The Irreverent Sting of Alexander Cockburn

I started reading Alexander Cockburn during the early 1980s while in college, mining The Evergreen State College library’s back issues of The Village Voice.  In the present, it is easy to lose sight of how sharp and unique his early critiques of the media were at the time.  There was nothing else like it in print, and the irreverent whit of his prose made the sting of his attack all the better.  Later, while in grad school working as anthropologist Marvin Harris’ research assistant, Marvin would clip Alex’s Wall Street Journal columns, regularly leaving them with scrawled comments on my desk, approvingly noting the application of one of best Marxist analyses hiding in plain view of the pages of one of capitalism’s bluntest instruments.  Harris was fascinated by how one of capitalism’s sharpest critics operated so fiercely from a position so closely situated to capitalism’s pilothouse.

In 1988 I watched Alex give a command performance to a large attentive crowd at the University of Chicago during his Corruptions of Empire book tour.  During the Q&A portion of the talk, Cockburn gave a snotty Buckleyesque Chicago student a cheerful tanning of a sort that I’m sure can still bring a cringe to the recipient when recalled.  This was a younger brawling Alex, still in his mid-40s.

I got to know Alex during America’s post 9/11 retreat from reason.  While American journalism stumbled in a climate of fear and reticence, Alex and Jeff used the web to expand CounterPunch’s reach, and I joined other writers helping fill the space they made for critique.

As a writer, Alex had few equals.  In a single column he could mix the sardonic with the devastating, sharing the same disdain for the selfish-right as he held for a liberal-left following democrats to corporate or militarized ends.  I doubt most of his readers understand how quickly and apparently effortlessly he wrote.   I once watched him punch out his 1000 word Beat the Devil column on his laptop sitting in the shade of my backyard, and submit it by email in less than an hour and a half.  Not stewing about phrases or arguments, whatever analysis of argument he had to delineate had already been worked out in his head or done on the fly; and as anyone who knew him knows, bits of conversations were prone to show up as lines in his columns–sometimes morphed into the ineffective arguments of strawmen, other times championed with his own brand of vibrato-rich rhetorical authority.

Few could turn a sharp phrase like Alex.  Whether it was his dry use of humor (my favorite being his dark efforts to calmly explain the evil excesses of powerful elites as minor missteps, like his recent quip in passing: “Nero, not a bad administrator actually. A few little blots on the record.”), or his longstanding ability to cut through the prevailing overgrowth of ideology dominating the prevailing commentaries of others, Alex drew in his readers, never cheating us out of the time spent reading and we learned from him.

Most of the editors I work with spend their energy holding me back, toning things down, Alex pushed me forward, never holding me back.  Several times after receiving Alex’s edits punching-up my writing for the newsletter, it was me holding Alex back–struggling to keep stronger prose aligned with the facts of the matter.  The climate of freedom and atmosphere of critique Alex maintained at CounterPunch became a crucial space for me and other academics in post-9/11 America.  I could not have written half of what I’ve produced in the last dozen years without Alex and the space he carved out for writers at CounterPunch.  I don’t simply mean that CounterPunch has been a place to develop and publish critical work, but that the clarity of voice Alex helped me develop here now marks my academic writings.

Alexander Cockburn and his red Imperial on the Olympic peninsula. Photo by David Price.

I also learned a lot about how to deal with journalists from Alex.  Once, I complained to him about a long article appearing in a major publication in which the journalist had lifted large passages from my writing, passing these off as his own and retyped long portions of a phone interview as the historical context for body of the story.  When I complained to Alex about the lazy reporting, he laughed, saying that journalistic plagiarism was part and parcel of the profession, then asked if my views had taken over the narrative of the story, as if they were the neutral background for  the piece, when I said yes  they had, Alex said I needed to get my priorities straight and that I owed the reporter a bottle of bourbon, not a scolding.

His skin was thicker than one might guess, and he seemed to enjoy a good ribbing after writing some particularly outrageous screed on climate change or defending the virtues of arming all of America to be one big well armed militia.  It’s not that he didn’t believe these and other arguments that many of us on the left reject.  I’m sure he did.  But I came to wonder if he took the distant view of one who had been so right about so many things–about a long line of presidents, the corporate takeover of the American media and other corruptions of empire–long before these truth were seen as half-self evident.   Perhaps he had spent enough time in the wilderness that he had become used to terra forming alone in such barren environments that he couldn’t help but plot new courses alone in regions given the bounties found in other past efforts.

I will miss his stories.  He had accounts of being in the journalist pool when candidate Reagan–denying rumors that his thick jet black hair was not exactly as the good lord created it–invited a room full of reports to come take a yank at his hair, Alex claiming, in the interest of the public good, to have taken a healthy tug.  There were the adventures of a young man on Fleet Street, the scattered political factions of the 1960s, memories of Claud and the Party, and growing up.   A few years ago my wife Midge and I went out to dinner and a movie with Alex and Alya, and wound up seeing the first of the Narnia films.  During the post-film debrief Alex described how the opening scenes of the children being hustled underground to tube stations as improvised shelters from the Nazi bombs raining down on London, children with notes pinned to their breasts boarding trains for the countryside had triggered memories from his childhood.

Alex obviously really like meeting people.  He couldn’t help engaging waiters, mechanics, and a host of fellow workers in dialogue.  He obviously valued their views not as some sample of false consciousness or representatives of a lumpenproletariat  but as equals; people with interesting stories to tell.  This might seem incongruous with the Alex who gave such deliciously detailed thrashings to readings who challenged him in The Nation’s letter section, but all who knew him saw it again and again. However, his interests in meeting people had limits, he dreaded the speechifying of self righteous audience members after a talk masquerading as questions.  Weeks after the University of Florida campus police tased that  student in 2007 who yelled “don’t tase me bro” as he demanded John Kerry answer his questions at a Constitution Day campus event,  Alex wryly pretended to defend the campus police, saying it was about time someone took action against questioners taking the floor with endless multi-pronged questions that were never meant to be answered.

It is rare to find such a sharp critical voice who able to retain elements of optimism even while acknowledging the dire obstacles.  Alex understood that even while the ever growing long arm of the state was increasing surveillance, abusing the military judicial system to avoid due process, and assassinating American citizens with drones, we still have the power to write and speak out about these and other atrocities.  And use that right he did.  Perhaps one of the clearest glimpses of Alex’s eternal optimism was seen by anyone who had experience of breaking down on some back road with him in any one of the cars from his menagerie of classic jalopies.   No matter what clanking sound came from the beneath the undercarriage, or what hue of smoke belched from beneath the hood, he seemed to channel the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, insisting that it wasn’t really that bad.

In the end Alex was very private about his cancer. I spoke on the phone with him before he left for Europe.  He said he was going to for a few months to spend time with his daughter Daisy.  He talked about how when he returned in the fall we would do our annual trip up to buy salmon to smoke from friends on the Skokomish Indian Reservation.   I knew he had been ill, but had no idea about the cancer much less the severity of the situation.  Like others who knew him, I am shocked by the suddenness of his exit, and I am sad to lose a friend and such a strong critical voice.  He leaves us with an empty space that cannot be filled.  While I can’t imagine another writer coming to take his place, there is some small solace that CounterPunch remains as a place where other critical voices can be heard and emerge to carry on the sort of critical work that Alex spent his life pursuing with passion, focus, outrage, conscience, humor and calls for justice.

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.