As we go on, Mystery becomes more important, too, because it helps us deal with things we can’t understand. It is fueled by faith: belief in ourselves, our friends, “the system,” humanity in general, and whatever else it is we need to believe in. There’s a reason we don’t want great magic tricks explained. Mystery is also valuable as a coping mechanism—the things that are all too clear are piling up, too: Life is short. Love can’t be taken for granted. Everything has a cost. Just holding on to something doesn’t mean it won’t go away. You can try to solve everything, but if you can’t, that’s okay. As long as you’ve tried your best.
As I was working on this speech, it became clear to me how agencies form their own antibodies against a president’s desire to move in a particular direction. A practice of having the intelligence community review speech drafts had been put in place after George W. Bush overhyped Saddam Hussein’s efforts to acquire nuclear material in his 2003 State of the Union address. Now Obama wanted to assert that tactics like waterboarding amounted to torture; the intelligence community struck that formulation, preferring the more antiseptic “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Obama wanted to call Gitmo a danger to American national security; the intelligence community wanted to strike that. Obama wanted to say that the 240 Muslim detainees in Gitmo had spent years “in a legal black hole”—a relatively noncontroversial statement, since no one at Gitmo had been convicted of a crime; the intelligence community wanted to delete that sentence as well, offering instead this justification: “The detainees at Guantanamo have more legal representation and have been afforded more process than any enemy combatants in the history of the world.” Sitting in my windowless office and reading those comments, I felt the gap between working on a campaign and working in the White House. The person I was working for was president of the United States, and a figure uniquely revered by people around the world; but his views did not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.
The exhibition used Utopia merely as a catalyst to fuel other ideas. Consequently, it left any comprehensive definition of Utopia to others. Our aim was simply to pool our efforts, motivated by a need to change the landscape inside and outside, a need to integrate the work of many artists so that we might be integrated into a larger kind of community, a bigger conversation, another state of being. Each present and future contributor was asked to create a poster for use in the next Station and beyond; wherever it can hang, it can go. In this way Utopia Station evolves images, even if it does not start with one. Each person who created a poster was also asked to make a statement of between one and two hundred words. The statements mounted up. Stuart Hall and Zeigam Azizov elaborated on a proposition: the world has to be made to mean. ‘The bittersweet baked into hope,’ wrote Nancy Spero. Raqs Media Collective called Utopia a hearing aid. ‘This probably will not work,’ goes the Cherokee saying cited by Jimmie Durham, who added that the ‘probably’ is what keeps people alive. There were hundreds of statements like these in the end. They were all available to read anywhere via the website e-flux, an artist-run initiative founded by the artist Anton Vidokle, which has become a central information clearinghouse for the art world. Inevitably, certain figures began to be repeated: ships and songs and flags, potatoes, Sisyphus, figures familiar from the history of discussions of Utopia. Utopia Station became an archive of experimentation.
Reactionaries, mostly Luddites and romantic conservatives, wanted to destroy this new technological world and return to what appeared to them, at least, to be a more halcyon era. Idealists—including, ironically enough, both uncompromisingly free market capitalists and revolutionary communists—believed that the industrial technology would, if left to unfold according to its own logic, eventually create a utopian economy of infinite abundancy. And then there were the reformers and the realists—a broad combination of society, including responsible politicians on both the left and the right, businesspeople, workers, philanthropists, civil servants, trade unionists, and ordinary citizens—who focused on using human agency to fix the many problems created by this new technology. Today we can see similar responses of yes, no, or maybe to the question of whether the dramatic change swirling all around us is to our benefit. Romantics and xenophobes reject this globalizing technology as somehow offending the laws of nature, even of “humanity” itself (an overused and under-defined word in our digital age). Both Silicon Valley techno-utopians and some critics of neoliberalism insist that the digital revolution will, once and for all, solve all of society’s perennial problems and create a cornucopian postcapitalist future. For them, much of this change is inevitable—”The Inevitable”, according to one particularly evangelical determinist. And then there are the maybes, like myself—realists and reformers rather than utopians or dystopians—who recognize that today’s great challenge is to try to fix the problems of our great transformation without either demonizing or lionizing technology.
Four months earlier, I’d come back to my cubicle at the Times to find a sticky note affixed to my desktop. “Jill came by. Wants to see you,” it read. My stomach sank. The air was sticky and Midtown had started to empty out by noon ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. I’d been at Bryant Park eating a salad chopped so thoroughly it might as well have been pureed. I was wearing a pair of torn Levi’s at least a decade old with scraggy seams and holes so wide my knees jutted out. When you reach a certain stature at the Times, you can dress like the Unabomber, but I was a media reporter who’d been at the paper less than two years. I couldn’t meet with the boss in those jeans. I sprinted through Times Square, past the throngs of tourists and Elmo characters, to the Gap to buy a pair of white pants. They were high-waisted and fell a couple of inches too short around my ankles, but they were on sale, and I could keep the tags on and return them at the end of the day.
Over the course of 2012, I also saw my name pop up with increasing frequency in right-wing media, cast as Obama’s political hack on the NSC. Early in the administration, I’d become a target for occasional right-wing ridicule for a few reasons: (1) I worked for Barack Obama; (2) I wrote the Cairo speech; (3) I received a master’s degree in fiction writing from New York University when I was twenty-four years old. The MFA alone was enough to make me a minor villain: “Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Failed Fiction Writer…” One time, in 2009, I was surprised to find a colleague of mine—a kind, soft-spoken young woman named Cindy Chang—sobbing at her desk because she was so upset by one of these pieces. “How can they say these things about you?” she cried. I told her not to worry, I was proud of my enemies. Then I went into my office, closed the door, and felt a fluttering in my stomach—reading the piece, unsettled by how unhinged it was, by how much the person who wrote it seemed to hate me.
Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace. But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
It was a new feeling, to have so many people hate me. Worse was the realization that this was never going to be cleared up. At no point would some movie judge step forward to declare me innocent of the charges. I had strange thought patterns while lying awake at night or in breaks during the day. I wished, for instance, that I was being attacked over something I had actually done wrong. No matter how many investigations found no wrongdoing, there would be another one. No matter how clearly mainstream reporters saw it was a sham, they’d cover it anyway—it was a story, and I was one of the characters. I started to change—the kind of change that is imperceptible day to day but builds visibly over time. I withdrew into myself, growing distant from friends and colleagues. I couldn’t fall asleep unless I listened to an interview program, Fresh Air, which could distract my mind from worry. I was less joyful at working in the White House, more burdened by it. Without discussing it with others, I nursed a ball of anger deep within me that I kept pushed down—anger at Republicans, anger at the media, anger at the realization that I had no control over what people thought of me. I sensed that some of my colleagues held similar feelings. We worked in the most powerful building in the world yet felt powerless to change the environment around us.
The first of The Guys I called to tell about my promotion to the politics team, I’d known since we met on a frozen tarmac in Elkader, Iowa, in 2007. We’d bonded over a shared love of Jason Isbell and our self-proclaimed outsider status. Neither of us lived in Washington or had any desire to. Of all The Guys, Outsider Guy was the one who I thought transcended the source-reporter relationship, and over the next few years he would become the cruelest, the one whose name I most feared seeing in my inbox. I would eventually create a special dickhead file for his emails. I’m certain that I let him down, too, and that my emails likely wound up in a snaky bitch who pretended to be my friend file. “How cool is that? We’ll get to work together all the time,” I said. The line went silent. Outsider Guy’s demeanor was as icy as that tarmac had been, and in an instant I knew that we’d never go back to being friends. I thought I heard his pit bull mix growling in the background.
Racism was a constant presence and absence in the Obama White House. We didn’t talk about it much. We didn’t need to—it was always there, everywhere, like white noise. It was there when Obama said that it was stupid for a black professor to be arrested in his own home and got criticized for days while the white police officer was turned into a victim. It was there when a white Southern member of Congress yelled “You lie!” at Obama while he addressed a joint session of Congress. It was there when a New York reality show star built an entire political brand on the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, an idea that was covered as national news for months and is still believed by a majority of Republicans. It was there in the way Obama was talked about in the right-wing media, which spent eight years insisting that he hated America, disparaging his every move, inventing scandals where there were none, attacking him for any time that he took off from work. It was there in the social media messages I got that called him a Kenyan monkey, a boy, a Muslim. And it was there in the refusal of Republicans in Congress to work with him for eight full years, something that Obama was also blamed for no matter what he did. One time, Obama invited congressional Republicans to attend a screening of Lincoln in the White House movie theater—a Steven Spielberg film about how Abraham Lincoln worked with Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Not one of them came. Obama didn’t talk about it much. Every now and then, he’d show flashes of dark humor in practicing the answer he could give on a particular topic. What do you think it will take for these protests to stop? “Cops need to stop shooting unarmed black folks.” Why do you think you have failed to bring the country together? “Because my being president appears to have literally driven some white people insane.” Do you think some of the opposition you face is about race? “Yes! Of course! Next question.” But he was guarded in public. When he was asked if racism informed the strident opposition to his presidency, he’d carefully ascribe it to other factors. I came to realize that this was about more than not offering up what some of his opponents craved—the picture of the angry black man, or the lectures on race that fuel a sense of grievance among white voters. Obama also didn’t want to offer up gauzy words to make well-meaning white people feel better. The fact that he was a black president wasn’t going to bring life back to an unarmed black kid who was shot, or alter structural inequities in housing, education, and incarceration in our states and cities. It wasn’t going to change the investment of powerful interests in a system that sought to deny voting rights, or to cast people on food stamps working minimum wage jobs as “takers,” incapable of making it on their own. The last person who ever thought that Barack Obama’s election was going to bring racial reconciliation and some “end of race” in America was Barack Obama. That was a white person’s concept imposed upon his campaign. I know because I was once one of them, taking delight in writing words about American progress, concluding in the applause line “And that is why I can stand before you as president of the United States.” But he couldn’t offer up absolution for America’s racial sins, or transform American society in four or eight years.