A Great Year Ebbed, Another Ahead: So, Count Our Blessings

Count our blessings, an act the eternally pessimistic American left usually shuns, on the grounds it might indicate we’ve made some headway in progress towards the good, the true and the beautiful.

First let’s look back. 2003 was a pretty good year. Who can complain about a span of time in which both William Bennett and Rush Limbaugh, exposed as, respectively, a compulsive gambler and a drug addict, were installed themselves in the public stocks amid the derision of the citizenry? Some say that they’ve both winched themselves out of the mud, with Bennett’s sessions in Las Vegas and Limbaugh’s steady diet of OxyContin already faded in the public mind. I don’t think so. There’s nothing so enjoyable as the plight of a professional moralizer caught in the wrong part of town.

And again, who can complain about a year in which the New York Times tripped itself up so gloriously with no, not the Jayson Blair affair, where the Times thumped its breast in contrition and self abasement for minor, unimportant works of the imagination by its young black reporter. I’m talking about the far larger scandal of Judith Miller’s extended series of alarmist articles about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. Here the Times has remained more or less silent about the expose of its star reporter, but Miller’s shameless propagandizing, abetted by her editors, will stand as one of the most disgraceful displays of tendentious reporting in the history of the US press, and I include in this category the Times’ terrible performance in the Wen Ho Lee affair.

For a vivid account of just how bad the Times has been for many, many years, I strongly recommend John L. Hess’s vivid memoir My Times: a Memoir of Dissent, published by Seven Stories Press. Hess, cranky, heterodox, cultured and irreverent, is the Ideal Type of what any member of our profession should be, but who is usually leached out of the system in the dawn of their careers. He was a brilliant Paris correspondent for the Times in the 60s and early 70s, returned to New York and promptly wrote memorable exposés of the Metropolitan Museum (notably the incredible antics of its director Thomas Hoving), and of New York’s nursing homes. Then he and his wife Karen briefly took charge of the food and restaurant column and caused turmoil in that back-scratching sector. These days we’re glad to run the acerbic commentaries he does for WBAI. Real journalists don’t end up teaching ethics (aka kissing corporate ass) in journalism schools. They write till they drop. John Hess is a real journalist, virtually an extinct breed. Long may he write.

Hess pens the Times’s obituary as America’s supposedly greatest paper. In his c austic pages there is nothing more savage, and contrite than his account of what the New York Times did not report about the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Every journalism student, and every reporter should have this book in their backpacks.

Of course 20003 was a year in which the governments, the intelligence services, the military bureaucracies, the intellectual whoremongers and whores of two countries, American and Britain, displayed themselves as brazen and incompetent liars as they maneuvered towards war on Iraq. What more could any radical ask for?

So why did the US want to invade Iraq in 2003 and finish off Saddam? There are as many rationales as there were murderers on Christie’s Orient Express. In the end my mind goes back to something my friend the political scientist Doug Lummis wrote from his home in another outpost of the Empire, in Okinawa at the time of the first onslaught on Iraq at the start of the Nineties.

Iraq, Lummis wrote, had been in the Eighties a model of an oil-producing country thrusting its way out of the Third World, with a good health system, an efficient bureaucracy cowed from corrupt practices by a brutal regime. The fundamental intent of the US in 1991 was to thrust Iraq back, deeper, ever deeper into Third World indigence.

In the fall of 2003 I was in London and across a weekend enjoyed the hospitality of the first-class journalist Richard Gott, also of his wife Vivienne. At one point our conversation turned to the question of motive, and I was interested to hear Gott make the same point as Lummis, only about the attack of 2003. I asked him why he thought this, and Gott recalled a visit he’d made to Baghdad in April, 2003.

This was a time when the natural and political inclination of most opponents of the impending war was to stress the fearful toll of the sanctions imposed from 1990 on. Gott had a rather different observation, in part, because of his experience in Latin America. Baghdad, he said, looked a lot more prosperous than Havana. “It was clear today,” Gott wrote after his April, 2003, visit, “from the quantity of goods in the shops, and the heavy traffic jams in the urban motorways, that the sanctions menace has been effectively defeated. Iraq is awakening from a long and depressing sleep, and its economy is clearly beginning to function once more. No wonder it is in the firing line.”

Eyes other than Gott’s no doubt observed the same signs of economic recovery. Iraq was rising from the ashes, and so, it had to be thrust down once more. The only “recovery” permitted would be on Uncle Sam’s terms. Or so Uncle Sam, in his arrogance, supposed.

I’ve never liked the left’s habit here in the US of announcing clamorously that we’re on the brink of fascism, and that sometime in the next month or two the equivalent of Hitler’s Brown Shirts will be marching down Main Street. There was a lot of that sort of talk around the time of the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress. I was a bit more optimistic. I always thought that when the initial panic after the attacks on the Twin Towers subsided, a measure of sanity would seep back into the judicial system, restoring it to normally insane levels. And so it has come to pass. For sure, if another attack comes, we’ll slide back again, but for now the erosion of the Bill of Rights has slowed.

2003 gave us other minor pleasures, few more keenly savored here than the eviction of the loathsome Democrat Gray Davis from the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, California. Bono did not win the Nobel Peace Prize for which he has ceaselessly campaigned.

And 2004? Dean versus Bush the mutual funds scandal it promises to be a lot of fun.


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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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