Alexander Cockburn has died. Nearly thirty years ago, I began borrowing copies of The Nation magazine from a friend in order to read Cockburn’s weekly column. In a publication then notable for its determination not to completely surrender to Cold War hysteria, Cockburn stood out as a stubborn and fearless champion of reason and fidelity to leftist values—not the values that pass as leftist today, but genuine values of internationalism and advocacy for those on the bottom.
Later I learned of Cockburn’s familial roots: his father was the estimable Claud Cockburn who wrote for the UK Daily Worker, was a partisan reporter on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, and served as a thorn in the side of the puffed-up English upper classes for most of his life.
Claud authored the novel that served as the basis for the obscure, but delightful John Huston movie, Beat the Devil, a cinematic parody that relentlessly poked fun at nearly every stereotype and prejudice.
Alexander’s writing carried the same level of disdain for self-satisfaction and smugness. Cockburn, the elder, famously remarked that one should “Never believe anything until it has been officially denied.” Alexander Cockburn’s writing reflected even broader truths: Never believe anything uttered by your nation’s public officials or their media hand maidens. And always regard with a measure of respect the claims of their opponents. This motto would serve the journalism profession far better than the usual hypocritical nonsense about fairness and objectivity. It would also well serve a public that readily identifies the media lies when it is itself the specific target, but exhibits a blind, groundless, and sheep-like trust of the media on other matters (think of Syria!).
In that spirit, Alexander Cockburn’s column pierced the inflated egos of wind bags, charlatans, and courtiers from Henry Kissinger through the financiers Jamie Dimon and Robert Diamond, the subjects of his final column.
I don’t know that Alexander considered himself a Marxist, though he acknowledged that his father flirted with and perhaps embraced the views of the old Moor. Certainly Alexander came closer than any other contemporary writer in English, despite his occasional eccentricities, to the acerbity and intolerance for hum-buggery of our beloved KM.
As The Nation moved away from its legacy of popular front progressivism and anti-anti-Communism and towards drawing-room liberalism, Cockburn became more of an internal critic. He began to take shots at Nation writers and columnists who were more comfortable reporting conversations at dinner parties than in reporting on Appalachia or big city ghettos. He rightly called out writers whose views seemed to unerringly march in lock step with the Democratic Party leadership.
Though The Nation editors would deny it, his punishment was to see his popular column reduced from every issue to every other issue.
Nonetheless his column persisted despite the magazine’s further ideological acceptance of the tighter and tighter Democratic Party leash. In recent years, the taming of The Nation forced me to discontinue my twenty-five-year subscription when I concluded that even Cockburn could not hold me.
But a ten-dollar desperate renewal offer (the way of all print magazines starving for support) brought me back recently, a happy move since it delivered me Alexander Cockburn’s last column. But o how far The Nation has sunk! The funeral issue contained three tortured and embarrassingly pandering defenses of Obama’s grossly misnamed Affordable Care Act (four if you count Katha Pollit’s lame cheer-leading in her column: “Obamacare(s) for Women”), all a transparent call to vote for Obama in the fall election. Poor Alexander Cockburn’s last column was sandwiched between these crude political ads.
The rest of the issue included a bizarre “vindication” of right-wing scumbag David Frum (his mother was a feminist!), a pathetically and needlessly “scholarly” critique of Charles Murray’s scurrilous attack on working class white males, and a Princeton professor’s paean to Jurgen Habermas’ vapid pontifications on the meaning and future of the European Union.
Pity poor Eric Foner, who joins Cockburn with an article in such dreary company.
Needless to say, I will not be renewing my Nation subscription (unless the price comes down even further!). I’ve had enough and, with Cockburn gone, I can catch the occasional significant article from friends on the ‘net.
I will miss Alexander Cockburn—more than a little. I regret that I never followed him closely on Counterpunch, but I trust that its archives are full of his sterling and stirring writing. I’m sure collections of his essays and articles will soon appear. I look forward to reading them. I hope others will as well.