April 02, 2011

Graphomaniac of the Week: Alexander Cockburn

As every awake person, I believe the NATO-US war has nothing to do "humanitarianism" of any kind. It is an imperial intervention whose goals is to to serve power, not to help revolutions, and it must be exposed and opposed. Unlike many on the left, but like a few others, I believe that trying to mobilize against the no-fly-zone when the rebels were retreating under attack and calling for it was a mistake on many levels. This is a debate worth having because it touches upon a lot of important questions, none of which having anything to do with understanding the purpose and likely consequences of Western imperial interventions in the South.

Unfortunately, we have a different debate, one dominated by demagoguery and demonology. How the liberals do it has been analyzed ad nauseam, and I don't have much to add to that. But I wish this fault was theirs alone. Unfortunately it isn't. The "radical" web is as full of demagoguery as Fox News is. And it has become acceptable that one fights Fox News by becoming more like it. It doesn't work. When radicals convince themselves that they must argue like Glen Beck in order to "win", it means surrendering to the idea that the Fox News mode of thoughtless and content-free trade in signifiers is not merely hegemonic, but beyond challenge.

So here is Fox News of the Left, a.k.a. Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch, attacking Juan Cole.
But substantial slabs of what passes for the left in America are ecstatic at the intervention – a “good one” at last -- and excitedly pass from hand to hand the vacuous “letter to the left” by Professor Juan Cole, replicated on almost every progressive website. You can tell Cole is a liberal academic by his disdain for any discussion of the fact that aside from other considerations the war launched by Obama and his secretary of state is an outrage to the U.S. Constitution, for which he merits impeachment, as pursued by Rep Dennis Kucinich. Liberal academics have not the slightest interest in the Constitution, since the document doesn’t address issues of tenure and preferment. They evince similar loathing for the jury, putting their faith in “good judges”. (Counterpunch)
Now, this appears in an article on Libya. But I'll ignore that, because it is better to isolate the problem by looking sideways. I also ignore that this is about Juan Cole, whom I have no wish to defend. Cole is a liberal. I don't think he would disagree with that. He claims to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time. Maybe he can. The real questions that he hasn't addressed are, walking to where, and which gum to chew. But that isn't the issue either. The issue is that this attack has no discernible meaning. Cockburn doesn't argue with anything that Cole said about Libya, or even with anything Cole said about the Pentagon. According to Cockburn, the problem with Cole is that he is a "liberal academic," and the mark of that beast is "disdain for...the constitution." A small problem is that, by all accounts, including how people describe themselves, Kucinich is also a liberal, even though he does apparently care about the constitution. I think it is fair to describe Glenn Greenwald as a liberal as well. And he seems quite obsessed with the constitution. But perhaps Cockburn calls attention in this passage to the deep distinction between, on the one hand, liberal lawyers and politicians, including those who might have an academic degree or two, and, on the other hand, "liberal academics," who alone disdain the constitution. If that is the case, that is certainly the sharpest class analysis ever to follow in the footsteps of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire...

If Cockburn has a problem with Juan Cole's argument, he should tell us what it is. If he merely want to call him names, that's also fine. Name calling may not be deep, but it is a hallowed political tradition. But at least he should show respect for his readers and get his ducks in a row before shooting.

Now. Let's move our "humanitarian intervention" deeper into Fox News territory. When Cockburn attacks "liberal academics" as "what passes for the left in America," he implies a distinction between a false liberal left, and a "true left", a radical left, of which he is supposedly a member. However, by focusing his anger on academic tenure, Cockburn already positions himself inside the distinctively American right-wing anti-intellectualism. There is, to be sure, a radical critique of academia and of intellectuals, but that isn't based on envying them their modest ability to withstand the pressure of employers thank to tenure. In fact, Cockburn's attack on Cole draws from the nutty constitutionalist repertoire of the Tea Party, which is divorced from any practice of radical struggle. It is the language that calls the income tax "unconstitutional," based on the same amnesia regarding the actual history of the constitution and its political life.

What Obama has done with regards to Libya has been done by every US President at least since Truman, and has never been found unconstitutional by any supreme court or by any legislative process. Bombing dark skinned people abroad is thus just as constitutional as the US legal system's proven preference for executing African-Americans (McCleskey v. Kemp, 1987). "Unconstitutional," on the other hand, is what has been struck down by the US Supreme Court, Affirmative Action, for example (Gratz v. Bollinger, 2003).

It might make sense (or not) to work against militarism together with libertarians, isolationists, and even Tea Party fruitcakes. That is a strategic question. But leftists don't oppose interventions because they are "unconstitutional." The US constitution is a retrograde document written by slave-owning landlords to guarantee forever their class privilege. Not only is the US constitution the product of a limited Bourgeois revolution, but for many reasons, not the least of which the settler colonial nature of that revolution, the US constitution is more reactionary than the many constitutions written by liberals in the eighteenth century all over Europe. Since it was written, the document served consistently to stop and delay progressive social change, to defend business from labor and white racism from the threat of equal rights. The longest constitutional battle was perhaps waged from 1918 to 1941. During that long period, the staunch defenders of the constitution, besieged in the Supreme Court building, stood in the breach against the combined assault of the progressive movement, Congress and the White House, saving the US one day at a time from the menace of legislation outlawing child labor. Contrary to what is the standard belief of most liberals, including apparently Cockburn, this was not the exception but rather the rule. As Robert Dahl has shown many years ago, the bulk of the cases when the supreme court declared an act of Congress "unconstitutional" on the basis of it undermining a fundamental right, it was
...to preserve the rights and liberties of a relatively privileged group at the expense of the rights and liberties of a submerged group: chiefly slaveholders at the expense of slaves, white people at the expense of colored people, and property holders at the expense of wage earners and other groups. These cases, unlike the relatively innocuous ones of the preceding set, all involved liberties of genuinely fundamental importance, where an opposite policy would have meant thoroughly basic shifts in the distribution of rights, liberties, and opportunities in the United States-where, moreover, the policies sustained by the Court's action have since been repudiated in every civilized nation of the Western world, including our own. (Robert A. Dahl, Decision Making in a Democracy)
One wishes that the biggest fault of the US Constitution were that it didn't mention academic tenure. If "what passes as left in America" means hanging on to that document that consistently protects capital from the greed of ordinary people, then indeed, why not just vote Obama and learn to love the bomb?

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