“Ain’t that good news,
Yeah, ain’t that news.”
— Sam Cooke.
We need good news. When was the last time we had some, here in this country? The Seattle riots against the WTO? That was back in 1999. Around the world? Hard to remember – it’s been a long dry spell. It reminds me of the old Jacobin shivering in the chill night of Bourbon restoration, and crying out, “Oh, sun of ’93, when shall I feel thy warmth again!”
We raise our glass to the Egyptian people. In the end Mubarak propelled them to irresistible fury with his dotty broadcast on Thursday. It seems that for some years now he’s been drifting in and out of senile dementia, same way Reagan did in his second term. The plan had been to run his son Gamal in the last elections, but that turned out to be a non-starter so they rolled the semi-gaga Hosni out one more time and fixed the results, ringingly endorsed by the US. On Thursday morning Mubarak probably told Suleiman and the US that he was going to quit, then forgot and, braced by a supportive call from the Israelis and a pledge by the Saudis to give him $1.4 billion if the US withheld it, announced that he would be around till September.
The talk about the US calling all the shots, including a final peremptory injunction to the Army chiefs to dump Mubarak is surely off the mark, part of a tendency to deprecate any notion that the Empire has hit a bump in the road and is in total control. Most of the time the current executives of Empire have been panting along, trying to stay abreast of events.
Obama’s call for “clarity” on the part of Mubarak on Thursday didn’t do it. Phone calls from the Defense Department and Langley and the National Security Council didn’t do it.
The brave Egyptian demonstrators did it. Conscripts ready to mutiny if ordered to fire on the crowds did it. Immensely courageous Egyptian union organizers active for years did it. Look at the numbers of striking workers enumerated by Esam al-Amin on this site today. This was close to a general strike. It reminds me of France, its economy paralysed in the uprising in the spring of 1968. That was when President de Gaulle, displaying a good deal more energy and sang-froid that Mubarak, flew to meetings with senor French military commanders to get pledges of loyalty and received requisite assurance.
And next for Egypt? These chapters are unwritten, but the world is bracingly different this week than what it was a month ago. The rulers of Yemen, Jordan and Algeria know that. Rulers and tyrants everywhere know that. They know bad news when they see it, same way we know good news when we hear its welcome knock on the door of history.
The Reagan Cult
The Reagan cult celebrates the centenary of their idol’s birth this month, and the airwaves have been tumid with homage to the 38th president, who held office for two terms – 1981-1988 – and who died in 2004. The script of these recurring homages is unchanging: with his straightforward, sunny disposition and aw-shucks can-do style the manly Reagan gave America back its confidence. In less flattering terms he and his pr crew catered expertly to the demands of the American national fantasy: that homely common sense could return America to the vigor of its youth and the economy of the 1950s.
When he took over the Oval Office at the age of 66 whatever powers of concentration he might have once had were failing. The Joint Chiefs of Staff mounted their traditional show-and-tell briefings for him, replete with simple charts and a senior general explicating them in simple terms. Reagan found these briefings way too complicated and dozed off.
The Joint Chiefs then set up a secret unit, staffed by cartoonists. The balance of forces were set forth in easily accessible caricature, with Soviet missiles the size of upended Zeppelins, pulsing on their launchpads, with the miniscule US ICBMs shrivelled in their bunkers. Little cartoon bubbles would contain the points the joint chiefs wanted to hammer into Reagan’s brain, most of them to the effect that “we need more money”. The president really enjoyed the shows and sometimes even asked for repeats.
Reagan had abolished any tiresome division of the world into fact or fiction in the early 1940s when his studio’s PR department turned him into a war hero, courtesy of his labors in “Fort Wacky” in Culver City, where they made training films. The fanzines disclosed the loneliness of R.R.’s first wife, Jane Wyman, her absent man (a few miles away in Fort Wacky, home by suppertime) and her knowledge of R.R.’s hatred of the foe. “She’d seen Ronnie’s sick face,” Modern Screen reported in 1942, “bent over a picture of the small, swollen bodies of children starved to death in Poland. ‘This,’ said the war-hating Reagan between set lips, ‘would make it a pleasure to kill.'” A photographer for Modern Screen recalled later that, unlike some stars who were reluctant to offer themselves to his lens in “hero’s” garb, Reagan insisted on being photographed on his front step in full uniform, kissing his wife goodbye.
The problem for the press was that Reagan didn’t really care that he’d been caught out with another set of phony statistics or a bogus anecdote. Truth, for him, was what he happened to be saying at the time. When the Iran/contra scandal broke, he held a press conference in which he said to Helen Thomas of UPI, “I want to get to the bottom of this and find out all that has happened. And so far, I’ve told you all that I know and, you know, the truth of the matter is, for quite some time, all that you knew was what I’d told you.” He went one better that George Washington in that he couldn’t tell a lie and he couldn’t tell the truth, since he couldn’t tell the difference between the two.
His mind was a wastebasket of old clippings from Popular Science, SF magazines (the origin of “Star Wars”, aka the Strategic Defense Initiative) lines from movies and homely saws from the Reader’s Digest and the Sunday supplements.
Like his wife Nancy, he had a stout belief in astrology, the stars being the twinkling penumbra of his incandescent belief in the “free market,” with whose motions it was blasphemous to tamper. He believed Armageddon was right around the corner. He also believed tomato ketchup could be classified as a school meal, striking back at the nose-candy crowd who, as Stevie Earle once said, spent the Seventies trying to get cocaine classified as a vegetable.
Hearing all the cosy talk about the Gipper, young people spared the experience of his awful sojourn in office, probably imagine him as a kindly, avuncular figure. Not so. He was a callous man, with a breezy indifference to suffering and the consequences of his decisions. This indifference was so profound that Dante would surely have consigned him to one of the lowest circles of hell, to roast for all eternity in front of a tv set on the blink and a dinner tray swinging out of reach like the elusive fruits that tortured Tantalus.
It was startling, back in 2004 when he died, to see the lines of people sweating under a hot sun waiting to see Reagan’s casket. How could any of them take the dreadful old faker seriously? The nearest thing to it I can think of is the hysteria over Princess Di.
The explosion of the Challenger space shuttle of January 28, 1986,, which disaster prompted one of the peak kitsch moments in a presidency that was kitsch from start to finish. Reagan ended his address to the nation thus: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God’.”
In fact it was the White House that had doomed Christa McAuliffe and her companions to be burned alive in the plummeting Challenger. The news event required the Challenger to go into orbit and be flying over Congress while Reagan was delivering his state of the union address. He was to tilt his head upward and, presumably gazing through the long-distance half of his spectacles, (one lens was close-up, for speech reading,) send a presidential greeting to the astronauts. But this schedule required an early morning launch from chill January Canaveral. Servile NASA officials ordered the Challenger aloft, with the frozen O-ring fatally compromised.
Reagan dozed through much of his second term, his day easing forward through a forgiving schedule of morning nap, afternoon snooze, TV supper and early bed. He couldn’t recall the names of many of his aides, even of his dog. Stories occasionally swirled around Washington that his aides pondered from time to time whether to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Earlier this month his sons disagreed whether or not his Alzheimer’s began when he was president. “Normalcy” and senile dementia were hard to distinguish. The official onset was six years after he left Washington DC.
As an orator or “communicator” he was terrible, with one turgid cliché following another, delivered in a folksy drone. His range of rhetorical artifice was terribly limited.
The press flattered him endlessly and vastly exaggerated his popularity and his achievements, starting with the nonsense that he “ended the cold war”. He did nothing of the sort, the Soviet Union’s sclerosed economy having doomed it long before Reagan became president.
He lavished money on the rich and the Pentagon. The tendencies he presided over were probably inevitable, given the balance of political forces after the postwar boom hit the ceiling in the late 1960s. Then it was a matter of triage, as the rich made haste to consolidate their position. It was a straight line from Reagan’s crude attacks on welfare queens to Clinton’s compassionate chewings of the lip (same head wag as RR’s) as he swore to “end welfare as we know it”. As a pr man, it was Reagan’s role, to reassure the wealthy and the privileged that not only might but right was on their side, and that government, in whatever professed role, was utterly malign.
How the Empire Screwed Up
Fresh off the presses and off into the ether or the US mail goes our latest newsletter. It’s another crackerjack issue, Subscribers get a piercing investigation by Stan Cox.
Here’s how it begins:
“Late on the night of December 22, 2001, a mammoth merchant vessel, the Christopher, was caught in a North Atlantic storm. Captain Deepak Gulati radioed to shore that his ship was “taking a beating” from 15-meter waves but otherwise was in good shape. On that or a later call, he said the hatch cover closest to the ship’s bow had become dislodged. Soon after, contact was lost; no mayday call was ever received.
“It is hard to believe that a ship the length of three football fields could have gone from fully afloat to completely submerged in as little as five minutes, but that could well have been what happened. Once the storm had moved out of the area, a helicopter search was ordered. But there remained no trace of the accident beyond an oil slick, an empty lifeboat, a raft, and one lifejacket. The search was called off on Christmas Day. The Christopher’s twenty-seven crew members – citizens of Ukraine, the Philippines, and India – were all presumed dead.
“Deepak Gulati was my brother-in-law. A resident of Mumbai, India, he had been guiding the Greek-owned, Cyprus-flagged, coal-laden bulk carrier from Puerto Bolívar, Colombia, to a steelworks in the north of England when, west of the Azores, he and his crew ran into the storm that ended their lives…
“As I learned more about the world in which Deepak had lived and worked, I came to realize just how wrong I had been, not only about the fate of the Christopher but also about the fragility of merchant shipping in an age of uninhibited globalization. Meanwhile, bulk carriers keep sinking and seafarers keep dying.”
Cox takes us into the deadly world of international shipping, where speed-up, slack regulation and “flags of convenience” are turning bulk carriers into death traps that can and have doomed crews to drowning in as little as five minutes.
Also in this issue, Kathy Christison takes us through more secret State Department cables acquired by CounterPunch showing how obsession with Israel prompted US policy makers to utterly misunderstand Egypt’s situation.
Finally, Larry Portis contributes a powerful essay on “sociocide”. He writes,
“I am convinced that genocide now must be recognized as mainly a means of committing another, and even more fundamental, international crime – ‘sociocide.’
“The ultimate aim of sociocide is not the physical destruction of peoples, or of a loosely defined culture, or of a state, as it is sometimes confusedly said, but rather the destruction of the relationships between the different groups constituting a society. This is what governments of the United States have done in Iraq, what Western governments encouraged in ex-Yugoslavia, what the Zionists did in Palestine. If “ethnic cleansing” in all its physically and culturally destructive forms can contribute to sociocide – the destruction of social bonds between diverse groups – the way is clear for colonial or imperialist domination and exploitation of a region, whether it be for expropriation of the land, exploitation of its economic resources or occupation of its strategic location.”
Read his important piece in our newsletter.
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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at email@example.com.