Invisible Forces

PERIODICAL NOTES

FIRST OF ALL you have to understand that the world is in very bad shape. A lot of terrible things have been happening lately. Freedom and justice seem to be on the decline, people are starving, the economy is slumping and the Arabs are taking over. January magazines, traditionally devoted in part to predictions for the new year, are generally portending large-scale doom. Their subject matter seems to be shifting from the personalities of the 60s to unseen, foreboding malevolent empires.

The best wide-circulation magazines of the 60s were probably Esquire and Harper's, because both seemed to capture the spirit of the time, through looking at people and the way they behaved in a coherent, probing way. The quintessential 60s magazine piece was the profile, because individuals, not forces, seemed to be what really mattered. The people who were editing Esquire and Harper's then have both been fired and their magazines are at sea, casting about for a new spirit. Esquire's annual Dubois Achievements Awards, a venerable 60s institution, this month are--well, not very funny, almost offensive. Harper's Wraparound section, a 70s innovation, reads like a slicked-up, ungenuine Whole Earth Catalog.

The people who seem most important these days are faceless and colorless, worth writing about for what they do, but not for their force of personality. They are bank presidents, CIA directors, informed sources, reputed gangland leaders, even Gerald Ford. The key subjects are plots and spies, interests and investments, economic trends. New York Magazine, in its annual Ten-Most-Powerful list, this year added a new list, for invisible power, the power of the 70s.

This shift in the focus of magazines does not necessarily correspond to a shift in the nature of reality; it's just that the forces that shaped the 60s seemed, correctly or not, easier to deal with in terms of personalities. Vietnam was Johnson's war; racism was Wallace's and Bull Connor's fault. Individuals seemed larger-than-life enough to be responsible for some of our major catastrophes. Now, of course, those people are gone and the problems are even worse. It's obvious that it was too simple to pin them to people like Johnson or Wallace.

Alexander Cockburn--who seems to understand what 70s magazine journalism is all about--writes a lot about conspiracies, and he has an article in the current Harper's on the Robert Kennedy assassination. Conspiracy writing in the 60s fell into disrepute because it tended toward the paranoid and sensational, and Cockburn and his co-author Betsy Langman proceed carefully. They build a persuasive case, full of evidence, heroes and villains, for the argument that Sirhan B. Sirhan could not have killed Kennedy--he was too far away, and had the wrong kind of gun. Their conclusions are muted; they suggest only that the Los Angeles District Attorney reopen his inquiry into the assassination. But the implications of Cockburn and Langman's argument are clearly larger than they immediately let on--the DA would have already reopened the case if he didn't know something we don't. And if Sirhan didn't kill Kennedy, he was obviously in touch with other people who, working from some sort of prearranged plan, did.

Cockburn has also written recently about the CIA and about the assassination of Martin Luther King, both of which, he says, are more complex than they seem at first. He also writes two regular columns for the Village Voice--a witty, acerbic one on the press and a general political one called Surplus Value. Surplus Value gets more conspiracy-oriented every week; this week it speculates about a possible CIA-led coup in Venezuela, designed to protect Rockefeller oil holdings there against nationalization, and about a big-business coal pipeline that will pollute the West and put Appalachian miners out of work.

On Surplus Value, Cockburn works more in the traditional conspiracy-writing vein than he does in Harper's, which after all is only just entering the conspiracy field. He talks about "freshly sinister aspects," "business interests," "billion-dollar schemes" and someone "setting faction against faction, lubricating his maneuvers with cash." He deals a lot in interlocking directorates and the like, and doesn't cite many sources, instead either simply stating things as fact or using substantiating phrases like "it is known" or "we are told." Cockburn prefers complex explanations for things where, at first glance, simple ones would just as easily suffice. His credibility varies from article to article--but still, his approach makes sense. What we know about the CIA is horrifying enough, but it's obvious that it is very little of its complete operations. So assuming the CIA is evil, and assuming its influence is extensive, isn't it fruitful to speculate on the real parameters of its power. Magazines like New Solidarity--the U.S. Labor Party organ that had headlines like ROCKEFELLER PLOTS WORLD CONTROL--are obviously going too far with the possibilities, but Cockburn works close to the edge of believability without going past it. He is dealing with things that seem now to go beyond personalities in their importance; even all the more important because the personalities he mentions are so shadowy.

The Village Voice this week has a lead article called "Previews of Coming Disasters," which postulates a set of destructive possibilities for the world. The last--and worst--is called "steady-state anarchy," in which all institutions would do battle to the point of simultaneous total collapse, thus ending it all. It doesn't exactly have the ring of eternal truth; but in printing things like Cockburn's column and "Previews of Coming Disasters," the Voice has arrived at the kind of coherent editorial tone, consistent with the flow of daily news, that Harper's and Esquire are still only groping toward.