Let’s cut to the chase and get this out of the way: Yes, Alexander Cockburn took some strange and indefensible positions. I worked for Alex, the radical journalist who died this weekend of cancer at 71, as a Nation intern in 1987. Three years later, he hit what I always regarded as his low point, trying to prove in a series of columns that Stalin’s death toll was closer to 3.5 million or so than 20 million (leading to a denunciation in the National Review that was adorned by what remains the funniest headline I’ve ever seen in that journal: “Alexander Cockburn, A Voice of Moderation”).
I remember reading those columns (and I was surprised that the Times fetched up the memory of them in its obituary, as if the black mark had been entered in their computers all those years ago, just waiting for this day) and thinking to myself that I was glad it was mostly Nicaragua when I was with him—denouncing the contras was a far easier job.
You would not pair us ideologically. He retained his affiliation as a committed Marxist until the end. I, after some half-hearted youthful feints in that direction, settled into the Roosevelt-Humphrey-King liberalism in which I was raised. But I always retained a strong personal fondness for him. For one thing, he was very nice to me when I was young, and I try to make it a habit of being nice to people who are nice to me (Christopher Hitchens also: To be a Nation intern in those days and have the benefit of the generous counsel of both of them was a memorable thing). For another, he emphatically was not wrong about everything, and it’s important that that point be recorded.
It’s probably impossible for people to understand this today, but Alex struck American journalism like lightning when he first started writing for The Village Voice in, I think, 1974. First of all, the Voice really mattered then. When I studied journalism in college, the Voice was there in my intro mass communications textbook—the first and most important alternative newspaper, its place in the profession’s history already assured, with towering figures like Nat Hentoff, Jack Newfield, Ellen Willis, and Andrew Sarris, the great film critic (and lovely man) who just passed away last month.
I remember that Norman Mailer once said of Murdoch’s New York Post that whatever you thought of its politics, “It was alive; you could argue with it, you could bite it.” A great sentence that applies in spades to the Voice of the 70s. You would be outraged on this page, drawn in on that one; you’d roll your eyes at the self-indulgence you encountered on the third: But you were reacting. I was a kid in remote Morgantown, West Virginia, but I subscribed for a little while, and while I didn’t understand most of what I was reading about, strange performance art and films that would sure never be screened in Morgantown, I was still able to sense that something important and fresh was radiating out of that chaotic energy.
Into this milieu, Alex landed from England. It’s worth recalling that he was the first. Modern America’s first exposure to that literary, highly lapidary, polysyllabically festooned, and sometimes grotesquely overstated and unfair brand of polemicism that we now know so well. He blazed the trail that Hitchens and others followed. He was also America’s first modern press critic. A.J. Liebling, I would argue, did something a little different. The idea of weekly items critiquing the ideological presumptions of this particular Times article or that particular Washington Post column was invented by Alex.
Today, we have criticism of criticism of criticism, and the idea of bashing the Times for this or that piece, from right or left, has become so normal as to be banal, usually. But Alex’s weekly “Press Clips” columns were riotously original. My older sister and her friends first introduced me to those columns; they said his very name with a kind of mystified, how-did-he-come-up-with-that wonder.
A decade later, I was working for him. His preoccupation in those days was the Cold War and its emanations and penumbras, to use two very Cockburnian words, and there, agree with him or not, his perspective was absolutely necessary. He saw through the domino rhetoric on El Salvador and Nicaragua, and he was right: I don’t think many people can look back on those days and conclude that it was a grand idea for the United States to be financing and arming death squads that existed to defend oligarchies.
On Israel, he became controversial and was called anti-Semitic because he wrote regularly about topics that were way off limits then: Israel’s torture of Palestinian prisoners, or what he didn’t mind calling the fascist roots of some Likud politicians. He was out there, no doubt of that. But his basic thesis about the wrongheadedness of the Israeli occupation and of unblinking American support for it is obviously correct. The reason he was so controversial then was that he didn’t write from inside the system to persuade and convince. He wrote from outside it to traduce and condemn. I’m the former type, but I understand that the world needs both kinds.
In 2004, I debated him on the San Francisco Pacifica radio station (via telephone) about whether one should vote Kerry or Nader. Obviously I took the Kerry position, and I daresay I got the better of him, a thought that would have been inconceivable to me 17 years prior. It sounded as if his heart wasn’t really in it for old Ralph. After the show ended, I called him, or he called me, and we had a nice and pleasant catch-up, our first long conversation in years, and as far as I can recall our last one. We had a few email exchanges more recently. In one of those I wrote to criticize him for something or other, and I opened by saying “I know you probably think I’m a sellout and a stooge these days, but...” I don’t remember the substance of what he wrote back, but he did say: “Sellout, maybe; stooge, never!”
I read him intermittently in recent years. His climate-change denialism was just nuts. It struck me as motivated by his longstanding desire to offend liberal sensibility, at which pursuit he succeeded. But his legacy shouldn’t be reduced to that. He deserves for people interested in such things to remember what a pioneer he was in his best days. And when he ranged the slightest bit off-topic, away from the politics of the moment, he produced some of the most jewel-like essays I’ve ever read.
If you can find them, go online and look for his reminiscence of Heatherdown, the posh boys' school he attended; his piss-your-pants hilarious essay on Robert Baden-Powell, the British imperialist and Boy Scouts founder; his rollicking assay of Ian Fleming; and even his writing on food and wine, the Marxist as epicure (I think most of the foregoing appeared in his collection Corruptions of Empire, which I recommend highly). The theme of social class weaves through all of those pieces, but so do great doses of humor and irony. I learned from those articles, lessons about rhythm and pacing and when to stick the dagger in and when to sheath it.
I remember in the old Nation offices, there was messy shelf of papers that was Alex’s. He didn’t live in New York and didn’t come into the office much, so he posted a hand-written sign up there: “Do not touch! These papers are Alexander Cockburn’s! Fierce Dog!” I remember thinking that a lot of people would say “Cockburn, fierce dog” is about right. But I saw another side of him, and I don’t care how "controversial" he was, I always liked him and will always be grateful to him.
UPDATE: In the first graf, I originally had 500,000 instead of 3.5 million. Apologies for the error.