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A Toast to the Obama Era

03.17.09 @ 08:02 pacific

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By Guillermo Gómez-Peña

(I grab a bottle of rum and drink from it.)

I

It’s March 2009, the year of the Flaming Coyote according to the Aztec calendar, and the US is slowly waking up from an 8-year old nightmare. In this B-grade horror movie titled “The War on Terror,” a small cast of very powerful and scary men were determined to eradicate cultural, political, and religious difference both at home and abroad, and in the process they made a huge profit out of it…and an even larger amount of…enemies, including you and I, nosotros, los otros. Salud!

Good old American family values? Who were they kiddin?

Key constituencies that brought Obama to victory were African Americans, Latinos, students and the anti-war community. But it was also artists and intellectuals, gay communities, the activist left, labor unions, the entertainment and the sex industries, republican apostates….and of course, la prima evangelist dominatrix, doña Sarah Palin. Her old-fashioned naiveté and provincial bravado certainly made a difference.

Obama’s win was a triumph for outsiders and rebels. And many of us supported him fully knowing he wasn’t, isn’t a progressive. We know he is a post-ideological centrist pragmatist, but he’s got an internationalist vision, a transparent consciousness and lots of style, and that’s a radical change from the immediate past we badly wish to forget…and exorcise

Obama’s triumph has taken a huge weight off our shoulders. It’s as if the oppressive cloud of the Bush era evaporates as we walk into an ineffable post-apocalyptic zone. And this is an uncertainty I can live with. Uncertainty is a much better state than paranoid nationalism. Salud!

It’s hard to believe but the US now has an intellectual mulatto with a Muslim name for president, and a black family is now occupying the White House -a building designed by an architect who owned slaves. This is a very, VERY powerful symbolic image.

Lingering in the horizon are the promises to end the senseless invasion of Iraq, to close down Guantanamo, and to undo the excesses of the Patriot Act and the Bush Doctrine. Will Obama be allowed to fulfill his promises by the very establishment he claimed to oppose but has chosen to surround himself with? What do you think? Is Obama really Obama?

My optimism is cautious, but I really respect the vato, and believe me, with the exception of Chicholina and Antanas Mocus, I haven’t respected a politician in more than 30 years. Salud!

II

2009 is also the year of the ox, the year of “financial doom and tumultuous times” according to the Chinese calendar.

As we transition into the age of Obama we face yet another dilemma: The fictional economy that has sustained American suprematism since the times of Reagan is collapsing into an unprecedented vortex. It’s neither a recession; nor is it the much-touted “3rd Great depression.” It might actually be something more serious: total meltdown, “the end of the American century,” as Tomas Friedman labeled it, and this means the end of the US as a world super-power and the beginning of a post-American era, a time in which the US is not better or worse than any other country. The US might soon be one more humble member in the international community of countries, and that is ok with me. Is it OK with you?

But not everyone sees it this way.

In the past 6 months, the politicians in Washington have been “bailing out” the banks and the big corporations in hopes of restoring the mirage. They believe that by giving lots of money to their peers and accomplices, they will save the sinking ship. Besides cynical, are they delusional? What about bailing out the jobless and the homeless? Bailing out those who have lost their homes? Bailing out the true victims of a long dysfunctional, greedy and unjust system? The runaway kids? The infirmed? Bailing out our schools, hospitals and art spaces? Bailing out the artists? What about bailing out our soul? Salud!

Am I scared of the financial uncertainty? Not much. My original homeland, Mexico, has been immersed in financial uncertainty for 500 years. We were raised amidst “crisis,” “inflación,” “devaluación”; vague words to describe a world in permanent turmoil; the only world we knew, and we have managed to survive it.

With a few exceptions, artists have always had to live in “crisis” and within our means. Our frail economy fluctuates from one week to another and sometimes from one day to the next one. My aunts in Mexico still ask me with perplexity, ‘what do you really do sobrino? Que es eso del performance art? Do you have an actual job?’ And I don’t know what to answer. For decades, we have been technically jobless, and yet we have survived.

Let’s face it. Artists don’t really fear loosing our jobs, cause we rarely have the jobs we deserve or want. Only a minute percentage of artists have access to funding and can make a living from our artwork. And for every artist whose work gets decently remunerated, there are thousands performing or exhibiting for nothing and making something truly amazing in the darkness. Do artists mind? Not really. We just do it, because for us art is a necessity, much in the same way war was for the neocons. What a bizarre comparison! I apologize…Salud!

The remedies provided by the “experts” to face the unfolding financial crisis are all too familiar to artists: live within your means; tighten your belt; don’t rely on your credit card; use less water, electricity and oil; go green; if possible grow your own foods (and mota); barter and trade your skills and knowledge; rely on your neighbors and community; expect less from the government; do it yourself in dialogue with your friends and peers; the change starts when you wake up. Short of suggesting that we should frequent dive bars and not hipster bars, it’s as if they are describing the artists’ way of life. And the way of life of entire communities, namely the poor and the lower middle class, and entire countries; so called “third world” countries.

Said this, should artists become lifestyle advisors for investment bankers and politicians? Will they seek us for a cultural bailout? Soñemos.

III

With Obama in power, I now live with much fewer fears. A long list of fears has been erased from my skin including the fear of being surveilled and constantly censored; the fear of being detained or placed on a no-flight list simply for criticizing the government in my art and my writings; the fear of deportation. But a new fear is growing inside my stomach, right here (I point to my abdomen): the US might not know how to live within its means. So many Americans who have assumed their wealth as a right of birth may not know how to live with half their money, with a more humble job and sometimes without even a job; with a smaller home and only one used car or even without a car, relying on public transportation, like most of the world does. For those who have never lived this way, the immediate future seems spooky, and we know what fear does to our thinking and actions.

For decades, American identity has been based in the following mythology: We are a privileged nation, a chosen people, the most perfected democracy on earth; the freest society on this planet; the strongest military power. And to accept that this creed was never true and that from now on, there will be daily evidence of its hollowness is perhaps the main philosophical challenge facing the right wing citizenry, half of the US; so called Red America. According to Chicano poet Jaime Cortes, “the real conservative will never accept that this creed was never true. They will say it used to be true, and we have to get back to that Promised Land from which we’ve strayed. They will say to themselves that all the progressive developments of the last half century were the real cause of our expulsion from the garden.”

What pinche garden are these loonies talking about?

Coming to terms with a more humble sense of national and personal identity will be extremely tough for a culture that does not value humility. Those who can’t do it will be spiritually devastated. Those who are unable to understand that our sense of worth and dignity need not be connected to our jobs, to the amount of money we make, or to what we own, will be permanently troubled. And their despair might translate into more violence against perceived enemies (namely the immigrants, and cultural others), more domestic violence and more self-destructive violence, expressed in the form of psychosis, illness and suicide. America might become an even more angry and violent country and this scares me the most. The fact is that the only industries that have benefited from the collapse of the economy are gun manufacturing, arms sales and cheap alcohol.

But returning to Obamalandia, why is our optimism so cautious? Here are some questions I have gathered over the past month from artists and intellectuals who support him: Do we think that by having an African-American president racism will be over? Not really. Will the troops be brought back home or will they simply be relocated to the Afghan front, “Obama’s war”? Here are more crucial questions: Will he finally acknowledge the enormous debt that the US has to the Native Americans? And what about his moral debt to Latinos: Will he call for the tearing down of the US/Mexico border in the same way he celebrated the “erasure of all borders” in his Berlin speech? Will the Obama administration restore the broken relationship between the US and its Latin American neighbors? Will he stop the US arm sales to the Mexican drug lords and the Cuban embargo and sit on the table with Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales? And finally the grand question: Can we become a truly open society? The society we have always thought we were?

IV

Obama’s humanism at times may appear light to us, but what excites me is that it opens up a huge space, a blank screen for us to project our desires and aspirations. And to join in. To me, Obama’s “change” means that we all have to change; that we have to actively partake in the change; that we can imagine joining in with our full selves, just as Obama did not leave his blackness at the door. It means that our personal lives can become a permanent laboratory for change. Artists and activists understand this goal: We must become the very change we wish to see in the world. We just have to put it in writing so to speak, and make art about it, cause like Subcomandante Marcos once told Jose Saramago, “la revolución es la palabra.” Salud!

Joining in Obama’s change also means that we have to rethink everything: our political, cultural and educational institutions; the way we relate to others, from our loved ones and neighbors to other countries; our race and gender politics; our notions of citizenship and nationality; our relationship to the earth and its diverse creatures. And hopefully, generosity, openness and solidarity can permeate all our actions.

It means all these things, even if Obama is not in total agreement with us.

And even if these goals are not fully attainable because our human condition will betray us, let’s give it a try. Salud!

V

The question for us artists is, what will our new role in the post-Bush era be?

We have been left standing atop a political, economic, cultural and spiritual disaster site. This tragic inheritance requires the immediate intervention of artists, activists and intellectuals. Not only should we articulate and chronicle the change, but we also can partake in the healing process. Art can save lives.

The language of freedom has been contaminated by politicians. Words like democracy, liberty and justice mean nothing anymore. It is the job of poets to heal the word.

The language of radicalism and transgressive behaviour has been hijacked by Corporations and pop-culture. It is the job of live artists to free these terms.

This needs maybe clear to us, but will the new political class acknowledge the importance of art in this reconstruction and reinvention process? In other words, will they accept our help and restore the funding? Can our project be in sync with Obama’s? Are we on the same page? Can we talk back to him? Will he listen? Do we have a friend in the White House for the first time ever? I think so. I hope so. Am I delusional? Salud!

Thank you for listening to me.