Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

Alexander Cockburn, one of the finest radical journalists—no, journalists—of his generation, has died. Because of the similarities between him and Christopher Hitchens—both Anglos (he of Ireland, Hitchens of England) in America; both friends, for a time; both left (though, in Hitchens’s case, for a time); and both dying relatively young from cancer—people, inevitably, will want to make comparisons. Here, very quickly, are three (and why I think Cockburn was ultimately the superior writer).

First, Cockburn was a much better observer of people and of politics: in part because he didn’t impose himself on the page the way Hitchens did, he could see particular details (especially of class and of place) that eluded Hitchens. At his best, he got out of the way of his own story and allowed his readers to see things they never would have seen without him.

Second, he was extraordinarily well read, but he didn’t make a parade of his learning. One sly quote from Gibbons or Tacitus was enough. He understood, unlike Hitchens, that less is more, and that helped him—to an extraordinary degree—on the page. Ever the over-achieving schoolboy, Hitchens simply drew too much attention to himself, and even his finest sentences (which were quite fine) had a way of distracting from the matter at hand.

Finally, and though this does get into the politics or at least character of the two men, Cockburn managed to achieve, again at least on the page, a better equanimity between his savagery and his sweetness. I remember one of his pieces on taking his daughter to school, and it was affecting: poignant and pungent. When Hitchens was sweet, he often slipped into sentimentality. Never Cockburn. At least not that I can remember.

I should say that Cockburn had some tremendous failings as a journalist: his thoughts on climate change, his indulgence of the paleocon right, and more that I can’t immediately remember. If I had time for a fuller reckoning, I’d go back through his work and offer up a more balanced view of his virtues and failings. On the whole, for better and for worse, I’d say he was the great refusenik of our time.

But for now, on the question of Cockburn versus Hitchens, this is it.

Update (July 21, 11 am)

Via Brad DeLong, I came upon these comments from Cockburn on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  They are simply unconscionable. And I suspect there are probably more like this on similar topics. Any fuller accounting of Cockburn would have to reckon with these.


  1. BobS July 21, 2012 at 11:26 am | #

    Alexander Cockburn’s respect and affection for other people was reflected in his writing and public speaking. It would have been a pleasure to accompany him on one of the cross country road trips he occasionally wrote about before he got sick.
    None of the above applies to Hitchens.

  2. ceti July 21, 2012 at 11:32 am | #

    Alex also kept his conscience more or less intact through this low and dishonest decade.

    And his indulgence of the “paelocon right” as editor of counterpunch rather than the neocon right that Hitchens completely embraced was one based on principle. In this day and age, libertarian anti-war is a justifiably proud position.

    That he kept his cancer wholly a secret, rather than make it a public self-expiation attest to his honour as a writer and intellectual.

  3. swallerstein July 21, 2012 at 12:14 pm | #

    I hesitate to say this, but if there is one person whom I would describe as having literally
    “sold out”, it is Hitchens.

    Not so with Cockburn.

  4. Roderick Tracy Long July 21, 2012 at 2:21 pm | #

    both Anglos (he of Ireland

    I protest.

    • Michael Clarke August 7, 2012 at 12:28 am | #

      Anglo-Irish surely…..not a West Brit though.

  5. troy grant July 21, 2012 at 3:06 pm | #

    I think it would be easy for the oligarchy to eliminate selected people by giving them cancer

  6. smd341 July 21, 2012 at 3:55 pm | #

    Brad deleted my comment for some reason. I will say it again here. I do not think I could ever have had a pleasant meal with Alexander Cockburn, not least because he had a tendency to single out Jews for opprobrium (see what Brad quotes above, and yes I am aware he wrote a book about it) and because of his paranoid views on global warming and alliance with people who were antagonistic towards issues I care a lot about such as feminism, womens rights, and racial equality. That being said, regardless of whether he called Afghani’s “ethnic brutes,” he was not the one holding water for the actual raping of the country when push came to shove. That was Hitchens, who paraded his cancer around like a circus while singling out “Islamofascism. Cockburn’s writing was in fact 100 times sharper, and always enjoyable to read.

    • gdash July 22, 2012 at 7:54 pm | #

      He was an excellent dinner companion. He was a fierce defender of women’s rights and racial equality. And I object to “tendency to single out Jews for opprobrium”.

  7. NS July 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm | #

    Alexander Cockburn was even worse a human being than I thought. His vituperative obituary of Irving Howe is just as bad as his hatchet job on Christopher Hitchens after Hitchens died. And this from a man who wrote:

    “One awful piece of opportunism on Hitchens’ part was his decision to attack Edward Said just before his death, and then for good measure again in his obituary.” (


  8. jonnybutter July 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm | #

    re: “ethnic brutes,” and the rest…

    I think he wrote like someone who had been to Afghanistan. Cockburn’s comment about what Afghanistan ‘deserves’ is gratuitous, which is what makes it reprehensible to me. But while I think the phrase ‘ethnic brutes’ has a quite racist stink to it, the fact remains that Afghan. is not a ‘national’ culture, and is an ethnic, tribal culture; and it is brutal, and medieval and the rest. Back on the other hand though, the ‘worst arts and crafts’ crack as-justification-for rapine hatred is indefensibly arrogant and calloused. I don’t know Cockburn’s stuff *well*, but the passage in question and others I’ve read are not devoid of overweening self-regard – not in even the same league as Hitchens, but still.

  9. BillW July 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm | #

    Hitchens was a fine wordsmith and stylist, but he was also a product of “the most pernicious, the most arrogant, and the most blindly sectarian” of far-left sects to emerge from the tumultuous 60s. His trajectory and eventual politics was fairly predictable given the well-trodden path before him of ‘ex-IS graduates, a cynical, sardonic, amoral generation, without faith or optimism’ who ‘lurched from the Trotskyist far left to a crazed neo-con agenda with no intervening period of sanity.’
    In this demeanor, he was also being faithful to the mental shackles of the patron saint of his particular sect of whom John Dewey had regretfully observed, ‘To see such brilliant native intelligence locked up in absolutes’. I remember reading somewhere that Dewey also called the gulf between Trotsky’s brilliance and morality the greatest he had ever seen in a human being. There’s really no need to overanalyze a product of the morality challenged intellectual hothouse that was Trotskyism and the predictable path followed by dozens of its house intellectuals whose motto eventually became “have pen, will travel” in the service of power. This path and its psychology has been analyzed in detail by quite a few folks, e.g. here, here, and here.

    Cockburn, whatever his sins in the climatologists’ book, was by contrast remarkably non-sectarian as can be heard in this recent interview (starts around minute 30) where he pokes fun at his “AGW denialism”, a question on which he admitted he was “partial” given his love of big V8 powered American vehicles from pre-catalytic converter days.

  10. Frank Moraes July 21, 2012 at 10:18 pm | #

    Thanks for this. I had begun to think that maybe I was some freak. Like smd341, I commented on DeLong’s article this morning. It was a very minor, “I often disagreed with Cockburn but he was always interesting and often quite right.” It never appeared. Now this could be due to DeLong’s evident technological failings. (Just saying.) But I wonder if he just didn’t like what I said given the comments that have been posted and his title, “In Memory of Alexander Cockburn, as He Deserves to Be Remembered.” Kind of harsh, although I tend to think that Cockburn would be delighted, given how much joy he took in doing the same thing to others. (Which I mentioned in my DeLong comment!)

    • Aaron July 21, 2012 at 10:30 pm | #

      Here here. I think it appropriate to comment here that Brad Delong is of course compromised. His paycheck depends on the success of the technocratic welfare state to fulfill the vision of left, something which appears to be less and less the case and not to mention unattractive in emancipatory potential to boot. Cockburn and those further to the left were it seems a threat.

  11. jonnybutter July 22, 2012 at 8:51 am | #

    And this from a man who wrote:

    “One awful piece of opportunism on Hitchens’ part was his decision to attack Edward Said just before his death…”

    Isn’t there a big difference between attacking someone after they’re dead and doing it when they are sick and near death? I think there is. Much worse to speak ill of the living than of the dead, IMO.

    also, thanks for the nice background BillW.

  12. Brahmski July 22, 2012 at 1:08 pm | #

    Oops! Yes indeed, “comments from Cockburn on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan…are simply unconscionable.” Agreed. As are his vile vituperations of the great Irving Howe. And I too “suspect there are probably more like this on similar topics.” Um, yeah…similar how, exactly? Similarly pro-“rape” or anti-“ethnic”? Or… You’re right this means that “any fuller accounting of Cockburn would have to reckon with his [disgusting views],” if only to take account of what he actually wrote/thought and (I had thought until reading your post yesterday) was well known for. This was not after all, it would seem, “one of the finest journalists of his generation” (and certainly not somebody who was better than the Hitch, who will be remembered as precisely one of the best of our day, and read, long after Cockburn’s ephemeral “counterpunches” have been shaken off permanently), but a crude post-leftist. No offense, but I was going to write yesterday to say this was your worst column ever (a lot of which are great, even/especially if I disagree), and that it surprised me as such (but I didn’t want to risk pissing off my sister).
    For more on Cockburn’s Stalinism I’d suggest that all you CR.COMMIES take a look back at this by BobFromBrockley, On the “post-left” (Stalinoid, Islamistic) more generally, see this one by moi in Democratiya, from back around the same time,

    • Brahmski July 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm | #

      From BobFromBrockley, “I would argue that it is worth paying attention to the Cockburn family franchise today because it sheds light on the new New Left [what Andy Markovits and I have called “the post-left,” followed by Alan Johnson and others], the convergence of Islamist theocrats and Third Worldist authoritarian nationalists with their liberal and ‘libertarian’ useful idiots, fuelled by conspiracy theory, degenerated ‘anti-imperialism’ and paranoid hatred of Israel and America, a formation whose house magazine is CounterPunch.”

  13. Heather Williams July 22, 2012 at 6:04 pm | #

    Alex was a friend of mine. We spent some time together some years ago. I hadn’t talked to him in a while– we’d stopped talking over arguments dealing with climate change science, but I was absolutely unmoored by news of his death. I’d say of him that he was everything he was ever accused of being– brilliant, well-read, loner, starfucker, socialist, reactionary, libertarian. He was an an unparalleled essayist, but also inconsistent in his viewpoints, occasionally paranoid, alternately cruel and kind. I don’t think anyone will ever get to the bottom of who he was as a pundit or a human being. I daresay, perhaps claiming too much here, that he’d be happy about that. But what I do wish people would remember about him is the years of work he and Jeff St. Clair put into building CounterPunch. For my money, it was the best outlet for independent journalism for a long time, especially in the worst years of the Iraq War, when all the major news outlets practiced a criminal self-censorship in the name of supporting the troops. Their silence and reticence and willingness to go along with the Bush Administration’s insistence on so-called “embedded journalism” and non-criticism of the armed forces ended up escalating a war (two wars, actually), not expediting an end to the violence. How many times did Patrick Cockburn or Robert Fisk break a story in CP that would then later become respectable and believed pieces of currrent history in the New York Times or The New Yorker? The list of authors and number of topics that CounterPunch would run, is a tribute to media as it should be– outspoken, passionate, angry, contentious, broad-ranging,and most of all, based in a sense of genuine urgency. For all Alexander Cockburn was or wasn’t, let’s remember him for the fellowship of independent voices that he helped foster.

  14. Jim Denham July 23, 2012 at 2:17 pm | #

    Whether Cockburn was personally antisemitic or not, I’m not in a position to judge. What seems to me to be undeniable is that CounterPunch gave space to people (eg Gilad Atzmon) who claerly *are* antisemites, as well as all sorts of other sub-Chomskyite conspiracy theorists and far-right genocide-deniers.

    • Brahmski July 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm | #

      Of course! Who doesn’t know this? Or would deny it? Celebration of Cockburn is grotesque. I would say it didn’t belong on “the left” if the far “left” today wasn’t such a sewer sympathy for Islamism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Americanism.

      • troy grant July 23, 2012 at 3:46 pm | #

        Who knows who is anti-semitic nowadays when even correct criticism of semitics is termed “anti-semitic” by understandably reactionary semitics?

        • Brahmski July 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm | #

          Silly. A shame that CR.COM is home to such transparent canards about “semites,” which I’d be surprised if even CR endorses (“semitic” is a language-group, not a people; and “anti-Semitism” refers to prejudice against Jews). Although, CR reposts some people who I won’t even name for fear of having anything to do with them, so who knows I guess. You people give the left a bad name.

  15. BillWAF November 11, 2014 at 1:53 am | #

    This is late to the party, but Cockburn’s Village Voice column that appeared after his piece that Afghanistan deserved to be raped if any country did is relevant here. Dennis Perrin reprinted it on his website. Here it is:

    Press Clips
    Village Voice
    January 28, 1980

    Again Afghanistan
    by Alexander Cockburn

    Some, who have never set foot among the Pushtoons, nor rambled in the Hindu Kush, were offended by my remarks about Afghanistan last week. My observations stemmed from an impatience with the notion of “freedom-loving rebels of Afghanistan,” as expressed by US politicians and journalists, combining ignorance, hypocrisy and the renewed cold war fever.

    But never go for irony. People take you seriously. For the record, there are good Afghans as well as bad ones, and many of them were behind Taraki in 1978. There was even a good Afghan king, Amanullah, an excellent emblem of progress in the 1920s, who declared back then that “the keystone of the future structure of the new Afghanistan will be the emancipation of women” and whose wife Soraya was the first urban Afghan woman to appear unveiled in public. He was deposed in 1929 and ended his days in exile in Italy in 1960.

    Fans of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica should know that Sir Henry Yule was far more intemperate than I. But then he presumably supported the disastrous British expeditions. He wrote, with considerable emotion: “The Afghans, inured to bloodshed from childhood, are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable, passionate in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner. Nowhere is crime committed on such trifling grounds, or with such general impunity, though when it is punished the punishment is atrocious. Among themselves the Afghans are quarrelsome, intriguing, and distrustful; estrangements and affrays are of constant occurrence; the traveler conceals and misrepresents the time and direction of his journey. The Afghan is by breed and nature a bird of prey. If from habit and tradition he respects a stranger within his threshold, he yet considers it legitimate to warn a neighbor of the prey that is afoot, or even to overtaken and plunder his guest after he has quitted his roof. The repression of crime and the demand of taxation he regards alike as tyranny. The Afghans are eternally boasting of their lineage, their independence, and their prowess. They look on the Afghans as the first of nations, and each man looks on himself as the equal of any Afghan.”

    Thus an old imperial Britisher. We progress of course . . . to Emmett Tyrrell in The American Spectator: “On November 4, the Rev. Mr. Ruhollah Khomeini returned to the TV screens of America. Life in old Qom can grow tedious, especially if one is surrounded by idiot mullahs and the abysmal yokels who aspire to mullah-dom, so the Holy Man set his bovine followers upon the U.S. embassy . . .” This passes for Menckenesque wit.

    The trouble is that Carter and the Rev will soon be allies, which will call for a dressing of the epithets. Perhaps we should be that the hostages will be freed by the Persian New Year, on March 21. Today’s fanatic is tomorrow’s friend.

    Item of curiosity: Newsweek, this week at least, is more restrained and even moderate than Time, which has reverted to true Fifties form. Read, too, Hugh Sidey and marvel that human hands could type such tripe. Monkeys could not do it.

    Such is the state of the union, message and all.

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