One of Alexander Cockburn’s specialties was attacking people just after they had died (presumably to keep obituary writers honest, but also to thumb his nose at a sentimental convention of the establishment press). So as a tribute on hearing of his death, I thought I’d inventory his problematic qualities. But I confess I’m really not up for it.
Granted, Alex was at his peak in attack mode, especially when you agreed with him on the target. His style was witty, coruscating, deadly, in the highest polemical traditions of Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken. Yet his most slashing sallies were always fact-based, right up to his final Nation column, last issue, on the Libor scandal. Commenting on Labour Party leader (and former Nation intern) Ed Miliband’s proposal that the Big Five banks sell off up to 1,000 of their branches, Alex wrote: “In the current culture of rabid criminality in the banking system, that would surely be unwise, unleashing 1,000 small-time banksters.”
Like every other journalist in town, I was a regular reader of Alex’s irresistible, hilarious, brilliant, biased “Press Clips” column in the Village Voice when, in 1984, it was announced that he had been suspended for accepting a $10,000 grant from an outfit called the Institute for Arab Studies to write a book about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, without informing his editor.
It seemed to me at the time that if Alex had been awarded a Guggenheim and not mentioned it, nobody would have objected, so he was being punished for what was an ideological crime. After consulting with The Nation’s Andrew Kopkind (an old buddy of Alex’s), I decided to convert Alex’s suspension into a departure and offered him a column in The Nation. And so “Beat the Devil”—named after the novel by his father, Claud Cockburn, that was the basis for the cult 1953 movie—was born.
I loved the idea that Alex’s column would appear in The Nation because (a) nobody wrote better than he did, (b) he usually had something original to say and (c) it served as a standing rebuke to those who condemned The Nation for having some sort of party line. That last virtue became even more painfully obvious as the years went by and he increasingly chose as his targets Nation writers and editors, including yours truly, Christopher Hitchens, Eric Alterman, Katha Pollitt and Aryeh Neier (who wrote a human rights column); left-liberal heroes like Bernie Sanders; worthies like neo-Nazi-watcher Chip Berlet, human rights activist Michael Massing and my Columbia Journalism School colleague Todd Gitlin; and so many public intellectuals, journalists and activists on the liberal left and in the neo-center that, as I wrote in my book A Matter of Opinion, “it would be more manageable to make a list of the exempt (starting with his late father and the rest of his talented family),” to whom he was unfailingly, and touchingly, loyal.
Alex served, among other things, as a corrective to the magazine’s liberal pieties. Once, when we co-sponsored a conference with the University of Southern California on the role of the journal of opinion, we made a point of inviting the editors of magazines with whom we were in varying degrees of disagreement, like The American Spectator, The New Republic, The New Criterion and National Review. Here is what Alex had to say in his column on the eve of the conference:
“I’m glad the rights of these horrible journals are guaranteed under the First Amendment, but I don’t think they ‘keep the mainstream honest.’ To the contrary, these are exactly the magazines that have helped corrupt the mass media and instruct them in the art of telling lies. These magazines have not widened debate, they have narrowed it to leather-lunged condoning of reaction, both in politics and culture.”
Despite his occasional assaults on what seems to me the inarguable (see his columns on global warming), and despite views that seemed cranky or worse to many Nation readers (see his columns on the Middle East and on the number of Stalin’s victims), on balance—a term that would have infuriated him—I’m proud and glad that The Nation gave Alex his final forum as our longest-running columnist. And by the way, it should be noted that he was generous in crediting (and mentoring) those Nation interns lucky enough to work with him.
Alex, you’ve left a big hole in this magazine—and yes, to be sentimental, in our hearts. As Elizabeth Pochoda, our former literary editor, put it, “Who will ever insult us as well as he?”