Friday, April 26, 2013

Corruptions of Empire

1988, updated from 1987 edition, this edition from Verso
Alexander Cockburn
Corruptions of Empire: Life Studies & The Reagan Era
Bought newish for $16.95
Very worn paperback

Like Noam Chomsky, Cockburn is interested in both language and justice.  But, while there's certainly a lot about politics in here, this book also offers his "life studies" (including stories of his Communist father, author of Beat the Devil) and whimsy that's a bit like Roy Blount, Jr.  This collection of writing covers roughly '76 to '88, from his emigration from the U.K. (he was born in Ireland) to the middle of the '88 presidential campaign.  In December 1984 he published a hilarious piece on "the new stand-up toothpaste dispenser" as "harbinger of Reagan's America, newly erect," managing to combine mainstream politics with sexual politics and of course marketing.  I'll narrow down three paragraphs to my favorite quote:  "I don't know how feminists feel about having to grab hold of a dildo every time they clean their teeth, but the plain fact is that the new road to gum pride in Reagan's America comes by way of the simulacrum of a male Caucasian sexual member, or-- if you want to be overdetermined about it-- of a nuclear missile."

One of Cockburn's influences is interestingly P. G. Wodehouse, who appears in a couple of the longer pieces, and whose style pops up in phrasing like (I don't remember the exact quote) "the dustbin of h."  While Chomsky is concerned with the Newspeak abuse of language, Cockburn seems to have a love-hate for bad writing, as when he brilliantly gives a cliched-tour of the world, e.g. "Hong Kong, a time bomb, but also a listening post."  A good chunk of the book is columns from the time of Iran-Contra, and even now his glee is delightful.  He says of one of Reagan's spring 1987 ramblings, "This is fun to read, particularly if you rearrange it in blank verse, but it suggests a high score on the Alzheimer graph."  Vicious, yes, especially since Reagan was later diagnosed as having Alzheimer's, but believe me I needed such viciousness when I first read this book during the post-Reagan years.  (And in fact, in the early 2000s I read the Reagan quote as "poetry" at a women's open-mic.)

We'll get to see Cockburn be vicious against Bush, Sr. and Clinton in The Golden Age Is in Us: Journeys and Encounters, 1987-1994, coming up in 1995....

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