Richard Belzer, Ice-T Jack Up the Election

Writers, artists, performers on next week's presidential election.

Ah, those talking heads-the TV yabberers, not the guys singing about buildings and food. We've grown a little tired of hearing from the political world's institutional pundits over this long election cycle-there's only so much Roland Martin or Bay Buchanan a concerned citizenry can take. To freshen things up, we decided to open our pages and let a number of notable cultural figures offer their own observations on the 2008 contest. Below, their insights, dreads, and underwear fascinations.

RICHARD BELZER

It's not hype to say that this is the most important American election in history. I'm saying that because FDR was already in office when the Second World War started. And Lincoln was established before the Civil War began.

Not only is there no incumbent or vice-presidential candidate on the ballot this time, this election has boiled down to "Who are we? What is America?"

I don't think most people understand how dangerous it would be to elect the Republican ticket in 2008. I believe McCain is a genuinely dangerous person. And his age is not the point. I know people in their eighties who are very sharp. My concerns about McCain are that he was tortured for five years during the Vietnam War, which isn't necessarily ennobling.

Think about his inability to raise his arms above his head. Keep that in mind for someone with such oversized pride and ego, who is so enamored of himself. The fact that he can't comb his own hair-he must be seething with so much anger for his inability to do the most basic acts. It's an anger that underscores everything he does. And it's an anger, in particular, for people who question his judgment.

As for Obama, here's the community organizer, Harvard Law student, freshman senator, who dares to run for president against the incredibly imposing Clinton machine, which was considered the most powerful, the most well-connected in modern political history. Hillary Clinton thought she was going to stride right into the White House. Both Hillary and McCain are flabbergasted at this young man who spoiled their runs. And Obama hasn't just beat these old political machines; he's done it while redefining how candidates raise money-through small donations, not from fat cats.

Every black kid in America will be one inch taller the day after Obama is elected. The rest of the world will see that we're not the warmongers they think we are. They'll see that we're not the racists they think we are. And in the Arab world, this will help heal the scars of Abu Ghraib.

There will be a sigh of relief from both our friends and our enemies.

Richard Belzer appears on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and has recently written the novel I Am Not a Cop! He will be performing at Comix on Saturday, November 1.

STEW

An Obama presidency will be the quake that unearths the kind of overt, white-hot racism in both the media and the populace that liberals and conservatives have been telling us doesn't exist anymore, but that black people have known all along was still alive and well.

How many white candidates for president do you remember inspiring such white Christian-extremist fervor as that which resulted in jeers of "Off with his head"? And while whisper campaigns are clearly necessary in a tired old white guy's efforts against a charismatic young man with a squeaky-clean past, who but reflexively racist imbeciles could believe that if this guy were a closet Jihadi, we wouldn't know it already?

Being based in Berlin affords me the luxury of not having to live my life caught up in the media swirl of this campaign. But even in Europe, I can't escape BBC interviews with good old boys from my home state of California describing Obama as being "the wrong color" or "just not the kind of guy I could trust with this country." I pity the naive among us who are not ready for the Return of the Redneck-otherwise known as Joe Six-Pack. People who grew up thinking race relations in this country were no more problematic than an episode of The Real World are going to get a dose of reality that will make television look like fiction again.

Stew won both Tony and Obie awards earlier this year for his rock musical Passing Strange.

JAIME HERNANDEZ

Barack Obama looks like the English teacher in high school that everybody thought was "cool" but who I never had because I never even got close to those college-prep courses.

Sarah Palin looks like the person that moves into a cool, old Craftsman fixer-upper in a lower-class ethnic neighborhood and starts a neighborhood association and pressures the people who have lived there for years to put the correct windows on their homes.

Joe Biden looks like the actor who plays a politician in a movie.

John McCain looks like the old guy in a '50s science-fiction B-movie who gets strangled by the alien monster.

Jaime Hernandez's new graphic novel is The Education of Hopey Glass.

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY. For me, one of the most powerful-as well as the least discussed-images of the recent presidential campaign was the moment Sarah Palin introduced herself to Joe Biden at the vice-presidential debate. Everyone noticed her style. Her smile. Her handsome, form-fitting black suit. Her disarming simplicity when greeting her opponent. What few people saw-or what they saw without seeing, or what they feigned to not see, or what they are sure they didn't see although they couldn't help noticing-was Sarah Palin's panties.

Absolutely. For an instant, all we could see, to our shock-under the sexy, curve-hugging, fashionable skirt of this ex–beauty queen-was the panty line of her granny panties, a line so clear we could practically trace the elastic through the thin fabric as it crossed her derriere and hips. Modern women who wear this kind of skirt are generally quite careful, making sure nothing interrupts the impeccable line of their silhouette. But Sarah Palin is not a modern woman. The message she conveyed at that instant was that she is definitely not one of those modern, stylish, naughty women who pay attention to this sort of detail. Perhaps there are indeed women who wear panties and panty hose. Perhaps there are even women-get thee behind me, Satan!-who do not wear panties at all! Well, she does. And she wants everyone to know she wears the real thing, granny panties in heavy cotton. She wants us to know that she wears the old-fashioned kind, made in Alaska, sex-proof, comfortable, not in the least sexy, Republican underwear.

Those Democratic sluts are really sans culottes (literally, "without panties"), in the historical French sense, meaning "liberal" or "revolutionary." Not Palin. No way. Her motto: "Re-pub-li-can." And definitely "Cu-lot-tée" (literally, "wearing panties" and also "cheeky"). This ostensible "cheekiness" was in itself the summary of her entire platform.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy's new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, was published by Random House last month.

WILLIAM GIBSON

Three new things I've greatly enjoyed this election season:

1. The increased limberness and muscularity of the American left's Internet presence. Much improved since 2004. Josh and Kos, in particular: awesome. And, of course, it only kicks ass to the exact extent that it's nonhierarchical, which doesn't work nearly as well if your ideology is fundamentally top-down authoritarian.

2. Snap polls immediately following the debates. Cuts out that awful three-day period of gaseous spin and counter-spin while ponderous douche-nozzles decide what we thought. A clear winner by the next afternoon, latest. Smells like democracy. Love it.

3. Watching the debates on cable while surfing live bloggers and comment threads on my laptop. The debates make me anxious, so hunkering down in a giddy virtual crowd of like-minded individuals is perfect for me. And informative. And not infrequently hilarious.

William Gibson's most recent novel is Spook Country.

DARCEY STEINKE

In mid October, my 12-year-old daughter, Abbie, and I took the train down to Philadelphia to canvass for Obama. Near the end of the day, we approached a house with an older woman holding back a barking pit bull. When we asked if she was registered to vote, she nodded, and when we further asked whom she was leaning toward, she said it was none of our damn business. Sitting on the couch in back of her was a man yelling expletives into a cell phone. A young woman came out of the house and walked to the front of the porch.

"I want to vote for whoever helps poor people," she said.

"He's a Muslim," the man in the back yelled out, "and he was friends with the guys that took down the Twin Towers."

The girl rolled her eyes at us.

"I'm trying to save money and GET MY OWN place," she said pointedly. "I just want to know the truth."

We assured her that Obama is neither a terrorist nor a Muslim. As the old lady came out again with the barking dog, we told the girl about our candidate's plans to help the poor. Her face as she listened was open and hopeful. The girl took our brochures. When I think about this election, rather than the two candidates' faces, I think of that girl. How brave it was for her to come to the porch railing and how important it is that the things we were telling her about Obama's vision turn out to be true.

Darcey Steinke's most recent book is the memoir Easter Everywhere.

NELLIE MCKAY

I wish factory farms were being discussed more. Someone like Governor Palin, it's very easy for environmentalists and activists to rally against her because she goes out and kills her own moose and shoots wolves from planes-these very obvious barbarities. But you don't hear Obama coming out against the Chicago stockyards. Our entrenched and accepted cruelty toward animals, just because they're what we eat-that should be an issue. And the environmental catastrophe of the factory farms, their pollution of water, air, and soil. And the treatment of the workers, many of whom are minorities or women or illegal immigrants who aren't allowed such basic rights as bathroom breaks. The meat and dairy industry is rife with need for reform. We have to get rid of factory farms-you have pigs in crates where they can't turn around or chickens packed in cages the size of a record-album cover. I think California's Proposition 2, which legislates against factory farms, will pass, by a large margin. That would be fantastic-it's about time.

Nellie McKay's new album is titled Obligatory Villagers. She performs December 2 at (Le) Poisson Rouge.

ICE-T

In our house-Coco and myself-we intentionally took separate candidates to start the election season.

I picked Hillary, and she picked Barack Obama. We knew we weren't going to vote for McCain, let's start off with that. He reminded us too much of Bush, and I just didn't feel a connection with him. (And I haven't voted before. I registered to vote for the first time for this election.)

I picked Hillary because I liked Bill Clinton. And as it went, I listened carefully, and Hillary and Obama were very alike on the issues. When I started to go away from her was that time when it turned out she lied about being shot at. . . . I didn't think you should be lying about that kind of thing while you're running for president.

In the streets, we have a saying: You don't need to make a lie to kick it. So Barack started to win me over. But I've stayed back in this election. I'm usually out there, but I saw what happened to Jeremiah. And I have that whole "Cop Killer" thing of my own that people love to use against me. I knew the kind of game they're playing. I saw what happened when rappers said something.

So some of us are, like, "Flavor, go put on a suit. This is real right now."

I was talking to some street cats the other day-they were wearing Barack T-shirts. That was surprising. I asked them about it. They said, "Ice, we don't want to hustle." They wouldn't be voting for someone because they want more crime.

To me, the election was really Hillary running against Obama. I don't think McCain was ever really in it. And Palin? If there was a book on how not to run for president, she should write it. I mean, you have to have some level of intelligence to run the country. Well, wait a minute. I guess Bush proved that wasn't actually true.

I don't know why anyone would want to be president, especially considering what condition the country is in. But if Barack wants it, more power to him.

I travel all over the world-it's a good look. It's a good look. It would give the United States a rebirth. And overseas, we could use it.

Ice-T appears on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

RICHARD FOREMAN

When I first saw Obama at the beginning of the campaign-and I did tell people this-I said: "You know, I look at Obama and I think, 'This is going to sound crazy, and I'm not against him, but he seems like the Antichrist.' " He's so good, and yet there's a certain masklike quality to his presence. If you read that kind of literature, he fulfills the characteristics of the Antichrist. The Antichrist is someone who will gather lots of people around him, like Obama at the beginning attracting these huge crowds to his rallies, with his message about the future. Now, I say this with great trepidation, because, please, let's elect him.

Avant-garde theater director Richard Foreman's last production was Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland. He received a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1995.

VIK MUNIZ

This has been a disastrous presidency. I can't stand it anymore. It's amazing the reversal of values that have occurred during this administration.

I came here from Brazil 26 years ago. We were under a military dictatorship in Brazil-there was a lack of freedom, of civil liberties. You were subject to the whim of the government. There was a lack of economic vision for the future. When I came here, I was so glad that I was making money, that the money was protected in the bank, that if I worked hard, I could become somebody.

I am at the point today where I think that if we're going to have more years like the last eight, I'm going to leave. Because the country that I left 26 years ago now makes a lot more sense than the country that I'm living in right now. It's very confusing, to ever think that this was going to happen. Brazil, when I left, was not a country respected by others, because of the dictatorship, and the United States was a beacon of freedom-it was highly respected. And in eight years we've become some of the most hated people in the world because of our foreign policy. It's like in Superman when you have bizarre Superman. Everything's upside-down.

Artist Vik Muniz's show "Verso" recently ran at Sikkema Jenkins gallery.

SARAH JONES

Nothing gets your head thinking about these things like landing at George Bush Airport in Houston from Ronald Reagan Airport in Virginia, which I did recently.

I know Palin is the low-hanging fruit. I can't help but think of her and her nomination as the moment that we cratered as women, as a country, at multiple levels. I'm thinking of her also because I ran the Chicago Marathon this year, my first marathon. It was awesome. I couldn't help thinking, even though it was 83 degrees and my time wasn't what I hoped it would be-I couldn't help thinking about everyone who told me that Sarah Palin runs a marathon in under four hours. It really bothered me! I hadn't broken the four-hour mark.

And then I remembered that this is a woman who has to be in really good shape for, among other things, the Rapture. She's gotta be prepared for that. And then it dawned on me that this person, this stuff of fiction, is actually going to be on the ballot.

Sarah Jones won both Tony and Obie awards for her one-woman show Bridge and Tunnel.

SUSAN CHOI

I think about the election all the time; it almost feels like a disorder. I'm having such a raw and emotional relationship with this election that I feel as if I have to protect myself from terrible traumas that might lie just ahead. I'm preemptively sick to my stomach about some terrible thing that might happen. That seems very grim, because at the same time I'm also elated all the time. It's been like love, this election. Being in love, being afraid that the loved one is going to be taken from you. Feeling elation and dread, which is what being in love is about.

Which isn't to say that I'm in love with any particular candidate, but the emotional stakes are so high that I've been kind of a mess and often feel like I have to pull away for my own good-not watch the news, not read anything for a day or two. The month of September was a very black month for me, where after Palin's selection I almost felt like an abuse victim. I thought, I just can't let them hurt me again-I couldn't engage with the news. And then as the poll numbers turned around, I began to feel that I could wade in, very carefully.

Susan Choi's most recent novel is A Person of Interest.

JAMES HANNAHAM

One of the great guilty pleasures of this political season has been watching conservative pundits jump, one after the other, off the sinking radical Republican ship like desperate little rats.

I say "guilty" only because journalists don't like to watch other journalists lose their jobs or flounder uncomfortably-we've all been there; the schadenfreude factor runs fairly shallow. But what a delight to see curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens-who earlier this year compared Obama's denouncement of Jeremiah Wright to "selling out his grandmother"-endorse the Illinois senator, not so much out of enthusiasm for Obama but horror at McCain's "increasingly obvious and embarrassing deficit, both cognitive and physical," and his "deceiving and unscrupulous" running mate, Sarah Palin.

It's a thrill to have watched proud conservative Andrew Sullivan peel away the layers of his identity over the last few years to become a barebacking Daddy-bear Democrat-lover who posts anti-Palin parodies on his blog. And the star atop the tree was Christopher Buckley, whose late father must have turned into Pinwheel Billy from spinning in his grave when sonny-boy declared his intent to vote for Obama and got sacked from The National Review. Were his parents alive, Buckley fretted, "They'd cut off my allowance." Aww.

None of these Anglophile creeps seem less than humiliated at their leap across party lines-to vote for a Negro, no less! But it's truly a joy to see these guys doing what Democrats have done for years-vote against a Republican rather than for a candidate they wholeheartedly endorse.

James Hannaham is a staff writer at Salon; his novel God Says No will be published in 2009 by McSweeney's Books.

RICHARD HELL

I am a fatalist who votes anyway. Obama makes me happy, despite his flattening out of himself for wider electioneering purposes. To my mind, speeches such as the Philadelphia race speech earn him the benefit of the doubt.

As far as odd or unexpected moments in the campaigns, two come to mind for me. The first was how, during the primaries, the initial response expressed by many African-Americans interviewed about Obama was fear that he would be murdered. That hadn't occurred to me, and it was chilling to realize what a rational thought it was, given what we know about America.

The other occurred when I recently saw regularly scheduled campaign ads in breaks during a television show. The ads seemed unreal; they seemed fictional. They made the room I was in-and everything in it, including me-feel as if it existed in a movie. The whole election process is so removed and contrived that it only exists as plot development, theater. It's all ridiculous and depressing.

Richard Hell's most recent book is the novel Godlike. He's currently writing an autobiography.

EILEEN MYLES

GWEN IFILL: Let's try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?

JOE BIDEN: No.

SARAH PALIN: Your question to him was whether he supported gay marriage, and my answer is the same as his, and it is that I do not.

Looking back on the campaign, I am particularly intrigued by this political marriage. On TV, the vice-presidential candidates have issued (with grins all around) the idea that for now, today, tonight, it's OK that gay people don't have full civil rights. That's it in a nutshell, folks. They both also say all this blah-blah-blah about how the Constitution protects us, but nobody really wants that. With only a civil union, I can't file joint federal taxes, and I can't help my partner get citizenship, and in most states, I'm limited in my gift-giving-and I can't make decisions about her health, either, except in the state our union is in. That's a lot to not have.

Why am I being held at bay? Why now? I mean, if you think about it, women used to have a lot fewer rights in marriage before they changed the law. Maybe those changes are what ruined marriage. And we'd just ruin it a little bit more. Pretty soon, nobody'd want it. Let the kids have it. Maybe we should just cut it up into little pieces and feed it to the world. No one's going to notice. For a while.

Eileen Myles's most recent book of poetry is Sorry, Tree.

DOROTHY ALLISON

For me, the issue is, who can do the job-not the job of being president but the job of cleaning up after Bush and Cheney. The work that must be done to clean up the mess left after eight years of anti-government government is enormous, and as a lifelong Democrat, I am appalled that once again it will take a Democrat to repair Republican excess. 

I genuinely believe that Barack Obama is the best person to take on that challenge-though he is, from my perspective, quite conservative-fiscally, socially. He is not, for example, what I wish he was-a strong defender of gay and lesbian rights-or even an advocate against what I fear is a frankly dangerous trend toward rolling back those laws and institutions established by feminist advocacy over the last two decades.

Do not mistake me. I am a radical feminist with strong socialist tendencies and a conviction that this nation has long neglected its poor and disenfranchised. I am exactly the kind of person the Republicans and John McCain demonize-the kind of person they accuse Barack Obama of being.

Dorothy Allison is the author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller.

MAC WELLMAN

The Folly of Fighting Wars Against Countries Who Have Done Us No Harm: McCain, among others, claims we lost the Vietnam War. But what harm has Vietnam inflicted on anyone, with the exception of Cambodia in 1979 (perhaps, in retrospect, an act of considerable merit)? So the question is: If no harm came of ceasing hostilities against another country Who Did Us No Harm, what can be the danger of once more ceasing hostilities against Iraq, another country Who Did Us No Harm, up to our invasion? Who is the real defeatist? John McCain and the Neo-cons at the White House, who apparently only want lost wars. These subversives are dangerous and un-American, in my view. They are traitors and should be treated accordingly.

Mac Wellman's most recent play is 1965UU.

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