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One of the left’s most prominent commentators,
Alexander Cockburn possesses a wild iconoclasm that can be as
much tonic for the soul as it is toxic to the system. The Irish-born
journalist, whose Village Voice columns in the ’70s and ’80s
blazed a trail for contemporary media criticism, continues to
expose the hypocrisies of politicians and pundits in CounterPunch
as well as his biweekly “Beat the Devil” in The Nation
magazine. Come next week, on May 20, he’ll be offering Sacramentans
his thoughts on “How to Change the World in Six Easy Lessons.”
At the time of our interview,
Cockburn hadn’t entirely figured out what those six easy lessons
would be “What’s the name of it again?” he asked.
“How to Save the World … ?” but promised listeners
would “leave with their chests absolutely bursting with
purpose and optimism.” Cockburn was in a good mood himself,
having just attended the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
(Irma Thomas’ rendering of the gospel spiritual “Beams of
Heaven” left nary a dry eye, he said) and picked up a 1982
Mercedes in South Carolina.
These days, Sacramento is practically
a backyard for the 63-year-old journalist, who has a home in
Humboldt County and extols the Internet-age joys of accessing
information from virtually anywhere. In the following interview,
Cockburn talks about how he stays cheerful in the face of catastrophe.
CounterPunch just did a piece on Air America cheerleading
the Democratic Party. Yet, mainstream media continue to portray
the network as some sort of fringe outpost.
Cockburn: Right, as the cutting edge of revolutionary
activism! Isn’t it insane? I mean, Air America? My darling niece
Laura Flanders is on it as a hostess, but Al Franken? I mean,
And now Laura Bush gives this
great comedy routine where she makes fun of George Bush,
Dick Cheney and her horrible mother-in-law and all these
liberal wusses like David Corn in The Nation all say it was very
shocking, and they wouldn’t want to tell children what she said.
If you want one single portrait of the utter decay of the liberal
progressive so-called left, it’s that they can’t even laugh happily
when Laura Bush makes a few jokes. They churn up inside and say
that she was perhaps indecent. And now they’re organizing a letter-writing
campaign about her raunchy language.
They’re not being ironic?
No, they’re not! This is what
the left has come to. It’s sickening.
So, where do you go?
I don’t know. Go back and read
the speeches of Robespierre, I suppose.
Sure, but what about “saving
Well, it helps to have an optimistic
And where did you get that
I’ve always been an optimist.
You have to be an optimist. Because most people on the left,
they tend to take a rather grim view of the world, as you may
have noticed. You want to just generally be bushy-tailed about
things, I think.
And how do you do that?
Well, think of all the things
in life that actually have changed for the better. The food’s
got better. Absolutely beyond question, the food’s got better
in America. The coffee is better. Bread is better. I’ll bet you
could go out from where you’re sitting in Sacramento right now,
I’ll bet you could walk 500 yards and probably be able to find
a decent loaf of bread. You could, couldn’t you? If I said that
to you 20 years ago, you would probably have had to taken an
airplane and flown all the way to France.
Now, why did this happen? It’s
because hippies in the ’60s decided they wanted to have whole-grain
bread and be healthy, and then they also wanted to have properly
roasted coffee. And so, they gradually got organic-food stores
that actually were quite good, and the bread got better, and
there were farmers’ markets. Now, all this happened in the teeth
of political onslaughts by both parties who were, of course,
in the pay of the food industry.
In my local town of Eureka,
Calif., the other day, I went into Pierson’s, which is the main
building supply place where you buy stuff if you’re redoing your
house and all the rest of it. I looked at their coffee booth.
They were selling coffee from nine beans from nine different
countries. Nine! This is not some hippie hangout. This is where
mighty men with measuring tapes in their waist belts and huge
hammers hanging from their trousers that’s where they go.
And you could have nine different kinds of coffee. Now that’s
So, globalism isn’t such
a bad thing?
Yeah, globalism is great. It’s
been going on for hundreds of years. Oh yeah, I’m against globalism
of the bad sort: some company in America going and screwing people
in the Third World and not paying them properly. But globalism,
I mean, it was very good when the Spanish and the Portuguese
well, it had a bad impact on Latin America but it
was good that potatoes and peppers got to Europe. That was early,
early globalism. It was much more rapid in those days. You know,
the first housewives n the Indian subcontinent got chilis, a
basic for what we regard as the eternal Indian diet in about
1550, and not long thereafter it was on every household menu
in the whole of India. Cortez brought turkeys back to Europe
in 1519, from the New World, and by about 1535, they were on
every German Christmas table as the old traditional turkey dinner,
right? And then the Puritans took the turkeys back to America
in cages, and when the Indians gave them turkeys for Thanksgiving,
there was a tame turkey looking out of its cage at them.
Well, I can puncture your
Oh, I know you can.
… by switching the topic
Well, no, no, no. I can detect
a silver lining there, as well. Of course, as far as the mainstream
press is concerned, it’s as degraded as it ever was. But actually
I’m against all the endless press criticism today, although I’m
partly responsible for it because I did a lot of press criticism
in the ’70s when people weren’t doing it so much. But, you know,
attacking The New York Times. I mean, so what? The New York Times
has always been a disgusting paper from day one, and its function
is to tell lies on behalf of the ruling class. Why do we have
to have incredibly intelligent people like Noam Chomsky explaining
to us every day that The New York Times has got it wrong? I mean,
I said to him one time, why don’t you just write a piece every
six months saying they’ve got it right?
Let’s turn to the Village
Voice, which to me was always the prototype for the alternative
When Dan Wolf and Norman Mailer
and the other guys started the Voice in 1957, it was a genuinely
countercultural magazine, although Wolf himself in many ways
was quite a conservative guy actually. But Dan was a very good
editor. That was a period when you had Ed Sanders doing Fuck
You: A Magazine of the Arts, and then of course you had all the
underground press, the antiwar press and the gay lib press and
the feminist press … And then gradually as the 70s wore on
it went from being underground journalism to what my friend Andrew
Kopkind called “sea-level journalism”. You know, these
papers began to figure out their markets, and make a bundle
of money from ads aimed at well heeled constituencies like the
gays in the west Village and other zones of inner-city-gentrification
. Of course, the mainstream papers have copied this a lot now.
When I joined the Voice in
1973, it had just been sold to Carter Burden, who was a scion
he’s now dead of the Vanderbilts, and he bought it
for I think $3 million. Then it was sold to Clay Felker for $15
million. Then Rupert Murdoch bought it for, I think, $45 million.
This was in the late ’70s. And then it was sold to the dog-biscuit
king of New Jersey you know, the Hartz dog-collar guy [Leonard
Stern]. That was for $144 million, I think. And in 2000 I think
there was another buy-out for around $160 million. When there’s
that much money wrapped up in something, how can you possibly
do anything of any real radical content? You can’t.
Which brings us to the Internet,
The Internet, yes. I came late
to the Internet, unlike my coeditor at CounterPunch, Jeffrey
St. Clair. Ken Silverstein, who had been my intern at The Nation,
actually started it. I said, you get the newsletter going, and
if it works I’ll step on board the raft. And it did work. And
we were very happy to be selling 5,000 copies of the newsletter.
Ken went on to do fantastic investigative work, currently for
the LA Times. Jeffrey came aboard and soon showed what we could
do with the Web. And now we have a million hits a day, which
translates to about 80,000 unique visitors a day. This week it’s
been higher. The best numbers we’ve ever had. People read it
all over the world, including 30,000 people on U.S. military
What percentage of your
readers did you say are on military bases?
Last time we looked, there
were about 30,000 a month on U.S. military bases reading CounterPunch.
Now that’s pretty good, isn’t it? If I said to you 30 years ago,
“We’re gonna get pamphlets, and we’re gonna go stand outside
a U.S. military base and leaflet and hopefully we won’t
get our brains beaten in,” we’d have been happy if we’d
have given away 500 leaflets. If we had actually managed to get
500 leaflets into 500 hairy military hands or delicate
military hands, like Lynndie England’s, maybe we’d have
counted it a good day’s work. And here you’ve got 30,000 reading
our seditious prose.
So, now that we all have
access to the Internet, is that why things seem so much worse
politically than they did when only Noam Chomsky could access
that much information? Is Iraq that much worse than Vietnam?
No, no. But I think politics
in the mainstream, the whole center of gravity has moved
to the right over the last 25 years. I’ll give you an example.
In 1976, I followed the candidates in the Democratic primary
around, Jimmy Carter and Jerry Brown and Scoop Jackson and Fred
Harris a whole range of people. And during that primary,
there was a public interest group on the left called Energy Action,
and these guys were going around asking all the Democratic candidates
to sign on to their program. And their program included vertical
and horizontal divestiture of the energy companies. That meant
that if you were an Exxon, if you had an oil well, you couldn’t
own a filling station, or a refinery, or a coal company. So,
in other words, it was breaking up the oil companies. Every single
candidate, from Scoop Jackson, who was of course totally in the
pay of Boeing, to Jimmy Carter to the lot of them. They all felt
it necessary to sign on to that. Even though of course they didn’t
have the slightest intention of doing anything about it, with
the possible exception of Fred Harris.
And Fred Harris did not
fare well, as I recall.
Yeah, he had a great joke.
He said, “I was the guy for the little people, and they
couldn’t jump high enough to reach the levers.”
And to complete the story,
around 1978 or 1979 my old friend Jim Abourezk, a one-term senator
from South Dakota, put a bill through the Senate calling for
vertical and horizontal divestiture of the oil companies, and
on one reading it failed by four votes. … Jim said that the
next day Texcaco put up a $100 million for a pro oil campany
barrage. Can you imagine now the U.S. Senate even admitting that
resolution into consideration? No, no, of course not. Can you
imagine any candidate assenting to this stuff?
No, these days, we have the
Democrats about to sell out on Social Security. They sold out
last month on Chapter 7 bankruptcy. You know, they’re incapable
of even the most basic and primitive gestures of protection
for ordinary people . They can’t do it. I think they’re a dead
letter. They’re a huge rotting albatross hanging around the neck
of every single left person in this country. And the left are
putting a handkerchief to their nose trying to ignore this festering
carcass, dripping with worms, reeking, hanging around their necks:
“No, it’s not dead. I like it. It doesn’t
And it’s just getting worse
and worse. If you put Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush together,
I’d vote for Laura Bush any day of the week. What’s Clinton’s
program? It’s build higher fences at the borders and join the
militias in Arizona and drive the illegals out. That’s points
one, two and three of their program. She’s calling for an attack
on North Korea. She called for an attack on Syria. I mean, I’m
just talking Hillary Clinton, because she comes to mind. But,
I mean, how can you possibly even think of voting for this party?
So, what’s that leave you?
I don’t know. Not much. A few
You know, people have to start
thinking creatively. I mean, I think a lot of things can be done.
All the best things in life have absolutely nothing to do with
any conventional politics in the last 35 or 40 years.
So, why do you keep writing
Why have I written about it?
Well, you know, Edward Gibbon wrote about the fall of the Roman
Empire. He didn’t say it all ended well, did he?
Alexander Cockburn, noted author
and columnist, will reveal “How to Change the World, In
Six Easy Lessons.” 7 p.m. Friday, May 20; at the Coloma
Community Center Auditorium, 4623 T Street in Sacramento. Contact
Ruth Holbrook, of the Sacramento Community Forum, at (916) 455-1396
or (916) 456-9282.