Into the Summer Sea

Bob Dylan’s nod in his Nobel prize acceptance speech to Shakespeare was in tune with Charles O’Brien’s musing on the dailiness of genius in his pre-millennial take-down of George Steiner (which is posted below).

I know I just dropped too many names on you, but please allow me to introduce one more. I was reminded of O’Brien’s music again recently when I came across a Steiner quote in the introduction to a reprint of an early work by the Marxist polymath Max Raphael. The intro’s author cited this bit of Steiner in wannabe mandarin mode–”not only the humanities, but humane and critical intelligence itself resides in the always threatened keeping of the very few”–to sum up assumptions about Mind that Raphael instinctively resisted. Like Raphael back in the day, O’Brien has always been repelled by the yen to equate humanism with prerogatives of “traditionally delimited professional circles.”

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Twenty-Something(s)

Charles O’Brien helps launch the new First Choice section focusing on our writers’ favorite things. 

“Twenty-Something” is the third track on Pet Shop Boys’ latest cd, Super. You can find it on YouTube in a few different versions. The two most obvious go-to versions are the “official video” and one remix. The “official video” is a b&w short about a gangbanger in San Diego, fresh out of the joint and trying desperately to adjust to the world. It’s about as efficient a short narrative as you’re likely to see, and as an illustration of these lyrics, not what you’d be likely to expect.

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Trump and the “Mexican”

First off, it’s, no surprise, an ad-hominem attack. Before you tell me why the other guy’s wrong, you should show me that he’s wrong. Is Curiel ese making bum calls? Who knows? I wouldn’t take Trump’s word for it. But let’s say he is. Where does “Mexican” come into it? He is an American, certainly, whatever Trump says. But he is connected to some Chicano law associations. If his connections are pro forma, just social niceties, they’re all irrelevant. But if he’s very active, holds high positions, or has an interesting paper trail, it starts to matter.

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Lineages of the Absolutist State

…nil nisi bonum. —The Seven Sages

Got it! Alexander Cockburn died two years ago. And that, one would’ve thought, was that. But earlier this year, Perry Anderson decided to pick at the scab. His gassy, 19-page elegy for Cockburn is, of course, not worth reading; worse, I found it the entry point to the tour of a witless horizon. “With the posthumous publication of A Colossal Wreck, the triptych for which Alexander Cockburn will be remembered is complete,” reads the first sentence. It seems unlikely. Cockburn made a career of quick bursts of venom. Even in small doses, his writing was toxic. For Anderson to declare that it is for this that someone will be remembered, or even whether someone will be remembered at all shows that he hasn’t learned much from his many years. The “triptych” is a nice touch, though, very much in the tradition of Leonid Brezhnev’s Trilogy, which gathered dust in Russian bookstores during the Soviet Union’s last years, which Cockburn described as a Golden Age for the Soviet working class. Anderson devotes first few pages to a long appreciation of Claud Cockburn, the noted Stalinist wit and father of Alexander. Alexander was a good family man. But he was, foremost, a writer. Anderson praises him—sounding like a character in a David Lynch movie—for his “incomparable zing.” After Cockburn published something, “The response was electric.” He writes that “Alexander gave Reagan no mercy, in one blistering entry after another.” If Monty Python’s Black Knight ever needs a squire, now Cockburn’s gone, Perry Anderson’s still around. There are pages of blather about the man behind the turgid prose, with loopy phrases like “his debonair swathe” and “his feeling for l’Amérique profonde.” In fact, there was one interesting thing about Cockburn. It is possible to find ardent latter-day Stalinists, who affect a style, particularly sartorially, that announces their revolutionary purity. Cockburn captured the authentic 30’s manner: the bon vivant revolutionary. Perry Anderson is reliably oblivious. He writes about Cockburn’s collection of classic cars, an odd hobby for an arch-radical. For Anderson, it’s just more proof of Cockburn’s largeness of spirit. He tells us that, “His only close friends in New York were marginal to it: Edward Said, Palestinian in a fastness of Zionism; Andy Kopkind, gay out of New England; Ben Sonnenberg, cripple amid a forest of gyms.” Marginal? Said was probably the most celebrated academic in New York and an enormous cultural presence beyond the academy. New York is a magnet for both gay men and people from elsewhere in the country. And gimps are all over New York, if this deucey could be bothered to look. If you asked Perry Anderson what day it is, would he know?

If you asked him what was wrong with Cockburn, he wouldn’t know, and wouldn’t say. Over 30 years ago, I had my own moment with Cockburn’s writing. In 1981, I came across two old Cockburn columns. One was his last column before the 1980 election. He talked about how interesting a Reagan presidency might have been. Jimmy Carter’s re-election was a foregone conclusion. He called the election wrong. So did lots of people. But Cockburn’s sheer certitude was a thing apart. And being so wrong gave the lie to Cockburn’s pose; the truth-teller immune to ideology and bourgeois mystification. Cockburn proved to be some hybrid of David Gergen and an alley cat.

The other column picked up on a statement Brezhnev released in fall of 1979. He announced that he was, in the interest of peace, reducing the number of Soviet troops in East Berlin, and invited NATO to reciprocate. Cockburn applauded the statement and lambasted the American press for failing to trumpet Brezhnev’s statement. When, weeks later, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, Cockburn declared that Afghanistan deserved to be raped. From Brezhnev to Milosevic to various Arab bully-boys, Cockburn had a soft spot for tyranny and genocide.

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Mission Impossible

Henry Czerny, confident that he has the situation well in hand, sits at table and says, “I can understand you’re very upset.” Tom Cruise, sitting opposite, bares teeth, says, “You’ve never seen me very upset.” And he pulls from his pocket exploding bubble gum, which he hurls at the glass wall of a giant fish tank, and

Don’t ask.

Michael Berube, I gather, is upset. He complains that Benj DeMott read his book carelessly. It’s a wonder he read it at all. DeMott owned up promptly to a mistake, My bad, he said. He forgot to add, Your worse. What DeMott did was overlook a footnote. As bad goes, it isn’t much. Berube wrote the book, It isn’t much. Who would feel obliged to sift through the footnotes?

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Left Behind: The Rapture

Michael Berube, The Left at War, New York University Press
The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Semiotexte
Tom McDonough, ed., The Situationists and the City, Verso

The three works under consideration here – the first, a survey of assorted leftist interventions from the past couple of decades, the second, a political sensation from a couple of years ago, the third, an assemblage of texts from the 50s and 60s – have nothing to do with anything in the news now. But, taken together, they tell us enough about where we are. It isn’t good.

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At Ease in Azania

Charles O’Brien’s “At Ease in Azania” was originally printed 20 years ago in an obscure (and now defunct) journal. It will be reprinted this fall in the next volume of “First of the Year”. O’Brien’s piece begins with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” but it rock and rolls back to the 60s before returning to the Motherland to show how pop music may “exist in its time justly.”

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Bad Faith

Start with Katha Pollitt. In the April 18 issue of The Nation, she unsurprisingly holds forth (unsurprisingly) on the controversy surrounding Theresa Schindler Schiavo. She comes down, of course, on the side of pulling the tube (or as she nicely says, “Schiavo’s feeding tube was withdrawn”). There’s no real argument offered, but she makes it clear that she’s not happy with what she sees on the other side:

The Terri Schiavo freak show is so deeply crazy, so unhinged, such a brew of religiosity and hypocrisy and tabloid sensationalism.[1]

It’s all there. Contrary arguments are “crazy” and needn’t be engaged. Religion is “religiosity.” Hypocrisy is this: juxtapose two facts, assume dishonesty, and you’re set. Tabloid sensationalism is the other guy discussing a hot story; what Pollitt does is “debate.”

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Horowitz’ List

David Horowitz, still here, has lately fashioned himself into a martyr for Free Speech. He composed an ad in opposition to the idea of reparation payments for the United States’ part in the trans-Atlantic African slave trade; tried, with mixed success, to place the ad in various college newspapers; and then spun that mixed success out into a series of live appearances around the country, the No Reparations Tour (accompanied, of course, by lots of self-flackery, on-line and off). The almost inescapable Horowitz swears that he is a victim of censorship.

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