Radical writer Alexander Cockburn dead at 71

The leftist author rose to prominence as a witty, biting critic of imperialism and capitalism.

Alexander Cockburn
Radical writer Alexander Cockburn, who died on July 20, was a 'brilliant satirist of American vanity' [AP]

About a month ago, I saw online that Alexander Cockburn had a letter in the New York Review of Books. Excited – the last time Cockburn appeared in the New York Review I was a sophomore in high school – I raced to announce the news on Twitter. Almost immediately I got a sheepish message from the New York Review. It was a misprint; the author of the letter was Andrew Cockburn, Alexander’s brother. The error was fixed, my momentary fantasy gone.

It still saddens me – even after hearing the far sadder news of Alexander Cockburn’s death this past weekend – to think about that incident. For there was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when Cockburn’s name regularly appeared in publications like the New York Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. Cockburn was never part of the establishment, but he had a way of getting under the skin of the establishment. So much so that they published him.

Acerbic, uncompromising, and wickedly funny, Cockburn never stopped taking aim at the United States’ fetishes: capitalism, imperialism, and above all its self-regard.

Amazingly, success never seemed to change him. The media wanted him more than he wanted them. And when the time came that they didn’t want him anymore, he didn’t seem to care. He kept goading them, developing a new audience of readers through his website magazine Counterpunch, which he co-edited with Jeffrey St Clair.

I cared, though. Because the culture that wanted – no, needed – Alexander Cockburn was a culture that was still unsure of itself, at least unsure enough to feel that it had to make a pretence of listening to its most radical critics. That was a culture that was defending itself against the challenge of communism. And though it was in many ways a nastier place than now – gays and lesbians in the closet or the routine object of ridicule on national TV; women silently bearing the stigma of rape (and earning 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man, as opposed to 77 cents to the dollar today) – it was also in a way roomier. Forced by the pressure of its international competitor, it had to make space for voices like Cockburn’s.

Satirising American vanity

Acerbic, uncompromising, and wickedly funny, Cockburn never stopped taking aim at the United States’ fetishes: capitalism, imperialism, and above all its self-regard. That, in the end, is what Cockburn was: a brilliant satirist of American vanity.

Listen to him take on Cyrus Leo Sulzberger, the New York Times foreign correspondent and scion of the family that owns the Times:

“Tedium in a pundit is inevitable and, in its own way, soothing. In the days of C L Sulzberger, [Thomas] Friedman’s remote predecessor on the “foreign affairs” beat on the Times’ op-ed page, I used to look forward to C L’s narcotic musings as eagerly as Coleridge to his opium pipe. As I wrote once years ago, C L was the summation, the Platonic ideal of what foreign commentary is all about, namely to fire volley after volley of cliché into the densely packed prejudices of his readers. He never deviated into paradox, never shunned the obvious when he had a chance to grapple with it. His work was a constant affirmation of received beliefs.

“But Sulzberger had the graces of an older world, the decorum of the chancery or the embassy dinner. He slipped over the side quietly one day and was gone. I miss him, and sometimes, nodding over the Times op-ed with eyes half closed, I fancy I can hear him still.”

That was just an appetiser, though. To the main course:

“[Thomas] Friedman’s is an industrial, implacable noise, like having a generator running under the next table in a restaurant. The only sensible thing to do is leave.”

Inevitably, people made – and will continue to make – comparisons between Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens. There are the obvious similarities. Both men were Anglos (he of Ireland, Hitchens of England) in the US. They were friends, for a time. They were on the left – in Hitchens’ case, for a time. And both men died at a relatively young age from cancer.

There is also the obvious difference: to the end, Cockburn remained the great refusenik, never bowing before the idols of the age. For all of his self-styled contrariness, Hitchens’ heresies – atheism, imperialism, and so on – were beloved by the mainstream. Because, of course, they weren’t heresies at all, just the familiar story of an aging leftist moving to the right.

But it was in their writing, their elemental sense of style, that one could truly see the difference between the two men – and, I would argue, Cockburn’s greater gifts.

Cockburn vs Hitchens

Cockburn had tremendous failings: his scepticism that climate change was the product of fossil fuels, his flirtations with the paleocon right, and his indulgence of the Soviet Union.

For starters, 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 details (particularly of class and of place) that eluded Hitchens. At his best, he got out of the way of his story and allowed his readers to see things they never would have seen without him.

Like Hitchens, Cockburn was well-read, but he didn’t make a parade of his learning. One sly quote from Gibbon 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 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, Cockburn managed to achieve, at least on the page, a deeper equanimity between his savagery and his sweetness. I remember one of his pieces on taking his daughter to school. It was oddly affecting: both poignant and pungent. When Hitchens was sweet, he slipped into sentimentality. Never Cockburn. At least not that I can remember.

Cockburn had tremendous failings: his scepticism that climate change was the product of fossil fuels, his flirtations with the paleocon right, and his indulgence of the Soviet Union. These comments of his on the invasion of Aghanistan are unconscionable:

“We all have to go one day, but pray God let it not be over Afghanistan. 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. I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan.”

And though I’m told he later tried to walk back that statement, I’m sure one could find more like it.

It’s always tempting to separate a writer’s virtues from his vices, to say that while he was good on x, he was bad on y, and that x and y have nothing to do with each other. That’s rarely true in a writer, but especially not in a writer like Cockburn. His strengths and weaknesses were too commingled, his blindness and insight too much the product of the same Brechtian mind. What’s more, he’d have hated any appreciation that reads like a script from the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour (the subject of one of his most hilarious pieces). On one hand, Alexander Cockburn was a Stalinist; on the other, he was funny.

Any true reckoning with Cockburn would have to wrestle with his liabilities, to pin them down on the same place whence his talents sprang: his Marxism, his family (particularly his relationship with his father) and his refusal.

With his love of the dialectic – of paradox, irony and contradiction – I don’t think he’d have it any other way.

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Centre.