Gordon Campbell on the death of Alexander Cockburn

Alexander Cockburn would probably be amused and annoyed that his death in Germany at the weekend will attract a mere fraction of the accolades heaped on his one-time colleague Christopher Hitchens six months ago. But then, amused outrage was Cockburn’s signature style – as he said in this recent interview, one of his journalistic missions was to dispel the deadly seriousness of the left, and to show that left wing commentators could be just as funny and scathing as the other side. (And even though people on the left often happened to be his prime targets.)

Cockburn was simply peerless as a prose stylist and essayist (Hitchens looks like a flabby exponent of the bleedingly obvious by comparison) and unsurpassed as a sharp-tongued analyst of American politics over the past 40 years, in everything from his Village Voice and Nation columns to the Counterpunch website that he co-edited with Jeffrey St Clair. In this perceptive October 28, 2008 piece for example, Cockburn was one of the few people on the left to predict in detail the disappointment that Barack Obama would turn out to be, in a column published before Obama was elected President.

Cockburn was 71 when he died, after a two year battle with cancer that he kept to himself, his close friends and family. It was a family of journalistic aristocrats, from Ireland. His father was the renowned left wing columnist and writer Claud Cockburn – whose autobiography I, Claud is still well worth reading – and his younger brothers Patrick and Andrew are also prominent journalists, while his niece Olivia Wilde is currently one of Hollywood’s rising stars. By the age of sixteen, as he says in the above interview, the die was cast about a career, and it has been “scribble scribble scribble” ever since.

For those that know Cockburn’s work, no comments from the likes of me can do justice – for most of the 1980s, I was simply in awe of him. No one wrote as brilliantly about the follies and treacheries of the Reagan presidency. His Press Clips column in the Voice became the template for thousands of subsequent columns of media analysis and criticism, including RNZ’s Mediawatch. He loathed and relentlessly mocked (in an article called “Prizes” published in the Wall St Journal in April 1984) the annual self validating rituals in which journalists gave and received prizes from each other, and bragged about it afterwards to their advertisers. “Year after year this undignified prize-giving ritual goes on, without any apparent qualms on the part of my profession. Why?…One answer could be that journalists are, by nature and social function, racked with feelings of insecurity and inferiority; to alleviate those pangs British journalists turn to drink, and American ones to prizes.”

The falling out with Hitchens, when it came, was fiercely fought on both sides. Faced with the ridiculous torrents of praise lavished on “Hitch” before and after his death, Cockburn’s snarky obituary for Hitchens last December struck the Hitchens camp as rank bad manners or worse, but to Cockburn it was simply a matter of setting the historical record straight. After all, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t made every single one of his criticisms of Hitchens to his face, during his lifetime. In this fairly typical passage for instance, Cockburn took aim not only at Hitchens, but – again – at his fellow travelers among the baby boomers on the left who, in his view, tended to be miserly to the poor that they actually met, as opposed to the theoretical poor that they liked to champion:

I think [Hitchens] knew long, long before that this is where he would end up, as a right-wing codger. He used to go on, back in the Eighties, about sodden old wrecks like John Braine, who’d ended up more or less where Hitchens got to, trumpeting away about “Islamo-fascism” like a Cheltenham colonel in some ancient Punch cartoon. I used to warn my friends at New Left Review and Verso in the early 90s who were happy to make money off Hitchens’ books on Mother Teresa and the like that they should watch out, but they didn’t and then kept asking ten years later, What happened?

Anyway, between the two of them, my sympathies were always with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Bombay, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup? You’d get one from Mother Teresa. Hitchens was always tight with beggars, just like the snotty Fabians who used to deprecate charity.

In his later years, Cockburn’s acidic wit could tip over into a self-defeating stance of Alexander against the world. Sceptical of the evidence of global warming, he joined the climate change deniers in this 2007 column, likening the purchase of carbon offsets to the medieval practice of buying indulgences to avoid punishment for one’s sins. Hard to communicate – for someone who had never run across him before – what Cockburn’s fearlessly combative prose meant to those facing the neo-liberal revolutions of the 1980s. He was also a fierce critic of the sway that Israel has had on US foreign policy and fended off the predictable charges of anti-Semitism in a column sarcastically entitled “My Life As An ‘Anti-Semite’.” On a less combative note, the wit and humanity shone through in this amusing 2009 account of why he finally decided to become an American citizen.

Long before all this, he also wrote a brilliant satirical column in 1976 called “How To Be a Foreign Correspondent” about the mandatory clichés of foreign affairs punditry. Unfortunately, this website is the only sign of it online – the original can be found in his 1987 book Corruptions of Empire – and apologies in advance for the block capitals and rampant typos that have been inserted into the text, but it still seems pretty funny, and accurate. (Old journalistic clichés never die, they just don new clothes.)

If I learned anything from Cockburn, it is that the research that provides the context for a story usually is the story – the rest tends to be gossip, and being first with the gossip, as Cockburn once pointed out, is a key part of the psychopathology of journalism. (One more reason for avoiding the company of journalists.) Like his father – who, from his deathbed had dictated to Cockburn’s mother his last column for the Irish Times – Cockburn kept on writing right up to the end. The last piece to be printed before his death appeared in the “ Beat The Devil” column that he wrote for the Nation for nearly three decades, and which he named after a novel written by his father. The column’s subject was the Libor banking scandal in Britain. Typically, Cockburn ended up optimistic that the banking system was so rotten it would eventually collapse, albeit without much help from the political hacks now belatedly denouncing its sins:

Of course, there have been furious calls for further punishment and reform. Labour leader Ed Miliband says “we should break the dominance of the big five banks…and strike off those whose conduct lets this country down and prosecute those who break the law.” He also wants to increase competition by forcing the big banks to sell off up to 1,000 of their branches. In the current culture of rabid criminality in the banking system, that would surely be unwise, unleashing 1,000 small-time banksters.

People calling for banking reform on either side of the Atlantic are underestimating the problems of enforcement….Of course, there are tools at the ready: sanctions, tribunals, a ban for life for crooked traders. But Libor was meant to be the prime glittering advertisement for the free market. Now it turns out that the whole thing is a fix—a grimy hand all too visible. It’s like the spy in Conrad’s Secret Agent vowing to destroy the first meridian.

Is it possible to reform the banking system? There are the usual nostrums—tighter regulations, savage penalties for misbehavior, a ban from financial markets for life. But I have to say I’m dubious. I think the system will collapse, but not through our agency.