Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012


Alexander Cockburn, trenchant political writer and former Voice columnist, has died of cancer in Germany at the age of 71, announces his friend and collaborator, Jeffrey St. Clair. “He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done,” writes St. Clair at their mutual endeavor, CounterPunch. “Alex wanted to keep living his life right to the end.”

Eulogies and obituaries for Cockburn are turning up now, written by his friends and his enemies, and there’s a lot of tell about his long, eventful career. But what comes most strongly to my mind is the huge impact of the column Cockburn started took over at the Voice, Press Clips — in its way, the granddaddy of the kind of press criticism that’s now all over the internet (for good or ill).

Born in Scotland and raised in Ireland, Cockburn moved in 1972 to America and was quickly snagged by the Village Voice, where he worked until 1984, when a disagreement over a grant he’d received from the Institute of Arab Studies led to his suspension. Shortly thereafter Cockburn launched his “Beat The Devil” column at The Nation, which he kept up till his death. In the meantime he also contributed to big-time magazines and papers, e.g. Esquire, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal, and smaller leftist pubs, including CounterPunch, edited by himself and St. Clair. He also wrote and edited books, many with St. Clair.

Cockburn was of an old school of radical journalism, a trade he learned from his father, the even-older-school radical Claud Cockburn, who had been quite an active communist, but seemed to have a good attitude about it. Here is a lovely reminiscence of his on the advantage of having a solid greyhound-racing tipster on the staff of the Daily Worker: “Perhaps, if the Moscow gold other people wrote about had really existed we would not have bothered so much, but things being as they were, Killarney Boy was worth a whole lot of imaginary roubles.” This appreciation for the humor in the futility of being left in a rightwing age seems to have rubbed off on his son.

Cockburn viewed all this country’s foreign adventures with suspicion tempered by disbelief. (This included the recent Libya mission — see his “Libya: An Old-Fashioned Colonial Smash-and-Grab.”) Nor was he gentler about goings-on inside our national boundaries. “If there’s any nation in the world that is well on the way to meriting the admittedly vague label of ‘fascist,'” Cockburn wrote just this May, “surely it’s the United States.” Part of his evidence was the wave of stop-and-frisks in New York — a phenomenon that has been amply covered by the Voice, but which none of our current writers, so far as I know, has directly connected to American fascism. (It is something to consider how his characterization would have gone over with readers were he still writing for this publication.)

For that matter, Cockburn wasn’t much impressed by what passes for opposition in the United States. He considered the Democratic Party a hollow shell, found Gore’s defeat in 2000 hilarious (“Ah, you protest, but what about the bold plans that a Democratic-controlled Congress and Gore would have pushed through? Relax. There were no such plans”) and the Obama regime a non-starter (“Last year, [Obama] said the American people did ‘big things, omitting to qualify this with the fact that mostly they’re big stupid things”).

He did admire Ralph Nader, Russ Feingold and a few others, and the fighting spirit if not the “political naivety” of the Occupiers. But he couldn’t deny that the results they got were disappointing if what one wanted was a real change in the social and economic order. This disappointment was probably a large part of what made him funny. If you can’t beat ’em, you can at least mock ’em.

Cockburn long knew and famously feuded with Christopher Hitchens, whose transformation from socialist firebrand to jingo cheerleader Cockburn found risible and seemed to enjoy challenging at every opportunity. His obituary of Hitchens is scathing, and the favor is already being returned amply. Not that anyone ever held his fire for Cockburn when he was alive. He has been described as a Scientology apologist and an anti-Semite and an all-around shit, and will be as long as resentment endures, which experience tells me is quite a long time. If he could see it, I can’t imagine he’d care, though he might regret the lost opportunity to answer the charges in print.

I first found Cockburn when I was a teenager poring over the Village Voice at Bridgeport newsstands. As I was disinclined to read many newspapers and magazines, much less to read them carefully, I was pleased to find that Cockburn, in his Press Clips column, was doing it for me, and in high style.

Sometimes Cockburn’s items were just fun, as with this bit from 1975:

“Poor Karl,” said a Wall Street Journal editorial last week. “He must be somewhat restless in his grave at Golder’s Green.” The Journal was referring to Karl Marx, and if he is in Golder’s Green he must indeed be restless, considering that he was buried in Highgate. Wake up, Bob Bartley.

But much of his Press Clips coverage was far more substantial — basically an adjunct of his primary reporting, taking close account of the laziness, mendacity, and occasional hilarity of the press in spinning or fumbling the facts at hand. He wasn’t the first journalist to do this by a long chalk, but he was the first one I found and, as a quick look at the archives confirms, he was even better than I knew at the time.

In fact, given what he was doing and when he was doing it, it’s not a stretch to say that Cockburn inspired a lot of the media criticism in which we are awash today. It seems no piece of journalism goes unexamined anymore, and there’s a whole cottage industry in meticulously disassembling the work of prominent hacks. The quality varies, but to the extent that the mission is to show how much of what passes for journalism is just incantatory obfuscation, it can be traced back to Cockburn.

Considering how modest my own Voice work is, it may not be much of a tribute to say Cockburn inspired me, too. But so what; most of the 10,000 bands supposedly inspired by the first Velvet Underground album weren’t much good, either. Besides, the main thing is to be up and doing, even when it all seems tough or indeed hopeless; and if in your digging you find something that strikes you so true that it’s funny, or vice versa, and if makes you feel you can beat the devil yet, then it’s all been worth the while.