Alex and I joined the Village Voice in the early Seventies, arriving right at that incredible ricochet moment between the end of founding editor Dan Wolf's tenure and the electrical surge of the Clay Felker era. Our statuses were quite different. I was a lowly dishwasher down in the galley, still in the larval stage of journalism, whereas Alex already had stardom stenciled on him from his opening entrance--a dashing brio that one didn't pick up in the commissary of CUNY or on a bar stool at the Lion's Head, the favorite haunt of Voice writers and hard-drinking novelists. He turned the Press Clips column into an instant carnival attraction at the Voice. His was a slashing, dashing erudition and unsparing scorn for mushy humbug and dullwittedness that might have been at home in the New Statesman of the time but was a whole new assault vehicle in the pages of the Voice or anywhere else for that matter. Unlike so many of his colleagues at the paper, he seemed to write as if the words were already at the hot-lead ready; no groaning labors attended the production of his columns: he seemed blessed free of the self-doubts and agonies of creation that sent some Voice writers into the bowels of worry and constant revision whenever something big was due. He also lived on a speedier, shinier plane, dating heiresses, riding in limos, and attending swell parties while the rest of us bohemian shlubs fished around in our pockets for subway tokens and had to borrow each other's combs.*
Alex might have been tagged with the label of "radical chic" were it not for the fact that he truly was radical, it wasn't a passing phase or trend surfing or a temporary swelling of liberal heart; he was the son of the great Claud Cockburn (whom he would celebrate on the 100th anniversary of his birth as "the greatest radical journalist of his age"), he was and remained a contributor to New Left Review, he had an executioner's gleam in his eye when he went after a conservative foe or a former comrade turned defector, something one didn't quite picture in the caring eyes of Lenny Bernstein. And he stuck true to his radical creed, not going neocon turncoat like David Horowitz and others or becoming a sour mourner of lost ideals. Even at a lefty publication like the Voice, the hard thrust and scalding ironies of Alex's radical stance riled those who more traditionally liberal and/or less a-pox-on-all-your-houses. His championing of the Palestinian cause and his castigations of Israeli militarism unsettled those who weren't Zionist but felt a gravitational pull toward Israel and found his rhetorical attacks too high temp. It would be the Israeli issue that would precipitate Alex's bitter divorce from the Voice. He was pushed out of the paper in 1983 after it was discovered that he had accepted $10,000 from an Arab foundation for a book project (or so I recall--I don't have Kevin McAuliffe's history of the Voice at hand), and, summoned back from his vacation as if he were some truant, Alex was put in a position in which the only thing he could do was quit if he wanted to retain any shred of pride. Much handwringing to-do was made at the time of the incident about the need for journalistic transparency and accountability and such but let's be honest--if it had been a Jewish-American organization or Israel front forking off the relative piddling sum of $10 thou, there hardly would have been this gummy uproar. Imagine how many Beltway pundits, commentators, consultants and the like are on the take today via speaking fees, serving on panels, free fact-finding trips to the Mideast, etc. Alex's sin was in aligning with the wrong team.**
Cockburn's post-Voice career is something of a puzzlement. He was a columnist at the Nation, wrote for Ben Sonnenberg's superb literary and critical quarterly Grand Street, got Counterpunch off the launching pad, yet blaze of his career lost its charisma--not his talent, mind, that was still intact, but the force of his presence. I never understood why his byline stopped appearing in the pages of The New York Review of Books, where he published his more relevant than ever examination of the phenomenon of "gastro-porn" and tucked into Gay Talese's Thy Neighbor's Wife. (His last piece, a review of a biography of P. G. Wodehouse, was in 1982.) Even when he was at his most high-visibly productive, there were those who complained that he devoted and dispersed too much of his energies into deadline journalism and public addressing, riding the whirligig instead of delivering a "real book," a stand-alone achievement that would have join the company of the best of C. Wright Mills or Saul Alinsky. It was a nagging shadow that would dog journalists and critics as different as Dwight Macdonald, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Seymour Krim, William F. Buckley Jr., and Ellen Willis--where's the Major Tome, buddy? Since I'm a fan of collections and anthologies, believe that the best writing often shines in shards and galloping stretches, I never find myself lobbying for a writer I enjoy reading regularly to hole up in Heidegger's hut for four or five years to bring forth a mountain. You want a tombstone masterpiece so much, go write your own, we'll keep the landing-strip lights on for your victorious return.
But a large part of Cockburn's diminished visibility in the press and gossip mill was simply geographical. Once he moved to California in 1996 or so,*** he took himself out of the NY-DC media loop, removed himself from being one of the go-to guys for cable news political palaver and breaking-news commentary--a Green Room regular on joshing terms with every program booker. Cockburn may have enjoyed the high life when he was younger--you know, like any NORMAL PERSON--but he doesn't seem to have been attracted to the prospect of buddying around or up to Power, being a semi-insider who knows all the Beltway players and becomes something of a player himself, invited to off-the-record briefings that one immediately blabs about for inside cred. He inherited his father's skepticism of officialdom ("believe nothing until its been officially denied," was CC's classic credo) and unlike so many journalists of the left, never flirted with neoconservatism, never lost his radical faith, never became a fond old figure of nostalgia.
During the dire days of the ramp-up to the war against Iraq and its launching, Counterpunch was a sanity haven for me. I was against the war before its inception and this wasn't the most popular camp in print or online, with notable exceptions (recall that everyone from Michael Kelly at The Atlantic to The New Yorker to The New York Times was plugging for his war, not a primetime hour could go by on the neo-con dominated cable news channels without doomsday invocations of Munich, Saddam Hussein as Hitler II, his WMDs igniting another 9/11, etc.) and Counterpunch was one of the few places that didn't buy into any of that. Yet Counterpunch was never truly embraced by the liberal blogosphere, much as Antiwar has never been, perhaps because Cockburn's position on global warming was so unpopular (flat-out wrong, in my opinion), or more likely because its contributors are so eclectic and politically motley, including libertarians such as Paul Craig Roberts, grassroots firebrands, and Israeli dissidents. So what, I say. I share P C Roberts' alarm about the devastation being done to the economy by Washington and Wall Street (regular Mike Whitney is great too), Counterpunch ran and runs eyewitness reports from Iraq and all points in the Mideast, and then there was Cockburn's own writing, as sharp, funny, and astringent as ever, as when he tweaked Occupy Wall Street for its heroic grandstanding:
The Occupy Wall Street assembly in Zuccotti Park soon developed its own cultural mores, drumming included. Like many onlookers, I asked myself, Where the hell's the plan?Apathy was anathema to Alex.
But I held my tongue. I had no particular better idea and for a CounterPuncher of mature years to start laying down the program seemed cocky. But, deep down, I felt that Occupy, with all its fancy talk, all its endless speechifying, was riding for a fall.Before the fall came there were heroic actions, people battered senseless by the police. These were brave people trying to hold their ground.
There were other features that I think quite a large number of people found annoying: the cult of the internet, the tweeting and so forth, and I definitely didn't like the enormous arrogance which prompted the Occupiers to claim that they were indeed the most important radical surge in living memory.
Where was the knowledge of, let along the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance. Yet when one raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.
Much as I miss and will miss his presence, I take some solace in our being able to smoke the peace pipe after having feuded in the past over vital issues of no great import. He thanked me in an email for promoting Counterpunch on the site and donating money to it and, alluding to former bad blood, wrote, "As for that now distant flyting, of course I curse the hand that wrote those vulgar words - tho I think perhaps there was some provocation. Anyway, I hope the world is treating you well. I enjoy your writing. Best, Alex="
To which I replied, "I'm sure I provoked you back when, in my juvenile delinquent phase."
So we were able to end on good terms, which may seem like a minor matter in the grand scheme of things, but one of the things you learn in life (if you learn anything) is how important it is to end on good terms with those you admire, to not let an opportunity for truce go by, because you never know if that opportunity will turn out to be a one-time offer.
Condolences to Alexander Cockburn's family and friends, and I look forward to the books he was writing as the clock ticked down, especially his memoir Colossal Wreck, a title that doesn't err on the side of understatement.
*A gross historical exaggeration.
**Identity politics had also taken root at the Voice, where there was a plethora of caucuses, and rogue elements at the paper were left more exposed to power plays.
***This lengthy "In Depth" interview/profile of Cockburn on C-SPAN, which I highly recommend, opens with him giving a tour of his home in Petrola, California.
Link: Godfrey Hodgson's obituary of Alexander Cockburn for The Guardian