The Beaten Devil
The evil charm of Alexander Cockburn.
July 27, 2012 - 4:02 pm
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.
Oh, Counterpunch. How do I loathe thee? Clicking through the site’s archives, one comes across a confused piece entitled “Muammar Gaddafi: In Memoriam,” written by someone named Fawzia Afzal-Khan. This article ponders whether we should view Gaddafi as a tyrant or a reformer. The jury is out for Ms. Khan or, indeed, never convened in the first place. Perhaps not wishing to out herself as an unadulterated lover of tyranny, Khan is careful not to state too clearly what she thinks. Cockburn himself was less demure. Here’s what he wrote about Gaddafi in October 2011:
Dollar for dollar I doubt Qaddafi has a rival in any assessment of the amount of oil revenues in his domain actually distributed for benign social purposes. Derision is heaped on his Green Book, but in intention it can surely stand favorable comparison with kindred Western texts. Anyone labeled by Ronald Reagan “This mad dog of the Middle East” has an honored place in my personal pantheon.
Cockburn died in Berlin, Germany. If he had been living there in April 1986, he may have been one of the casualties of the bomb that exploded at the La Belle discotheque, planted by the henchmen of Abu Nidal, a long-time client of Gaddafi. How interesting, but not at all surprising, that Cockburn would choose only Western nations in which to live and hawk his wares, and only those that had been attacked or degraded most viciously by people he regarded, in varying degrees, as co-thinkers and comrades-in- arms.
Sometimes, this hypocrisy took the form of amnesia. In 1980, when the Afghans were getting their own taste of the Brezhnev doctrine, Cockburn wrote of their country:
An unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the occidental world…. If ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakably cruel too.
That, you see, is what they call “speaking truth to power.” Predictably, Cockburn opposed the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. An alleged “radical,” he nevertheless defended the status quo when it came to the most barbaric reactionaries and seemed comfortable with, if not amenable to, the death-cult establishments in Palestine and Lebanon. In fact, when I think hard about it, I wonder why this man was considered a radical at all. When your essential worldview is shaped by the writings of a 19th century German philosopher, you are not a radical. When you publish op-eds by dictators who have been in power since Eisenhower was president, you are, in a very literal sense, a conservative. When you’re skeptical about everything except Josef Stalin, you cannot be said to have a very developed sense of bucking “the establishment.”
Maybe this accounts for Cockburn’s status, more so in his later years, as the Pat Buchanan of the Left — the guy who’d show up in ostensibly rival publications as the house whackjob. He began this trend in the 1980s at the Wall Street Journal and, at least toward the end of his career, had sufficiently warmed up to the paleocons to be published in The American Conservative and Chronicles. (He also had currency among certain “libertarians.”) His more heterodox positions included being critical of climate alarmism, defending gun rights, and expressing, albeit with relative timidity, skepticism toward abortion. In light of this, many on the right might feel the urge to embrace Cockburn as a kind of oddity from the curiosity shop. John Fund of National Review, for instance, suggests that Cockburn “was getting more and more things ‘right’” as he aged.
It’s true that some of his work is entertaining and well done: his evisceration of 9/11 conspiracy theorists is fare that everyone can enjoy. But Cockburn was no Christopher Hitchens. Whatever positions he shared with genuine lovers of freedom were purely accidental; he remained opposed to everything the United States stands for and ever stood for. In his four decades of living here he never once uttered or wrote a word of appreciation for this country, or at least not one word that could be noticed beyond its 30-second half-life, buried deep in a column somewhere that no one will ever read again. To the far left, this lack of appreciation is a virtue; it is also why they must continue to invent reasons why their ideology is not accepted by most Americans.
I never met Cockburn. Hell, maybe I would have liked to. He seemed like an affable enough bloke in person. I’m not glad he’s dead, and I admire how stoically he fought cancer. But he ought not to be excused for his beliefs. Too many radicals get a pass when they die; they become martyred on the obit pages as freedom fighters for the very people they did the most to keep tortured in their cells. I have noticed — again, not surprisingly — that liberals, whom Cockburn castigated even more than conservatives, have reserved their harshest words for his views on climate change rather than his Stalinist tendencies. It’s about time we start spitting on some graves, don’t you think? To put it more simply, Cockburn was an a**hole, knew he was an a**hole, enjoyed being an a**hole, came from a long line of a**holes, and left this world the same way he entered: at the fringes of humanity.
Illustration courtesy shutterstock / snake3d
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