Alexander Cockburn 1941-2012

James Fallows (as he points out himself, a blandly centrist journalist of a type that Cockburn despised) on Cockburn:

As Michael Tomasky points out in this appreciation, Alex Cockburn essentially pioneered the modern persona for which Christopher Hitchens became much better known: the fancily Oxford-educated leftie Brit litterateur/journalist who would say all the outrageous things his bland Yank counterparts lacked the wit, courage, erudition, or épater-spirit to utter on their own. As both Tomasky and James Wolcott make clear, Cockburn was far more committed and purposeful in his outrageousness. His own brutal obituary about Hitchens both explains and exemplifies the differences. Short version: Cockburn said that Hitchens always knew just how far he could go; Cockburn knew, and kept on going. His “Press Clips” column in the Village Voice genuinely revolutionized the way people talked and thought about the mainstream press.

Michael Tomasky:

It’s worth recalling that he was the first. Modern America’s first exposure to that literary, highly lapidary, polysyllabically festooned, and sometimes grotesquely overstated and unfair brand of polemicism that we now know so well. He blazed the trail that Hitchens and others followed. He was also America’s first modern press critic. A.J. Liebling, I would argue, did something a little different. The idea of weekly items critiquing the ideological presumptions of this particular Times article or that particular Washington Post column was invented by Alex.

It feels very end-of-an-era-like.




  1. Cliff Hendroval says

    It’s a tough call, because so many of the things he wrote about need to be held up to the light for real examination. That being said, he is a Stalin apologist the same way David Irving or Pat Buchanan is a Hitler apologist.

  2. MNb0 says

    Alexander Cockburn also wrote one of the most stupid books I have ever read: Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death from 1975. It’s a silly speculative Freudian analysis of the game, which sheds another light on his surname.
    Since then I always have had trouble to take him seriously.

  3. Alasdair says

    Huh, I never even realised he was British… but now I think about it, it does make sense. I remember thinking it unlikely that America would produce a writer so radically, outspokenly leftwing.

  4. Lyanna says

    True, Cliff. But we don’t need to classify him as Good or Bad, do we? We can say he wrote about important things and was a Stalin apologist, and just sort of let it rest there.

    Sally Ride died today as well. An amazing woman, and of course right-wingers (like the vomitrocious Debbie Schlussel) are lining up to say she was just a token.

  5. bachalon says

    Cockburn was hugely influential on me. I’ve been reading Counterpunch since I was a teenager and found a stack of them in a used bookstore.

  6. Dave says

    I’m afraid people like Cockburn were, and are, symbols of the failure of leftist politics in the post-1968 era to be anything except petty, vindictive sniping, and a concern with ego-driven righteousness that is depressingly familiar to anyone who has studied their ilk from the days of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Marx, et al onwards. Cockburn’s late descent into the sewers of climate-change denial, like Hitchens’ into neocon apologism, atop the resolute failure of either of them to effect anything resembling a positive change in the culture they claimed to comment on, should remind us just how easy it is for sheer bloody pointlessness to overwhelm reason, justice and common sense. These people had the opportunity to make the basic claims of social justice obvious, yet they wasted their energies on defending past mistakes, and producing the raw materials for new ones.

  7. eveningperson says

    Sadly, this supposedly impressive word-spinning seems to go along with a lack of any genuine scepticism about matters in the real world. When they were right, it was more by chance than any genuine analysis. I cannot think of Hitchens without thinking of his neoconservative fantasies about the iraq war, and I cannot think of Cockburn without recalling his complete capture by frauds and charlatans on climate change.

  8. slc1 says

    Re Dave @ #6

    We should also mention his borderline antisemitism, based on his disdain for the State of Israel. To Cockburn, Israel could do no right and its opponents could do no wrong. His slavish attacks on Israel and his uncritical attitude toward the Palestinians was counterproductive and contributed nothing to the Palestinian cause. He was so extreme that I seem to recall that he was suspended for a time at the Nation magazine, hardly a Zionist outlet.

  9. John the Drunkard says

    My local weekly, the Bay Guardian, stopped running Cockburn’s column more than a decade ago. They had fact-checked a column and he refused to allow any oversight.

    Cockburn was an ideologue, his father was a KGB agent and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

  10. kobi says

    good comment thread… i’m heartened by the critical approach of my fellow b&w readers, and concur!

  11. says


    “I cannot think of Hitchens without thinking of his neoconservative fantasies about the iraq war, and I cannot think of Cockburn without recalling his complete capture by frauds and charlatans on climate change.”

    Hitchens made the important distinction between the ‘pro-totalitarian left’ and the ‘anti-totalitarian left’, of which latter he claimed personal membership.

    Those of us on the left who critically supported both father and son Bush against Saddam Hussein did so without compromising the principles of the traditional left. But one had to be a political and moral contortionist of the first rank to support Saddam Hussein in Iraq Wars 1 or 2.

    The position of ‘I oppose both the war and Saddam’ was tried by some, and found sadly wanting. On Iraq, Hitchens was right.

    I don’t think Cockburn’s qualifications in climatology amounted to much, and a journalist opposing mainstream opinion in that field usually winds up supporting a conspiracy theory: ‘they [the climatologists] will say whatever will get them their next research grant’. Many denialists I think are now having second thoughts, and first regrets, on the position they took, given what the global climate is now actually doing.

  12. Dave says

    But, if Hitchens was ‘right’ about Iraq, doesn’t the same argument apply about Syria today? If there was ‘rightness’ in the arbitrary decision to wade into an invasion, on grounds put before the UN that turned out [who could have known?] to be the transparent fantasies of the US Govt, then surely there is so much more rightness now in the argument that we must invade to save the people of Syria? Or is it somehow different when you know that you don’t actually have a superpower itching to beat the crap out of anyone who looks conveniently like an evil dictator hanging around over your shoulder?

    Hitchens’ ‘distinction’ was a piece of crap then, and it’s a piece of crap now. Sure, there’s a ‘pro-totalitarian left’, Cockburn was one of them; but disagreeing with them doesn’t put you on the side of the angels if you make other, equally sucky, choices of political bedfellow.

  13. says

    Dave: With all due respect, politics seldom allows the ‘plague on both your houses’ position to be held easily, or to be actually even-handed. To oppose Bush was inescapably in the circumstances of the time, to support Saddam Hussein, whether you said you were doing it, or said you weren’t doing it.

    Saddam himself knew that, and encouraged every Tom, Dick and Harriet in the West to oppose Bush for all they were worth. Some misguided souls you will recall went further, and offered themselves as ‘human shields’ for various sites in Baghdad. Saddam cheerfully accepted their offer, welcomed them to Iraq, and stationed them around military targets of his own choosing.

  14. says

    “Or is it somehow different when you know that you don’t actually have a superpower itching to beat the crap out of anyone who looks conveniently like an evil dictator hanging around over your shoulder?”

    Are you saying that Saddam Hussein or Bashar al Assad only look like evil dictators? I know appearances can be deceptive, but surely their deeds count for something.

  15. John the Drunkard says

    Is it only ‘right’ to wish for the fall of Saddam if they aftermath is ‘good?’

    Was it wrong to fight against Hitler because the war left eastern Europe under Stalin’s thumb?

    I think felling Saddam was a Good Thing, of itself. In the real world such a project doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If the occupation and reconstructions efforts in Iraq had not been so hideously mismanaged by incompetent, corrupt Republican old-boys, would we still be so troubled about false intelligence?

    Hitchens did go beyond his anti-totalitarian principles. He was willing to think better of Bush than was reasonable. We all have to deal with this kind of implied alliance if we take a principled position in politics.

    If you stand up for the rights of brown women, you will find yourself in proximity to creeps like Geller and Spencer. If you criticize Islam, your words my comfort Xians with whom you wouldn’t want to share a drinking cup.

  16. says

    Yes, there weren’t any among the anti-Bush mob who were prepared to follow their own logic and campaign for Saddam’s reinstatement once he was deposed and jailed. They all thought his fall was a Good Thing.

    It was just that they opposed the only conceivable means of bringing it about: on which Hitchens was always prepared to remind them.

  17. eveningperson says

    Ian McDougall: All the moral correctness in the world is useless without thinking of the likely consequences of an action, and both Hitchens and all the neocons refused to do that.

    You did not have to ‘support Saddam’ to realise that there were even worse alternatives, and so it came to pass – up to a million dead, the massive destruction of Iraqi infrastructure that has never been replaced, the virtual expulsion of the Christian and Jewish communities, a drastic worsening in the situation of women, sectarian ‘cleansing’, the triumph of Iran (which the neocons want another war to deal with)…

    And why Saddam, when there were even worse dictators in the world? It had more to do with oil, and that Saddam needed to be punished because he used to be one of ‘ours’, even though he was just as evil a dictator then.

    Hitchens was no moral thinker.

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