Hazlitt got gloomily drunk for a fortnight after the battle of Waterloo, accurately anticipating that decades of reaction lay ahead, now that Boney had been definitely put away, with the Holy Alliance in the saddle and the French contagion safely bottled up. Smart fellow, that Hazlitt. He should have stayed drunk for a month.
Sometimes, on the edge of a new decade, things look dismal but one has the feeling that something good just might be around the corner. The 70s for example: at their onset, Nixon was in the high noon of his first term, drenching Vietnam in blood, while his attorney general John Mitchell pored over plans to lock up the left at home. It looked as though darkest night was falling.
And yet there was a certain edgy, desperate hope in the air — and four short years into the 70s the hopers, no longer desperate but exultant, saw Nixon clamber into a helicopter and take off from the White House lawn towards his version of St Helena, in San Clemente; and nine months later on April 30, 1975, Gunnery Sgt. Bob Schlager and ten other Marines finally caught the last helicopter off the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon.
Ah, those raucous, wonderful 70s! Those who missed them will never know the sweetness of life, as Talleyrand said of the Ancien Regime. Sweet and sharp. I spent them in New York and there was no better place to be.
With the 80s you could feel the air beginning to seep out of the tires. For one thing, Death kept missing his appointments in Samarra, after years of rigorous punctuality with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Kennedy brothers. He’d already fumbled two dates with Gerald Ford, when his chosen messengers, Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, messed up. On March 30, 1981, another of death’s chosen messengers, John Hinckley, tried to shoot Reagan and failed to get his man.
That would have been a game changer! We’d have had three months of Ron instead of eight weird years when America plunged into fantasy, where it still resides. We wouldn’t have heard Ron give the Star Wars speech, or Nancy just saying No. Or Ron saying he expected Armageddon to come in his lifetime. Or Nancy running the country with the help of Mrs. Quigley, her astrologer. We’d have had George Bush Sr., surely a one-termer. It would have all been different.
But would it really? Clinton and the 90s suited each other fine, and Bill gave us our last known dose of politics as fun, with the Lewinsky affair, but the decade would have had the same general contour — though a Republican president would have had much bigger problems getting the poor tossed off welfare.
And then in 2000 we had Bush and Gore, and the American people very reasonably couldn’t figure out which one to go for. The folks who knew Al best — the voters of Tennessee, went for George. And then in September of Bush’s first term we had a game changer here in America. Death finally rounded up a gang of messengers with a real commitment to getting the job done.
But game changer isn’t quite the word for the event that launched the Noughts. 9/11 just speeded up basic tendencies which were already in train. Invasion of Iraq? The onslaught had been in full spate through most of Clinton-time via a lethal embargo and almost daily bombings — and the course of Iraqi politics had been set back in 1963 when the Kennedy administration okayed CIA complicity in the overthrow and murder of the Iraqi nationalist, General Kassim, setting the stage for the CIA’s man, Saddam Hussein.
The Afghan mess, now about to get messier, was set up in the late 1970s, when the Carter administration supervised the overthrow of Afghanistan’s one shining moment of hope, the left reformist governments that took power in 1978. That’s when Osama was ushered onto the stage of history, as one of the CIA’s men. Israel, the Palestinians? Rewind the decades back to Truman and beyond.
What made the American 70s exciting was that the left — in its broadest antinomian contours — had life in it, still pumped up by successive radical generations all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. The last time we saw that left in action was in the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 and the solidarity movement during Reagan’s wars in Central America.
In 1992 the left went hook, line and sinker for Bill Clinton and lost all independent traction. By 1996 fealty to the Democratic Party had become a habit. There was the brief flare up in Seattle during the WTO confab, but that turned out to be more of a final flicker than a new ignition point. Same story in 2000. Same again in 2004 (all in behind the Democrat Kerry, in case you forget) and finally, most deliriously, there was the left’s love affair with the salesman of hope in 2008, Barack Obama.
Yes, there are many candles in the darkness. Brave souls soldier on, whether battling the military recruiters, defending Palestine, or advancing labor’s cause. Gaze out across the political landscape and there are many vigorous, dogged people at work. But, as a vital, compelling, creative force in American political life, the left is dead and gone, many of its erstwhile or potential members lost in the new Age of Superstition, fretful captives in the thickets of kookdom, whether in the form of 9/11 conspiracism — au revoir Cindy Sheehan! — or gazing aghast at Michael Mann’s bogus hockey-stick graph instead of improving their minds and political potential by reading the Eighteenth Brumaire. What a grim and revealing irony that it was the Medieval Warm Period — which Al Gore and the IPCC have sought to purge from natural history — that gave birth to some of the most glorious chapters in human intellectual and artistic achievement!
The corporations run the show and the only vivid opposition comes from Christian populists, who’ve bought several million copies of Sara Palin’s memoir.
The teens? Raise your glass along with Mr William Hazlitt.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org