Perhaps the kindest compliment you can pay an enemy is to admit that you are at least interested in what he has to say. I shamelessly admit that I often find myself clicking through the pages of the e-rag Counterpunch, seeing what chum it has dumped into the water most recently. At the very least, the site adds some originality to the often boring and always annoyingly self-regarding, far-left niche. The site’s editor, the acid-tongued muckraker Alexander Cockburn, died recently after a battle with cancer nobody knew he was fighting. Even Cockburn’s staunchest critic could not deny his powerful style and facility with language, honed, as with most British radicals, from a life conspicuously devoid of self-criticism and self-reflection. Add to this an extraordinary talent for weaving narratives of pure deceit and speculation and you have a true icon of the left-wing cause.
Cockburn’s approach to writing is best described as violent. Whittaker Chambers once wrote that one could discern in the writing of Ayn Rand the unspoken injunction “To the gas chamber – go!” Lurking somewhere in the syntax of Cockburn’s prose was always the vague feeling that, should he ever get his way, you just might be the first to be put up against the wall and shot. He was, however, able to cover up this menace fairly well. Like many British-born polemicists of his age, he wrote the literary equivalent of Potemkin villages: drab and boorish sludge covered up in elegant facades of linguistic flourish. Always charming, he was, and yet always ready with the dagger in his pocket. This is both a compliment and a criticism, mind you.
His leftism was of the old European variety: hard, stark, bitter, cynical, uncompromising, and, most important, shameless. For instance, he once published, on Counterpunch, a piece by Fidel Castro on the “brutal military alliance” known as NATO. One wonders how such a piece came to be published — whether, for instance, Castro pitched the idea or whether Cockburn made the call to Havana to solicit the opinions of the dictator himself. Both scenarios are equally sad and full of more ironies than space permits to explain. Either way, we are not left wondering how Cockburn chose his friends and enemies.