I still miss Alexander Cockburn—his deep intelligence and broad erudition, his passionate engagement and devilish wit, but, most of all, I miss his bubbly, irrepressible optimism. Whenever, after still another horrible something had happened and every other leftist had put a pistol to his or her head, finger on the trigger, Alex inevitably wrote a piece about why we should all be gladdened because, for reasons x, y, and z, the “something” presented unparalleled opportunities for human advancement.
What would he be writing during this surreally horrific presidential election year? I keep trying to figure this out, given what I know about his opinions. Of course he loathed the Clintons. Not surprising, who doesn’t? But one of his many idiosyncratic pet peeves was the relatively obscure and harmless Vermont politico Bernie Sanders, whom Alex detested as an absolute phony, a man who called himself socialist while always voting as a moderate—that is, right-wing—Democrat. In fact, I might never have heard of Bernie Sanders if Alex hadn’t devoted so many column inches over the years to attacking him.
So would he now be cheerfully urging us to take a chance and vote for Donald Trump? Would he be crowing because this guy who thumbs his nose at Wall Street, refuses to take the pledge to destroy Social Security, and suggests we might be friends with Russia and that it’s time to wind up NATO came out on top in a field of 17 starters, and did it in large part because the mainstream media screwed itself, over the years turning politics into infotainment, creating instant celebrities via “reality,” blurring the lines between the real and unreal, the important and the trivial, deliberately mystifying and dumbing down the American public, already made supremely ignorant by American public schools?
Alex actually loved and trusted the ordinary folk of the U.S.A. He was always flying out to Georgia or wherever it was where his favorite mechanic fixed up old classic American cars for him. He would then drive the latest back through the South, stopping to visit old friends, publishing opinions as he went on the best barbecue joints along his route. And of course he eschewed the “liberal” Bay Area, choosing instead to live in Humboldt County, among the rural working folk and hippies, where he happily hiked, hunted, and kept his horse and many other beloved animals.
I am certain he would be cheering this year that the masses rose up and thumbed their noses at the entire stinking Republican establishment—and at the Clintons too, steeped in their corruption (although the Bernie problem remains). Not to forget that only Alex, quoting Hannah Arendt, recognized the Rodney King riot as a moment of “public happiness” and cheered the participants on. His desire to upend the existing rotten order burned within him so strongly that it blinded him sometimes to the real pain of disorder.
For there is also Trump’s narcissism, detachment from reality, monumental ignorance, and misogyny. Would Alex have urged us to simply ignore these and other major character defects? (Having written this list, I’m realizing that the first three also characterize Hillary Clinton and the last one her husband as well—as I’m sure Alex would have quickly pointed out. Thanks, Alex.)
How did we get to this pass, where both likely nominees are abhorrent, partly for the same, partly for different reasons? Where, in fact, as opposite as they may superficially appear, they both belong to and even sometimes cross paths in the same New York City circle, wealthy beyond imagining from finance, insurance, and real estate, the greedy FIRE sector that is gobbling its way through the American economy and American lives to feed its own insatiable appetite for more mansions, islands, airplanes, yachts. And both hover, in a sense, on the nervous edge of it: Bill and Hill, the arrivistes, cadging rides on other people’s private jets or giving quarter-million-dollar “speeches” in return for “access”; Trump, possibly the pretender, who may not be as rich as he claims, whose deals may not have been as successful as he boasts, who played a power broker on TV for umpteen seasons, while the real power brokers stay out of sight, sliding from meeting to meeting in their darkened limos, keeping their mouths tightly shut.
How did we get to this pass, where the two likely nominees, equally of bad character, equally detested and rightly so, are both fringe members of the same financial one percent, panting to be richer, more important, more powerful than they are, terrified to wake up and find themselves back in Arkansas “dead broke” or standing in bankruptcy court with no state of New Jersey to bail them out. Bad characters, hypocrites, pretenders, liars, self-deluders—spawned by a culture in which lies are the norm, in which all day every day people are paid to lie, compelled to lie, and rewarded for lying well. How could we expect either to be capable of honesty or decency or fellow feeling?
Quite a long time ago, even before the 17 Republican candidates filed, I started to panic, asking myself why, when the human race faces so many looming interlocking catastrophes, neither party was likely to come up with a candidate who was even adequate. And then I realized the question provides its own answer. The breakdown of the political system is part of the general crisis.
What then is to be done? I, for one, intend to vote for Bernie in the upcoming primary in the hope that he will carry California. That way, both parties will go to their conventions understanding that they are in deep trouble, the Republicans with a nominee picked by the people the party cannot support and the Democrats, a.k.a. the Clinton machine, with a self-selected nominee crowned by the party whom the voters have rejected.
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” Mario Savio, December 2, 1964.