Everyone’s giddy about Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s rescue of a neighbor last night from her burning house. The Twitterati are calling him a superhero and comparing him to the Seal team that killed Osama bin Laden. If Cory Booker hadn’t come along, Aaron Sorkin would have to invent him.
This isn’t the first time that Booker has rushed to a scene of hazard and saved the day: during a blizzard two winters ago, he was out there shoveling snow, getting praise for doing the things we expect city workers, and not mayors, to do.
Booker, in fact, admits he has no training in firefighting or rescue, and the director of the Newark Fire Department made a special point of noting that his actions last night were ill-advised: “While the heroics of the mayor are unparalleled, we don’t encourage people to run into burning buildings.”
The whole story speaks to a quintessentially American love of amateurism and cowboy theatrics, but it also speaks to our neoliberal age: like the superhero of comic-book lore, Booker is a stand-in, a compensation in this case for a public sector that doesn’t work. And the reason it doesn’t work—the reason we put more stock in the antics of a Batman Mayor than a well paid and well trained city employee—is that we’ve made it not work: through tax cuts, privatization, and outsourcing, policies that Booker himself often supports.
Despite all that, Booker’s antics—and the starstruck response it has elicited from otherwise sane journalists and commentators—are actually more reminiscent of a very different kind of politician from a very different kind of time. As Slavoj Žižek wrote about the cult of personality around Stalin in Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?
This implicit acknowledgment of impotence is also the hidden truth of the divinization of the Stalinist Leader into a Supreme Genius who can give advice on almost any topic, from how to repair a tractor to how to cultivate flowers: what this Leader’s intervention in everyday life means is that things do not function on the most everyday level—what kind of country is this, in which the supreme Leader himself has to dispense advice about how to repair tractors?
Indeed: what kind of country is this?
A special thanks to Jodi Dean for the Žižek reference.
Update (5:30 pm)
Update (11 pm)
Not surprisingly, this post has generated lots of reactions. Here are some of my favorite tweets of the day:
Watch @CoreyRobin try to become history’s greatest monster, live on Twitter!
— Bethany Anne (@415Bethany) April 13, 2012
— Akhil Desai (@Akhildesai) April 13, 2012
@coreyrobin Wow. You diss my-future-ex-husband-in-my-head with a Zizek reference. Low blow.I get it…a girl can still dream though.
— Kendra Ross (@lolaschild) April 13, 2012
— And One for Blog (@AndOneForBlog) April 13, 2012
@jhwoodyatt It wasn’t until this tweet that I figured out that Corey Robin and Cory Booker weren’t the same person.
— Mark Jason Dominus (@mjdominus) April 14, 2012
@CoreyRobin so if Romney cages you on top of his car and drives off, I shouldn’t try to rescue you myself, is that it? Just call 911?
— Katha Pollitt (@KathaPollitt) April 14, 2012