My parents have lived in the US since the mid 1960s, after emigrating from Taiwan. They have been citizens of the US for about two decades now. But even after all this time in the US, I remember my parents telling me that voting for Barack Obama and helping elect him was one of the first times they felt well and truly proud of being Americans. It was important to me, as well – not just because Obama was black, but because he was also the child of an immigrant from another country, and had a weird name that was hard to pronounce – like me.
When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey – which is an island off the coast of Sicily – it was weird, disconcerting and alienating to not be white – and I hated it. I hated having the name that no one could pronounce and everyone made fun of. I used to look at the ants on the trees and feel jealous that they were homogeneous (despite their harsh working conditions). I wished I could be white. I wished I could understand baseball and rock music and had fluency in American pop culture. I wished that I could eat hamburgers or pizza at home (we almost never had anything other than Chinese food). I didn’t want to learn those ridiculous characters that I would never use! Seriously, when would I ever need to use Chinese?! I guess that’s why many of my friends were Indians, Jews, or Arabs. We were outsiders. Even in my 20s there was the feeling that there was, still, a glass ceiling that Asians couldn’t get beyond – not to mention how difficult it still is for Latinos and African-Americans to this very day. Growing up near Princeton provided a front row and center seat to one of the redoubts of WASP culture in America.
The 2008 election of Obama changed that, but it was very much a crystallization of how American culture and society and demographics were changing. Of course, this change provoked a backlash from the culturally irredentist right-wing, from Donald Trump to John Sununu, who were obsessed with proving that Obama wasn’t American or needed to learn how to be American. And Mitt Romney never did much to combat that during his campaign, never really took a stand against the virulently xenophobic edge of the Republican Party, sometimes going so far as to crack birther-themed jokes at rallies.
I will always have that lurking feeling that I’m not American enough, because I haven’t been to a pro-sports game in my entire life, never watched much TV in childhood, didn’t understand Jesus and Christianity, and worst of all, nearly joined the Democratic Socialists of America. There was always a question mark in my heart, even as I traveled the world with an American passport. Eleven years in China exacerbated that. Four years ago, Barack Obama’s election allayed those fears, somewhat – but the subsequent backlash proved that no, I wasn’t being paranoid.
Last time, in 2008, I was on the verge of tears, but held back because I was in public. But we did drink a lot. This time, alone at home in Shanghai, everything seemed even more emotional than it was four years ago. I was overcome when the networks called Ohio for Obama, handing him another four years. Thinking about it now, a few hours later, I realize it wasn’t just joy, it was relief, catharsis. US election campaigns, fueled by our polarized 24 hour social media+cable news cycle, are akin to what we call “cruel and unusual punishment”. It was no longer the jubilation of electing a black president so much as it was the relief and reprieve from burden.
I know that Obama and the Democrats are not always truthful, but in recent years and in this campaign in particular, the GOP has gone to such lengths to disseminate such invidious propaganda that I began feeling that this election was a battle, not for the White House or Congress, but for something much bigger than that. We were fighting for the role of facts, numbers, evidence, and critical thinking – intellectual qualities that make for good science and good journalism and good politics.
Much of the malarkey is a result of Citizens United, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch Brothers, Karl Rove and the super-PACs, who have left such a bad and bitter taste in my mouth over the years. Every time they put something in the news cycle, or were themselves part of the news, I felt angry, frustrated, helpless. Billions were spent on this election. Adelson shelled out $40 million of his own money. Why? So we could implement the Ryan plan and cut Medicaid and throw more of the poor to the wolves? No matter how many fig leaves the plutocrats buy, they are still fig leaves. So you can understand the immense psychological relief I felt knowing the forces of ignorance and obfuscation would not win the day, and that religious nutters like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock as well as Allen West, Joe Walsh and other Tea Party acolytes would feel the sharp rebuke of the electorate. And as for Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and their ilk – a bad clown show, at best – they deserve all the public obloquy they have received. They should shut up when the adults are talking. It reminds me of that famous line from the UK satirical TV series Nathan Barley, where they say “the idiots are winning”. Maybe the idiots will win, but they didn’t on election night. The rebels beat the Empire that night. Now we must make sure we do right by ourselves, as well as by the many others in the world affected by our policies.
The penchant, deep in American culture, for anti-intellectualism, jingoism and political solipsism are part of the reason I’ve never felt very culturally American. How can you drink that Kool-Aid if you’re not even sure that you belong, that people will accept you for what you are? However, I’d like to believe that no matter how alienated I am from all that, there is a core of me that is quintessentially American. I like to think that the very way I think – the regard for facts, numbers, critical thinking and historical analysis – and the willingness to use those to fight for a cause one believes in – are values inculcated by my American education, from kindergarten all the way to graduate school. There was no chabuduo (a common Chinese phrase meaning “not off by much”) in my physics or math classes, or even in my history and literature classes. Ideas matter. Values matter. Arguments matter. Specificity or generality, being able to see the forest and the trees. Those are intellectual values and political values that do not just hold in the ivory tower. They matter immensely in shaping our politics and lives. All the time. You live in China for 11 years, and you’ll appreciate the contrast and the difference.
Much has been said about the nerdiest celeb in the US, New York Times statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver. While his calls were impressively accurate, and made “gut feeling” pundits look foolish, we should not glorify Silver because he beat the house like those MIT folks in Las Vegas. It isn’t just about #winning. It’s about using math as a tool to serve humanistic ends – to help us “perfect the union”, incrementally, measure by measure, bill by bill, law by law, to the best of our abilities. It’s about elevating the sophistication of political discourse. It’s about clearing out the “noise” of super-PAC sponsored attack ads to find the “signal” of actual positions and policies, to be persuaded by tenability instead of merely being swayed by likability. We need more wonks and math, because we simply cannot let lies carry the election, and we cannot allow any candidate pull a fast one on a benighted or anxious public like George W. Bush or Romney. That’s just bad for all of us. It lowers us, all of us. The Age of Stupid should be the like the Stone Age. We cannot, must not, ever go back there. And that’s why I felt such relief when Obama won.
What a relief to know that the ridiculous politics of the lowest common denominator and its appeal to the so-called “low information” voter did not swing the election. I don’t ever want to see a candidate get up in front of millions of people and say, per Romney, “Five studies show that my ideas are better than yours. Of course the math adds up! Jeep is shipping all of your jobs to China!!” Please, don’t insult our intelligence. Your lies will catch up with you, the truth come out – and now faster than ever. Pundits will perhaps be more circumspect, less prone to bombastic prophesizing about landslides and such, and not a moment too soon! I hope this functions not just as a future disincentive against blatant lying, but also as a strong incentive for creating more nuanced and intelligent political discourse. Still, I was on tenterhooks the whole time, nightmarish images of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld awash in my mind, cackling diabolically. Karl Rove smoking his pipe in bathtub full of cash. When the networks called Ohio, it was very much like the feeling you get the instant you wake up from a bad dream, and the gratitude you feel as the molecules of reality push the nightmare world to the back of your mind, at least for another day.
And speaking of reality – wow. A few states took the brave step towards the legalization of marijuana, the affirmation of marriage equality, and the rejection of Citizens United. There are now a record number of women in the Senate (20) and an all-female congressional delegation in New Hampshire. These were all great victories for what Paul Krugman called the “real real America” – the only America that I ever have a chance of fully belonging to. Hey GAP, we don’t need those “Manifest Destiny” T-shirts, but we could use some more Optimism, Math, Facts, Intelligence and Tolerance T-shirts. Those are the keys to whatever destiny this republic might have. The New Deal and the Great Society weren’t meant to be one-offs, they were meant, like all social contracts, like all deep promises made between peoples, to have their vows renewed and improved with each generation – and it is time do that again. As Obama said, echoing Lincoln – we must “perfect the Union” – where ‘perfect’ is a verb, a perpetual state of becoming. It feels good to be an American, again.