I Become an American

We’ll come momentarily to Obama’s discovery that it’s not all fun being president, but first a bulletin on regime-change for co-editor Cockburn. Though the U.S. Constitution  seemingly blocks my path at this time, I have taken the first necessary step in my own quest for the White House by becoming a citizen of the United States at approximately 10 am, Pacific time,  last Wednesday, June 17, in the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California.

To my immediate left in the vast and splendid deco theater was a Moroccan, to my right a Salvadoran and around us 956 other candidates for citizenship from 98 countries, each holding a small specimen of the flag that was about to become our standard. All of us had sworn early that day that since our final, successful interview with immigration officials we had not become prostitutes or members of the Communist Party.  Inductees to U.S. nation-hood were downstairs; relatives and friends were up in the balcony, including CounterPuncher and friend Scott Handleman, attorney at law. I was determined to start out on the right path. What is more American than to have a lawyer nearby?

Master of ceremonies was US Citizenship and Immigration Service agent Randy Ricks. The amiable Ricks actually conducted my final interview in USCIS’s San Francisco hq. At the Paramount he pulled off the rather showy feat of making short welcoming speeches to the cheerful throng  in French, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Russian and I think Hindi. After various preliminaries, including uplifting videos about Ellis Island that tactfully omitted the darker moments in the island’s past, Ricks issued instructions. Each time, starting with Afghanistan, he announced a country the cohort from that nation stood up and it was easy to see that China, India, the Philippines and Salvador were very strongly represented.

A handful of Zambians brought us to the end of the roster and we were all on our feet. We raised our right hands and collectively swore that we “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” and that that we would “bear arms on behalf of the United States”, or perform  “work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law.” The phrase rang a bell.  In the Second World War in Britain , so my mother Patricia would recall from time to time, cats patrolling warehouses where food was stored would get extra rations for performing work of national importance.

Minutes later I was outside on the sidewalk, registering to vote, albeit declining to state which party I would favor.

My own path to citizenship began with a green card in 1973, allowing me to work for the Village Voice in New York and to be a legal resident. The man who helped me get that card was Ed Koch, at that time a supposedly liberal US congressman living, then as now, in Greenwich Village. A few years later, in 1977, he ran for mayor of New York City i and I wrote about him harshly. Koch was heavily backed by Rupert Murdoch and the New York Post, running on a law and order platform. Ed was always a petty man, and this trait was well displayed the night he won. An PBS interviewer   asked him what his “worst moment” on the race had been and he promptly said in his trade-mark squeaky whine, “the attack by ALEXANDER COCKBURN in the Voice… To think I got him his green card!”  In that race there had been slurs a lot nastier than any I made. If you walked around Queens in that campaign you’d see “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo”, scrawled on plenty of walls.

There were others with thin skins. In my Voice column I made fun of a New Yorker writer, a woman dispensing lethal does of tedium on an almost weekly basis. I didn’t know that her lover was a New Jersey congressman powerful on the Immigration and Naturalization subcommittee. Within days I was the object of a probe by the INS.

A resident alien perches on a frail branch.  That New Jersey congressman could have pressured the INS to put me on the watch list, meaning the next time I returned to the US I could have found the door slammed in my face. In the mid 1980s a nutball colonel called Oliver North, working in the White House for Ronald Reagan, began to re-activate a national system of prison camps for lefties from a blueprint that had sat in government filing cabinets ever since the Palmer raids in the Red Scare following World War One. Dick Cheney most certainly dusted it off after 2001.  On North’s plan it was safe to assume, as with Cheney’s, that potentially troublesome legal residents would have been locked up, then kicked out.

These are negative reasons, of the sort that guided me in earlier years to elect to be Irish when I got my first passport. I had the choice between the U.K and Eire, as it was then called. I was pondering this when our school radios announced in 1956 that the RAF had bombed Ismailia as a first blow in the Suez invasion. The lads in our Patchell’s house room in Glenalmond  rose to their feet cheering. My sympathies were with the Egyptians. I remained seated and listened to a heated debate as to whether I should tried and hanged as a traitor. Plenty of my schoolfellows in this Scotch school had fathers serving in the British armed forces and the mood in Patchell’s was very ugly. Looking at the choleric supporters of the Union Jack it seemed better to be Irish. My brothers Andrew and Patrick made the same decision  about Irish citizenship  a few years later. Patrick  was vindicated in 2005 when  Shia  fighters at a road block in southern Iraq asked to look at his papers and when they saw his passport was Irish let him pass. Patrick reckons that if he had been carrying a UK passport they would have shot him on the spot.

So much for the negative reasons. But I have plenty of positive thoughts about America and am very happy to be stepping aboard what writers on this website describe in unsparing detail each day as a sinking ship. After three and a half decades, why be a non-voting (albeit tax-paying) visitor, particularly if you’ve been dispensing measured counsel for many years on how the country should be run? I’ve lived in every quadrant of the United States and driven across it maybe forty times – not hard when you live in the west and buy old cars from a friend in the south east. I know the place as well if not better than many.

And though on conventional reckoning it might seem late to start that long journey to the White House, the lure is strong.
Now it’s true that Article 2 of the US Constitution states that  “No  Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President”. But if we are to believe a flourishing conspiracy movement, Obama has successfully nullified that provision.  A substantial number of Americans argue strongly that his father’s Kenyan citizenship, not to mention the refusal of the state of Hawai’i to release his original birth certificate, throw Obama’s eligibility into question. But since Obama will obviously not step down from the presidency even if every allegation is proved true, then Article 2 will be on its way to becoming a dead letter, encouraged in that process by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his supporters.

Mysteries of the sort swirling around Obama’s entry into the world also attended my birth. I was born on June 6 – so my handwritten birth certificate states – in a large house owned by an American woman, a friend of my parents, outside Bonar Bridge, near Inverness. It was wartime and my father, befitting his status as a noted Commie, wasn’t allowed into the Scottish highlands on national security grounds. They wanted to draft him into military service and send him off to be shot by the Germans. Then they worried he would foment mutiny and cancelled his call-up papers. They hoped he would be killed in the blitz, which he nearly was — by the V-2 that blew up our house.  He was out buying the paper.

For years my mother claimed I was born on a Sunday and delivered by a doctor in a kilt summoned from a nearby river bank where he was fishing. I looked up June 6, 1941 on my computer recently and it was a Friday, not a Sunday. Three missing days – a gap big enough to drive a presidential bid through.

But who’d want to be president, you ask. Look at Obama. He talked of change, of hope, of persuading America to sink its differences and move on.  Five months later he’s hitting roadblocks manned by forces rougher by far than the Shia who spared Patrick: the insurance industry, the drug companies  and the American Medical Association – all of them implacably opposed to his hopes of edging towards some sort of universal health overage; the Israel lobby and, prime minister Netanyahu, all  furious at the idea of curbing Israeli settlements and giving Palestinians a state in fragments of their former land;  the arms companies and their sales reps in Congress, who have had free rein for sixty years; the banks whose errand boy Obama has become.
It’ll be eight more impasse-ridden years, and then… it will be time for the man on the white horse, or in my case Agnes, a chestnut mare, half Arab, half thorough-bred, – getting along in years, but a worthy successor to the steed bearing my ancestor, Admiral Sir George Cockburn who entered Washington and torched the White House in 1814. He sent soldiers  to the print foundry of the local paper and instructed them to  destroy all the Cs , “so that the  rascals cannot spell my name.” Running against Washington is always the default option for an American politician. I’m on my way.

Special Legal Appeal: A message to CounterPunch  supporters

Last year CounterPunch was sued for a story on our website about a defense contractor in Virginia. He sought  damages that would have put us out of business.

We stood by our story and our legal team, headed by our lawyer Jonathan Lubell, mounted an energetic defense.

Earlier this year, minutes before the first full hearing in Superior Court in Washington, D.C., the plaintiff’s lawyers announced that their client was dropping his suit.

CounterPunch fought back against a powerful opponent and prevailed, but the legal costs have been high: $34,603. Our yearly budgeting is tight and as a matter of urgency we need to cover these legal outlays.

Please contribute what you can.

You can send a check or money order payable to CounterPunch, P.O. Box 228, Petrolia, Ca, 95558. You can also contribute over the phone with a credit card (Visa, MC, Amex or Discover) by calling us at 1 (800) 840-3683, or 1 (707)629-3683 from outside the U.S. To contribute from this CounterPunch homepage, just click here. All contributions are tax-deductible. Call if you have any questions.

How the FBI Spied on a Famed Columbia Prof

For fifty years, the span of his professorship at Columbia University in New York, Seymour Melman was famed as a relentless critic of the arms industry’s takeover of the American economy.  With books like Inspection for Disarmament (1958), Our Depleted Society (1965) and The Permanent War Economy (1974), Melman presented accessible critiques of how Pentagon capitalism was robbing America of opportunities to confront basic issues such as poverty, lack of universal health care, and comprehensive mass transit.

For much of his active intellectual and political life Melman was under FBI surveillance, as David Price narrates in our latest newsletter. Price has Melman’s FBI file, obtained  under the Freedom of Information Act and as he writes, “the FBI’s monitoring of Melman , his private life and public advocacy shows the role the FBI has long fulfilled as enforcer of the American corporate status quo.”

Hoover’s men snooped on Melman, picked up gossip from informers and recycled into the file many absurdities including the “information” that Melman and friends were planning to smuggle armed H-bombs into the U.S.

For Price’s vivid and important story, including such piquant scenes as FBI agents plowing their way through Melman’s oeuvre in search of sedition, subscribe now to get our newsletter. You’ll also be able to read Patrick Cockburn’s detailed report from the Afghan Front and my own story on Senator Jim Webb’s opening shots in his war o the American Gulag – the first significant effort to reform the criminal justice system in almost half a century.

Subscribe Now!

A  shorter version of the first item appears in The First Post.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.