I’ve spent recent days on an island north of Huntsville pondering the death from cancer, at 71, of the Irish-American left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn. He’s often paired with Christopher Hitchens, whose death last December got far more media attention, surely because Hitchens made a well-trod journey to the right in the final phase of his career. Cockburn never did.
Both were left-wing Oxonians who came to the U.S. in the 1970s. Cockburn did media critiques in the Village Voice, a Wall Street Journal column, cookbook reviews for House and Garden — both men had a range that flabbergasted U.S. readers. Cockburn got ditched by the Voice probably due to criticizing Israeli policy, especially its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He moved to a less visible post at the Nation. Hitchens traveled ever upward into outlets like Vanity Fair, and from left to right, culminating in enthusiastic support for the Iraq war, a “right-wing codger . . . trumpeting away like a Cheltenham colonel in some ancient Punch cartoon,” Cockburn said. Each wrote like a dream, though with phrases like that, in my view, Cockburn often out-Hitched Hitchens, or under-Hitched him.
There’s been lots said on why Hitchens lurched to the right but I think Cockburn nailed it: an insatiable need for attention, as Hitchens’ previous political postures ran out of gas. Cockburn spotted it in Hitchens’ perplexing choice to attack a former friend, Palestinian advocate Edward Said, at the time of Said’s death, in order “to put himself at the center of the spotlight by taking his old friend down a few notches.” That’s harsh but rings true and I don’t mean to sound superior. We all need attention, maybe especially writers. The question is: do we control the need or does it rule us?
I imagine Cockburn would’ve preferred to remain on large stages, but he seems to have cheerfully followed his bliss and accepted the consequences, retreating in effect into a far smaller context, the magazine and website Counterpunch, which he co-edited, though on a leveler field than would have been so in the days before the Internet. You can see his impressive equanimity in a C-SPAN interview online. Hitchens absolutely required the ongoing attention, whatever it cost to gain and keep.
Cockburn had the confidence not only to settle on the margins but to marginalize himself even there by, in particular, rejecting the left-wing consensus on the human sources of climate change. Wow. Almost all the heartfelt eulogies for him from the left have thrown in a rider about that, finding it unacceptable and incomprehensible. But he caught a whiff of something in the climate change movement — an edge of ideological purity and moral absolutism — that reminded him of the Stalinism that both he and Hitchens abhorred as young Marxists. “There is a witch-hunting element in climate catastrophism,” he wrote.
After the Soviet Union vaporized, that kind of fanaticism migrated mostly into the ranks of the right, but humans of all political stripes remain susceptible to it. He felt the years after Sept. 11 showed “clearly how mass moral panics and intellectual panics” take root. If that made him an “intellectual blasphemer” on the left, he seems to have felt it also made him useful. Where did he get such confidence? Maybe from his relationship with his dad, Claud Cockburn, also a left journalist. But who really knows in these matters?
I met him only glancingly, during his time at the Voice, when he reprinted something critical I’d done on Susan Sontag. Then occasionally in recent years, he’d put pieces of mine from mainstream Canadian media on the Counterpunch site, always without asking, and I always felt honored and also relieved as if: Whew. Maybe I’ve still got it.
By chance I’m listening to some Fred Astaire songs as I write this. At the moment, “Let Yourself Go,” from 1936, in which Astaire throws himself into a tap routine, catches his breath just enough to shout, Relax! and keeps going, much as Olympic sprinters say they’re trained to relax during a race. Cockburn had that sort of grace plus energy. In fact he had an Astairean quality: lean, finely hewn facial features — though of course in him the elegance was above all verbal.