The East Village’s Missing Name

Four More Years?Susan Keyloun

What is it? The name that’s missing from the East Village?

Think. It’s a name you would expect to hear, but don’t. A name you would expect to encounter in cafes and bars, on street corners and buses, in parks and in shops, in the lobbies of movie theaters and the changing rooms of gyms, on subway platforms and in supermarket lines, and wherever else East Villagers congregate.

The name, still so visible on the Web and audible on TV and radio, has vanished from the neighborhood. Yet it is (surely) the most famous name in the world. It begins with an “o,” and it ends with an “a”: OBAMA! Once it was on everyone’s tongue. Now, it seems, tongues would rather utter any name but that one. The name has been replaced by silence, by the absence of a name. It is a void people no longer know what to do with except to circle around it cautiously while naming other names — Palin, Beck, Murdoch, Cantor, Tea Partiers — as if warding off an evil spell.

There are other people besides Obama you rarely hear discussed these days. For instance, Clinton, Geithner, Bernanke, Biden, Pelosi. The names of those who hold the highest offices in the land are spoken aloud almost as rarely as those of Party officials in a Communist dictatorship. It’s as if merely whispering their names were a crime. It isn’t, of course, but somehow it feels inappropriate.

Political Street Art on Avenue CC.C. Glenn

Once the East Village, and downtown New York generally, rang to the ugly, spat-out sounds of BUSH, CHENEY, RUMSFELD, ASHCROFT, WOLFOWITZ, NEOCONS, WAR CRIMINALS, etc. Loud, fearless public discussions of the oppressively evil Bush Junta which would supposedly lock up any dissenter were the stuff of everyday life. Now there is only an uneasy, tactful evasiveness, a lacuna the size of a lake. In 2004 or 2007 it was hard to get three sentences into a conversation in downtown New York before the word BUSH came up, a four-letter word in every sense. Now you can talk for three hours without mentioning Obama, and without hearing anyone else mention him, either.

Yet we think about him. Obama is like a novel we consume alone. A film we download secretly onto our laptops. A subject we brood on in the prison-cells of our own skulls. We share him cautiously among close, trusted friends and relatives or in a quiet corner of a party where there’s too much ambient noise for others to overhear.

It is as if, finding it difficult to praise him, and almost impossible to criticize him, we have elected simply to speak of him as briefly and infrequently as possible. It’s safer, more comfortable, that way. Let the op-ed columnists and talking heads and pundits and radio blatherers — those who are paid to talk about him — take up the word “Obama.” The rest of us no longer see any profit in it.

The effect has become increasingly eerie. It is almost as if we had no national government at all, only a local one. People talk a lot about Mayor Bloomberg. We’ll say anything about Bloomberg, sometimes very rude things in a very loud voice. But since we don’t discuss the President and his policies, it would feel odd, in the circumstances, to discuss the policies of the Secretary of State, that once very famous, inspirational, and now strangely anonymous woman, Hillary Clinton.

Hilary - Obama HatRachel Citron

And though we all know Donald Rumsfeld was once Secretary of Defense, the name Leon Panetta — the man currently occupying the post — just doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi. You used to hear people talk about Rumsfeld all the time. We’d shovel him and the rest of the Bush crew into any conversation, book, novel, play, film, documentary or TV program we could. But Panetta & co. — not so much. Not at all, really.

Perhaps we feel most at ease talking about the First Lady, Michelle. Her style, her clothes… But even that’s getting a bit old. What we need is an Enemy. A big, bold-faced Enemy. We need Palin to get into the Presidential race, or Donald Trump to jump back in. We need a bona fide barbarian. Someone whose ghastly red-state taste and hair style we can make hearty fun of. For until then, Barack Obama, President of the United States, will remain largely absent from the East Village.