Below is a slightly revised version of my column in the latest print edition of Counterpunch Magazine.
In the course of a massive clean-out the other day, I came upon a box of overstuffed folders and musty papers — copies of some of the first pieces I’d ever had published, going back 35 years. For almost two decades they’d lain unseen in the bottom of an old trunk in my parents’ basement, stored there during one of the several peripatetic upheavals that punctuated my early adulthood. Then a freak flood hit the town, and most of the papers were damaged beyond rescue, fused into bundles that couldn’t be prised apart without crumbling into pieces.
Only one small box made it through; it had been sitting on top of a cache of love letters and other tender memorabilia destroyed by the water. This survivor I duly carted back across the ocean, to my home in England, where my peripateticism had come to an end. There it was promptly relegated to a new dark corner, to molder and yellow for several years more — until last week’s day of cleaning.
Naturally, I took the opportunity to let nostalgia draw me away from my chores, and spent an hour or so leafing through the articles. But beyond the bemusement at my early style (an odd mix of hellfire preacher and Gore Vidal manqué), I was most struck by the grim continuity between then and now. The same themes, and in many cases virtually the same content, sounded over and over, like “an echo from the future,” as Pasternak put it. With only a slight shifting of names, those yellowed pieces of political commentary could have been written in our era.
It’s all there: illegal wars based on lies; escalating inequality and militarization; the growing lawlessness of the elite; the radicalization of the Right by theocrats and corporate Birchers; the anemia of a “Left” sinking into accommodation and careerism; the manufactured hysteria over “terrorism” to justify the unchecked expansion of state power; the ineradicable racism; and the sinister embrace of “American exceptionalism” to hide the hollowness of a society in deep moral and physical decay, rotting under the sway of neoliberal extremism, letting its communities and infrastructure collapse, scorning the very idea of a “common good.”
Even some of the names were the same. In the clips there were rants against a feckless warmonger named Bush, against sell-outs to empire and Big Money by Democratic pols named Clinton and Kerry. There were howls of disbelief as the nation was hustled into a baseless war in, yes, Iraq, attacking an “evil power” which had once been used as a convenient tool to advance Washington’s agenda but had gone off the reservation and was suddenly transformed into an existential threat to civilization, its long-ignored and oft-excused atrocities brandished like a bloody shirt to justify war (and war profiteering). This was in 1991; we saw the same scenario played out in 2003 — and once again this year, in the new war against the new “existential threat” of ISIS.
In fact, perhaps the best, most succinct piece of political writing I’ve ever done concerned that 1991 war crime, the invasion of Iraq on behalf of the Bush Senior’s old business partners, the Kuwaiti royals. Oddly enough, it was not a column in this case but a letter to the editor, published in that well-known bastion of radicalism — Knoxville, Tennessee. It read, in its entirety:
“Concerning the war, and all the noble-sounding reasons adduced for it, and brutal sentimentality of the propaganda and ‘reportage’ surrounding it, I can say only this: I think we are living in a world of lies — lies that don’t even know they are lies, because they are the children and grandchildren of lies.”
In some ways, that is the sum total of what I’ve been writing all these years, not just about war but other issues as well. There is a despair in it; a despair of ever being able to speak a simple word of truth and make it heard through the lies that have been heaped on our heads — and bred into our bones — since the day we were born. Especially if, as in my case, you were not preaching to the choir but writing for a general audience, hoping to make a difference, hoping to – in the now-discarded and derided parlance of old – raise consciousness. It was almost impossible to speak of the reality of any given situation without having to fill in whole volumes of history which our masters and their media scribes had rigorously suppressed. Most readers literally had no idea what you were talking about, they had no context for processing the information.
Things are worse today, of course. The rise of Fox News, Bush Junior’s war crimes, Barack Obama’s disastrous entrenchment and expansion of the Permanent War State, the now-total takeover of society by the 1-Percenter Kleptocracy, the utter degradation of the national ‘debate’ and democracy itself: the past’s rough beasts have grown gargantuan, the lies are higher and wider, the rot is deeper. But in another sense, nothing had changed; and certainly, despite expending millions of furious words, I had changed nothing, nothing at all.
I sat there with the yellowed papers, my meager share of the “fragments shored against our ruins,” all that was left after the love letters were gone. And I thought of a song I heard an old man sing on a London stage last winter: “So much for tears — so much for those long and wasted years.”