The Empire and the Old Mole

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

Michael Fischer

Corruptions of Empire
By Alexander Cockburn
London: Verso, 1988,540 pages, $13.95 paper.

DESPITE THE FREQUENTLY upbeat tone of American political discourse, wrote Sacvan Bercovitch in his landmark work The American Jeremiad, its “affirmations betray an underlying desperation—a refusal to confront the present, a fear of the future, an effort to translate ‘America’ into a vision that works in spirit because it can never be tested in fact.” But, of course, the desperation Bercovitch speaks of is evidence enough that the American myth can indeed be tested—and found woefully lacking.

It is to exposing the gap between this myth and the sordid realties it both spawns and denies that Alexander Cockburn, one of the premier left journalists in the United States today, has dedicated his considerable talents—and reaped devastating results.

Corruptions of Empire, a collection of almost 200 of Cockburn’s pieces, is a penetrating dissection of the depths to which American culture, helped along by the lies, brutality, and cynicism of the Reagan era as well as the craven cowardice of its “lapdogs” in the press, has sunk. Framed by Ronald Reagan’s ominous success at dictating the terms of debate in the 1976 New Hampshire primary and a meditation on Jesse Jackson’s capitulation last summer in Atlanta, Corruptions of Empire provides a chronicle of how, in the space between, political, cultural, and personal discourse in the United States has steadily eroded.

Cockburn discerns the consequences in phenomena ranging from a Reagan press conference to Riverside, California’s post-modern sprawl; from the shameless destruction of P-9’s solidarity mural in Austin, Minnesota, to changing tastes in cookbooks. His ability to tie such artifacts together, to make convincing the apparently far-fetched connections between what he calls the ‘culinary conquest” of the Third World and Reagan’s murderous war in Nicaragua, for example, adds depth to his analysis and guaranteed discomfort to an American audience which, Cockburn consistently reminds, must take partial responsibility for the numbing banality and repressed cruelty of American politics.

But Cockburn assigns primary responsibility for this stunning absence of thought to the infamous “Great Communicator” and his willing servants in the media. He repeatedly goes after both in his “Archive of the Reagan Era” section which, weighing in at some 150 pieces and 300 pages, comprises the bulk of the volume. Here Cockburn’s biting wit and outrageous, imaginative analogies, all in the service of what he unashamedly refers to as a “moral passion” for the “truth,” reaches its heights.

Reporting on such lovely mementos of the last eight years as the debacle at Beirut, the bombing of Libya, the “covert” war against Nicaragua and even more secret war next door in El Salvador, the rise of Walter Mondale and the vilification of Jackson, Cockburn’s columns are marked by a volcanic anger that energizes them without ever overwhelming his ruthless logic and mastery of facts.

Some of the most penetrating of these are the more than twenty columns that concern Nicaragua. In “The Revolution Betrayed: An Open Letter,” Cockburn has such dignitaries as Ronald Reagan, John Judis, and John Paul II pen an open letter signaling their outrage that the “rule of capital” lives on in Nicaragua, as evidenced by “campesinos tending their own plots.” It is both a mockery of the twisted way in which Reagan co-opted Trotsky’s phrase and a reminder to the U.S. left to remember the context in which their remarks are made.

Cockburn implicitly reinforces this admonition elsewhere in pieces such as “Cuba at 25: Was it Worthwhile,” where he reminds Castro’s critics on the left of the social accomplishments that have made the Cuban revolution such a “beacon” in the Western Hemisphere.

National Security Nightmares

In “After the Contra Vote,” written when Congress restored contra aid in 1986, Cockburn quotes everything from the Nuremberg Laws to the United Nations Charter in underscoring what unsavory historical company the United States keeps in perpetrating war crimes against the Nicaraguan people And in two moving pieces that follow, “The Assassination of Ben Under” and “Rena’s New Legs,” he provides a personal account of what those consequences are, both for U.S. solidarity workers like Linder, brutally murdered by the contras as he was working on a water project, and for Nicaraguans like the young Rene, who lost both of his legs to a contra mine.

The Reagan Administration’s hypocrisy toward the real intentions of such “freedom fighters,” suggests Cockburn, is only outdone by the mendacious coverage of such events—in Nicaragua or elsewhere in Latin America—in the U.S. press. In two pieces dripping with well-deserved venom, “The Tricoteuse of Counterrevolution” and “War on Peace,” Cockburn exposes the insidious extremes to which the U.S. press can go through a close look at the swill written by Shirley Christian and James LeMoyne, respectively.

In perhaps the best overall section in the volume, “War Fevers,” Cockburn conducts an inquiry into the myths of rugged individualism, moral superiority and absolute invulnerability that have bolstered American imperialism from James Monroe to the current savage enforcement of his doctrine in places like Nicaragua. In “Militarizing the Tortugas,” he details the history of military investment in these strategically worthless islands off Key West, seeing their now abandoned structures as a “still enduring testament to the acts of madness to which the concept of ‘national security’ can drive an idle mind.”

In my favorite essay in the volume, “Battleship America,” Cockburn demonstrates how economics and “national security” work together in the eighties as he conducts us on a tour of the refurbished USS New Jersey, that “whiskered dreadnought now prowling the oceans of crisis,” which “nicely encapsulates Reaganism’s armor-plated relationship to the modern world.” We meet a midshipman, who offers the most honest appraisal of the ship’s function as a big boat with a big American flag allowing the United States to show people of countries like Nicaragua—off whose coast the ship happens to be headed—”how powerful you are, what you can do.”

We meet the captain, who entertains the ludicrous belief that his ship might be able to sustain a nuclear hit. And we learn from Cockburn himself that most of the ship’s sophisticated equipment doesn’t work. And this, five years before Cockburn would write a column, one of the last in the collection, on the technological mishaps that contributed to the downing of an Iranian airbus.

Last summer’s holocaust in the air, Cockburn makes clear, could have been avoided had a simple pair of binoculars been substituted for the USS Vincennes’ sophisticated and malfunctioning military hardware. Ultimately, as this incident demonstrated, the rugged individualism and individual initiative that was such a large part of the Reagan mystique has no place beside a proliferating military-industrial complex and the increasingly ruthless demands of late capitalism.

This conflict between the heroic individual at the heart of capitalist ideology and capitalism’s brutal repression of individuality itself dominates the essays in the “Tastes of the Times” section of the collection. Here Cockburn duly records the commodification of sex, film, food and architecture. The consummate outsider, a man who, as he records in the opening third of the volume, has freed himself of his British past enough to recognize—without succumbing to—the cultural ramifications of a similar imperial decline here, Cockburn writes of imperial decay with a precision suggesting he has seen it all before—which he has.

Compromise and Co-optation

If there is one area where his outsider status trips Cockburn up, it is in his numerous pieces on the decline and fall of the Democratic Party. He entertains no illusions about Reagan clones such as Mondale and Michael Dukakis, whom he ruthlessly dissects in his piece “The Duke: History and Psycho-history.” Nevertheless, Cockburn underestimates the power of the Democratic Party machine to swallow its opposition, as he himself ruefully admits in the volume’s final essay, “After Atlanta: The Politics of Street Heat.” He writes:

“One thing seemed far clearer than I had imagined, namely that Jackson has absolutely no interest in anything other than the Democratic Party as the vehicle for any agenda he considers to be within the realms of practical consideration. He is clear in his own mind that he truly can and will one day be president of the United States.”

To be sure, Cockburn regrets this turn, presaged by his howls of betrayal in his column “The Kiss of Death,” which, written in the immediate aftermath of Jackson’s infamous capitulation on the issue of meeting Yassir Arafat, questions what “the point of the Jackson campaign” is if “Jackson ends up talking like a New York Times editorial.” And, in the “After Atlanta” piece, as earlier, Cock-burn’s emphasis is on political action and movement building outside the Party, not electioneering within it.

Nevertheless, the close of this last column echoes Cockburn’s similar sentiments four years earlier after the nomination of Mondale, when, in a piece entitled “The Left, the Democrats, and the Future,” he suggested that the left reject “isolation in purist parties” and, without landing in “the belly of the Democratic beast,” learn to use the Democratic Party “when necessary.”

But, as Cockburn himself seems to recognize in the “After Atlanta” essay, such “necessary” “historic compromises with power usually turn out to be historic co-optations.” It is Cockburn’s consistent rejection of such compromises, what one might designate in his own word his “isolation,” that is his greatest source of energy and the mark of his power.

In publications such as The Wall Street Journal or The Nation, his columns provide a welcome respite from what is charitably referred to as the “pragmatism” that frequently surrounds them. Read together in this collection, they are living testimony to the hope that can be sustained by activists who, even amidst the corruptions of empire, maintain something like Cockburn’s own belief in the “Old Mole of revolution.” For, as he himself says in a piece entitled “The Old Mole,” “all serious campaigns are long term, as the Old Mole knows so well.”

September-October 1989, ATC 22