One of the greatest journalists, polemicists and prose stylists of our age, Alexander Cockburn, passed away yesterday. Cockburn’s courage as a journalist, his facility with words, and his political intuition were unparalleled. He was what Christopher Hitchens always pretended to be. His provocations were delivered with wit and wisdom and, unlike Hitchens, avoided soft targets. He preferred going after powerful interests and the shibboleths of both right and left. Where Hitchens built his reputation by accommodating power, Cockburn’s work was devoted to discommoding it. He was, as Ralph Nader noted, fearless. Pressing on with the Cockburn/Hitchens comparison, Corey Robin notes:
First, Cockburn was a much better observer of people and of politics: in part because he didn’t impose himself on the page the way Hitchens did, he could see particular details (especially of class and of place) that eluded Hitchens. 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.
Second, he was extraordinarily well read, but he didn’t make a parade of his learning. One sly quote from Gibbons or Tacitus was enough. He understood, unlike Hitchens, that less is more, and that helped him—to an extraordinary degree—on the page. Ever the over-achieving schoolboy, Hitchens simply drew too much attention to himself, and even his finest sentences (which were quite fine) had a way of distracting from the matter at hand.
Finally, and though this does get into the politics or at least character of the two men, Cockburn managed to achieve, again at least on the page, a better equanimity between his savagery and his sweetness. I remember one of his pieces on taking his daughter to school, and it was affecting: poignant and pungent. When Hitchens was sweet, he often slipped into sentimentality. Never Cockburn. At least not that I can remember.
Unsurprisingly, both men also adopted radically different attitudes toward illness and death. In a heartfelt tribute, Jeffrey St. Claire writes:
Alex kept his illness a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of us knew how terribly sick he truly was. He didn’t want the disease to define him. He didn’t want his friends and readers to shower him with sympathy. He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done. Alex wanted to keep living his life right to the end. He wanted to live on his terms. And he wanted to continue writing through it all, just as his brilliant father, the novelist and journalist Claud Cockburn had done. And so he did. His body was deteriorating, but his prose remained as sharp, lucid and deadly as ever.
Cockburn’s sharp wit and prodigious intellect made him a formidable adversary. Before John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their influential work on the Israel lobby, Cockburn was the only prominent leftist to speak about the issue, and speak forcefully. When Mearsheimer & Walt were curiously attacked by some leftists including Chomsky, Stephen Zunes, Joseph Massad, As’ad Abukhalil et al, Cockburn wrote a typically clearheaded response endorsing their work. He was also one of the only public intellectuals to stick his neck out against the litigious Alan Dershowtiz when he was engaged in a feud with Norman Finkelstein. Cockburn, however could be equally scathing when leftists would indulge in dogmatism and exaggeration. He was one of the few prominent leftists to recant from the OWS theology. Even if some of his criticism was misplaced, he was broadly right and hopefully encouraged some self-reflection. His criticism of Naomi Klein’s much-hyped ‘shock doctrine’ was devastating. He wrote:
Just as there is continuity in capitalist predation, there is continuity in resistance. Here’s where Klein’s catastrophism distorts the picture. Her controlling metaphor for the attack on Iraq is the initial “shock and awe” bombardment, designed to numb Saddam’s forces and the overall civilian population into instant surrender and long-term submission. But “shock and awe” was a bust. It didn’t work. Its value even as a metaphor is useless, except as illustration of what parlor wargamers in Washington DC can hype. Having sensibly decided not to fight or die on an American timetable, many of Iraq’s soldiers regrouped to commence an effective resistance. Iraqi civilians struggle along as best they can under awful conditions and, un-numbed, tell pollsters that they wish the Americans would leave at once…
There are huge third world economies that have been ravaged by neoliberalism that haven’t endured “the shock doctrine”, in the torments that phrase, as defined by Klein. India in the early Nineties was not on the receiving end of physical ‘shock and awe’ bombardment. Tortures were not inflicted by electric shock devices or techniques of sensory deprivation. Death squads have not rampaged through the countryside. If Friedman counseled the Congress Party or the BJP this is not recorded by Klein, who only gives India one brief mention. Yet the neoliberal policies advanced by the World Bank and other multilateral agencies and also enthusiastically seized upon by home grown politicians and government officials–many springing from a Keynesian (or further left) tradition–have certainly been sweeping and savage in consequence.
Capitalists try to use social and economic dislocation or natural disaster–New Orleans is only the latest instance – to advantage, but so do those they oppress. War has been the mother of many a positive social revolution, as have natural disasters. The incompetence of the Mexican police and emergency forces after the huge earthquake of 1985 prompted a huge popular upheaval. In Latin America there has been shock attacks and shock doctrines for 500 years. Right now, in Latin America, the pendulum is swinging away from the years of darkness, of the death squad and Friedman’s doctrines. Klein’s outrage is admirable. Her specific exposes across six decades of infamy are often excellent, but in her larger ambitions her metaphors betray her. From the anti-capitalist point of view she’s too gloomy by half. A capitalism that thrives best on the abnormal, on disasters, is by definition in decline.
Back in 2004 I had a chance to hang out with Alex for a bit at an academic conference in London commemorating Edward Said. As the self-important academic crowd at SOAS went about trying to assert its superiority by describing how many (utterly trivial) things Said had got wrong, Cockburn got on stage and used just a few sharp observations to cut through the academic blather and reaffirm Said’s value as a public intellectual and political insurgent.
Cockburn was a generous man. In 2009, when I sent an article to him about the BBC’s execrable coverage of Gaza, he immediately published it on Counterpunch and sent me a personal note thanking me for the contribution. That, and his quoting me in one of his articles, were a proud moment for me.
To be sure, Cockburn also had some egregious lapses of judgment. Climate change and the Arab Spring being most notable among them. But there is a history and a pattern. Like most Western leftists, while Cockburn was unsparing in his criticism of western capitalist states, he was willing to cut generous slack to their undemocratic, sometimes totalitarian rivals. This tendency often went so far as to involve outright stereotyping and demonisation of the other side’s victims. Where Cockburn’s criticism of the US-Nato invasion of Afghaistan was scathing, he took a less grim view of the earlier, more brutal Soviet invasion. Less than a month after the Red Army’s tanks rolled down the Salang Pass, on 21 January 1980, Cockburn wrote an article for Village Voice describing Afghanistan as ‘an unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the occidental world.’ He added: ‘if 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.’ Cockburn later apologized for this, and in my view adequately made up for it in his other work. But his attitude toward the crimes of the west’s enemies — from Bosnia, Libya to Syria — remained far too lenient.
As Doug Henwood notes, at his peak Cockburn was simply terrific; but even in his misguided moments he was great to read. He also left us with the most apt description of ‘the platonic ideal of what foreign reporting is all about, which is to fire volley after volley of cliché into the densely packed prejudices of his readers.’
Cockburn’s passing is an immeasurable loss, to both journalism and the English language. His voice will be missed.