Saturday, July 21, 2012

Alexander Cockburn 1941-2012

I had no idea he was ill, and he wanted it that way.

I always liked reading Cockburn, though I sometimes, not quite often filtered his opinions from his factual presentations. Before the age of the Internet, Cockburn (along with his then writing cohort James Ridgeway), then writing in The Village Voice, was vital to knowing what was going on in the Middle East, such as when Israel began its 1982 Lebanon War. Cockburn would provide information from the Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz that was completely at odds with the US newspapers of record that helped readers understand the corruption behind Israel's decision to go to war and what was happening during that war. We did not have to agree with his consistently harsh conclusions about the nature of Israeli governments to understand something was rotten in this instance, and he was helpful in pointing to the Israeli soldiers who returned from that war and joined in protests against that war. It was in those moments that one reaffirmed how dynamic, intelligent and brave Israeli society was, and why it was worth preserving, notwithstanding Cockburn's deep dislike of Israel as a nation.

Cockburn also helped us understand just how many people Stalin killed during the 1930s and 1940s, even if his numbers were ultimately lower than what his readers could conclude from his analyses. I recall him arguing numbers in The Nation in the 1980s where he and historian Jerry Hough were pretty effective in showing the numbers were less than I had been taught and learned through more mainstream sources, though Cockburn's attacks on the work of people like Robert Conquest proved hollow to me. See, for example, Cockburn's letter exchange with Conquest in The Nation's archives, August 7/14, 1989 issues where Cockburn makes some very powerful points.

Further, it was Cockburn and later I.F. Stone who steered me to Victor Serge, with Cockburn sometimes sneering at Serge, and Stone revering Serge (I stand with Stone in deeply admiring Serge). I was so pleased to also learn when I met Robert Conquest at a book fair in Los Angeles some years ago how much he revered Serge. He flattered me, saying, "So few people know about Serge, and I am very glad you have read him."

Cockburn had his quirky side. He was a Brit who lived in northern California for the past 35 years or so. He crankily disagreed with climate change scientists, sounding increasingly like Williams Jennings Bryan railing against evolution (see this article from Cockburn and the wonderful essay on Bryan by the evolutionist Stephen Gould in his book of essays, "Bully for Brontosaurus"). On subjects such as evolution and now climate change, Bryan and now Cockburn remind us there is almost always politics embedded within science and we have to be careful about how we draw conclusions from lab experiments, scientific observations and the like.

Cockburn also had his mean side, particularly his ridiculous attacks on Eric Alterman--who gave as good as he got from Cockburn. Here is a splice which unfortunately shows Alterman acting more petulantly than Cockburn (I was trying to find something more substantive, where Alterman makes some trenchant points, as well).

Cockburn came from as notable a family as Gore Vidal. Cockburn's father was, of course, the great Red journalist of the 1920s and 1930s, Claud Cockburn (Claud's autobiography, published in the US as "A Discord of Trumpets" is required reading for any aspiring journalist even in this Internet age). Cockburn's great-great grandfathers included the British rear admiral, George Cockburn, who burned down the White House during the War of 1812 while saving the lives of African-American slaves and moving them to freedom, and Henry Cockburn, a respected Scottish jurist of the early 19th Century and noted writer of his day.

Cockburn's brother, Andrew, is an amazing journalist who writes in a scholarly way about hot war zones, military expenditures and the like (Andrew's "The Threat" remains one of the most prescient attacks on the Soviet military ever written). And his nieces include the lefty and often brilliant pundit, Laura Flanders, and the talented and yes, beautiful Olivia Wilde.

While those who are not leftists, and even a few leftists will say, Good riddance, I say, I am going to deeply miss Alexander Cockburn. His prose was always brilliant, and he was one of those writers willing to dig deep for facts and make connections that most would miss. He was far more illuminating than most writers in corporate owned media. He was able to write about the sex scandals of British royalty of the early 19th Century in the midst of the Clinton sex scandals and draw connections nobody else was drawing, not only from the politics of the moment, but the way in which the cultures had responded. Cockburn was a unique writer, a gifted writer and one who understood the accomplishments of his family and gleaned insights from those accomplishments.

I'd say rest in peace, but Cockburn was a proud atheist and would have shouted "Rubbish!" if I said that.:-) As you wish, sir.

NOTE: Readers interested in Cockburn in book form could do no better than read "Corruptions of Empire." It is funny, journalistic and scholarly, and very much engaged with the society in which Cockburn and we have lived.

ADDENDUM 7/31/12: Dennis Perrin has posted the two initial columnsabout the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Reading them, I am again reminded about how prescient Cockburn was regarding the true intentions of the Afghan mullahs and their fundamentalist supporters in Afghanistan. It was certainly harsh, but I again recall thinking in 1984, when one of the rebel leaders in Afghanistan told then newsman, Dan Rather, that after they were through with the Soviets, they would turn against the West, that maybe Cockburn was onto something....


At July 25, 2012 at 8:35:00 AM PDT, Anonymous politicalfootball said...

I don't intend to read "Corruptions of Empire," but I wonder if you've got some other piece of Cockburn's work that isn't awful. Unless I missed something, you only provide his ruminations on climate change and his dismissive response to Alterman, neither of which speak very well for his integrity and insight.


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