four times a week. Once a day at most).

A lot of vitriol there. A lot of vitriol for Palin, and a lot of vitriol for the emerging sentiment that would galvanize in what would become the Tea Party movement.

I wrote about the Election Night too. About Jesse Jackson’s tears. I even wrote about finding some respite from cynicism in Obama’s election. (Don’t worry, I’m as cynical as ever. Moreso—

9. —but

I remember watching the inauguration in 2009. I was still teaching high school. I had third period planning and I watched the whole shebang in an empty lab on the school’s third floor with my friend Derek, a black Muslim who taught history in the classroom next to mine. It was cold up there and empty. I remember he asked me if the election poem was good and I asked him what he thought (I thought it was good). I remember we cried a little in spite of ourselves and clutched at each other. The world seemed so much more possible. I’m clutching to this memory now, which is deep and rich and I hope to keep forever. It presents through pinot and Xanax).

10. Is this a bait and switch? I apologize. Look, I love you reader. Really, I do. I do.

11. So, another detail from the Wallace collection:

The selections are intercut with definitions from his vocabulary list for The American Heritage Dictionary. Like so:

20121106-203548.jpg

12. What was I doing here? I don’t know. Let me just wrap it up. I should be writing about DFW and the book but I can’t. Distracted. I’ll schedule the post. Let it stand. Let it roll at 11:11am tomorrow? (To clarify–it’s 9:55pm on 11/06/2012).

Okay, I’ll do that. Finish the rest in the comments? Sure. And some more, of course, about the book.

Definition of “Vote” (Ambrose Bierce)

Imperial Vollmann, Populist Beach Reading, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

A few odds and ends (and perhaps a bit of ranting):

vollmann_imperial_cover1

Read this fascinating profile of William Vollmann from this week’s New York Times. It makes me wish I had nothing to do but read everything this maniac writes. Vollmann’s new book Imperial comes out today from Viking. You can read an excerpt here.

Not really surprisingly, Vollmann did not make NPR‘s reader poll for the 100 Best Beach Books Ever. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series topped a list that pretty much consists of a bunch of drivel (Twilight, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), drivel posing as non-drivel (The Kite Runner, The Time Traveler’s Wife), overrated “classics,” (To Kill A Mockingbird), and a few surprises (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a fantastic book, but is it really best enjoyed on a sunny beach?)

TheClassicSlaveNarratives7517_f

This one didn’t make the beach reading list either. For a few years now, selections from The Classic Slave Narratives have been required reading in my high school classroom. I usually emphasize sections from Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, two masterful writers whose complex syntax and diction can be stunning, if not overwhelming, to the average AP student. I think that these narratives speak to why writing matters, and, importantly in today’s idiocracy, why reading matters as well. These first-person accounts of the horrors of slavery need to be read, and editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. does a great job of setting the stage in his remarkable introduction to the collection. It’s sad, intellectually tragic, really, that Gates’s recent arrest should be given so much credit for sparking a “debate” or “teachable moment” about race, when Gates’s own scholarship makes the rootedness of racial tension in this country so plain. When a demagogue like Glenn Beck calls President Obama a “racist,” or a big fat idiot like Rush Limbaugh suggests that Obama simply has a “chip on his shoulder” because he’s black, we can see precisely why the first-person narratives of Equiano, Douglass, Mary Prince, and Harriet Jacobs are so important. These dangerous lunatics repeatedly suggest on their shows that America needs to keep its “traditions,” that our “history” is a strength, and that somehow the past was a place of better values. Perhaps if they read something outside of the dominant narrative they’d understand why someone might want to reappraise historically traditional values (and also, why someone might have a chip on his shoulder). But I’ve digressed from my main point: The Classic Slave Narratives is a valuable and important collection, and the stories collected here are a real entry point for any genuine discussion on race.

“Praise Song for the Day” — Elizabeth Alexander

“Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander (Obama 2009 inaugural poem)

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For

presidents

Toward A New Zeitgeist

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

For the past eight years, inspired by their own dangerous, sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity, the Bush Gang has perpetuated myriad crimes against humanity and the planet. They didn’t do it alone, of course–the United States is, after all, a Democratic Republic, and its populace–us, we, I mean–stood by like inert zombies after the 9/11 attacks and let Bush and his cronies get away with an illegal war, openly spying on American citizens, detaining prisoners without charging them or giving them legal recourse, and even torturing prisoners. Walt Whitman said that there “is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance,” and surely many of us, most of us, were soft and complicit when we should have been rougher and more defiant. Not that many didn’t protest and fight, but the zeitgeist in America this decade was one of hushed zealotry, where the old American values of dissent, protest, and even curiosity were eschewed as the terrain of those awful liberal elitists who might actually, you know, ask questions.

The oughties, or the 2000s, or the noughties, or whatever we’ll call them, really began November 8, 2000, the day after one of the most contested elections in American history. A bad start, really, and many of us will always believe that the neocons stole the election. A year later, after the 9/11 attacks, it became evident that this would be a decade of fear and violence and repression and silence. By the time the neocons were ramping up their illegal war against Iraq–a war that they’d had planned for years before 9/11–many of us felt worn down to cynical little nubs, still in groggy disbelief at what was happening. A 2004 story in The Onion, “Nations Liberals Suffering From Outrage Fatigue,” perfectly captured how I felt, and also signaled that it would be satire and distance and cynicism that would communicate the extraordinarily dangerous ignorance and stupidity of this decade. Getting news of the Bush Gang’s malfeasance from satirical sources like SNL‘s “Weekend Update” or The Daily Show with John Stewart made the cruel realities of this decade somehow more palatable, but at the same time these sources underlined the disengagement that many of us allowed ourselves to fall into, the deep ironic defense reaction against a spirit of the age with which we felt unable to communicate. In short, many of us dropped out; our “Outrage Fatigue” could only last so long. Inertia and cynicism spiked with brief episodes of outrage slowly evolved (or, rather, devolved) into what I would call “The Bush Show,” a long, long cycle of events, each new episode topping the last in terms of its deviousness, ignorance, and stupidity. Am I just railing now, perhaps, recapping what you already know? Sorry.

Here’s my point: Right after the election, I stated in a post I wrote from my gut that the election of Obama shattered my cynical shell, that I felt open and happy and even positive about politics for the first time since I was a kid. I have not and never will lose my skepticism, but, as I pointed out in that post and repeat here, by simply choosing someone so different–and I refer here not to Obama’s dark skin but rather to his knowledge and intellect and openness (in contrast to Bush’s “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”)–by choosing someone like Obama, we have signaled a shift in the spirit of the age. And here is what I propose: Let’s end the decade today, or at 11:59 a.m. tomorrow. Let’s agree that the awful oughties are over, and that a new decade has begun. We don’t have to change any physical documents–calendars, etc.–we just have to all know that a new zeitgeist has been initiated. The New Dark Age of the Bush Years has passed, but we can learn from it as negative example, as an abysmal signal of what not to do ever again.

A Respite from Cynicism

I am a cynic and skeptic of the worst kind, the type of person who claims to be a realist but who secretly knows that he is a hopeless pessimist. And yet I cannot help but feel more than a little relieved and lightened, very much in spite of myself, at our country’s overwhelming endorsement of a new ideology, one that I believe is different and separate from the politics that survived on the perpetuation of the myth of a “culture war.” I’m talking about Barrack Obama, President Elect, if I haven’t been clear enough.

I’m not naive enough to believe that Obama isn’t a politician, fallible like all before him, and I’m not giddy or silly enough to think of him as a Jesusian savior of America. When the conservative movement mocked Obama’s followers for seemingly seeing in the man a messiah figure, what they didn’t understand was the radical break that Obama represented. It is not so much Obama the man that we longed for, but the idea of Obama–the idea of someone radically different from everything that had come before. And in electing Obama–and the idea of Obama–we immediately achieved something, as Americans, that is wholly independent of anything Obama will do over the next four years as President. We showed the world that our democracy works and that we as a people are not the ignorant xenophobic fundamentalists that the Bush administration worked so hard to paint us as.

I’ve been thinking these past few days about Michelle Obama’s infamous comment during the campaign that she felt proud to be an American for the first time in her adult life. The comment was fodder for right wingers, of course, and at the time it seemed like a bit of a blunder even to some Obama supporters. But now I see it in a new way. My adult life has essentially taken place in this decade, the Bush decade, the 9/11 decade (I turned 21 in the year 2000). While I’ve had moments of pride in individual Americans, it’s been hard to see the (regressive) movement of our country in any positive light. I remember being a child, being taught and believing that this was a special country, a different country, a country that people wanted to come to because it was special and different. In my adult life in this decade, I’ve watched our ideological stock plummet around the globe. I’ve found myself, while traveling abroad, having to explain–with quite a bit of difficulty–that we’re not all ignorant fundamentalists in America. That thinking critically was actually once considered patriotic. That America was really a much better place than its elected leadership exemplified. The policies of the Bush administration–and the nation’s acquiescent and apathetic response to them–slowly drained my energy and hardened my pessimism in politics and people into a thick, cynical shell. I am amazed at how quickly the November 4th, 2008 election shattered this shell.

I know that Obama will make mistakes, that he will have to engage in the same kind of political gamesmanship that every other president has had to in order to push their agenda. But again, to paraphrase Obama himself, this isn’t about him–this is about us, the U.S., and our declared mandate for political and cultural change in this country. So while I will keep my skeptical reservations and pessimism about politics and the two-party system that we let dominate this country, I can’t help but feel a restoration of pride and a sense of possibility for this country.

DFW Memorialized, Homer Endorses Obama, Sarah Palin Is Never in on the Joke, and Hope for a New Zeitgeist

So let’s just say we’re too anxious around here to run a proper book review, okay? I promise to have reviews of new books up after Election Day. In the meantime–

Great, thorough, and touching essay by David Lipsky at Rolling Stone: “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace.” Check it out. Also, there are plenty of online accounts of the DFW memorial last week at NYU’s Skirball Center, but I thought Andy Battaglia’s eyewitness account was pretty moving.

Also–

It leaked a few weeks ago, but it was nice to see Homer Simpson endorse Obama on this year’s Treehouse of Horror episode–

(The best part of the episode was the Mad Men parody, though).

Speaking of election humor, Sarah Palin continues to be a comedy goldmine. How could she be so readily duped by a French Canadian pretending to be President Sarkozy? She’s fucking stupid, that’s how. I’m reminded of her appearance on SNL a few weeks ago–unjustifiably lauded–where she smirked along as if she were actually in on the joke, and not being simply mocked.

Speaking of ignorance and ugliness, the aughties in America have been culturally and politically awful. Beginning with the one-two punch of the 2000 election debacle and the nightmare of the 9/11 attacks, this past decade has been an embarrassing series of disastrous blunders for the United States government, coupled with a spike in civic apathy at home. The results: our stock has fallen in the rest of the world’s eyes and a large portion of Americans have found solace and even pride in ignorance and xenophobia (what else could explain the ascendancy of an ignoramus like Palin?)

And for all the great things that I’ve experienced in my personal life this past decade (marriage, fatherhood), the idea of another decade like the aughties–selfish and cruel and ignorant–seems miserable. The Bush administration–and the American people who supported them–has been working hard to usher in a New Dark Age. Yet in the past few days I’ve seen some of my cynicism fall away, as I see friends and acquaintances and complete strangers excited about the prospect of change for this country. Watching Obama in Cleveland tonight, I found myself moved and excited and hopeful, not just for Tuesday, or for a new President in January, but for a whole new spirit in this country, one that embraces progressive ideals and puts them into action.

I Voted Early in Florida and It Was Easy

I voted last Thursday. It was easy. I had to go pick up my daughter from daycare, and an early voting location happened to be right on the way. I left half an hour early just in case, and then drove the 1.1 miles to the Murray Hill Library. I returned three audio books (I know you’re dying to know: Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist, Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder, and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and then stood in a line five-people deep where I waited all of 120 seconds before entering the voting area. There, I handed over my driver license and voter registration card, confirmed my address, and waited about 45 seconds for my ballot. The woman in front of me was living at an address different from the one on her ID, but she was able to vote anyway. Easy. I overheard the process involved (she had to fill out some form) while I waited about a minute to go to a booth. Then I went to the booth and voted for Obama (I didn’t even look wistfully at Nader’s name, I swear!). I voted on some other stuff too, but the only other thing I cared about quite a bit was Florida’s proposed Amendment 2, another American Taliban scheme to define marriage. I voted “no,” of course. The whole process, including driving, took less than 20 minutes (I should mention that I had my sample ballot with me, which is a time saver of course).

Some folks I know personally have worried about early voting–will their vote be counted?–and after debacles in 2000 and 2004, who can blame them for these anxieties? However, Florida voters can go to the Florida Division of Elections website to check the early voting and absentee ballot reports. I went there, clicked on my county’s updated report, downloaded a .txt file and found my name, as well as my wife’s, and the respective times we voted. Done. I know–and have a record–that my vote will be counted. Simple. Now, go vote–you never know what surprise might pop up on November 4th.