January 1, 1989
What Are Intellectuals Good For?
The Last Intellectuals by Russell Jacoby
The Chomsky Reader, edited by Jim Peck
Corruptions of Empire by Alexander Cockburn
Like the Spirit in Hegel’s Phenomenology, intellectuals are inexhaustibly curious about the nature and conditions of their own activity. It is not, of course, an innocent curiosity. One way or another, in most discussions of the sociology of knowledge, intellectual legitimacy is at stake. To take either the alienation or the integration of intellectuals as a problem, to raise questions about objectivity or relativism, to emphasize or minimize the social and economic background of theoretical positions and aesthetic tendencies—all these choices presuppose, or at any rate seem to correlate with, political commitments.
So that what one makes of Russell Jacoby’s story in The Last Intellectuals about the decline and imminent disappearance of the “public intellectual” will likely reflect one’s own notion of what intellectuals are good for. If one thinks them chiefly good for hallowing the national purpose, for generating new policy ideas, for revolutionizing academic disciplines or for guiding the struggles of the oppressed, then Jacoby’s lament will not seem to have much point. In fact, it is not always easy to discover his point, or point of view: a difficulty frequently posed by serious criticism of mass culture (which, as much as anything else, is what The Last Intellectuals is up to). Jacoby’s descriptions and analyses are shrewd, lively, plausible; but the meaning of the developments he chronicles remains uncertain.
Everyone knows that the gods dwelt among men a few decades ago, and that Olympus was then called Partisan Review. Their thunderbolts took the form of essays, and their laughter rang through certain apartment buildings in Greenwich Village on Saturday nights. Actually, Jacoby offers a much wider range of examples of public intellectuals than the New York Jews and honorary Jews of the 1930s and ‘40s. He cites Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, C. Wright Mills, Russell Kirk, Murray Bookchin, Jane Jacobs, and Paul Sweezy (though not, surprisingly, Randolph Bourne). All wrote in the vernacular, with vigor and clarity, for the general, educated reader. Their topics were large, their interests wide; however small their actual, engaged audience, their writings opened out, and so helped sustain at least the idea and the hope of a public culture.
That hope is now guttering out. The last generation has been “supplanted by high-tech intellectuals, consultants, and professors—anonymous souls who may be competent, and more than competent, but who do not enrich public life.” Older intellectuals—Daniel Bell, John Kenneth Galbraith, Norman Podhoretz, Gore Vidal—have maintained a voice and presence, but few younger intellectuals write primarily for general-interest magazines rather than professional journals, for lay readers rather than academic colleagues. Few pursue, perhaps even envision, a life outside the university, unconstrained by its disciplines. Even the New Left, for all its promise of vitality, originality, engagement, now seems safely integrated into the university and the professions, largely insulated from public influence.
To attest decline is not to indulge in nostalgia. There have been gains as well as losses, Jacoby acknowledges: feminist scholarship, a robust Marxist presence in the social sciences, doubtless some liberating pedagogical effects on the next generation. Above all, things could not have been otherwise. “The restructuring of the cities, the passing of bohemia, the expansion of the university” – not to mention television-induced mass illiteracy – these secular processes, not any generational failing, have doomed the public intellectual to extinction. None but the superhumanly talented, energetic, ascetic, self-sufficient, or lucky writer can hope to make a living nowadays without an academic or journalistic base. Cheap, comfortable urban space, where the temporarily marginal can congregate, no longer exists. Little magazines can rarely afford to pay contributors more than nominally. The spectacular postwar growth of higher education sucked virtually an entire generation of intellectuals into college teaching; a contracting job market now reinforces their academic socialization, which emphasized specialization and deference and subtly discouraged ideological explicitness. And for this generation, at least, it is too late to change habits and habitat: “as intellectuals became academics, they had no need to write in a public prose; they did not, and finally they could not.”
Jacoby’s account is rich and his explanation compelling. But a question remains: is the sort of public political intellectual who is about to disappear the sort we now need? The defining characteristic of the great twentieth-century politiques et moralistes—exemplified in, say, Bourne’s “Twilight of Idols,” Dwight Macdonalds’ “The Root is Man,” Orwell’s “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Camus’ “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” and Sartre’s “For Whom Does One Write?”—has been humanism. The word can mean nearly anything, of course; I mean that their primary training and frame of reference were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and that they habitually, even if often implicitly, employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics. They were generalists: they drew, from a generally shared body of culture, principles of general applicability and applied them to facts generally available. Their “specialty” lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts but in penetrating especially deeply into the shared culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force. They were arbiters, not investigators. “By impulse, if not definition,” wrote Irving Howe in an afterword to “This Age of Conformity” (1954), still perhaps the best essay on the vocation of the public intellectual, “the intellectual is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field.”
We look to public intellectuals of this sort for the clarification of important abstractions, for the demonstration of dialectical skills, for rhetorical solace or stimulus, for personal witness, for refinements and enlargements of moral imagination. And some of them—besides the writers already mentioned, Russell, Silone, Chiaromonte, Merleau-Ponty, Enzensberger, Grass, Kolakowski, Konrad, Goodman, Howe, Vidal come to mind, among others—have accomplished these things supremely well. Their writings are invaluable for the formation of a supple, humane political sensibility.
But the political culture has changed in a way that undermines not merely the viability, but also the authority, of the generalist. To put it crudely and provocatively: sensibility now matters less than facts; cultivated judgment is now (thanks in part to the example of earlier public intellectuals) commoner and far easier to acquire than adequate information. The following suggestive quote from Franz Borkenau’s 1938 study of the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Cockpit, may begin to bring this change into view:
"In this tremendous contrast with previous revolutions one fact is reflected. Before these latter years, counterrevolution usually depended on the support of reactionary powers, which were technically and intellectually inferior to the forces of revolution. This has changed with the advent of fascism. Now, every revolution is likely to meet the attack of the most modern, most efficient, most ruthless machinery yet in existence. It means that the age of revolutions free to evolve according to their own laws is over."
Borkenau clearly had in mind the military and police apparatus of the totalitarian state. But his observation also applies to the manufacture of consent within liberal societies. Before the era of opinion management and public relations, information sources allied to ruling classes (for example, lobbyists, government spokesmen, reactionary newspapers) were “technically and intellectually inferior.” Intellectuals could evaluate such sources largely by their style, their timbre. Lying by business and government was comparatively unsystematic and inept; one needed chiefly a good ear, perhaps also in some cases a modest degree of enterprise. Today, by contrast, corporate and governmental propaganda services employ resources that dwarf those available to critics; it is they who command “the most modern, most efficient, most ruthless machinery [that is, of persuasion] yet in existence.” One statistic will have to suffice: according to Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers in Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, by the end of the 1970s corporations were spending more than $1 billion annually on political advertising and grassroots lobbying alone, apart from the large sums devoted to Congressional lobbying and the funding of conservative academics and research institutes. By way of comparison, in 1982 the combined net income of all national and international labor unions and associations, including the AFL-CIO, was only $324 million.
In charge of this modern, efficient machinery of persuasion is a new variety, or mutation: the anti-public intellectual, whose function is not criticism, not defense of the public against private or state power, but the opposite. “Experts in legitimation” was Gramsci’s prescient phrase. One of the earliest American practitioners, the eminent political scientist Harold Lasswell, explained in the 1930s that the spread of democratic education “did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled the development of a whole new technique of control, mainly through propaganda.” This new means of social control—“propaganda” is his repeated usage—is “the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery, or other possible control techniques.” Irving Kristol, the chief contemporary American strategist and impresario of this development, put the matter more suavely: “It has always been assumed that as the United States became a more highly organized national society, as its economy became more managerial, its power more imperial, and its population more sophisticated, the intellectuals would move inexorably closer to the seats of authority—would, perhaps, even be incorporated en masse into a kind of ‘power élite.’”
One consequence of this new technique of social control is the near-absence of public accountability for vital economic and political decisions. As a result of the intellectuals’ incorporation en masse into the “power elite,” it now requires far more training, leisure, and resources to penetrate the screen of corporate or governmental propaganda about, say, environmental regulation, product safety or foreign policy, than are available to the ordinary citizen. When amateurs were in charge of deceiving the public about American foreign policy, they did it badly; Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams are another matter.
In theory, a free press will defend the public interest. In practice, large media institutions are major corporations, affected like all others by government economic policy. Not even the most powerful are immune to pressure from advertisers, which are usually other corporations. Directly and indirectly, governments can place individual newspapers or networks at a considerable competitive disadvantage in reprisal for consistently hostile coverage. Social and financial ties between newspaper or network owners and government officials or corporate executives are common. All in all, the resistance of the press to “mass mobilization” and the engineering of consent by intellectuals in the service of elites is much weakened.
The situation calls for public political intellectuals of a new sort. One of the old sort—one of the most admirable—was Maurice Merleau-Ponty. To watch Merleau-Ponty in his writings think his way through the moral perplexities of the post-Second World War period, always excruciatingly sensitive to the temptations of oversimplification, remains inspiring. But he himself was dissatisfied and discouraged in this role. He went about as far in his political criticism as an old-style intellectual could, and he probably sensed it. In one of his last political essays, “On Not Voting” (1955), he wrote a passage that may be read in retrospect as a handing on of the torch to a new kind of public intellectual:
"We have yet to learn how to realize majority rule, how and with what institutions to protect it against manipulation. And this is not easy, for each man’s sense of his life depends to an extraordinary degree upon ideologies. In a crisis, especially, the abstract itself comes to seem concrete, and each man is so influenced by social symbols that it is difficult to find in him his own certainties…
"The problem of majority rule, then, is wholly before us. We have not even caught a glimpse of what a society which had solved it would be like. But the first thing is to get what is said and done communicated. For we already know that a worthwhile society will not be less but more free than our own. More instruction, more—and more precise—information, more concrete criticism, publicity given to the actual functioning of society and politics, all problems put in the most offensive terms—as offensive as suffering and as all true reasoning—here are the preliminary conditions for “transparent” social relations." (Emphasis added.)
Two years before, in 1953, I.F. Stone had inaugurated his Newsletter, which succeeded brilliantly during the following two decades in giving “publicity…to the actual functioning of society and politics.” A few years later, Ralph Nader launched his heroic crusade to bring “more—and more precise—information” about pretty much everything into the public domain. In the ‘70s and ’80s, two other “new” public intellectuals have, by producing endless “concrete criticism,” done more than anyone else to protect the majority—or at least those readers they’ve been allowed to reach—against the “manipulation” by “ideologies” that Merleau-Ponty warned of. Both have recently released major anthologies: The Chomsky Reader, edited by Jim Peck (Pantheon), and Corruptions of Empire by Alexander Cockburn (Verso).
Curiously, the first question asked by James Peck in the interview that opens The Chomsky Reader, which has to do with “how seldom you [Chomsky] mention literature,” seems to spring from a sense of some such contrast with older public intellectuals as I’ve suggested. Chomsky’s answer requires, and eventually receives, qualification: “I’ve always been resistant to allowing literature to influence my beliefs and attitudes with regard to society and history”; still, the contrast with, say, Macdonald or Orwell is striking. In “The New York Intellectuals,” Irving Howe vividly described that group’s style:
"It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura and display. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, willfully calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle—such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers…
"At its best, the style of brilliance reflected a certain view of the intellectual life: free-lance dash, peacock strut, daring hypothesis, knockabout synthesis … It celebrated the idea of the intellectual as anti-specialist, or as writer whose specialty was the lack of a specialty: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories."
This is precisely what Noam Chomsky’s writing is not like. Lucid, penetrating, austere, unaffected: the absence of self-consciousness constitutes Chomsky’s style. Which does not prove any moral superiority to the New York intellectuals, but does imply, correctly, that Chomsky’s criticism is more “concrete.”
The object of that criticism is the American state religion, whose central tenet, Chomsky claims, is this: “The United States is unique among the nations of past or present history in that its policies are governed by abstract moral principles, such as the Wilsonian ideals of self-determination, human rights, economic welfare, and so on, not by the material interests of groups that actually have domestic power, as is the case in other societies.” Mainstream debate over American intervention in Indochina and Central America has generally turned on narrow questions of feasibility: can the policy succeed at an acceptable cost? Our right to intervene is rarely challenged, on the near-universal assumption that the United States is a reactive, not an aggressive, agent in world affairs, whose policies do not derive from selfish or merely particular national or class interests. Furthermore, such enormities as the United States commits or supports, especially in the Third World, fall under the category not of crimes but of “tragic irony,” and are attributable to “naïveté” or “misplaced idealism” or “policy-maker error.” Acceptance of the essential virtuousness of American intentions is the price of admission to respectable discussion of these matters.
Chomsky has refused respectability. He has argued instead that the fundamental purpose of American foreign policy has all along been to maintain a favorable investment climate, a global economy open to penetration and, if possible, control by American business, which has often entailed sponsoring right-wing dictators or elites; that Cold War ideology (on both sides) has served primarily as a technique of social control and economic management, by securing popular support for foreign intervention, defense spending, and surveillance or repression of dissidents; and that the American intelligentsia, though less harshly and clumsily regulated than its Soviet counterpart, has been no less effectively subordinated to the goals of the state.
I have summarized Chomsky’s argument in a paragraph. He has elaborated it through several thousand pages. Most of these pages are topical, of course, devoted to refuting official falsehoods of the moment or to demonstrating ideological bias in mainstream media and scholarship. His technique, typically, is to compare official statements or newspaper editorials with facts drawn from foreign and domestic news accounts, books, reports of international organizations, government documents, and other sources of a sometimes staggering range. After a televised performance full of misstatements, George Bush is supposed to have remarked that political wisdom consists in saying whatever is convenient before an audience of eighty million and later, if necessary, issuing a correction for the benefit of the twenty thousand or so who really care. Obviously, the “realization of majority rule” depends on the latter. Judging from the ferocity and ingenuity with which he pursues misstatements convenient and conventional, Chomsky really cares.
Reading “Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization,” a largely inaccessible 1976 essay reprinted in The Chomsky Reader, the thought even crosses one’s mind that perhaps he cares too much. “Equality” is an exquisitely reasoned piece of moral theory, disentangling more confusions in twenty pages—about the relation of freedom to equality, for instance, or of endowment to desert—than many professional philosophers manage to think their way through in a lifetime. Goldsmith’s famous line about Burke prompts a peculiar reflection: perhaps Chomsky has given up to mankind what was meant for the pleasure and enrichment of the philosophical few.
In another sense, Chomsky undoubtedly does care too much. Yeats: “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart.” Unlike younger, less eminent radicals, Chomsky has never suffered career-threatening reprisals. But to begin in his late thirties, having recently achieved recognition as the world’s foremost linguistic theorist, to devote a large fraction of his time to political speaking and writing, often before tiny groups and in obscure publications, must have been a considerable sacrifice, which has not aroused universal gratitude. A well-known study by the sociologist Charles Kadushin found that in 1970 Chomsky was one of the ten most influential American intellectuals. The others (including a tie for tenth place, making eleven in all) were Daniel Bell, John Kenneth Galbraith, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Robert Silvers, Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling, and Edmund Wilson. It is hardly conceivable that any of these figures could not publish a major article on nearly any subject virtually anywhere he or she chose. Yet Chomsky, though by far the most prolific of the group, has not for the last fifteen years been published (apart from three brief symposium comments) in any of the following: the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Harper’s, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, Dissent, Commentary, Partisan Review, Foreign Affairs, or Foreign Policy. Nor has he once appeared on Nightline, the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, or NPR’s Morning Edition. Except as a target of occasional ignorant sneers, he is largely a nonperson in most of our leading cultural/political organs.
This extraordinary collective pusillanimity – partly a result, I suspect, of Chomsky’s forthright criticism of Israeli policies – has taken its toll. Chomsky’s heart has not turned to stone, but his prose style has sometimes turned raw. The majestic, impersonal sarcasm of his earlier writings is now, on occasion, merely bitter and exasperated. Slight touches of exaggeration have crept in, such as he would never have permitted himself in the late 1960s, when he had a large and appreciative readership (as well as, perhaps, more experienced and self-confident editors). It does not happen often, but often enough to make even admirers wince.
Still, if his recent writing has occasionally lacked finesse, it has not decreased in power. He remains capable, and often, of producing passages like this one from Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace:
"The US government and commentators here like to speak of the “symmetry” between El Salvador and Nicaragua; in both countries, it is alleged, indigenous guerrillas with foreign support are rebelling against the government. The comparison would have some merit if the guerrillas in El Salvador lacked any domestic base, having been organized in Nicaragua by the KGB for the purpose of sowing terror in El Salvador and overthrowing its government; were launching murderous attacks against civilians in El Salvador from Nicaraguan and Cuban sanctuaries, killing, torturing, and mutilating their victims; were led by thugs who had ruled El Salvador by violence for fifty years with Soviet support and had finally been driven out by an uprising of virtually the entire population; and were armed, trained, and controlled by Soviet military forces in a major Nicaraguan military base while the USSR maintained large naval units offshore, carried out overflights of El Salvador to supply the guerrillas and for military operations, used Cubans and Bulgarians to fly arms to guerrillas and to carry out major sabotage and terror operations which are attributed to the Soviet proxy army operating from its foreign bases, etc. All of this is, of course, utter nonsense. The fact that the “symmetry” can be discussed without eliciting ridicule is another tribute to the efficacy of “brainwashing under freedom.”
"In fact, there is a “symmetry,” but not one discussed in the press. In both cases, terrorist forces are carrying out large-scale torture and massacre and in both cases these terrorist forces (the army of El Salvador, the contras) are organized and controlled by the lord and master of the region."
Or this one from The Culture of Terrorism:
"Consider the crucial matter of freedom of expression. As we have seen, freedom of expression, while important, has limited consequences in Honduras or even Costa Rica, while in El Salvador and Guatemala, formal freedoms can easily be granted, with the understanding that, as in the past, attempts to use such freedom will lead to mutilation, torture, disappearance, or execution. In Nicaragua, however, the situation is radically different, for reasons already discussed. Radio and television in much of the country are dominated, even in wartime, by foreign broadcasting. In the early 1980s, La Prensa, which has little relation except in name to the journal that opposed Somoza, was the only significant opposition journal in the region; indeed in the hemisphere, if by “opposition journal” we mean one that takes a stand in opposition to the basic structure of the socioeconomic order and is open to critics of it, and if by “significant” we mean that resources are available to reach beyond narrow segments of the population. If true internal freedom were permitted in Nicaragua, as surely it should be, then the resources of the terrorist superpower, of the international business community, and of domestic economic privilege would ensure that the media were dominated by right-wing elements linked to U.S. interests, merely by the workings of the “free market of ideas” under existing conditions. Again, Nicaragua must bear a burden from which other states, which conform to the requirements of U.S. power and privilege, are entirely exempt. None of this implies that the burden should not be borne; only that we should not succumb to the system of delusion carefully erected in our own business-run partial democracy."
No one else in the United States can write like this. By the standards of logical rigor and moral imagination these passages evoke, we are all midgets.
Chomsky’s friend and favorite journalist, Alexander Cockburn, is, for better and worse, more complicated. While Chomsky sometimes seems like a machine à penser, Cockburn is a rake among radicals and a radical among rakes. He has not forsworn “bravura and display,” for which his readers will mostly thank God but occasionally curse the Devil. He is more fun to read than Chomsky, or almost anyone else, though he sometimes seems—perhaps because, unlike Chomsky, he lives by his pen—to take too seriously his obligation to be entertaining.
Although he is a considerable stylist, he is not a traditional public intellectual. Unlike Howe’s “Luftmensch of the mind,” Cockburn is committed to “concrete criticism.” Besides all those newspapers, he evidently also reads NACLA’s Report on the Americas, MERIP’s Middle East Reports, Central America Update, Latin America Regional Reports, Israeli Foreign Affairs, Covert Action Information Bulletin, Multinational Monitor, Dollar & Sense, Left Business Observer, the Pacific News Service, and the publications of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Israeli League for Civil and Human Rights, Oxfam, Americas Watch, and Amnesty International. And he uses them. His wit is a plus, but it’s never been the point of his press criticism or, especially, of his superb political reporting with James Ridgeway in the Village Voice (his best work, and unfortunately underrepresented in Corruptions of Empire). The point is to explain the ideological function of apparently innocent words like “moderate” or “complexity” or “stability” in editorials and news stories; to explain why Duarte and Aquino are ciphers, and why they are nevertheless so highly touted; to explain who Frank Carlucci really is, what Paul Volcker is really up to, what “reindustrialization” or a nuclear “freeze” or “tax reform” really amount to; to ask why the press has not covered the murderous air war in El Salvador; and to explain why it was sure to focus almost exclusively on Nicaraguan, rather than Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran compliance with the Arias peace plan. His jests and epithets decorate a structure of facts and distinctions. He can be as light as Liebling but also, and more important, as solid as Stone.
Predictably and regrettably, it’s for his wit that Cockburn is most popular and controversial. This was also his countryman Shaw’s misfortune. In a letter of 1904, while still a terribly earnest young man, Bertrand Russell pronounced Shaw “on the whole…more bounder than genius.” Russell gave some solemn reasons, but I think he was mainly irritated by Shaw’s exuberance, which could not endure to leave anything clever unsaid. Not that most of us can; but if potentially clever things occur to a writer at a preternaturally rapid rate, he is bound to have some difficulty in distinguishing the genuinely clever from the merely provocative. Shaw was notoriously afflicted with this perilous gift. By now it is clear that Cockburn is, too. From sheer excess of verbal energy, he must turn a criticism into an epithet, and so occasionally verges on bounderdom. Some unhappy instances: Denise Levertov’s statement in the Nation on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was not “noisome.” Americas Watch was not “craven” in refusing to judge Contra human rights abuses more serious than Sandinista abuses before it could fully document that judgment. George Black and Michael Massing were not “spring-heeled self-seekers” merely because they referred to Sandinista errors and crimes and proposed a form of U.S.-Nicaraguan accommodation pretty close to the Sandinistas’ eventual position. It is doubtful that Paul Berman “and [Martin] Peretz are of course at one on the Mideast.” And it is not funny, nor serious, to assert that “Podhoretz and Orwell deserve each other, as far as I’m concerned.” Still, these and similar examples add up to a minor failing. Sharp malice is, after all, less damaging to a political culture than dull malice. On the whole, Cockburn’s occasional nastiness is significant chiefly for revealing how deplorably thin-skinned many of his colleagues are.
Of somewhat more substance are complaints about “even-handedness.” Cockburn is regularly accused of having a double standard of political morality (often, to be sure, by those who have maintained a lifelong single standard of credulity toward official propaganda and support for the policies of some favored state.) In a letter to the Nation, Ronald Radosh put this accusation with maximum force and minimum nuance: “One can only conclude that Cockburn supports the tortures carried out by the left-wing dictators whose policies he favors.” Is anything of the sort true?
No one has actually claimed, or could, that Cockburn defends such practices; rather, that he has failed to criticize them sufficiently (by some unspecified criterion). Is this distinction important? Only to the intellectually scrupulous, who will appreciate that the moral value of affirming a truth hardly anyone doubts—that is, a truism—is pretty close to zero. In a 1980 column Cockburn dealt with this issue, albeit offhandedly, in an item on the then-current editorial cliché about the “extremism of left and right” in El Salvador:
"This is the balanced view, which reached its apogee with the Indonesian coup of General Suharto in 1965, when nearly one million supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party were killed in the ensuing six months. As the U.S. government, World Bank, and IMF poured in money, editorialists, columnists and reporters once again proclaimed their distress at the violence of left and right extremists—though always with the suggestion that it is the left which causes these unwholesome spasms of violence to come to pass. If only the left would cease to exist, the right would not have to torture them, etc., etc. Of course I should add that the left has tortured the right, but no one would suggest that the U.S. government or its equerries in the press have taken a correspondingly sedate and kindly view in such cases."
That last sentence seems to me an obvious and adequate answer to most of his critics' self-righteous fulmination about “even-handedness.”
Not to all of it, however. Cockburn himself has on occasion blurred a distinction: that between supporting a régime and defending its right to be free of external subversion. It is crucial for principled opponents of American military intervention to maintain this distinction. (Chomsky, for one, has done so punctiliously.) It is not because contemporary Cuba and Nicaragua are, in some respects, admirable societies that they deserve to be defended against American aggression, but because they have legally sovereign, technically legitimate governments, and because international law, fragile though it is, nevertheless helps prevent even more widespread and lethal superpower intervention. Besides, Cuba and Nicaragua, like most other societies, are in some respects not at all admirable. How one strikes a moral balance among such features is strictly irrelevant, unless one claims that humanitarian intervention is warranted, which requires a showing of genocide or at least extensive mass murder (as in the case of our ally Guatemala, for example). It is gallant of Cockburn, in the face of the cowardly near-unanimous refusal of politicians and editorialists to acknowledge any positive achievements by the Sandinistas and the Cuban communists, to stress those achievements. And more: it is analytically useful for explaining the “threat of a good example” that so largely motivates American hostility to Third World revolutions. But it is a mistake, moral and even logical, to refer to the Sandinistas or any other régime as “our side.” Governments are not moral entities.
In general, of course, it is the objects of Cockburn’s criticism who need incessant reminding of that last point. A press prone to state worship, especially when the state in question has, during his formative years, turned one part of the world into a moonscape and another part into a torture chamber, is bound to drive a passionate press critic to occasional intemperateness or injudiciousness. There are plenty of hoarse voices and contorted features among contemporary political writers, but none is so well entitled as Cockburn to invoke Brecht’s great lines from “To Posterity” in extenuation.
As an undergraduate, I was induced to take an introductory economics course by the promise that it would “teach you how to read the newspaper.” It didn’t. Cockburn has. For example: right around the time Corruptions of Empire was published, several items appeared in the press that would have made no particular impression on me, and would doubtless have seeped into my political unconscious, except for several years of reading Cockburn (and Chomsky). In news stories a few weeks apart, New York Times Central America correspondents referred to “the war that has killed more than 60,000 Salvadorans since 1979” (James LeMoyne, 11/4/87) and “the eight-year-old civil war, which claimed more than 60,000 lives” (Lindsey Gruson, 10/5/87). What actually killed most of those 60,000 Salvadorans, overwhelmingly noncombatants, were military and police death squads, originally organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA, as detailed by Allan Nairn in a 1984 story in the Progressive, to which Cockburn has several times referred. But because the murderers are allies of the United States, the official American position is that the war, or “extremists of left and right,” not the Salvadoran government, is responsible; and the Times tailors its phrasing accordingly. A Times AP story (10/26/87) referred to a Salvadoran political murder as “unusual, because the incidence of political assassinations has fallen sharply in El Salvador since the early 1980s, before the election of José Napoleón Duarte as president in 1984.” The implication is that Duarte’s election led to a sharp decline in political violence, testimony to his effectiveness and good will. That is also the American government’s view. In fact, Duarte’s election had no effect on the death squads, which simply ran out of victims by the mid-1980s, having murdered or driven into exile a majority of the leaders and potential leaders of the popular organizations. Duarte did, however, preside over a vast escalation of aerial bombardment in the countryside, which was aimed largely at the guerrillas’ civilian supporters and which claimed civilian lives at a higher rate than the death squads had in any period. A final example: in an editorial on “Torture in Israel” (11/23/87), the New Republic commented matter-of-factly that “no country has been more punished by terrorism than Israel.” Leaving aside El Salvador and Guatemala, whose civilian populations have suffered traumatic levels of state terrorism (to which both Israel and the United States have made substantial contributions), and disregarding the tens of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians killed, wounded or displaced by the Israeli Defense Forces in 1982 (plainly political violence, since the purpose of the invasion was to weaken the allegiance of West Bank Palestinians to the PLO, which many regard as their political representative), this statement ignores the enormous terrorist campaign waged by the United States against Cuba throughout the 1960s, including bombings, assassinations, economic sabotage, and the poisoning of crops and livestock; and, more recently, American-sponsored Contra terror in Nicaragua. According to a study reported in Ha’aretz in 1982 and cited by Cockburn, 282 Israeli civilians had been killed by Palestinian terrorists since 1967. The number has not increased dramatically since. That is quite horrible; but most of the examples I’ve mentioned exceed this level of “punishment” by a large margin. What can the New Republic’s statement possibly mean?
This sort of thing is bad enough and frequent enough. If not for Cockburn, there would doubtless be even more of it, and worse. And that, I imagine, will be the common form of epitaph for the new public intellectuals. Not that they created monuments of unaging intellect, but that they hemmed in everyday barbarism a little. Consider the legacy of such as Stone, Nader, Chomsky, and Cockburn: endless engagements with current deceits causing or threatening immediate suffering to a great many actual people. Unlike earlier public intellectuals, they have not written for the ages, but for present efficacy. And the price, which they have accepted in all seriousness, will be exacted: their writings will not live.
But their example will. Introducing Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in the 1950s, Lionel Trilling concluded:
"Its particular truth refers to events now far in the past, as in these days we reckon our past. It does not matter the less for that—this particular truth implies a general truth which, as now we cannot fail to understand, must matter for a long time to come. And what matters most of all is our sense of the man who tells the truth."
The countless “particular truths” that Chomsky, Cockburn, et al., have unearthed and published from week to week over the last several decades also imply a “general truth” which, alas, “must matter for a long time to come”: that intellectuals have indeed been incorporated en masse into the power elite, making the “‘transparent’ social relations” Merleau-Ponty looked forward to that much more difficult and distant. And they imply something else as well: a performance, like Orwell’s, or rare moral beauty. It is this—the energy and specificity, the “offensiveness,” of their truth-telling—that will matter longest and most of all.