Remembering Alexander Cockburn

Controversial lefty journalist battled the right wing and mainstream liberals

Alexander Cockburn (1941-2012) was a combative and controversial journalist. His articles and opinion pieces for The Nation, The Village Voice, The New Statesman, and, briefly, The Wall Street Journal, offered a far-left perspective on political, economic, social, and cultural issues, and in his “Press Clips” column in the Voice, he aggressively took on the fake news of the day, which he saw as emanating much more from the right (and, sometimes, from corporate-owned mainstream liberal publications) than from the left.

Some readers knew Cockburn as a vocal critic of the West’s conduct of the Cold War, some as a relentless critic of U.S. imperialism all over the globe, and some as an iconoclastic voice in the drug wars. Still others knew Cockburn as a revisionist and propagandist who delved into Soviet history and engaged in questionable scholarship in an effort to revise downward the official tally of Stalin’s victims. Some saw Cockburn as a liar, of the pathological kind.

Unlike many on the left, who sound a sanctimonious note, all too often lecture their readers, and fall on their face when they do try to be funny, Cockburn had a highly appealing persona. As Hendrik Hertzberg acknowledged in a 2012 obituary-portrait in the New Yorker, “Alexander the Great (and Grating),” Cockburn’s persona was one of his selling points.

“It would be hard to exaggerate the dazzle of Alexander Cockburn’s charisma in the eyes of a certain cohort of bohemian and would-be bohemian youth in the non-doorman New York of the nineteen-seventies. This was more a matter of style than substance, but what style! Cockburn was a rare bird, a peacock among the scowling mudhens of America’s humor-challenged Nixon-era New Left,” Hertzberg wrote. “He was a combative Fleet Street Oxbridge dandy, a prolific, lightning-fast writer, often laugh-out-loud funny, with a rich store of obscure (to us provincials) historical allusions and a knack for deploying a tone of elaborate courtesy in the joyful delivery of delicious insult.”

Cockburn Vs. Hitchens

Many have compared Cockburn to Christopher Hitchens, a fellow British expat and left-wing journalist with whom he often argued. Hertzberg’s obituary describes Cockburn as having a somewhat narrower education than Hitchens, but I’m not convinced that that was the case. I don’t know that Hitchens ever wrote a book as original and engaging as Cockburn’s Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death, a book applying tools of Freudian interpretation to the beloved game. The title of one of Cockburn’s later collections of articles and essays, The Golden Age Is in Us, is a sly allusion to Rousseau.

There can be no doubt that Cockburn, although a wit and a gadfly, was decidedly more monochromatic in his political views than Hitchens. Some called Cockburn a Stalinist. The lowlife, alcoholic, hard-left journalist Peter Fallow, in Tom Wolfe’s rollicking and acerbic 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, is a thinly disguised fictional version of Cockburn.

Cockburn was definitely agenda-driven, if not hard and loose with the facts. Covering the long-running case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther jailed in Pennsylvania for the fatal shooting of police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981, Cockburn tried to have it both ways. In one of his Nation columns, he suggested that Abu-Jamal was innocent of the shooting, and also suggested that the shooting happened when Abu-Jamal came upon a scene where Faulkner was beating Abu-Jamal’s brother, a Philly cab driver. (As far as I know, the beating accusation is absent from witness testimony and originates with Cockburn himself.) Cockburn seemed to want to say that there were extenuating circumstances for a crime that never happened in the first place.

Full of Surprises

But Cockburn’s journalistic flair was undeniable. He was always readable, often outrageous, sometimes hilarious, and never boring. He sometimes got into public feuds with his editors, even and especially in the left-wing press, over what they would and wouldn’t print.

Contrary to what some might assume, Cockburn’s writing wasn’t nearly all about politics. In the last decade of his life, he had a growing tendency to give readers a break from the weighty stuff, and to write about personal, even frivolous topics.

One of Cockburn’s columns, which appeared in the now-defunct alternative newspaper Portfolio Weekly back in 2005, was about surprise parties. Cockburn told a story about being a guest at a big surprise party thrown for Edward Said, the late radical Palestinian professor who taught at Columbia University and wrote several books. Said had been under the impression that a get-together was set to take place in Said’s apartment, but that it would be a tiny gathering, with Cockburn and just a couple of others. Cockburn recalled waiting in the flat with dozens of others, then hearing Said come up in the elevator, get out, and enter the apartment. All the lights went on.

“SURPRISE!!!”

What happened then was a little frightening. Cockburn recalled Said bending down, placing a hand over his heart, and appearing to have trouble breathing. It took time for him to regain equilibrium. Obviously the light-hearted spirit of the event was not immediately apparent to Said, who’d had no idea he was about to walk into a crowded room.

Cockburn wrote that this incident inspired some reflections on his part. Before a large group of people comes into one’s private space, one should surely have the opportunity to vet the guest list. And Cockburn raised a larger point. There is something about surprise parties that severely distorts the social arrangements in which we move comfortably from day to day, and, if you think about it, will remind you of what often makes using Facebook and other social media of our day an unpleasant experience. People from all different vectors, spheres, and periods of your life become your “friends.” Discussion threads spring up instantaneously involving people from what you had taken to be comfortably discrete areas of your life, people you would not necessarily want to merge. What a surprise indeed.

The Said incident is thought-provoking, assuming it’s true. That’s one assumption some people refuse to make about Cockburn. David Horowitz, the onetime New Left radical now known for having had second thoughts about the 1960s and for his conservative activism, once described Cockburn as the sleaziest person on the left Horowitz knew of, and said that every word Cockburn wrote was a lie, down to the ands and the thes.

But what style!

(Photo: Alexander Cockburn at the Eureka Peace Rally, March 18, 2006. Taken by Bob Doran.)

Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

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