The night of November 4, 2008, when it became clear that Barack Obama had won the election, I remember sitting in front of a TV screen in a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, tears streaming down my face.
I was in the United States on a visa and had lived in New York City for four years. Seeing this black man, who did not belong to a political dynasty, elected to the highest office in the country made me feel things that I didn't think I was capable of feeling. For an event that seemed largely to be happening far away from my life. My tears that night had a flavour of that guilty thrill you get from gatecrashing a party. I wasn't really American, not yet, but I was gay, brown and an immigrant - all identity markers that somehow made me feel personally invested in this event.
This was well before the horrifying idea of building walls to keep immigrants away was considered okay as a topic of lively debate, or the equally appalling talk of making certain minorities have to register was on the table. If there ever was a time in recent history, when I, like countless other people in this country, believed in the linear arc of time mirroring the arcs of human progress and justice, it was then.
A black man was President, the iphone had been introduced just the previous year, and there was distant talk that gay people might someday be able to marry legally in more states than one could count on the fingers of one hand. If this wasn't steady human progress, then what was?
In his book on climate change, Amitav Ghosh talks about how the "regularity of bourgeois life" has lulled us into a state of being where we no longer consider game-changing catastrophic events, especially negative ones, very likely. He attributes our largely lukewarm response to climate change to this anaesthetizing cocoon that modern life has surreptitiously enveloped us in.
Eight years later, I am an American citizen. I am still gay, brown and an immigrant. And I now have the right to marry whoever I love, in all fifty states.
However, I am stunned out of the regularity of my bourgeois life by an event that is clearly life-changing for our generation, and in many ways catastrophic for the planet. Trump's election spells "Game Over" for the climate in ways that I don't think we have grasped yet, in the short time we have had to come to terms with the election of this racist, misogynist, and grossly unprepared man as President.
That millions of us were so taken by shock and surprise when he was elected speaks to an aspect of the American experiment that we have been mostly blind to, but one that we must talk about urgently, if we do wish to continue living in a democracy. These are the walls that exist, and have existed for decades, if not centuries, in this country. The wall that separates, in opportunity and power, the Manhattan banker and the undocumented deli worker from El Salvador who makes his daily coffee. The wall that separates, in access to safety and justice, a black teenager in South Side, Chicago and the white police officer who patrols the area. Or, for that matter, the wall that separates a cis gay man living in West Hollywood from the trans woman of color who drinks at the same gay bar in WeHo as this man.
Racism, misogyny, transphobia and crushing inequality are so pervasive that we pay attention to them only in the most extreme of events - when someone completely innocent gets shot on the street for "driving while black", for example. Otherwise, we have conditioned ourselves to navigate life in America through channels where we don't see these inconvenient, and ultimately uncomfortable, injustices at all.
I do not know which is more horrifying - that we are doubting his will to build this one wall he talks about or that we are continuing to not see these other walls that keep getting fortified and made ever stronger. By our inaction. Or rather, by some of the things we do.
Every time we choose to express our outrage for what is happening in our country merely within our social media echo chambers, temporarily filling that guilt-shaped hole in our conscience, we help create the building blocks to strengthen these walls. Every time we let global corporations and media conglomerates spoon-feed us those tasty bite-sized chunks of what passes for culture, and the news, effectively letting profit maximizing algorithms write the code for our desires and tastes, we ensure that the walls become even more sound-proof and bullet-proof. In fact, over time, we begin to even like the walls, perhaps think of them as something that protects us. Who doesn't want to believe the fairy tale that we live in a beautiful country where crushing injustice is but a thing of the past, after all?
If there is a silver lining here, it is this -- we are finally jolted awake from this fairy tale because many hard-won liberties that we had begun to take for granted, now seem in jeopardy. It was only a matter of minutes after the inauguration ceremony that the pages on the White House website on LGBT rights, civil rights and climate change disappeared.
And how many of us don't secretly believe that even though climate change is very real, we will largely pass the majority of our lives unharmed, and that major climate-related catastrophes happen in faraway places and enter our lives mainly through our TV screens?
The smartphone, and along with it the portable consumer internet, when invented, might have been markers of a certain kind of progress. No doubt they increased access to information, but along with many other subsequent techno-utopian inventions, also increased both the amount of misinformation and our access to it. We live in an age where half-truths and untruths can be propagated with unprecedented speed and in pithy 140-character chunks. That the man elected as President uses this as his primary means of communicating on even highly nuanced topics such as nuclear armament, should give us pause and make us reflect on what progress even means to us. We may not have to wait for Artificial Intelligence to annihilate us, Hollywood-style. It seems likely that we are capable of doing the job quicker ourselves.
The history of our species is also a history of great civilizations that have keeled in the past. The Aztecs, the Romans and the Greeks all gave us ideas in philosophy, mathematics, literature and astrology, many of which we have not been able to surpass, or even match, in spite of all our technological advantages. And for varied reasons, these civilizations vanished. Only this time, thanks to globalization and this interconnectedness we are so exceptionally proud of, we will likely keel over together as a planet.
When we do, we might be discovered by a more intelligent, more sophisticated and perhaps a more graceful form of life from another planet or galaxy. And when that happens, we might want to make sure that we don't go down in their records as a civilization that precipitated its own demise when they elected a certain ill-qualified orange-haired specimen of their species to a really powerful position, partly based on "fake news" that was intended to generate advertising revenue as millions of us scrolled numbly on these rectangular light-emitting screens.
In an interview a few days after the elections, President Obama said, "nothing is the end of the world, except the end of the world." Coming from a man who inspired so much hope and change, these words seem defiantly hopeful, yet eerily prophetic. I hope there isn't an innuendo here, and that we don't discover it only when it is too late.