Countering Chaos

Alexander Cockburn, A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip through Political Scandal, Corruption, and American Culture
Verso, 2013

Daisy Cockburn: When I was a teenager my father used to suggest I read the dictionary when I had a spare minute, or if I was feeling a bit down. His own father Claud had recommended a dip into Marx if darkness descended. The point being made was a reminder not to collapse, to find meaning, counter chaos with spirited punches—get to the root of things and then improvise, blow your trumpet from there. 571

These words by Alex Cockburn’s daughter are at the end of the magnificent volume of his writings from 1995 to 2012. Rereading him in the time of descending darkness during COVID-19, I return to the following passages to find meaning and counter chaos for purposes of necessary improvising….

Boyd had that rare talent: relentless intellectual focus on the task at hand. To hear him dissect tactics employed at the battle of Leuctra, when the Thebans beat the Spartans in 371 BC, was as overwhelming as to hear him discuss the relevance of Gödel, Heisenberg and the Second Law of thermodynamics to human behavior. Beyond all that, Boyd was an honest, modest, populist who never lost his humanity amid a life devoted to the consideration of war. 80

Like Greece, the strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement lies in the simplicity and truth of its basic message: the few are rich, the many are poor. In terms of its pretensions the capitalist system has failed. Nearly six million manufacturing jobs in the United States have disappeared since 2000, and more than 40,000 factories have closed. African-Americans have endured what has been described as the greatest loss of collective assets in their history. Hispanics have seen their net worth drop by two-thirds. Millions of whites have been pitchforked into penury and desperation. 515

These pretenses at judicial propriety are absurd. I prefer the posture of the Arab-American woman who said Saddam [Hussein] should be put in a cage and drowned with spit. 250

The left is so used to being underdogged that it is often incapable of looking a gift horse, meaning a dead horse, in the mouth and greeting good fortune when it knocks on the door. Thirty years ago, to find out what was happening in Gaza, you would have to have had a decent short-wave radio, a fax machine, or access to those great newsstands in Times Square and North Hollywood that carried the world’s press. Not anymore. We can get a news story from a CounterPuncher in Gaza or Ramallah or Oaxaca or Vidarbha and have it out to a world audience in a matter of hours. 441

Szamuely may be charged with grand larceny. Two or three centuries ago, the standard was simple: Stealing books is not a crime unless the books are sold. There’s no evidence Szamuely was popping along to the Strand to flog off editions of Hobbes. He held those books for admirable reasons, such that a jury would understand. He needed them for the same reasons my shelves groan with volumes (Hegel’s Phenomenology included) I may never get to, may never re-read. To surrender them is to confess that, yes, I may die before I get around to reading Hegel properly, or all the dialogues of Plato, or all Balzac’s novels, or all the volumes of Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic; I may die before I write the column or the essay or the book that requires absolutely that these books be instantly to hand. 155

A second important reminder concerns the steady collapse of the organized Leninist or Trotskyite left which used to provide a training ground for young people who could learn the rudiments of political economy and organizational discipline, find suitable mates, and play their role in reproducing the left, red diaper upon red diaper, tomorrow’s radicals, nourished on the Marxist classics. Somewhere in the late 1980s and early ’90s, coinciding with collapses further East, this genetic strain shriveled into insignificance. 456

Probably the ones on our list I look at most frequently are the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. Those who imagine the OED to be a nineteenth-century publication should know that by 1900 only the volumes covering A, B, C, D, E, F and H had been published. As a reader has already pointed out to us, the thirteenth edition of the Britannica is even better than the eleventh, containing all the material in the earlier one, plus useful stuff on World War I. I’d like to say that a century producing the eleventh edition and the OED can’t be all bad, but then again in both cases the animating force behind these vast projects was nineteenth-century energy and intellectual style. 160

As we wait for friends to arrive, Sainath reminds me of the bit in Tacitus’s Annals where he describes how condemned people were recruited to serve as candles at Nero’s parties: “they were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.” “What sort of sensibility,” Sainath broods, “did it require to pop another fig in your mouth as one more human being went up in flames?” And by the same token, Sainath asks, what sort of indifference has it required for India’s rich—and the very rich in India are the among the richest on the planet—to disport while millions starve not far off, and thousands of peasants kill themselves, some of them less than fifty miles from Mumbai where much of India’s wealth is concentrated, and where “theme weddings” costing millions have been the rage? Last year an Indian steel billionaire, Lakshmi Mittal, and his wife Usha promised their daughter Vanisha a spectacular wedding. They cashed the promise by renting Vaux le Vicomte and Versailles in France for the nuptials. The six-day-long wedding bash cost over $80 million and was attended by more than 1,200 guests including leading Indian industrialists and celebrities from the Bollywood film scene. 324

Biden is a notorious flapjaw. His vanity deludes him into believing that every word that drops from his mouth is minted in the golden currency of Pericles. Vanity is the most conspicuous characteristic of US Senators en bloc, nourished by deferential acolytes and often expressed in loutish sexual advances to staffers, interns, and the like. 406

The gang members are not the “superpredators” demonized by the right-wing criminologists who dominated discussions of the ghetto and of the justice system’s stance toward gangs in the late 1980s and ’90s. They are humans given scant choices. “You want to understand how black folks live in the Projects,” Ms. Bailey tells Venkatesh. “Why we are poor. Why we have so much crime. Why we can’t feed our families. Why our kids can’t get work when they grow up. So will you be studying white people?” 396

Last month you didn’t know that [Bob] Kerrey had left a ditchful of civilians behind him and accepted a medal for an action that read—officially phrased—21 VC KIA (BC). That means twenty-one Viet Cong, killed in action (body count). So—a liar as well as a killer, since he knew the figures were falsified. This month you do know. So perhaps by the watercooler or in the corridor we hear: “Oh hi Bob! Shit happens, right?” 193

When it comes to journalistic achievements in 2010, the elephant in the room is WikiLeaks. The alleged leaker of the WikiLeaks files, Army Private Bradley Manning, currently being held in solitary confinement in sadistic conditions, should be vigorously applauded and defended for doing his sworn duty by exposing such crimes as the murder of civilians in Baghdad by US Apache helicopters. Assange and his colleagues should similarly be honored and defended. They have acted in the best traditions of the journalistic vocation. 481

South of me in Mendocino County, California, is the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a weekly edited by my friend Bruce Anderson. I’ve written a column for it for over twenty years. The AVA does everything a newspaper should do. It covers the county board of supervisors, the court system, the cops, water issues, the marijuana industry. It’s fun to read and reminds people of what a real newspaper should be, which is why half its circulation is outside the county, often the other end of the United States. The AVA lives resolutely up to the injunction by Joseph Pulitzer it carries on its masthead, “A newspaper should have no friends.” 440


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