Born Under Punches

Alexander, Jeffrey, Joshua, Becky. Image by Nathaniel St. Clair.

When CounterPunch went to press 30 years ago on paper printed with ink that smeared your fingers, Bill Gates was worth a mere $6 billion, the atmosphere was clotted with a (barely) liveable 357PPM of carbon dioxide, Bill Clinton was plotting his first missile strikes (Iraq, of course), Larry Summers was scheming how to turn Brazil into the US’s toxic waste dump and Al Gore’s great invention was little more than a dial-up traffic jam. 

The fateful year 1993 wasn’t the dawn of neoliberalism, but it was the year the control room passed into the hands of the so-called New Democrats and the great counter-revolution of austerity at home and muscle-flexing abroad shifted into hyperdrive. It wasn’t just trade that was being globalized, but trade enforced by military power, backed by 835 overseas bases.

The Cold War was over (or at least put on pause) and new wars began: Colombia, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Instead of shrinking, NATO swelled, seeking strategic advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union, provocations we’re now feeling the predictable and deadly consequences of.

At home, Clinton, in his own fragrant words, turned the economy “over to the fucking bond market.” He pushed through NAFTA, allowed Robert Rubin to wreck the Mexican peso and kept on Alan Greenspan to strangle the aspirations of working people.  Then Bill and Al went to work slashing and burning the few strands of the social safety that had survived the Reagan years, starting with welfare, food stamps, and aid to mothers with dependent children. As the ranks of the poor grew, the lavishly financed prisons greedily swallowed them up. By the time Clinton left office in 2000, the federal prison population had more than doubled, from 70,000 to 145,000, largely thanks to vengeful crime bills he concocted in collaboration with Joe Biden. These were the kinds of punches that CounterPunch was born under and we came out CounterPunching from the crib. As our esteemed contributor Ishmael Reed says, “Writin’ is fightin’.”

First issue of CounterPunch.

CounterPunch went online in 1998, just in time for Clinton’s war on Serbia. Now we’re at war in Europe again and have greenlit the ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip. No one asked us if we wanted another war. It was imposed on us by powers that don’t ask for consent. 

You could say CounterPunch came of age in wartime and we’ve spent the last 25 years covering bloody conflicts, even when we desperately want to write about something else.

I don’t consider myself a war correspondent by any measure. That harrowing calling was taken up by writers like Robert Fisk, John Ross, Franklin Lamb, Uri Avnery, Saul Landau,  Ariel Dorfman, and Patrick Cockburn. People who wrote under literal fire. Writers you’ve all read here on CounterPunch. This year alone two of our writers, Boris Kagarlitsky and Prabir Purkayastha, have been arrested and jailed for the crime of writing honestly about their own authoritarian regimes.    

We’re trying desperately to get them out.

Still, I have been covering wars for nearly three decades now, even when I’d rather be writing about cerulean warblers, steelhead trout struggling for life in the cool emerald pools of the Klickitat River or the way the mists hang on the last stands of ancient Sitka spruce forest in the Oregon Coast Range in late October. New wars keep intruding, regardless of who controls the Congress or the White House, and the old ones don’t end. Not really: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Serbia, Libya, Ukraine and now Gaza. Poor, enchained Gaza again. History keeps getting recycled, only more gruesomely. 

Obama bombed more people than any Nobel Laureate this side of Henry Kissinger. Who was there to call him out? Not the New York Times or Washington Post. The wars of the last 30 years have been enabled by the very journalistic institutions that were meant to challenge them. Journalism failed when it was needed most. Worse than failed. In many ways, it was complicit. We refused to be complicit. Our critiques of Obama’s wars were just as unflinching as the ones we had leveled at Bush or Trump or Biden. War is war no matter who is programming the drone strikes.

Not everyone saw it that way. We lost readers. We lost donors. People complained we didn’t give Obama (and now Biden) a chance to prove himself. If we shifted into a more comforting form of journalism, as so many other publications have done, who will be left to put the constraints on a military machine that is running rampant over our lives, our democracy, and the future of our planet? 

The proof about Obama and his sidekick Joe Biden was right there in the escalating body count: the Afghan surge, Asian pivot, droning of American citizens, a genocidal war on Yemen, a CIA coup in Honduras, the jailing of people who blew the whistle on his wars. By the time cruise missiles were hitting Sirte and Benghazi, previously disaffected readers started returning. Damn, you were right! Believe me, we took no pleasure in it. 

Now here we are again in a distressingly familiar position. Every time Democrats take power complacency sets in. People were exhausted by the tumult and drama of the Trump follies. People needed a breather after Covid, assuming there is such a happy state. Readership and revenues shrink. We feel it here, too. Becky and Deva keep a close eye on our bottom line and it doesn’t look good. The economy has taken a nosedive at the very moment the world is hurtling toward both a nuclear confrontation and a climate-driven ecological collapse.

But this is no time to look away. Danger signs are flashing on all fronts, from the bellicose threats against China and the deepening quagmire in Ukraine to the pulverization of Gaza City. The marketing of liberal wars usually comes in humanitarian guises like the so-called right to protect. But these virtuous claims must be put to the test. That’s what we are here to do. It’s what we’ve done for almost 30 years now, even when people have said that we can’t go on. Even when the accounts are low and the prospects bleak. Can’t go on? We must go on. What choice do we have?

In the end, we’ve largely depended on the kindness of our readers to survive. And, though there have been some very close calls, this simple and direct approach of appealing directly to those who know us best hasn’t failed in 30 years. We’ve grown in the decade since Alexander Cockburn died. The online readership is probably twice what it was in August 2012. We’re publishing more pieces each week and adding new writers every day. The website has been completely revamped into a more efficient and flexible WordPress design that even a crusty Luddite like me can’t screw up too badly. It even works on smartphones, where the analytics say more than half of the site’s visitors read CounterPunch. To keep up, our staff (still tiny by most standards) has more than doubled in size, from three to seven: Becky, Deva and Nichole in the business office, Andrew keeping the site running and the hackers at bay, and me, Josh and Nat on the editorial side.

That means our costs have more than doubled. But we haven’t resorted to gimmicks and trickery. We still depend almost exclusively on the community of online readers who utilize CounterPunch for free: no clickbait, no ads, no paywalls.

We’ve taken hits. But we’ve counterpunched with words and ideas, facts and names. And we’re still standing, bloodied and bruised, but upright, ready for the next round. And with you in our corner, we’ll come out swinging.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3