I was saddened to hear today about the passing of left-wing journalist/provocateur Alexander Cockburn, who died of cancer at the age of 71. Cockburn was a difficult, frequently exasperating figure. First, some of the awful things: as this right-wing website gleefully notes, the man ended his days as a climate change denialist. Throughout his career, he took great delight in viciously attacking Democratic politicians, which is something that I’m not against in principle, but it never made any kind of sense to me that the very people he went after most ferociously were often stalwarts of the most leftward precincts of the Democratic party, such as his perennial punching bag, Bernie Sanders, who is after all probably the closest thing we have to a genuine fire-breathing social democrat in the U.S. Congress.
And then there were the any number of endless notorious pronouncements he made over the years, often concerning Israel or the USSR. Such as his unforgivable remarks about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: “[I]f ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakably cruel too …”
And yeah, as you may have guessed from that last quote, when it came to gender issues, he totally sucked.
And yet, and yet … there are also important things about Cockburn’s life and work that are worthy of admiration. His writing had wit, style, and exuberance, and so, apparently, did the man. He makes a memorable appearance in James Wolcott’s extremely enjoyable memoir about 1970s New York, Lucking Out, where he is described as “the Voice’s brightest journalistic star … along with his stylistic brilliance he was English and sexy, whooshing in and out of the building on a jet stream of daredevilish charisma.”
And let’s also not forget, the man was basically right about a lot of things. He was, for example, spot-on in his judgment about the essential awfulness of the Afghan mujahideen, at a time when much of the rest of the pundit class were fall over themselves writing them fanboy mash notes. He was relentless in his searing critiques of homocidal Reagan-era policies in Central America, this at a time when former leftists like Paul Berman were writing worshipful paeans to the contras, and even liberalish Democrats like Bill Bradley cast some votes in favor of support to the Nicaraguan contras. Cockburn’s attacks on Democrats were definitely over the top, but at the same time, they had a point; he felt that too much activist energy was being diverted into hopeless electoral politicking that would bear more promising fruit if it were devoted to grassroots efforts.
To his credit, much of Cockburn’s later journalism, most notably in Counterpunch, the muckracking magazine he started, focused on local grassroots movements among environmentalists, peace and social justice activists, and the like. Cockburn clung stubbornly even to his most extreme left-wing beliefs, and this, increasingly, marginalized him as time went on. Inevitably, comparisons have been and will continue to be made between Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens, a journalist with whom he had much in common (Corey Robin, in fact, wrote a nice piece contrasting the two here).
There were certainly many similarities — both were witty, charismatic Brits who wrote about politics with a literary flair. Both started out on the left, but while Cockburn stayed there, Hitchens swung way over to the right. Hitchens’ fame now greatly overshadows Cockburn’s, but it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always that way. Back in the 80s the two shared very similar politics and and probably roughly equivalent name recognition in political journalism circles. In fact, Cockburn, who back then had a regular political column in the Wall Street Journal (!), probably had a higher profile than Hitchens.
But over the years Hitchens did much to ingratiate himself in right-wing pundit circles; Cockburn did not, and he paid a price, career-wise. It’s my belief, though, that the best of Cockburn’s writings will hold up better than Hitchens’. Whatever Christopher Hitchens wrote about, in the end everything always ended up being about Hitchens. With Cockburn, as Corey Robin wrote, “at his best, he got out of the way of his own story and allowed his readers to see things they never would have seen without him.”
The Cockburn stuff I enjoyed reading the most were his old Press Clips in the Village Voice. You kids who grew up in the world before the internet have no idea what it was like back then, when so much of your average political junkie’s media diet was nauseating establishment swill, and alternative takes could be painfully difficult to come by. Oh, the humanity! But Cockburn’s old Press Clips column was a delightfully rude stomp through the hushed, hallowed tombs of Conventional Wisdom and Received Opinion. Like the punk rock scene that exploding at that time, his prose just blew that sucker wide open. Cockburn should rightly be viewed as the original blogfather, because he has been a powerful influence on every left-winger blogger who does media criticism, whether they are conscious of that fact or not. In the Press Clips column, I remember especially how funny, and nasty, Cockburn was about the Abe Rosenthal’s New York Times and about neocon nightmares like Martin Peretz and Norman Podhoretz (for an especially hilarious takedown of the ghastly Norman P., click here).
Much of his best writings were collected in his 1988 book, Corruptions of Empire, and fortunately for you, dear readers, much of that excellent collection is available online. Here are some favorites (with a caveat, some of these pieces are excerpts rather than the full text):
— “Adolph Hitler by A.W.” - a brilliant parody of a fawning celebrity profile of Adolph Hitler, in the manner of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine;
— “The Tedium Twins” - Cockburn’s evisceration of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. The satirical set-piece with the MacNeil/Lehrerites debating slavery is alone worth the price of admission; rarely has the bankruptcy of the media’s inane “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” approach to reporting been so satisfyingly mocked;
— “How to be a Foreign Correspondent” - a witty savaging of C.L. Sulzberger that becomes a blistering indictment of an entire school of journalism, and the corrupt American foreign policy elites it shamelessly sucks up to;
— and finally, “P.G. Wodehouse: The Road to Long Island” - an excellent appreciation of a great comic writer that does not let Wodehouse the man off the hook for his profoundly foolish actions during World War II. As this piece amply demonstrates, Cockburn was not without chops as a literary critic.
As I’ve noted, I in no way endorse all, or necessarily even most, of Alexander Cockburn’s political opinions. He was an extremist and his writings were often infuriating — almost certainly deliberately so, I might add. But he did some important work, and for every piece that annoyed the hell out of me, there was another one that felt like a breath of fresh air. As a friend of mine who shares some but by no means all of Cockburn’s politics put it, “In a world where most people don’t go far enough, at least you knew there was one person who always went too far.”
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