ON CHRISTMAS EVE, 2010, Alexander Cockburn began a journal entry, or letter, or short column for his newsletter Counterpunch in this fashion: “The prime constant factor in American politics across the last six decades has been …”
Let us pause for a moment to conjecture how commentators of diverse political complexion might have completed that sentence. The exercise may give us some sense of Cockburn’s place in the culture of late-20th/early-21st century journalism.
A Tea Partier might say: “… the ever-increasing tyranny of federal bureaucracies.” A paleoconservative might say: “… the expulsion of God from the public square.” A neoconservative might say: “… the weakening of American resolve and the global decline of American power.” A neoliberal might say: “… increasing recognition that markets work better than government intervention.” A feminist or gay activist might say: “… the gradual extension of equal rights.” A civil libertarian might say: “… the gradual erosion of civil liberties.” An environmentalist might say: “… a blind emphasis on economic growth at all costs.” A social democrat might say: “… the dwindling of social solidarity from its high point just after World War II.”
All these perspectives have at least a grain of truth. But Cockburn’s answer cuts deepest: “… a counterattack by the rich against the social reforms of the 1930s.” Class warfare is not the only kind of struggle, nor is it always and everywhere the most important. But it is the most intractable and invisible kind, and Cockburn was one of very few American journalists who never lost sight of it.
This determined reassertion of business dominance has transformed nearly every aspect of American society. The non-enforcement of labor law and the resulting decline of unions, most obviously, but just about everything else as well: the increasing cost of elections; voting restrictions and election logistics that keep working-class and minority turnout down; the exponential growth of lobbying and corporate public relations. Add to that the dependably lucrative private-sector employment for corrupt (i.e., nearly all) former legislators; the concentration of media ownership; “free-trade” agreements and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs; a new and draconian intellectual property regime; the metastasis of the tax code.
Then there’s the infestation of regulatory agencies (especially at the policy level) by industry hacks; the privatization of war-fighting and the corrections system; the creation of business-friendly precedents by packing the appellate judiciary with conservative extremists; endless factually-challenged broadsides against Social Security and the estate tax. As well as the tightening of the screws on bankruptcy and student debt; the brazen promotion of junk science and dubious “experts”; and the underfunding of the IRS, the Postal Service, Amtrak, public defenders, public broadcasting, public education — public anything and everything, except public surveillance. It’s as though the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, making use of both political parties, have engineered a brilliant, multifaceted, devastatingly successful campaign to roll back the New Deal.
Which, as Cockburn pointed out, is pretty much what happened. Indeed, so tirelessly did he persist in labeling the United States a class society that he was gently ushered to the margins of American political discussion, whose center is occupied by such intellectual titans as Thomas Friedman and George Will. Very Serious People do not make a fuss about class. It is not a Very Serious Subject. Nor do they indulge in loose talk about American “imperialism,” as Cockburn did repeatedly. That would be vulgar and irresponsible. America makes mistakes abroad, sometimes genocidal ones, but always with good intentions. To doubt this betrays a lack of Seriousness.
The shamelessly unserious Alexander Cockburn (1931–2012) was born in Ireland, schooled in Scotland and England, and apprenticed to Grub Street. His father, Claud Cockburn, was a witty and dashing left-wing journalist, a member of the British Communist Party, and an accomplished novelist and memoirist. In 1972, Alexander came to New York — the belly of the beast, the heart of the empire — to write for the Village Voice, the liveliest and most influential journal of the then-thriving counterculture.
His star rose rapidly. “The Greasy Pole,” a biweekly column on national politics, co-authored with James Ridgeway, was well-reported and hard-hitting. “Press Clips,” a weekly column of press criticism, was even more raucous. Cockburn’s suave prose style and stinging wit delighted his readers and infuriated his targets: blandly deceptive corporate or governmental spokespersons and self-important newspaper or TV pundits spouting conventional wisdom.
Particularly infuriating was his forthright criticism of Israel’s expansionism and its harsh treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and elsewhere. Predictably, false accusations of anti-Semitism dogged him, and when it was revealed in 1982 that he had accepted a $10,000 grant from an Arab-funded institute to write a book on Middle Eastern politics, had not written the book, and had not returned the money, the furor was intense. He was suspended briefly from the Voice, lectured incessantly by self-designated guardians of journalistic ethics, and portrayed as venal and dishonest by the Israel lobby. He soon moved over to The Nation, but “Grantgate” was a bitter experience and, I suspect, contributed to his decision to leave New York a few years later.
Christopher Hitchens has a charming essay about driving cross-country on assignment for The Atlantic in a rented red Corvette. But otherwise, except for occasional forays to Iraq and Afghanistan to bolster the morale of the freedom-fighters, Hitchens stuck pretty close to New York and Washington, DC. Cockburn was forever on the move, driving around the country in beat-up old cars and finally settling in one of the remotest and least gentrified areas in the lower forty-eight. As a result, A Colossal Wreck and its predecessor, The Golden Age Is In Us, are two of the best American books of travel and commentary since Tocqueville (if you like Tocqueville, that is; since Mark Twain if, like me, you don’t). George Packer’s earnest and Serious The Unwinding will probably pick up the prizes, but A Colossal Wreck is a more penetrating, more colorful, and vastly more entertaining account of how early 21st-century Americans think and feel.
Like everyone else’s, Cockburn’s oeuvre was a mix of continuities and idiosyncrasies. The continuities were standard left-wing preoccupations: opposition to unilateral American military intervention, corporate-designed globalization, the scapegoating of immigrants, and the growth of the National Security State, with special bêtes noires including the War on Drugs and the dependable cowardice and hypocrisy of the Democratic Party. Unlike his collaborators James Ridgeway, Ken Silverstein, and Jeffrey St. Clair, Cockburn was not an outstanding investigative reporter. He did not do much digging in databases or archives; did not identify whistleblowers or cultivate sources deep inside malign bureaucracies; did not hurry to battlefields or disaster scenes to see the damage firsthand (though he sponsored plenty of these activities in Counterpunch). His methods, insofar as he had any, were to read a staggering volume and range of the world and local press, transmitting and embellishing whatever piqued his interest, or to arrive somewhere and learn everything about the area and its residents, serving up historical curiosities along with political observations.
But A Colossal Wreck is even less methodical and more miscellaneous than that description suggests. It is a potpourri, a gallimaufry, a salmagundi, highly seasoned. A typical morsel:
Here’s why I’m against the UN as a promoter of federalism and world guv’mint. This just in from Geneva, Switzerland, via Reuter’s wire: “UN upholds French ban on ‘dwarf-throwing.’” It turns out that a diminutive stuntman who had protested against a French ban on the practice of “dwarf-throwing” has lost his case before some sort of UN human rights judicial body. The tribunal issued some typically pious UN claptrap about the need to protect human dignity being paramount.
The dwarf, a fellow called Manuel Wackenheim, argued that a 1995 ban by France’s highest administrative court was discriminatory and deprived him of a job being tossed around discos and similar venues. …
Dwarfs and their throwers will now have to search out venues, like prize-fighters in eighteenth-century England. Soon some place like Slovakia will be their only venue. No doubt a UN embargo will then ensue, with draconian sanctions, appointment of inspectors/spies, followed by the inevitable intervention, NATO bombing, and occupation.
So here’s a bunch of UN administrators, each of them probably hauling down an annual salary hefty enough to keep a troop of dwarfs in caviar for life, dooming poor little Wackenheim to the unemployment lines, before going home to scream at their underpaid Romanian maidservants. […] In the old days, dwarfs could stand proud, strutting down the boulevards, around circus rings, or forming part of some amusing display, or matching themselves against pitbulls (a popular nineteenth-century English pastime). I can remember dwarfs from my childhood in Ireland, along with other bodies remote from conventional anatomy. Walking down the main street of any Irish town reminded one of Breughel. Not any more. I guess even in Catholic Ireland the doc takes a look and chokes nature’s sports before they’ve got out of the starting gate.
Fall is always the best time to meander around the country. Across the Midwest the corn is being harvested. The browns and golds of stubble and still-standing stalks warm those vast flat or slightly undulating vistas. […] Around 100 miles along 94 from Minneapolis we came to Sauk Centre and espied a sign for the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center. Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, which he offered to the world as Gopher Prairie in Main Street, the novel published in 1920 that made his name.
Fortunately the Info Center has not yet found the money to transform itself into an interactive learning experience in the modern manner. In fact, the “center” is an old-fashioned small museum with fading photographs and photostats of Lewis’s working manuscripts. Some of these were detailed plans Lewis drew of his fictional towns, plus his real-estate maps of the inhabitants’ precise locations and their family histories. Every time he visited a graveyard, he’d take down names for future use. …
I’d forgotten how good a writer Lewis was. “This is America,” he wrote in the epigraph to Main Street. “Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. What Ole Jenson the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the sea; whatever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is worthless for knowing and wicked to consider.”
There’s much more of this — perhaps too much. My only complaint about A Colossal Wreck — an ungrateful one, I know — is that the collection is weighted a little too heavily toward the light-hearted. I wish there had been more long and powerful essays like Cockburn’s incensed postmortem tribute to Gary Webb, who revealed the CIA–cocaine connection and was then hounded mercilessly (he finally committed suicide) by establishment media over minor flaws in his reporting. Or like Cockburn’s moving review of The Whisperers, Orlando Figes’ monumental study of private life in Stalinist Russia. Or like his brave and prescient meditation dated September 12, 2001.
Cockburn liked to recount an exchange he had with an editor early in his career: “Alex, is your hate pure?” “Yes, Jim.” But it wasn’t. Cockburn was too fond of pleasure: of cooking, gardening, old cars, curious learning, elegant phrase-making. Too amused by the inexhaustibly hilarious absurdity of life that only Irish writers from Wilde to Beckett to J.F. Powers have seemed able to convey in English. (And not only of life but of language, too. Cockburn imagines a revolution against cliché, with the legendary prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville consigning one after another modish or obfuscatory expression to the guillotine. Among my favorites: “reach out,” “closure,” “vibrant,” “contrarian,” and the Nixon-Obama standby, “Let me be clear.”) There is plenty of rancor — fully justified, by and large — in A Colossal Wreck. But the dominant tone — the overriding impression one takes away of the author — is a near-unique fusion of saeva indignatio and joie de vivre.
The most amusing ten pages in the book are a playlet set in the antechamber of Heaven, where the newly-deceased Christopher Hitchens runs across the not-yet-deceased Henry Kissinger, on an advance diplomatic mission. The wily K lobbies the irate Hitch to withdraw the latter’s scathing indictment, which has caused some murmuring among the liberal faction of Heaven’s admissions committee. Hitchens refuses, but with the support of John Paul II and Mother Teresa, Kissinger wins a promise of salvation, returning to earth to arrange a dramatic deathbed conversion.
This is probably the kindest light in which Cockburn ever portrayed Hitchens, whom he never forgave for supporting “humanitarian intervention” in the Balkans and Iraq. How do the two, once joined in the popular imagination as clever lefty Oxbridge types, stack up? Hitchens was a superb literary journalist; his portraits and review essays will endure. As a political critic, he was not so good, even before 9/11 overwhelmed his critical faculties and he became positively bad. His Nation columns often seemed phoned-in, and his Slate columns were a public menace. Alas, Cockburn seldom wrote long-form, but his prose style was superior to Hitchens’s and his political judgment generally more astute.
Not always, however. I mentioned Cockburn’s idiosyncrasies. They call for brief enumeration. There was his tiresome sniping at Orwell, who had criticized Claud in Homage to Catalonia. More seriously, there was his antipathy to gun control, which he saw as just more evidence of the bourgeois state’s aspiration to total social control. Evidently he thought several thousand accidental deaths a year, and even the proliferation of assault weapons, less intolerable than giving up the remote possibility of armed popular resistance. After all, if guns are outlawed, only the police will have guns.
Then there was his unyielding anti-Malthusianism. He seemed to think that population control was indistinguishable from eugenics, supposedly a perennial progressive fetish. Most distressingly, there was his skepticism about global warming. His inveterate distrust of consensus among the high-minded, plus his discovery that the moribund nuclear power industry was looking to the anti-fossil fuels movement for its salvation, led him to pay attention — too much, perhaps — to the tiny minority of dissenting scientists.
I can see a shred of plausibility in each of these opinions. But mostly sheer orneriness.
Between the malevolence of the Republicans and the mediocrity of the Democrats, the last four decades have been a pretty dismal time to be a left-wing radical in the United States. Few of us have stayed scrappy; still fewer have kept a sense of humor. Cockburn — hedonist, populist, brawler, dandy — made it a little easier. I wish the next generation one of him.