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The Censorial Impulse

Black Out

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

In December, Daisy Cockburn and I traveled to Oakland to accept the PEN Writers’ annual censorship award on behalf of her father, Alexander. The trip was an adventure in irony. Oakland was one of Alex’s favorite cities. He loved its vibrancy and grittiness. It was the city of Jack London and the Panthers, of jazz and blues, of dockworkers and occupiers, of Sly Stone and Ishmael Reed, who happened to be on-hand to introduce the prize.

But for nearly twenty years, CounterPunch had adhered to an ironclad rule: we violently opposed all writing awards. Such honorifics, Alex reasoned, served as a kind of cultural sedative for unruly writers, a way of enticing them into the corral of political elites, a habitat of vanity from which they would rarely stray.

This sensible directive was overturned a few years ago when I received an early morning call from Alex. His voice was unusually agitated, but it also betrayed a slight quiver of pride. “Jeffrey, the most unusual event has occurred, that will compel us to amend our proscription against journalism awards. It seems my brother Patrick has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for war reporting. And, even more troubling, he plans on accepting it.”

As the world’s best and most courageous war correspondent, Patrick deserved the accolade. But for Alex more unsettling news arrived a couple of years later when Patrick was awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism, named after the man who had snitched out Claud Cockburn, and other leftwing writers, to British intelligence. There was the strain of weary resignation in Alex’s voice the day he conveyed that celebratory news.

Awards are one thing, the issue of censorship is another. We never viewed ourselves as being censored, certainly not in the way that, say, Ken Saro-Wiwa was censored for his journalism. Alex and I have both written in dozens of venues and published a journal and website that is read by 100,000s of people around the world (with the exception of Iran and China, where access to the website flickers on and off depending on the temperament of the regimes.) For us to cry censorship would be a yelp of weakness and also demean those writers who were being tortured or assassinated for their opinions.

Even so, there’s little question that over the course of his 50 year career as a professional journalist Alex did repeatedly collide with the petty enforcers of elite opinion. Can one call this censorship? If so, then it assumed several guises during Alex’s life.

There was the quiet censorship of absence, the fact that for most of his career the language’s most savage and erudite polemicist was excluded from the editorial pages of the New York Times and Washington Post.

There is the censorship of negation. Consider, for example, the New York Times Book Review’s vicious assault on our book Whiteout, a history of the CIA’s deep ties to dictators, death squads and drug runners. A writer for the Columbia Journalism Review called the hatchet job one of the most hostile book reviews ever written. The review had been commissioned by the Times’s editors, whose fraternal relationship with the intelligence agencies had been exposed in our book.

There is the censorship of public ridicule, such as being smeared as a Stalinist by that little twerp George Will or a conspiratorialist by the faux left twerp Todd Gitlin, one of the shrillest false alarms in American letters.

There is the censorship of manufactured hysteria, as when the Village Voice lost its nerve and suspended Alex for writing honestly about the plight of the Palestinians. When the Voice finally came to its senses and begged Alex to return, he rightly told the editors to screw off.

There is the censorship of orthodoxy, which explains Alex’s disgusting treatment at the hands of the Nation magazine, where Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel first cut Alex’s columns in half, even though he was the magazine’s most popular writer, and then when that didn’t teach him to toe their narrow liberal line, they slashed his columns from twice a month to once a month. If you want insight into how the bosses of the Nation really felt about Alex, read Navasky’s icily written and demeaning obituary.

Then there’s old fashioned censorship, as when Nightline host Ted Koppel pulled the plug on Alex’s microphone after the megalomaniacal anchor got peeved that Alex was wiping the floor with him during a live debate about the Soviet Union.

Finally, there’s the censorship of government spying. A few days after Alex died, I asked our friend David Price, the anthropologist and historian of American intelligence agencies, to file a FOIA request for Alex’s FBI and CIA files. After the usual run-around, Price secured a rather thin, but intriguing, sheaf of pages from the National Archives. As detailed in Price’s story in the January issue of CounterPunch, the FBI had been keeping tabs on Alex since his arrival in the US in 1972. More sobering, the documents (almost certainly incomplete) reveal that an unidentified informer for Britain’s MI5 spy shop had tried to get Alex deported in the mid-1970s for his seditious writings. Alex was only saved by the FBI’s refusal to disclose the name of the informant to the INS.

At this point it is hard to get the full picture of government harassment and snooping because the documents are so heavily redacted. Yes, even Alexander Cockburn’s FBI, has been censored. That’s surely something we should all aspire to as writers—it’s a true measure that your prose has power and punch.

Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest books are Born Under a Bad Sky and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format.  He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net