The fractured brilliance of Alexander Cockburn

July 24, 2012

“He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club,” Richard Wright wrote of H.L. Mencken in Black Boy, his autobiography. “Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were.”

Thoughts like these visited me when I first read Alexander Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column in the Village Voice in the early 1970s. Like Mencken, Cockburn excelled at offense – both playing it and giving it. Long before the acid reporting and splenetic commentary of Spy magazine, decades before the predictable venom of blogs, Cockburn had mastered the art of vituperation. Dipping his pen into the sewer of news, he savaged all comers. He went after Nelson Rockefeller after his “coronation” as vice-president, he attacked Commentary Editor Norman “The Frother” Podhoretz whenever the mood moved him (which was often), and returned again and again to the villains he kept in his pillory: New Republic owner Martin Peretz, New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, or the owner of the Village Voice, and others.

When the targets shot back – Podhoretz famously described Cockburn’s pieces as setting “a new standard of gutter journalism in this country” – he loved nothing better than to hammer the trash talk into a medal and wear it proudly. He recycled Podhoretz’s line endlessly in his column, and printed it as a dust jacket blurb for his collection Corruptions of Empires: Life Studies & the Reagan Era.

“He is a talented, despicable writer who enjoys vicious teasing as a kind of journalistic blood sport,” film critic David Denby wrote in 1983, which I think shrinks the Cockburn method to its essence. Cockburn delighted in extracting pain from his adversaries, in searching the horizon for new enemies to attack, and in routinely converting friends into foes. But when I interviewed him in 1995, he disavowed the presence of bile in his work.

“Bile is something eating at you all the time,” Cockburn said. “Bilious people hate. I don’t hate.”

“I think I’m funnier than I am billier, if that’s a word,” he added. “After column after column of careful analytic work, you take a few swings and all that people remember are the vivid slaggings, and all the careful theory goes for naught.”

Vivid Slaggings: Now there’s a title for a Cockburn collection.

Cockburn didn’t invent the weekly press-crit column – John Leo wrote “Press Clips” for the Voice before Cockburn got there. But he defined the form with brilliant fish-out-of-water observations. Decades ago, I heard him speak about coming to the United States and discovering to his astonishment the “corrections” column in the New York Times. This was an act of transparency and accountability that didn’t exist in UK journalism. But Cockburn’s wonder evaporated when he realized that the corrections column was just the Times‘s devious way of saying that everything else in its previous editions was absolutely true.

I’ve used Bitly to bundle a dozen Cockburn clips from over the decades to convince you of his journalistic wit and sense. (My Web spelunking has failed to unearth any of the columns he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s.) See especially his 1982 evisceration of the NewsHour in Harper’s, his September 2000 New York Press take-down of Thomas Friedman, and “How to Be a Foreign Correspondent,” a May 1976 piece from [More] magazine. Unfortunately, several of my favorite Cockburn pieces aren’t online, such as his 1979 essay on Nelson Rockefeller’s final hours (try Nexis: keywords “Press Clips on a Famous Death”) and his May 1974 [More] piece about the clichés of disaster journalism. The first person who buys the [More] anthology (just $3!) that contains it won’t regret it. From the piece, here’s Cockburn’s direction on how to write an earthquake story:

Quick comparisons with other earthquakes. Secondly, where is it? Usually in “remote Eastern Turkey” or in the “arid center of Iran.” But with luck it will have occurred in marginally more accessible Latin or Central America. Good chance for post facto description. Most of the buildings destroyed; others leaning at crazy angles. Constant flood of refugees. People clawing at rubble. Survivors crawling, blinking into the light of day. Preliminary tremors, then “for six seconds the earth shook.” Make sure to get picture of one building standing (usually a church in Roman Catholic countries or a mosque in Muslim ones.) Get interviews from American survivors. Animadvert on general danger of earthquakes, particularly in San Francisco area. Most important of all: get casualty figures and escalate them each day. Remind people that 200,000 people died in the Lisbon earthquake.

Like all punch-out artists, his brawling occasionally got him in trouble. “I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan,” he wrote after the Soviet invasion, drawing ire from multiple corners. He strangely took the Church of Scientology’s side in its 1990s battle with Time magazine and laughed off the idea that the organization was evil. The way he saw it, Scientology made a great ally because he shared so many enemies with them – the IRS, the pharmaceutical industry and the CIA, for starters. Some of his work in the 1990s simply misfired – his writings on the Clinton “scandal” at the Mena, Arkansas, airport, which I could never fathom; his flirtation with the mid-’90s militia and jury nullification movements, which smacked more of left-wing opportunism in my eyes, and his less-than-rigorous attacks on global warming science.

Cockburn reinvented himself in 1998 by moving the eclectic, radical newsletter “CounterPunch” that he and Jeffrey St. Clair ran to the Web. This transition from ink to electrons was a surprise considering his aversion to technology. In a 1986 Mother Jones piece, he identified the personal computer as a culture danger that would lead to the mass industrialization of the mind. Cockburn insisted that he was a typewriter man, goddamnit, and always would be! That view must have shifted when Cockburn realized that the Web was to his revolution as electricity was to Lenin’s.

I’m tempted to theorize that the collapse of communism disoriented Cockburn. An unbeatable New Left intellect, he was also the inheritor of the old leftism of his father, communist journalist Claud Cockburn. The New Leftism he espoused was supposed to prop up and supplement the decaying old leftism of his father, but as the New Left evaporated in the 1970s and 1980s, his only touchstone was the never-ending military parade that was Eastern Europe. Then the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union slid down the swirly, leaving him and his ideology stranded. Where could he turn for inspiration? China? North Korea? Never. The man had some standards, after all. (I must say he stayed pretty sweet on Fidel.)

But I don’t think the fall of the Wall transformed him from a precision bomber into a scattergunner. Fanning through four decades of his clips, I find ample consistency in his work. He’s almost always anti-war (and anti-Israel). He’s consistently pro-gun and never stopped attacking liberals. In fact, he reserved more hatred for liberals like Barack Obama than conservatives like Jesse Helms. If he had a kind word to say about the free market, I never read it (he was an unrepentant Marxist to the end). He routinely sided with the powerless, sometimes even when they were wrong, and sometimes, I suspect, precisely because they were wrong. That was Cockburn’s kind of fight.


The man was a biblioklept! When they divide up his estate, I want back the copy of Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer’s Washington Confidential I lent him in 1995. Send overdue books to and have your mind industrialized by my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.



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It was fun and easy to lampoon Sasha’s style. Here’s a mockery of his May 14, 2007 “Beat the Devil” episode ( -warming-sin):

I love these cliff hangers! But each new one needs a snappy intro to sum up the thrills and spills from earlier in the series! The following would serve this purpose for the next, exciting episode of [dramatic pause] Beat the Devil!!!

Our story so far: Against all odds, Martin Hertzberg, PhD, a meteorologist for three years in the Navy, an occupation that gave him a lifelong mistrust of climate modeling, his implacable guillotine blade of reality as infallible as Papal dogma, having yet to be intimidated into silence by the pressures of grants, tenure and kindred academic garrotes, soldiers on! Meanwhile, however, by the straightforward chicanery of misrepresenting tree ring data, the apex fearmongers spawn growing legions of scientists now born again to the “truth” that anthropogenic CO2 is responsible for the earth’s warming trend, and becoming foot soldiers in the alliance of the government-funded, grant-guzzling climate modelers! These political shock troops of the greenhousers’ catechism form an army of functionaries and grant farmers led by the world’s best known hysteric and self-promoter, Dr. Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann! Financed by Lombroso, they and their Internationale, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, exploit the usual incentives of stipends and professional ego to waterboard inconvenient data into submission, reflexively squawking primitive rhetorical pandybats, abusive comments and supposed refutations to scurrilously combine an acoustic intimation of nihilism with a suggested affinity to those who insist the Holocaust never took place, and cashing in their carbon indulgences, if need be, to torch any and all heretics! Our hero’s only hope lies in staying offline, in Russia, flying thither over the Arctic, in direct view of the ice cap! [Cue the organ!]

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

[…] awake, and stumbled across this one from Jack Shafer.  It includes this brilliant excerpt from Cockburn on how to write an earthquake […]

Posted by More on Alexander Cockburn « Corey Robin | Report as abusive

I could never understand Cockburn’s stand on global warming. But, I am sorry McBioph, that your long piece is not funny and is not a parody on Cockburns writing style.

Posted by nossnevs | Report as abusive

“The greenhouse fearmongers explode at the first critical word, and have contrived a series of primitive rhetorical pandybats that they flourish in retaliation. Those who disagree with their claim that anthropogenic CO2 is the cause of the small, measured increase in the average earth’s surface temperature, are stigmatized as “denialists,” a charge that scurrilously combines an acoustic intimation of nihilism with a suggested affinity to those who insist the Holocaust never took place.” – Alexander Cockburn, May 26, 2007

Explosion of the Fearmongers: The Greenhousers Strike Back and Out he-greenhousers-strike-back-and-out/

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

My apologies to Mr. Schafer. Last post I ridiculed you for always writing topics on the media. I see that that is what you are supposed to cover. My apologies sir. I’ll just look for your opinions on Politics instead.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

What a despicable, intellectually void gob of ad hominem malice this essay is–ironically, the very kind of invective you impute to Cockburn, but to the tenth power of nastiness, and minus his elegance and substance.

Your thesis–such as it is–seems to be that Cockburn was animated by an irrational, genetically transmitted contempt for liberals and “liberal values.”
What is glaringly absent from your own slag job is any discussion of the issues that animated Cockburn’s polemics against the Democratic Party apologists throughout the pseudo-progressive liberal left. For decades, now, such people have been urging voters to line up like sheep to the slaughter to cast their ballots for a corporate-financed party that has given us, in no particular order: the repeal of Glass-Steagall, welfare “reform,” unregulated derivative trading, corporate stranglehold on media (courtesy of the Telecommunications Act of 1996), massive job hemmhoraging through WTO/NAFTA, near-paralysis on alternative energy funding and the climate-change emergency, collusion with the corporate assault on the environment (Obama opened the Arctic and the East Coast to offshore drilling, expanded fossil fuel production and fracking, provided loans to build the first nuclear power plant in 30 years, and welcomed the beginning of construction on the Keystone XL pipeline), multitrillion-dollar bailout of the criminal banksters, continuation of Bush’s assault on civil liberties–and shredding of the Magna Carta–with the appalling NDAA military-detention provision, enabling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (authorized and funded with the votes of all key Democrats in both houses), taking a dive on union card check and a boost in minimum wage, failure to push for the major New-Deal-style stimulus legislation needed to create jobs and revive the economy . . . PLUS overt opposition to every key plank of the progressive agenda: crushing single payer, scuttling public financing of elections, shunning significant reductions in military spending, opposition to a carbon tax

THAT is the nub of Cockburn’s (and Hedges’ and Chomsky’s and Berman’s and Nader’s, etc.) critique of tepid, insider “liberalism”: it has neither the theoretical tools nor the intellectual honesty nor the clarity of vision to do anything but counsel defeatist prostration before the neoliberal juggernaut of the corporate-owned Democrats.

As we contemplate the implosion of the American economy and the climate catastrophe that loom every closer thanks to the Democrats that you will no doubt again tell us to vote for in 2012, we should all be grateful that people like Alex Cockburn have had the character and vision to stand up and say no rather than be sucked into this vortex of disaster.

Your essay cannot disguise the elemental truth that Cockburn exposed time and again about you and your milieu: a veneer of “left” rhetoric cannot conceal mainstream, careerist complicity in the gathering crimes and calamities of a rotten status quo. For that we–serious, thoughtful progressives–owe Cockburn a debt of gratitude, and to you the contempt that he so justifiably heaped on you and your fellow insider accomplices of the corporate state.

Posted by kman484 | Report as abusive

This is one of the saddest attempts at a backhanded insult I’ve ever read. You couldn’t even muster up enough strength to properly kick Cockburn’s corpse once he was dead, and I doubt you would have had the guts to publish such a weak essay, so vulnerable to attack, had he still been alive. There’s so many glaring, pathetically anemic assumptions here that they’re not worth enumerating, but an obvious one is your classification of Obama as a “liberal” target for Cockburn’s ire…which lays bare your true intentions.

Posted by CookieL | Report as abusive