Welcome to Arnold, King for a Day
by Alexander Cockburn
October 11, 2003
Gray Davis, good riddance! Into the political coffin with you and off you go to the crypt. The line I remember from your first inauguration speech in Sacramento was your creepy pledge that you would be "death on crime". You let your voice peck at the word "death" like a vulture tasting a corpse, and I remember thinking then what a degraded creature you were, serf of the prison warders' union, and of anyone who shoved enough money into your money sock, the threadbare soul of the Democratic Party.
You played the politics of death all the way through. There are prisoners in California, convicted of murder a couple of decades ago, who've served their full sentences, who kept a perfect record of good behavior, and who still rot behind bars because you wouldn't sign off on their release. And then, in case anyone had forgotten what your were like after four years, you poured out cash to keep Riordan off the Republican ballot, denouncing him because he might be soft on Death.
You had it coming to you, governor Davis, and just look at who knocked you off: the blue collar workers, the union members, the Hispanics who put you in Sacramento, who looked at their utility bills, looked at the economy of California and above all looked at you and shuddered and said Yes to recall; then, many of them, Yes to Bustamante; but enough of them, Yes to Schwarzenegger.
Yes to Arnold, breast grabber in the finest traditions of the Democratic Party, like Bill Clinton and back beyond him the satyr of Camelot, JFK. Yes to Arnold, who may or may not have been soft on Adolf Hitler. What does that mean at this distance? It doesn't look as though Arnold wants to wipe out the Jews. Maybe he knows Hitler was the first Keynesian, and that's the bit of Adolf's legacy he cares about.
Besides, Hitler's a waxwork bogy. Reagan proved that when he went to Bitburg and returned from the SS cemetery unscathed. You want to talk about an up-to-date echo of Nazism? When it comes to ethnic cleansing, daylight murder of political opponents,lethal thuggery and institutional racism, just look at who votes, week by week, month by month, in full-throated verbal and financial support of such practices in Israel in the US Senate, if not the two Democratic senators from California, Feinstein and Boxer.
Californians like the sun, and when they looked at you, governor Davis, they saw the gray of your name, and on your face the sex-less pallor of death and corruption. Better to have Arnold as an intimation of the golden life.
Here in London, as one who once wrote a book titled The Golden Age is In Us, I took myself off on a Saturday to look at an exhibition in the National Galley on Trafalgar Square, called Paradise, a traveling show which had already been shown in Bristol and Newcastle, attracting 160,000 people, apparently double what they would have expected normally in those galleries. People want to know the lineaments of paradise, whose earthly possibilities utopians used to spend much time usefully describing, though not much any more.
The show turned out to be patchy, with the curator scraping together a show from available ingredients, such as a Boucher, a Gauguin, a Constable, a Monet, a Rothko, a couple of Renaissance paintings and so forth. But making my visit entirely worthwhile there was one marvelous painting, one of Stanley Spencer's Cookham paintings about the Last Judgment, done in 1934. It shows a dustman resurrected in his beefy wife's arms, she in "ecstatic communion with the dustman's corduroy trousers" as Spencer put it. Other dustmen and women, plus a cat, surround the couple.
"I feel in this Dustman picture, " Spencer wrote, " that it is like watching and experiencing the inside of a sexual experience. They are all in a state of anticipation and gratitude to each other. They are each to the other, and all to any one of them, as peaceful as the privacy of a lavatory. I cannot feel anything is Heaven where there is any forced exclusion of any sexual desire... The picture is to express a joy of life through intimacy. All the signs and tokens of home life, such as the cabbage leaves and teapot which I have so much loved that I have had them resurrected from the dustbin because they are reminders of home life and peace, and are worthy of being adored as the dustman is."
It's as earthy and beautiful an expression of the paradise of carnal passion as Joyce's pages in Ulysses about Bloom looking at Gertie.
Whoever thought to put Spencer into the Paradise exhibit got it right. In ancient times death in the Golden Age was always incorporated into life as a sensate pleasure, followed immediately by an improved life, the way most folks including all those flocking to the show in Bristol and Newcastle would like it. In those earlier times they had Saturnalia which meant not so much drunken sex sprees as subversion of the conventional moral order.
In the pre-spring festival senators and slave owners would put aside their stately togas and kindred marks of rank and don shapeless garments known as syntheses (the dialectic made cloth). The prime metaphor of the Saturnalia was freedom from all bondage ≠ the bondage of poverty, of wealth, of the laws and, above all, time. Slaves set up a mock king and were served delicious fare by their masters. Such delicacies, given to the powerless by the powerful, were called "second tables", because temporarily, at the level of palpable fantasy, the tables were turned. Each household became a mimic republic, in which slaves held first rank. The law courts were closed. Gifts were exchanged. The Lords of Misrule reigned.
Thus it was with the Recall.
Welcome to Arnold, mock king for a day or two. Enough Californians wanted to turn the tables on you, Governor Davis, and this meant setting the pasteboard crown on Arnold's heads, they said, So be it.
Alexander Cockburn is coeditor of The Politics of Anti-Semitism, and the author of The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) with Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of CounterPunch, where this article first appeared.