Antagonising with wit and verve

Issue 

The Golden Age Is In Us:
Journeys and Encounters 1987-1994
By Alexander Cockburn
Verso, 1995. 434 pp., $59.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
It doesn't take much to upset some supporters of Profit and the American Way of Life. The radical journalist, Alexander Cockburn, has antagonised more of these than most. He was once called "the world's most infuriatingly rigid Marxist journalist" in a hotly indignant book review in The Washington Post. "I search myself for signs of rigidity", responded Cockburn who decided to have the precious phrase inscribed on his 50th birthday cake, "finding only a certain stiffness in the lower back, no doubt caused by years stooped over my desk memorising Capital". Oliver Stone was another to be affronted by Cockburn. As recounted in Cockburn's new book, the director of JFK saw red when Cockburn wrote: "The effect of JFK is to make people think that America is a good country that produced a good president killed by bad elites". In a fierce reply to Stone's view of Kennedy as friend of the oppressed and downtrodden, Cockburn shows that "Virtue did not die in Dallas" because Kennedy had long since betrayed the liberal Democrats' illusions with his presidency of business-as-usual foreign and domestic policy. For Cockburn, the JFK controversy exposed the liberals' blindness towards the operational parameters (keeping corporate US flush with power and profit) that define and confine the mainstream political process. The rest of Cockburn's book is filled with angry, funny, enraged, compassionate observations on US and world politics, history and contemporary affairs. Cutting through the image of good-guy Clinton, Cockburn shows that, like Kennedy, this Democrat saviour is a model of "economic orthodoxy and Wall Street wisdom". Even the image is a dud — Clinton has "the poise and verbiage of the manager of a McDonald's franchise". Henceforth in Cockburn's writings, Clinton is "President McMuffin". One of McMuffin's initiatives to be given a verbal fusillade by Cockburn is his crime bill, "with its repellent social architecture of boot camps for feral youths before they graduate to mandatory maximum terms in the adult slammers, whose construction will surge as we goose-step toward the third millennium". The fascist connection is not just a journalistic eccentricity. On the centenary of Hitler's birth, Cockburn reflects on the moral congruence of the Nazis' opening of the dykes of Holland during World War Two, causing massive destruction and food shortages, and the Reverend Billy Graham and Richard Nixon's plan to bomb the dykes of North Vietnam. Similarly, on the call by US political leaders for Japan to apologise for the Pacific War, Cockburn reflects on their moral authority to do so. On the thirtieth anniversary of the arrival of the US military in Vietnam (courtesy of Kennedy), Cockburn recounts the "tragic error" in 1962 when US planes bombed a Cambodian village: " ... the error was duly rectified when the correct Vietnamese village was bombed, with severe loss of civilian life. Eleven years later the United States withdrew, leaving behind three destroyed countries and about two million dead. Apologise?". Other victims of a Cockburn broadside include the official revisionists of the French revolution, sundry Malthusians, and free marketeers, whether during the Irish Famine of 1845-49 or your average job-slashing private capitalist of today. Cockburn's targets on the left include the stumble by Amnesty International for retailing fabricated stories of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait such as the mass murder of infants. More controversially, Cockburn heatedly opposes those protesters whose campaign focus during the Gulf War was on the imperialist designs of the US-led coalition. And he has a mildly irrational dislike of Trotskyists (claiming that Lee Harvey Oswald was one). His strictures against dry, turgid left-wing jargon, however, are opportune. He recalls his father's cool treatment in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the '30s when he suggested that a Comintern directive that " ... the lower organs of the Party must make greater efforts to penetrate the more backward parts of the proletariat" would have had sturdy proletarians rolling on the floor laughing at the unintentional blue humour. Where someone can out-perform Cockburn in wit and verve, he gives them their due, as, for example, an Irish Times journalist on the political correctness scare: "We have now reached the point where every goon with a grievance, every bitter bigot, merely has to place the prefix, 'I know this is not politically correct, but ...', in front of the usual string of insults in order to be not just safe from criticism but actually a card, a lad, even a hero. Conversely, to talk about poverty and inequality, to draw attention to the reality that discrimination and injustice are still facts of life, is to commit the new sin of political correctness. Anti-PC has become the latest cover for creeps ... from the fascists to the merely smug". Cockburn does, however, manage to add that George Bush, when he jumped on the anti-PC bandwagon (along with defenders of the Great Books of the Western Canon), was found to have only one book in one of his mansion retreats — The Fart Book. Rigid Marxist journalism? Well, the writing is hardly rigid, and the politics is left-wing eclecticism with a Chomskian bias (without Chomsky's anti-Leninism) rather than Marxism, but it's one hell of an instructive hoot from first word to last.

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