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Terminator Limits: Sure, Arnold can beat Larry Flynt, but can he pummel the deficit into submission?

Turning California Green

Recall Gray Davis? For the love of God, why not?

By Alexander Cockburn

Talk to most people about California's recall election and they start smiling. When was the last time anyone ever thought politics can be fun? They laugh at the possible discomfiture of Gray Davis. They laugh about Gov. Schwarzenegger. They laugh harder at the notion of Gov. Flynt.

The only people I've met who don't laugh tend to be liberals or even leftists. They furrow their brows about the dangers of "direct democracy." They hint at dark Republican plots and the role of Rep. Darrell Issa, most recently seen weeping in public as he withdrew from possible contention, after spending around $1.5 million getting the recall up and running. (Actually the word among Republican insiders at a recent weekend at the Bohemian Grove was that Issa was quite happy to stand down, just so long as he recouped his expenses, and Riordan and Schwarzenegger had been chivalrously obliging in that regard.)

Back to the discontented liberals and leftists. I gave a talk about current politics at Diesel, a fine Oakland independent bookstore, late last week. No one in the leftish crowd seemed notably put out when I declared myself dubious of the proposition, espoused by many in the store, that the only element of mystery about 9/11 was whether George W. Bush had ordered the attacks on the World Trade Center on his own initiative or was merely acting as the cat's-paw of Dick Cheney.

Nor was there any outcry when I denounced Ariel Sharon as a war criminal and his U.S. claque as a bunch of unconscionable rogues.

But as soon as I said I couldn't see much reason to get excited about Howard Dean as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, and he seemed to me to be a thoroughly conventional right-winger, there was an audible ripple of irritation in the crowd. In the course of an angry denunciation of my unsparing comments about Dean, a woman said that the left should be rallying not only to the standard of the former governor of Vermont, but of Gov. Gray Davis of California, now facing a recall vote in early October.

Gray Davis! There was a time once when "lesser of two evils" actually meant something momentous, like the choice between starving to death on a lifeboat, or eating the first mate. Was there ever a man who brought the always gray phrase "lesser of two evils" into greater disrepute?

Shackled to "lesser of two evils" is its dread mate, "compromise." In its funereal syllables is congealed the whole sad history of the U.S. two-party system, from the first compromise in the Constitution allowing the import of slaves till 1820, to the Missouri compromise letting that slave state enter the union; to the compromise of 1877 which ended reconstruction.

The 20th century was no better. In the compromises that ensured Republican hegemony, there was one moment of hope, sparked by the Great Depression and the vast public zeal to get out of it. Then, after the war, America saw programs for full employment, for complete social security. Education at the University of California cost $50 a quarter. Democratic clubs in California exercised strong populist control over prospective candidates.

In the years that followed, the Democrats slowly bargained everything away, in that same spirit of compromise. No one talks about full employment now. Organized labor is belittled. Oldsters see Social Security being eroded.

The paradigm of this downward descent is Gray Davis, who now proclaims that he is going to fight "like a Bengal tiger." It takes one to know one. Bengal tigers like to hang out near some village and eat small cows, fearing even the stately water buffalo. When its teeth go bad the Bengal tiger gives up on the cows and starts attacking elderly, defenseless humans.

Davis' only enthusiasms are for raising money and endorsing the death penalty. His main achievement has been to ransom California off to the energy Mafia. He represents the end of politics as anything remotely honorable or idealistic.

But now, when Real Politics gloriously and excitingly raises its head in the recall effort, many leftists bleat nervously about Republican plots and the need to rally to the Democratic Party and its man in Sacramento. Despite official Green endorsement of the recall effort, many Greens aren't much better. I listened to one the other day, a fellow of normally militant fiber whining that the recall bid is unleashing "toxic" forces and everyone should work for Davis.

But there's a sound Green candidate in the form of Peter Camejo, and surely the recall ballot represents the best Green shot at ever capturing any significant slot, with normal voting blocs possibly fracturing.

Real Democracy, as opposed to the sham stuff usually on offer, is embodied in the ability to recall politicians who stab their supporters in the back. Davis should face the music. How wonderful it would be to see Larry Flynt roll into the governor's mansion in Sacramento, and by making that possible, Davis would earn himself a page in the history books, not merely a footnote about his skills as a fundraiser.

Alexander Cockburn's columns and articles have appeared in the Village Voice, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, Esquire and the L.A. Times. He rakes muck twice a month as co-editor of the newsletter CounterPunch.

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From the August 13-20, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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