In Which I Rain on Everyone’s Cory Booker Parade

13 Apr

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)

Sandra Williams reminds me of this excellent Black Commentator piece on the love Cory Booker got and gave to the right-wing Manhattan Institute.

Update (11 pm)

Not surprisingly, this post has generated lots of reactions.  Here are some of my favorite tweets of the day:

 

49 Responses to “In Which I Rain on Everyone’s Cory Booker Parade”

  1. shawn hamilton April 13, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    I thought the story sounded a little silly too, but Corey Booker doesn’t have much of a tax base, so I imagine he’s often choosing between bad and worse options. The prior mayor – Sharpe James – was in office for 21 years during which time he used city money to buy a yacht, five condos, and a beach house and was later imprisoned for fraud and conspiracy, so I think it would be fair to say Booker inherited a mess and is working with limited options. I agree though that its important to highlight the downside of cutting public sector spending because this story could have ended badly.

  2. Matthew April 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    You’re comparing one day of praise for a politician helping someone in a burning building to the cult of personality around Stalin? This is an honest commentary? It’s shocking. (and I found this not as a Booker fan but as a Zizek fan)

    • Corey Robin April 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

      Shocking? You need to get out more, my friend.

      • Kyle Thompson April 13, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

        Given that you were the one comparing Booker to Stalin, I think you might need to get out more as well Corey…

      • Kevin April 29, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

        I’m not entirely sure that Zizek meant to paint Stalin poorly in his little blurb – nor do I think it makes Corey Booker seem all that bad. The story I think signifies that the kind of country we or anyone lives in is one that fundamentally fails and will always fail. The separation between the leader and the people is a fallacious one that should be challenged. Remember, Zizek deploys Stalin not as an impact but as a way of confounding OUR understanding of totalitarianism as always bad. If Stalin was such a terrible person, why would he dare to demonstrate that their society is extremely bad? I think what Zizek means to say is how can a totalitarian leader really be compared to a star or a hero or some good guy many of us know, like a firefighter? Ultimately it shows the cult of personality is not a great one but it shows as well that the cult of personality is a defense measure against bigger structural harms that we hope our heroes are actively addressing. What I like about Corey Booker is that he is deploying this totalitarian potential of a leader, to stir the public pot and give support to a force of History, which in a sense, will inevitably occur. I think Booker is net good and that in this case people are supporting a person who actively fights the greater structural impotence.

        But, I’m just an amateur reader of psychoanalysis, Zizek, history and Marxism, what do I know?

    • John April 13, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

      It’s not shocking. Just dumb.

      • herrnaphta April 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

        It’s not, in fact, a comparison of the two men. The sentence plainly says a very different kind of politician. The comparison is between the broken bureaucracy of the soviet system and the broken and eviscerated public sector of the neoliberal city in an age of austerity, and the kind of ideology politicians have to rely on in both. Corey’s sentence is quite clear on this, but as soon as I read it I knew there would be tantrums like this.

      • Kyle Thompson April 14, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

        @herrnaphta: “Despite all that, Booker’s antics…are actually more reminiscent of a very different kind of politician from a very different kind of time.” Sounds like a comparison of the two men to me, existing beside the comparison you identified.

  3. wannabe speechwriter April 13, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    I am a little hesitant about any comparison to Stalin (no matter what the context) but I think you’re right-we let little antics like this define our politicans and ignore them on the big issues. I remember working with someone from Jon Corzine’s office who hated Booker because he wasn’t a team player. She believed he did the least amount of work possible for Corzine’s reelection campaign because he wanted the job himself. In the process, he sometimes took the same positions as Christie and made Corzine look bad.

    Now, I realize I won’t get much sympathy here or elsewhere because Corzine is a crook who swindled billions of dollars. However, Cory Booker does represent the show horse rather than work horse politican (as an SF resident, he reminds me of Gavin Newsom). The problem with these politicians is always the same-if they won’t stand with you if it doesn’t get them the attention they so crave, why should we stand with them?

    • Geojos April 13, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

      Interesting, the analogy to Stalin is a tad over the top, but I get the message and have become curious about his policies and politcs, not his theatre. Whoops siily boy, I forget politics is theatre

      • wannabe speechwriter April 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

        To a point. Sometimes dramatics and theatricality are useful in getting your message across. However, often they’re used to cover up views you have-which is the point of the original post. Screaming about being nailed to a cross of gold to protest the gold standard is quite different from appearing in flag factories while supporting bills that ship our jobs overseas…

    • Douglas storm April 14, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      “A long story of conversion, and a hundred to one if some lie or other slip not out with it. Why, the secret meaning is, I pray admire me.” Thomas Shephard (November 5, 1605 – August 25, 1649)

  4. John Erganian April 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    As a big, big fan of this blog and reader of both Fear and Reactionary Mind…lighten up, Francis ;-)

  5. Terry Holland April 13, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    The Search for Batmen pervades our lives at every level, most dangerously our political life. We choose our political leadership for their perceived talent to save us, to perform magical processes that none of them, and none of us, understand. Rather than living our lives, we are experiencing them as though we’re watching a movie which asks nothing of us other than approval or disapproval.

    But it isn’t working. It can’t work without our deep involvement. We have to understand what our common needs are and what obligations we have to meet them. Democracies ask much of their citizens and we don’t seem to want to do our part.

    And what is our part? Well, in the present case, it is to pay the piper the taxes it takes to hire the firefighters so the mayor won’t have to run around acting like he’s someone he isn’t. In the former, or the next case, we have to look hard into it and find our responsibilities.

    As Pogo said so many years ago, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

  6. Chris Cicchitelli (@ChrisCicc) April 13, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    Uh, no, sorry. As someone who actually works in that sector, I can tell you there is only one thing that has caused public sector employees to not work: unions that make it all but impossible to get fired.

    Nice try though, keep ‘em coming…

    • nillionaire April 13, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

      what a novel argument

  7. Brad April 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    This is the most hilariously stupid blog entry I’ve read since purchasing my ipad.

    • Cay Borduin April 13, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

      Oh – do you have the latest version? And is it awesome?

  8. Ryan C Daley April 13, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    It’s a huge stretch to read the above post as comparing Booker to Stalin. What we’re looking at is the cult of personality in the one instance (Stalin w/a tractor, Booker w/a burning bldg) where that person *stoops* to do a job for which they aren’t trained. Let’s not take the comparison out of context.

    • Geojos April 13, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

      I am now organizing a campaign to convince Mighty Mouse to run for President. Any takers? Hey, isn’t he what we are looking for to right this sinking ship?

  9. Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic) April 13, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    I think when the story first broke, it was just a story. By this morning it was definitely politcal theater and I was greeted by tweets from a few jaded bloggers gritting their teeth audbibly when I checked my Twitter timeline earlier.

    But I do think the Stalin comparison, and dragging out a heavywight like Žižek, is a little on the excessive side and here’s why I think that: Booker is indeed a progressive-liberal darling and I confess I really like him on many civil right issues myself. But yeah, he has the typical flaws of a typical Dem in office. That doesn’t make him a stand-out like Stalin. It makes him the opposite: someone typical–and banal. And there in lies the real problem with any cult of persoanlity that may be brewing up around him, that the things about Booker that we ought to be keeping an eye on get ignored not because we’re glossing them over with stories about recusing neighbors from burning buildings, but becusse we have grow too accustomed to this song and dance and aren’t making the effort to pay attention the banalities like we should.

    That said, I’m a little surprised you’d take on Booker as a target. Not that this isn’t worth the time to discuss, but rather there’s a more worrisome banality out there, I think, and that one’s name is Hilary Rosen, the former RIAA head hocho and now CNN “consultant” who is soaking up even bit of prog-liberal fawning and media attention, playing a savvy female Democrat who stood up to Ann Romney’s poutfest. Booker’s a mayor who is at least right on certain things. Rosen is, in my opinion and my own words, a special interest trojan horse and she has national media access and getting lots of facetime with lib vot
    ers, in particaurly women voters. I can live with the Booker hype, but the poltical theater around Rosen sinks of real trouble, if you ask me.

  10. Cay Borduin April 13, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    Have you ever Googled “kim jong il looking at things” and looked at the image results? The man was an expert on everything!

    • Ryan C Daley April 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

      Kim Jong Il was even an expert on fruit juice!

  11. David April 13, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    Didn’t LaGuardia engage in similar theatrics (at least ride on
    fire trucks)? I agree that this shows an immature and harmful
    personality based politics, but neoliberalism? Was 1930s New
    York a neoliberal age? Or do the only thing that the two have
    in common is that Corey Robin and most of readers believe
    the two to be bad things?

    • Corey Robin April 13, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

      I don’t know the specifics of LaGuardia that you’re referring to, but if it’s what you say it is — riding on fire trucks — that only proves my point. La Guardia was celebrating and identifying with the city’s public services; actions like Booker’s do just the opposite. I want a mayor who sees his job as funding and managing city services, not performing them.

      • Jeremy April 14, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

        If you’ll forgive a long quote, this bit from Robert Caro’s The Power Broker on LaGuardia should flesh out the picture:
        “The Little Flower was mastering New York City as no mayor since Peter Stuyvesant had mastered it. Roaming his domain in person like Haroun-al-Raschid, he suddenly appeared on lines in front of municipal lodging houses, checking on the treatment of the luckless, or in police precinct houses, employing the mayoralty’s hitherto-unused magisterial powers to mete out swift punishment to arrested gamblers, or at the Bronx Terminal Market before daylight one freezing December morning, assembling an audience of shivering market concessionaires by having two police buglers blow a fanfare and then, clambering up on the tailboard of a truck, announcing an assault on racketeers in the artichoke business by reading a formal proclamation banning the inoffensive vegetable the premises. Doffing his big Stetson for a big fire chief’s helmet, he dashed to fires to make ‘personal inspections’ from which he emerged covered in soot, and he groped through smoke and flames to the side of two firemen pinned under a collapsed wall and knelt by them whispering encouragement until they were freed. He raced to train wrecks in the sidecar of a police motorcycle, battered down doors at the head of police raiding parties, snatched the baton from an orchestra conductor to lead a bravura performance of ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ and conducted the Sanitation Department band at a special performance in Carnegie Hall (after instructing a stage manager, ‘Just treat me like Toscanini’). He gave a city hungering for leadership the impression that there was no part of his domain that he did not dominate.

  12. mattdpearce April 13, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

    Here, I made a few fixes for you:

    Everyone’s giddy about actor Ryan Gosling’s rescue of a British woman last night from a speeding car. The Twitterati are calling him a superhero and comparing him to the Seal team that killed Osama bin Laden. If Ryan Gosling hadn’t come along, Aaron Sorkin would have to invent him.

    This isn’t the first time that Gosling has rushed to a scene of hazard and saved the day: he recently broke up a fight on the street, getting praise for doing the things we expect city workers like police officers, and not actors, to do.

    Gosling, in fact, admits he has no training in policing or rescue, and Laurie Penny, the British woman he saved, made a special point of noting that his actions last night were nothing special: “If Ryan Gosling hadn’t happened to be the nearest person at the time, I’m sure the girl standing next to me, who confirmed Gosling’s identity, would have prevented me from meandering into an early grave.”

    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, Gosling is a stand-in, a compensation in this case for a public sector that doesn’t stop cars from running people over. And the reason it can’t stop cars from running people over—the reason we put more stock in the antics of a Batman actor than a well paid and well trained city employee or maybe some bowling-alley bumpers on the sides of roads—is that we’ve made it not work: through tax cuts, privatization, and outsourcing, policies that Gosling himself often supports by making lots of movies that distract everyone from realizing that the mayor of Newark is a war criminal.

    Despite all that, Gosling’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 actor from a very different kind of time. As Slavoj Žižek wrote about the cult of personality around Tim Allen in ‘Did Someone Say HOME IMPROVEMENT?':

    “This implicit acknowledgment of impotence is also the hidden truth of the divinization of the sitcom actor 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 actor’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 sitcom actor himself has to dispense advice about how to repair tractors?”

    Indeed: what kind of commentary*COUGH*country is this?

    • Corey Robin April 13, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

      This would work so much better if I actually knew who Ryan Gosling was.

      • Ryan C Daley April 14, 2012 at 2:01 am #

        This Madlib actually proves your point quite nicely, Corey. Whenever actors save lives they’re often lauded as heroes (Old Dirty Bastard of Wu Tang Clan once pulled a car off a child and was lauded for it.) It’s easy to gloss over human interest stories like this. They fill most readers with the sense that all’s right with the world, that X’s actions sufficed and fulfilled how we expect humans to act. But what these stories represent is the fact that no one was there for these children. For some reason, these kids were wandering into danger’s maw because no one cared. Granted, heroes are made in these moments, but this is a label we’ve grown accustomed to, and it doesn’t account for the hype. “Hero” covers the hiccup when there’s no other word for whoever picks up the mess. We expect this to happen occasionally, but if this is happening all the time it suggests that there’s lack of care and oversight. And that’s the point here that those comments which seem stuck on the shiny object of “Stalin” pass over.

        Remember the subway hero, the man who jumped down and assured that the child who had fallen onto the tracks wasn’t crushed by the oncoming train? This man was most definitely a hero, but what if this had happened everyday, during each train’s arrival? Movies constantly supplant a hero for a functioning society, and this often happens during a happening in the movie which is present as the quotidian. But we don’t ask why this happens because the movie ends; the action isn’t repeated. If it was, it would be exposed as more than just a fluke, but rather as systemic failure, and something we’d rush to change.

      • Fuck you April 14, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

        wow, really? You’re on the internet pretending you don’t know who Ryan Gosling is? Fuck you. Fuck you a billion times. You’re a monster.

  13. Todd April 14, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    Wow.

    Every time I feel reassured by the average North American’s ability to read a short collection of paragraphs, something like that list of tweets or the majority of the comments for this post comes along.

    Obviously, Mayor Booker needs to shoehorn into his busy schedule teaching some reading classes.

  14. Nathan Tankus April 14, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/newark-mayor-rescues-neighbor-from-fire,27925/

    the onion does this but shorter

  15. rick April 14, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Thanks Corey, In the back of my head I had some misgivings about the rescue. Yes, a brave things to do, but it is no substitute for a city that works, and for progressive policies. Lwt’s hear from the press about what Mr. book has done to make Newark a better place to live and work.

    • Ryan C Daley April 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

      This isn’t an attack on Booker, his past actions, policy, etc, even though that’s how many comments interpret it. Don’t blame the hero, blame the parade. We need them to overlook an absence of working institutions, departments, even social bonds.

  16. Anarias Mendt (@heinrich66) May 13, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    I’d like to rain on Zizek’s parade. It is true, on the one hand, that celebrating vigilantism by public officials rather raises the question of just how effective the systems are that these officials supposedly represent (‘impotence’). On the other hand, that this point is made by a lisping Marxist intellectual who has rediscovered Christianity in his declining years (and who finds comparisons between the Holocaust and Palestinian apartheid ‘distasteful’) invites its own questions about impotence, overlooking the obvious, etc.

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