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A Defense of Alexander Cockburn’s Libertarianism
The malign beauty of the rondel dagger or its offspring the stiletto is not simply that it can be concealed as it is brought into play but that it can be withdrawn with only a small external wound. The rondel dagger, takes it name from the treacherous instrument’s round handle and discoid handle guards, but its slender blade has cutting edges. Once in, it can be turned to cause massive bleeding. This weapon could finish off a heavily armored, unseated knight whose gear could be pierced only through its interstices or the slit in its visor. Thus it could be thrust through the visor, then the orbit and into the brain or through a crack under the arm or at the neck of the downed knight to reach the heart. Often the victim was close to death in which case the rondel finished the job, although one can imagine that in many cases the poor fellow might already have passed away and was stone cold dead – but the stiletto thrust provided certainty.
Such an assault on the dead is carried out in CounterPunch, of all places, testimonial in itself to the power of the rondel, wherein Vijay Prashad assesses “Alex Cockburn’s Last Work” and life. For the first two paragraphs it is all smiles, so suitable for the arma insidiosa, but by the end of the third the dirty work has begun, which continues into the fourth, closing condescendingly in the fifth, before the final cover-up and flight. It begins in paragraph three, thus:
“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… 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 (2) 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.”
That is quite a jumbled mouthful. On gun controls and climate change Alexander was “entirely inflexible,” according to Prashad. But on the former one might say he was principled and consistent, adhering to Marx and Engel’s injunction in the wake of the events of 1848 that “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party (of the liberal bourgeoisie, today the “progressive” imperial bourgeoisie, jw) whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” There is every possibility that such an eventuality might engulf all of us here, and perhaps not at some distant time. Let us not forget the marshal law in Detroit and Watts not so long ago or for that matter in Boston this very year. Here Alexander shared a fear of the state with libertarians, whose view is of the state is pretty much the same as the Marxist one, an instrument of force and a monopoly on violence which the rich and powerful use to keep their subjects in place.
On the second point, global warming (GW), Alexander is characterized as skeptical, the proper attitude for a radical or scientist, but now a term of opprobrium. He was put off by the stench of Malthusianism in the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) movement and its flirtation with the gravest environmental danger of all, nuclear energy. And he quite rightly pointed out the decade long pause in warming, grown to 15 years by the time of his death. The pause was not predicted by the models used to justify the ill-defined “Catastrophe,” and it means that the direst predictions of the CAGW crowd are, let us say, a fantasy. And if Prashad feels that Alex was inflexible on this count, I have found that discussing the issue with the CAGW gang elicits the same level of open mindedness as mentioning the virtues of blood transfusion with a hawker of Watch Tower (3).
Alex is accused by V.P. of drifting away from the “stabilities” of the Left into the “fantasy” of a “populist combine” of right-wing libertarianism and left-wing socialism. But the tough-minded Cockburn was not given to fantasy, often quoting Lenin’s dictum that we “must be as radical as reality itself.” There are solid reasons for believing that right and left can combine on a number of issues, most notably a stand against Empire and for civil liberties. Ralph Nader, another advocate of this approach, would point to still other such issues. For some reason the doctrinaire Left cannot abide this thought. I pointed out to Alex at one point that some libertarians and progressives were quite reluctant to join forces in the antiwar effort. Alex replied that he had not noticed such hesitation on the libertarian side. He was right. (At this point Prashad refers to anti-war.org, by which I presume he means the venerable “Antiwar.com,” a libertarian site, and a household term for many on Right and Left who read it each day. One suspects that Prashad is ignorant about much of the libertarian movement.) Finally, many might describe the “stabilities” of the Left as encrusted doctrine. Each advance by the Marxist Left was due to a break with orthodoxy. Lenin dared to make a revolution in a backward, unindustrialized country when doctrine said it would take place in developed countries. Mao dared to look to the peasants not the urban working class as the leading force for China’s liberation from the colonial West. Castro dared to make revolution in the shadow of the Empire. Sadly the so-called Left today in the US is divided between the liberals who have not a shred of principle and the doctrinaire Marxists who have not a single new thought in more than 40 years. Or as Alexander put it on more than one occasion, there is no Left in the U.S. It is dead.
With that third paragraph Prashad’s instrument is in. Now comes the twist of the blade:
“In this book, Alexander describes a gun show, where the salt of a certain kind of American earth is visible. He reveals (sic!) 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.”
There it is. Alex is either a racist or insensitive to much of the racism in his ill-chosen environs. That is pretty much the same thing, racism, although later Prashad tries to walk that back in his condescending dénouement. Right off, I suspect that Prashad has never been to a gun show. More important, his charge against Ron Paul is simply not true. Let us be clear on Prashad’s slander of Paul. No one can attribute a single racist word to Dr. Paul. It is true that a generation ago someone, not Dr. Paul, authored some racist innuendo in a newsletter that bore Paul’s name. But Paul has said multiple times that he did not write them nor read them at the time nor was he aware of them at the time. He goes on to say he repudiates them. What more does it take? By now that charge has become so discredited that it has been a long time since it has surfaced. But some elements amongst progressives cannot let go of it – either because that is all they got or because they choose to remain ignorant. It is notable that in the very next issue of CounterPunch following the one containing Prashad’s slander, Ralph Nader offers an essay with praise for Ron Paul although scathing criticism for son Rand (4). Are we to hear next that Nader is also a racist for his enthusiasm for Dr. Ron? Or must we wait until Nader is dead and unable to defend himself?
This writer spent as much effort and money on the Ron Paul campaign in 2012 as I did with the Nader campaign in 2008 and earlier years. I found not a single hint of racism or homophobia in the Paul campaign. There was, however, more than one exhortation for women to become more involved as candidates and leaders, something we have seen in Massachusetts with the first libertarian elected to the legislature, a woman. And the Paul campaign election night rally in NH was not only multi-racial but younger, much younger than the remnants of the New Left grown older which make up the thinning ranks of the progressive peace gatherings. The cheers were loudest for Paul’s words that condemned war and Empire.
Let’s face it. The point Prashad is making is that Alexander was on the road to the far right, a charge as outlandish as it is scurrilous. Prashad continues on, trampling the corpse: “Alexander was saved from a Hitchens style volte-face by a few crucial elements.” The 180 degree turn of Hitchens was not Alex’s direction, but clearly in Prashad’s view, Alex had taken a nasty trajectory, as evidenced by his positive views of Ron Paul. But before Prashad ends, he is quick to note that Alex had not yet become a full blown racist, quickly citing a 2010 statement of Alex, ““Racism is drifting across America like mustard gas in the trenches of World War 1.” (Does Prashad see that he contradicts his earlier condemnation of Alex?) And with that the Rondel is yanked out, Prashad smiles again about Alex, and he is quickly on his way, the damage done. Thus are Alex and his politics attacked when he is dead and gone, unable to respond which he surely would have done with force and well-deserved derision.
Alex was asked in an extended interview on C-Span a few years back why his father abandoned the Communist Party. Alex’s reply was that “it was not going anywhere.” One might suspect that is why Alex cut his ties with much of the “left” to whom he contemptuously referred as “pwogwessives” or “pwogs” for short, giving the name the tenor of Elmer Fudd impotence that they deserve. Right now the pwogs, who are not genuine Leftists, are not going anywhere. The waffling of many of them on the wars of Empire, their double standard on Bush and Obama, their praise for the coup in Egypt and their infatuation with humanitarian imperialism have exposed their not inconsiderable hypocrisy. The libertarians at least are leading the antiwar, anti-Empire and civil libertarian movement in a principled way, sparing neither the Bushes or Clinton or Obama, which may get us somewhere. We may at last have the beginnings of an anti-Empire movement with American characteristics.
John V. Walsh can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com