Corruptions of Empire: Life Studies and the Reagan Era 
by Alexander Cockburn.
Verso, 479 pp., £14.95, November 1987, 0 86091 176 4
Show More
Show More

Much the best way to convey appreciation of Alexander Cockburn’s rousing and combative prose is to quote him at length. The protocols of reviewing, however, preclude such a practice, so one has to resort to the altogether drearier method of describing what he is about. Recently I mentioned to him that I was reading his book in order to review it. He was calling from Eugene, Oregon (the week before he had been in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and just before that we had had breakfast in London, to which he had just come from Moscow). ‘Noting with pleasure and admiration the superb prose, the witty observation, the admirable structure,’ he immediately volunteered. Why, in the desert of today’s journalistic mediocrity and cowardly trimming, anyone with Cockburn’s gifts and courage should be modest, or mock-modest, I shall leave to others to discuss. Certainly the darting, cruel and unsparing wit displayed by this oldest son of Claud Cockburn stands out brilliantly in the pages of the Nation, the Wall Street Journal, In These Times, week after week. Few people have the courage to accumulate enemies the way Cockburn has. Starting with Ronald Reagan, whom he twits remorselessly, he has been on the wrong side of the entire US Government, of the New Republic, of Norman Podhoretz, of nearly every journalist of note, left, right and centre, of the New York Times, of the McNeil-Lehrer Report (see in particular his devastating replication of that TV programme’s famous ‘balance’, with the ponderously sober ‘Robin’ McNeil, ‘Jim’ Lehrer and ‘Charlene’ Hunter-Gault studiously examining both sides of the slavery question, Hitler and the Crucifixion), of most academics and of all TV networks, of the rich and the famous, of the military, of Israel, of Thatcher, Kissinger, and many others. He has, it should be added, his softer side, which emerges occasionally in gay or commendatory remarks about family, good cooking (excluding Chinese), figures of stoic calm and moral truthfulness (Israel Shahak, Chairman of the Israeli League of Human Rights), socialism, P.G. Wodehouse.

The present collection, culled from a decade’s writing in America, is principally useful as a map of how far and deep the American Empire has reached into the minds of the country’s writers, intellectuals and politicians. His main thesis is that serious damage has been done to the communication of the truth, and to the expression of opinion. His micro-politics, to borrow a term from Foucault, focuses on the verbal behaviour of journalists as, drunk with the heedless power of their word-processors, their expense accounts, their hand-outs from the Defence Department, they give themselves endless prizes and turn themselves – like Walter Lippmann, who, Cockburn notes, was wrong about everything – into institutions programmed in advance to say the predictable, to come out with the heartless nonsense whose purpose in the end is to serve power. Of Theodore White, the famous chronicler of American Presidents whose death occasioned reams of adulatory prose, Cockburn says that his contribution to the grotesque cult of Reagan was central, and consisted of preparing the public with pious cant about ‘abundance and peace as the legacies left Johnson by Kennedy’. ‘A writer who can be so universally admiring,’ I.F. Stone said about White, ‘need never lunch alone.’

But Cockburn is equally – and occasionally even more – uncompromising in his attacks upon the well-intentioned liberal, who is quick to fault human rights practices in countries like Nicaragua and the Soviet Union while saying absolutely nothing about abuses in Israel and on the part of other US allies. Liberalism is too often contentless, according to him, too often confined to the taking of faddish positions, the wearing of lapel buttons with unimpeachable slogans like ‘End nuclear testing,’ the mouthing of nice-sounding phrases – and to keeping things pretty much as they are. In always saying what it isn’t ordinarily polite or liberal to say – for example, that Kissinger is ‘a murderer’ – Cockburn makes his characteristic move. Typically he will not lament someone’s death, or he will expose the Falkland kelpers for what they and their islands (‘among the more appalling spots ever to have subsisted under the Union Jack’) really are, or he will say outright that it is people like the Palestinians or the starving Ethiopians who have contributed most to journalistic prizes.

There is no sentimentalism here – well, except perhaps when it comes to considerations of James Laughlin’s almost useless Tzotzil dictionary, or Edward James’s exotic house at Xilitla. The quixotic and semi-aristocratic qualities of people like Wodehouse who are not driven either by ‘the falling rate of profit’ or by careerism are attractive to Cockburn; this is why, in his masterly dissection of Gay Talese’s book on sex in America, he is able to see through the work’s pretensions and scientism to its casual dismissal of pleasure. Or there is his resourceful analysis of cookbooks, ‘gastro-porn’, in which he reads manuals of cuisine as so many appropriations of history, culminating in that apotheosis of domination, the Cuisinart: ‘Cooking thus becomes a lonely pastoral idyll amid the rising tides of liquid protein, McDonald’s hamburger, taco chains, and the active pursuit of the better beefsteak. The pastoral implies an entire scheme of life revolving around the gourmet store, the spice parlour, the trusted market, and even perhaps in the end the small family farm where critters can crawl out of cabbages unpolluted by insecticides. Man is restored to the kitchen, in a modern rendition of the good life of the old hunter-gatherers.’

Cockburn’s relentless attack upon power, usually as embodied in the figures of speech and/or lies of the Reagan Administration, is Swiftian, though without Swift’s Tory values. On a visit to the battleship New Jersey he is told by a PR man that its guns fire shells the size of Volkswagens. ‘The comical symbolism of Battleship America,’ he says, ‘besieged by foreign imports, firing back salvo after salvo of automobiles at its tormentors from the gun muzzles of the 41-year-old dreadnought, had evidently not occurred to the publicist.’ Then there is ‘the secret war’ now taking place in Salvador: ‘A secret war may be defined as a military enterprise carried out by the United States and known to its victims, international observers, humanitarian organisations, foreign journalists and the domestic radical community but, for reasons of internal collective censorship, not reported in the mainstream media of the United States.’

These instances of wit applied to superior power trying to get away with it only hint at an almost encyclopedic range of topic and detail in Corruptions of Empire. From the book there rises a horrifying portrait of the New America, with its flim-flam, vulgarity, cruelty and rotten prose. Cockburn, however, is also sophisticated when it comes to literature and theory. He is at home in the work of Barthes and of Marx, of Freud and his various students, of T.E. Lawrence, Buchan and other writers of empire, of theorists like Enzensberger, Hegel and Adorno. Such ammunition stands him in good stead when he presents ‘terrorism’, Libya and Cuba as objects created by the US Government and the media (whose role in America is to supply not news but reassurance) for shilling the public, and for bullying the weak or unpopular ‘foreign devil’.

Corruptions of Empire opens with a schoolboy memoir, a mini-Bidungsroman, that records the making of a progammatic atheist, determined soldier for socialism, clever tactician in the endless wars against authority, piety and sham. Claud Cockburn emerges from this as a combination pal and perplexing embarrassment (he won’t pay the school bills, for instance), although there is never any doubt that he is kinder and more fun than the ‘ersatz-fathers’ that people Alexander’s landscape. There is, however, another point about the Alexander-persona, and since it is an essential characteristic of what distinguishes Cockburn in America, among so many columnists, pundits and media personalities, it should be spelled out.

He is an intellectual, not simply a journalist or a witty entertainer. The Last Intellectuals, a recent book by the American philosopher Russell Jacoby, laments the disappearance of the Edmund Wilson. Randolph Bourne, Mary McCarthy type of literary intellectual, who addressed a large audience from positions of institutional independence and serious cultural engagement. Today, according to Jacoby, whose book has been much celebrated by the Right (even though he is himself a sort of Left intellectual), intellectuals are highly specialised, jargon-mongering academicians, who eschew public debate for the cushy world of highly-paid and insulated academic discourse. The curious thing about Jacoby’s book is that he not only excludes non-native-born Americans from his assessment (as if you can’t be born in Ireland or Pakistan and still become an American intellectual), but also non-literary critics, and people who, while part of the Academy, still function outside it as public figures – Chomsky, for instance, or Christopher Lasch. It seems to me to be a narrow and chauvinistic view of United States culture that does not take stock of the interesting role played by the non-American, non-native intellectuals who have lived and worked in the country. Think of José Marti and C.L.R. James, and of Cockburn, and the point is taken.

Cockburn is one of the few journalists in America, given that most of them tend to report either each other or what is acceptable to policy-makers. In addition, he has the intellectual’s restless erudition combined with a sporty eagerness, a delight in fresh and innovative uses of language, a learned knowledge of history and a commitment to social change. The one thing you will not get from Cockburn, however, is a blueprint or a master-theory. The empire he talks about is not an object, or in the strict Marxist sense an ideology, but a collection of modes of deceit and cruelty presided over by experts in manipulation. For these people, Cockburn’s method is the column, the short article, the biting phrase: hit-and-run tactics rather than a war of position.

It may seem odd to associate Cockburn with Adorno, but I believe the comparison is apt. Call Cockburn’s writing a form of negative dialectics and you would not be wrong at all. Like Adorno, his province is the consciousness industry, and if, unlike Adorno, he isn’t mournful, then so much the better. Perhaps another way of putting it is to say that he has given new meaning to Gramsci’s famous motto, which must now be transformed into: optimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Cockburn’s legendary elusiveness, his well-ventilated hatred of physical exercise (‘it is as though, having had cold baths and gone for early-morning runs for nearly ten years, one has paid in advance the physical rent check for the next thirty years’), his celebrated charm and unerring sense of style – all these are further reasons for thinking of him as quite unlike anyone else among intellectual commentators in the United States.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences