Alexander Cockburn’s Last Work
A Colossal Wreck (Verso, 2013) is Alexander Cockburn’s diary, or perhaps more accurately, his notebooks. Here there are his entries on particular days on events and ideas that made an impression from 1995 to his death in 2012. Some of these jottings made their way into his remarkable weekly roundups for Counterpunch, and others sat like the wood rat’s nest in his 1964 Newport station wagon – unharmed and unused. His family edited the entries for publication, which comes with an introduction by his brother and an afterword by his daughter. No juicy nuggets are to be found here – nothing that was not already clear in the public domain. His pet peeves are on display, as are his passions. There is a discussion of the hypocrisy of the elites beside a meditation on the best way to brine a turkey. This is a book that exhales life and comes with that brio which is characteristic of Alexander Cockburn.
There are moments of great prescience: on the financial oligarchy’s shenanigans that led to the credit crisis of 2007, on the tendency of the war-mongers from the 1990s that has led to a corrosion of US society. More than anything this is a deeply funny book. Reading it on a crowded Amtrak train along the eastern corridor, I am transported to West Texas, sitting beside Alexander in one of his classic cars as it glides between Midland and Odessa. He describes the history of the region, the class divides between these two towns and how they intersect with the history of American ornithology. Then he switches gears and begins his disquisition on Laura Bush, who spent the eight years in the White House largely silent but for her burst of energy on behalf of Afghan women. Alexander alludes to an accident when Laura, at the wheel, plunges her car into that of an ex-boyfriend who later dies. These are the buried stories of the American aristocracy, revealed only in lowbrow “biographies” by Kitty Kelly that Alexander reads with glee. It tells us something about the country that the rich can so easily clean up their pasts and become sanctimonious about the lives of the poor. Then, out of nowhere, Alexander makes a small observation – “You can see why George Bush doesn’t believe in global warming. Having grown up in West Texas summers he doubtless believes it can never get any hotter.” Such bon mots are the scaffolding of this book.
Alexander began his career as a journalist with his pen firmly on the Left. Influenced by the culture of 1968 and his father’s Popular Front Communism, Alexander moved to the US in 1973 to build a corpus of influential work mainly in The Village Voice and The Nation. Sharp criticisms of the well-fed media came alongside his erudite sense of the world. Alexander came to dislike the smugness of American liberalism. That is perhaps why Alexander fled the East Coast for the North-West Coast of the US, to surround himself with the marijuana farmers and ex-hippies of Petrolia. It is also why he began to move to a Marxisant American populism, driven by an urge to poke a lit cigarette into the eye of his editors on the East Coast. His cantankerous politics seemed driven as much by Reality as by an urge to piss off the East Coast elites. On gun rights, on climate change: Alexander would take contrary positions that were totally inflexible (I once tried to raise the climate issue with him, only to be swatted away impatiently). His journey out of the stabilities of the Left brought him to an idiosyncratic place – a fantasy of a populist combine of right-wing libertarianism and left-wing socialism. This would have been the unity of anti-war.org and High Times, Ron Paul and Noam Chomsky. If you go back and read Alexander from The Village Voice, such a vision would have been inconceivable. It emerges in the period of A Colossal Wreck.
In this book, Alexander describes a gun show, where the salt of a certain kind of American earth is visible. He reveals in it. The deep seam of racism and sexism that runs beneath the dominant strand of right-wing populism does not disturb him, or at least he does not spend anytime writing about it. Ron Paul’s racist rants in his newsletter and the terrible misogyny of gun show culture (described painfully in Joan Burbick’s Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy, 1996) do not disturb Alexander’s reverie. It is perhaps this drift that allowed Alexander in 2009 to let his syndicator run his columns in the paleoconservative journal Chronicles.
Alexander was saved from a Hitchens style volte-face by a few crucial elements. First was his love and deep respect for his father, Claude Cockburn, who appears frequently in his writings, and who did not shift from the Left despite a departure from the British Communist Party in the 1950s. Alexander’s column was called for The Nation was called “Beat the Devil,” the name of his father’s novel (made into a film by John Huston). Second was his keen awareness of the social toxicity of American life, including racism (“Racism is drifting across America like mustard gas in the trenches of World War 1,” he wrote in 2010). Third was his recognition that libertarianism remained limited by its one-sided political economy. At its best it could see the roots of capitalist corruption (as in the CounterPunch columns of Paul Craig Roberts), but even then it was not capable of seeing the problems inherent in capitalism itself. Alexander never shed his commitment to an anti-capitalist future, which is something that could never endear him fully to the ideology of the American Right. It was one thing to share a love for cars and the open road. It was another thing to believe that American car companies were the best way to organize economic power in the future. Finally, on some of the crucial issues of the day (Israel at the head), Alexander’s posture was simply uncomfortable to much of the US political spectrum. Edward Said was Alexander’s anchor to the left-side of the room.
A Colossal Wreck will sit on my bookshelves next to the two other collections of Alexander’s great short pieces: Corruptions of Empire (1988) and The Golden Age is In Us: Journeys and Encounters (1995). Corruptions opens with Alexander’s British years, while this book closes near his tragic end in 2012. The book has a number of moving epitaphs to our comrades, people such as Sanora Babb and Ben Sonnenberg. Writing about Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff when Harry died, Alexander notes that they shunned physical exercise and yet lived into their nineties. “What I used to see them in the editorial offices of the Monthly Review,” he wrote, “they looked as though they’d been marinating in tobacco smoke there for decades.” That’s true. “My line has always been that to get really old it pays to have been a Commie or at least a fellow traveller. In younger years they tended to walk a lot, selling the party paper.” Alexander died at 71, twenty years too soon. He left a corpus behind, however, that in its prescience will keep him alive for decades.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013).