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9 August 2021

From the NS archive: New York, New bloody York

29 April 1988: The place really does bring out the worst in people.

By Alexander Cockburn

In this article from April 1988, Alexander Cockburn meditates on the issues in his New York that are “bringing out the worst in people”. The Scottish born, Irish-American Cockburn is unapologetically critical of his adopted country, where he lived and worked from 1972 until his death in 2012. He reflects on two separate events, the Andy Warhol estate sale and the 1988 Democratic Party presidential primary, and the ways these “were both testament to what a repellent city this has become”. Observing the “obsessive interest in value and the circulation of commodities” from the buyers at the auction house, Cockburn describes how the city “lost all self-control and began to consume with a conspicuousness”. It is for American politicians that Cockburn reserves his foremost anger: the politicians of the city, he writes, “echoed an ugliness which [the city] condoned and fostered”. 


The two big events in New York’s recent past have been the Democratic primary and the Andy Warhol sale. In their separate ways they were both testament to what a repellent city this has become.

The auction of Warhol’s possessions had been very successfully touted by Sotheby’s and when I went along to look at the stuff a few days before the sale got under way the crowds were tremendous. The objects seemed oddly tacky, either in condition or in affect. Warhol was a determined shopper, spending a few hours every day in the jewel shops, antique stores, galleries and flea markets. His eye does not seem to have been peculiarly acute and the thousands of items set out in the auction house felt more like a horde of fungible commodities than a collection of things the artist actually cared for. But that is probably an impression the artist would not have disputed since he often came home with the day’s acquisitions, sealed them in a box labelled ”Time Capsule” with the relevant date and then stored them away, against the day they would be exhumed and sold, thus annotating Warhol’s obsessive interest in value and the circulation of commodities. In this sense the auction was not a dismemberment but an appropriate end to his life’s project.

So there all the bits and pieces were, like a sort of wastepaper basket of the American imagination, from idealised photographs of American Indians on the great plains to the last folio of Marilyn Monroe. There too were the thick crowds admiring and coveting the contents of the wastepaper basket, precisely because they – Monroe pictures, cookie jars, fiesta ware, Fifties jewellery, Elgin watches – had been owned by Warhol.

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This was always Warhol’s trick. He once said, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good, Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” He could have added that the way the rich person could get a better Coke was to have the bottle signed, or owned by Warhol, thus leading to such moments last week as the crying of Lot 892: ”Glass Coca-Cola advertising electrical lamp. Together with a large glass Coca-Cola advertising bottle. (2) H. 27 in. ($200-$300).”

[See also: From the NS archive: Rich and poor]

There was a time when Warhol was genuinely avant-garde, until the urgent imperative whispered to Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein by Watergate’s Deep Throat became overwhelming and all-obliterating: “Follow the money.” Somewhere in the late 1970s, probably when they realised that Ronald Reagan and the Tax Reform Bill were at hand, the rich, particularly in New York, lost all self-control and began to consume with a conspicuousness that soon made it possible to walk across mid-Manhattan on the roofs of stretched limousines.

North of 110th street, just to restore one’s sense of balance, one can similarly walk across the island on the bodies of the homeless. Echoing this ugliness which it condoned and fostered, the political culture of the city took on an acrid toxicity not to be encountered elsewhere. New York is a city that now boasts among its spiritual guides a mayor, Ed Koch, who is a specialist in racist buffoonery: an ultra-right senator called Al D’Amato who won the attention of the voters by discoursing on the beauties of the electric chair: a Roman Catholic cardinal, John O’Connor, after Woytila’s heart; a brutish sports czar, owner of the Yankees, called George Steinbrenner; radio and television talk shows hosts of loutishly right-wing disposition and a leading newspaper, the New York Times, slightly less loutish but similarly reactionary in outlook. No other town condemns its inhabitants to listen to men like these on virtually a daily basis. Just as the Warhol auction gave one the timbre of the times, so too did the recent presidential primary election show how such exponents of those listed above have shaped the political life of New York. The place really does bring out the worst in people.

Nothing but the worst

It took New York to provoke, at its most morally degraded intensity, the sickening rhetorical rituals mandatory in grubbing for the Jewish vote. First came the grotesque spectacle of Al Gore baiting Michael Dukakis for insufficient fervour towards Israel. Everyone knows that Dukakais has been a model of traditional Democratic cowardice on this issue, though less craven than Gore who went openly begging to pro-Likud contributors, from whom Dukakis kept his distance. Then Gore got respectful attention in the press for proclaiming that Jesse Jackson had disqualified himself from pretension to high office by placing Israeli and Palestinian aspirations on the same moral plane.

Not one of the innumerable opinion formers, columnists and reporters swarming round the candidates as they rushed from stump to stump, apparently felt able to ask Gore or Dukakis how they felt about Israeli soldiers forcing an Arab up a telegraph pole until he was electrocuted, or whether they would be able to condemn the Israeli army for blowing up houses in the village of Beita after the army had established that Tirza Porat, the young Israeli woman, had been killed by a shot from the Israeli Gush Emunim fanatic, Ruman Aldubi. The villager who bent Aldubi’s gun barrel, stopping him from killing others beyond the Palestinian farmer and Jewish girl he had already slain was subsequently deported by the Israeli army.

[See also: From the NS archive: A Prayer for the Führer]

In the end Jackson buckled under the obsessive scrutiny of his views on Israel. Koch started the ball rolling with his announcement that Jews “would have to be crazy” to vote for Jackson. On Face The Nation (an important network Sunday show) for 10 April, Jackson was asked by Lesley Stahl, “Would you sit down with Arafat?” Jackson: ”I would not. It is not necessary to do that. We must not equate Arafat and the PLO with a sovereign people – the Palestinian people . . . We have to search for the quality and combination of leadership on both sides, whether it’s Abba Eban or Peres on the one hand, or more sensitive Arabs or Palestinians on the other.” His concern, Jackson told Stahl, was “that we must somehow get Israel beyond the burden of occupation, and the Palestinians beyond the pain of being occupied”. Jackson made these even-handed observations shortly after Porat’s funeral, at which Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Zevulun Hammer, said, ”Beita does not exist on the map of Israel. A settlement should be built there and named Tirza Porat.” Shamir said the killing strengthened the determination to hold on to “all the land of Israel”. Some burden.

After a crescendo of abuse for Jackson by Koch, acting as surrogate for Gore, the voters retired to the polling booths and recorded a substantial victory for Dukakis who took the state from Jackson, 51 per cent to 38. Jackson took New York City by a narrow margin winning 97 per cent of the black vote, 59 per cent of this Hispanic vote, 15 per cent of the white vote, and 8 per cent of the Jewish part thereof.

For Jackson, even though he did win the Big Apple itself, the campaign was cruel. To a city of crumbling ghettoes, teenage junkies, derelicts, welfare hotels, he brought his message of moral renewal and social compassion and was forced to spend most of his time apologising for his “Hymietown remark” to people who thought nothing of it that Shamir called Palestinians grasshoppers, just as they felt no need to distance themselves in times gone by from chief of staff Eitan who once called them “drugged roaches in a bottle”.

 A touch of evil

No list of persons contributing to the degraded quality of political discourse in New York would be properly complete without that of Henry Kissinger, who has retained through each fresh disclosure of his villainies the status of super-pundit, albeit somewhat more moth-eaten than in the days of his greatest glory when he was still fresh from murdering Vietnamese, helping engineer the overthrow of Salvador Allende and exhibiting kindred instances of’ “resolve”. The most recent disclosure of the Hyde-like monster swaddled in the accented verbiage of Jekyll-the-Statesman is germane to the obsessions I have been describing.

At the start of February Kissinger attended one of the innumerable off-the-record sessions being conducted by leaders of the American-Jewish community to consider what their response should be to the uprising on the West Bank and Gaza. On this occasion his judicious observations, as recorded by one of the participants, Julius Berman, and distributed to interested parties, were leaked to the press. The report gives one a clear, if chilling, vignette of the elder statesman letting his hair down.

I attended a private “off-the-record” breakfast meeting with Kissinger early this week to discuss the current situation in the Middle East.

 In sum, Kissinger conveyed three major points, as follows:

1. Now is not the time for Jewish community leaders to publicly attack Israel or its policies with respect to the Palestinians;

2. Israel should bar the media from entry into the territories involved in the present demonstrations, accept the short-term criticism of the world press for such conduct, and put down the insurrection as quickly as possible – overwhelmingly, brutally and rapidly.

3. The proposed International Peace Conference, as presently conceived by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, may lead to a “disaster” for Israel.

Focusing on the situation in the last few weeks in Israel, Kissinger appropriately noted that Israel’s public relations were horrible. In his opinion, it made two major mistakes. First, it did not throw all of the media out of the relevant territories. Second, it announced that it would ”beat” the participants in the violence (and not shoot them). Israel may have felt that that approach was more humanitarian, but they overlooked the fact that when you “beat” someone it means you already have control of that person and can no longer claim self-defence.

Kissinger repeatedly emphasised that, under no circumstances, should Israel make any concessions during the present insurrection. If one learns anything from the history of revolutions, such as the Russian or French Revolution, it is that concessions during an insurrection merely accelerate the revolution rather than hastening its end. Therefore, what is critical at this time is to put down the insurrection as quickly as possible. It was at that point that Kissinger added that he “really thinks that Jewish leaders should not yell at Israel now and make them even more paranoic.” We must close ranks and not let the enemy utilize quotations from Jewish leaders as evidence to support their position about Israel in general.

Among those to whom Kissinger was making these confidential statements about smashing heads and expelling the press was Laurence Tisch, a man who controls CBS, whose news reports from Israel and the territories have been particularly striking. It is not known what Tisch said in response to Kissinger.

[See also: NS Archive: What do opera and adultery have in common?]

There’s no doubt that many American Jews feel, ludicrously, that the media have been unfair to Israel and that in some unspecified way the tribulations of the Palestinians have been got up by propagandists. This emotion is well captured in the following sentence by Ruth Wisse in the May issue of Commentary: “The obvious key to the success of Arab strategy is the presence, in the disputed territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, of Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery.” Commentary, I should add, is edited by the neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz who will not be called upon by polite society to apologise, in the manner required of Jackson, for the racism of Wisse’s reflections.

But beyond the New York primary, Kissinger, Wisse and Podhoretz, what do Jews and non-Jews in the United States think about what is going on in the West Bank and in Gaza? The most thorough poll yet to survey such opinion was recently conducted by the Los Angeles Times and published on 12 April. It showed that American Jews overwhelmingly support the idea of an international peace conference on the Middle East and have a more favourable impression of George Shultz than of Yitzhak Shamir (a real Robson’s Choice if ever I saw one). Moreover 41 per cent of Jews and 65 per cent of non-Jews “feel that there is an element of racism involved in the attitude of Israelis towards Arabs” and only one out of three non-Jews has a favourable impression of the Israeli government. A majority of non-Jews (52 per cent) favours US negotiations with the PLO and 50 per cent would approve of a Palestinian homeland in the occupied territories; 29 per cent of Jews supported both American talks with the PLO and the establishment of a national home for the Palestinians.

In other words, the support for a just settlement is there: all that is required is the courageous political leadership against which the arbiters of New York so determinedly set their faces.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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