A Punk Writer: Vijay Prashad remembers Alexander Cockburn
(This essay originally appeared on Frontline: http://www.frontlineonnet.com/stories/20120907291709500.htm)
The whole thing is a blur to me. It was sometime in 1985 or 1986, a warm night, when a band member from either Black Flag or the Circle Jerks told me about Alexander Cockburn. We were standing in one of the side alleys near Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre, smoking, when he told me about Cockburn’s fulminations against Ronald Reagan and contemporary America. Reagan’s jarringly brutal wars were a preoccupation for me. My political friends and I took our lessons from the cyclostyled sheets produced by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and the various solidarity committees for divestment from apartheid South Africa. Their content was of the essence, but the papers were dreary to read.
Events seemed to drain the ink of human vitality: massacres of Salvadorian peasant farmers and police firing at black workers did not require embellishment, only the dry tones of an activist’s pen. Finding Cockburn was a treat. He was no less moved by the outrages of our time, and he seemed to be reading the same activist broadsheets as I did. But his stylistic translation into his columns of those events and the rage that should greet them for The Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal, for The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair took my breath away. As my musician friend told me, this guy was a punk writer.
Already known as a superb left-wing stylist in England, Alexander came to the United States in June 1972 to escape what he called “the relics of an empire corrupted far beyond the reach of popular indignation”. He arrived in the U.S. at the time when President Nixon’s burglars broke into the Watergate hotel, and when the bombardment of South-East Asia had discomfited U.S. allies, who had begun to leave its side (the Thai army left in January and New Zealand’s forces left in December).
Washington and its hypocrisies provided sufficient material for his acidic pen. Alexander took up residence at The Village Voice, the counter-cultural journal of New York City, where he hosted the “Press Clips” column and (with James Ridgeway) wrote “The Moving Target” reports. As the American media gasped for breath between the claustrophobia of its ulcerative political landscape and of its corporate-induced “balanced” journalism, The Village Voice became a life raft. Old-school municipal journalism came from Wayne Barnett, vibrant essays on imperialism, socialism and gay rights came from the witty pen of Andrew Kopkind, amusing music journalism and bold essays on abortion rights and feminism came from Ellen Willis, and sharp and witty film reviews came from J. Hoberman. This was good company.
At The Village Voice, and in his forays into Esquire, Harper’s and The New York Review of Books, Alexander fired volley after volley against the mendacity and mediocrity of the corporate media and against the powers that be. Old traditions of American journalism that fearlessly derided the powerful had declined by the 1970s. Muckrakers such as Ida Tarbells and Nellie Bly, Jacob Riis and Ida B. Wells no longer found mainstream homes. Razor-edged columnists such as H.L. Mencken and I.F. Stone had not been reproduced. Alexander perched in this gap.
The broad contours of Alexander’s political view had been formed within a decade of his residence in the U.S. His columns in The Village Voice and in, of all improbable places, The Wall Street Journal provided the weekly diagnosis of the emergence of Reaganism. In 1987, Alexander’s inquest yielded the following summary: “Reaganism is shorthand for a particular culture of consumption, a reverie of militarism, of violence redeemed, of a manic, corrupted and malevolent idealism. The priorities of this culture at the directly political level have been simple enough: the transfer of income from poor to rich, the expansion of war production and an ‘activist’ foreign policy, traditional in many ways but as Noam Chomsky has said, ‘at an extreme end of the spectrum: intervention, subversion, aggression, international terrorism and general gangsterism and lawlessness, the essential content of the ‘Reagan doctrine’.”
Reaganism would become the general doctrine of the Republican Party, and it would draw the Democrats into engagement and then mimicry. What was the antidote to this national malaise? In 1976, Alexander and James Ridgeway followed Jimmy Carter and Reagan through the corn of Iowa and the thickets of New Hampshire. Carter would win that election, but there were already indications of how the Democrats would falter before the rise of Reaganism, and then lurch to the Right under Bill Clinton. “It is absurd that a Democratic candidate is not triumphantly conquering all before him with a powerful reforming message,” Alexander wrote. “But 1976 does not seem to be 1932, and currently no such Democrat is in view.” This prognosis holds to this day: the Republicans have withdrawn into the furthest corner of the Right, and the Democrats are eager to edge as close to them as possible while mouthing earnest liberal sentiments.
While at The Village Voice, Alexander got into his share of scuffles. It was hard to stay at his desk when his own paper began to slip into the arms of Reaganism. In 1977, Rupert Murdoch bought the parent company of The Village Voice, whose new management threatened to get rid of Marianne Partridge, the much loved, smart editor of the magazine (now publisher of the Santa Barbara Independent). The sports writer Jack Newfield asked Alexander if he had Murdoch’s home number, which he did, and so Alexander fixed a meeting for the three of them to discuss the changes at The Village Voice.
Murdoch, who was not comfortable with a woman at the helm of his publication, welcomed the men into his apartment, “Relax, fellows. We’re back to square one. Marianne will remain the editor. Have a drink, please.” Murdoch then told them stories about his own time at Oxford, when he was Red Rupert. Not long after this, the publisher fired Marianne Partridge anyway, but her staff fought back. They walked Marianne Partridge and her dog to work each day. Alexander did not let the old Oxford tie or the steak and red wine cloud his vision. He would later call Murdoch a “world class monster” and write bitingly that Murdoch dispensing with his newspapers would be like “Dracula selling his coffins.”
In 1973, the black ink of censorship covered over Alexander’s first essay on Palestinians. The New York Times briefly reported that Palestinian guerillas fired on an Israeli army post and so “Israeli planes flew north and dumped high explosives on a refugee camp in Lebanon, killing a dozen or so men, women and children”. Alexander wrote this up for his “Press Clips” column and wondered about the “lack of moral disquiet in the Times’ story about the lethal retaliation inflicted on innocent refugees”. Dan Wolf, The Village Voice’s editor, called Alexander, asked him to reconsider, and then simply dropped the story. This got under the skin of Alexander, who would then throw his entire arsenal of sarcasm and wit at the blockade around the Truth when it came to the Middle East (West Asia), and mainly Israel.
On November 19, 1980, Alexander published an extended interview with the Israeli dissident Israel Shahak, who laid out the basic parameters of Israeli colonialism, and whose translations from the Hebrew press over the course of the next decade revealed the dynamics: roads and walls to cut off Palestinians from each other, settlements and military posts to link the occupied territories to Israel proper, and a thirst for the water that lay under the Palestinian aquifer. Alexander wrote about all this, and it got to be too much for his employers. What galled the Israel lobby was Alexander’s column from August 10, 1982, where he wrote in the context of the invasion of Lebanon, “The Israelis are behaving like war criminals.”
In 1984, The Village Voice editor David Schneiderman found the reason to remove Alexander (Schneiderman, who was Murdoch’s man, would later recall Murdoch marvelling “how a bunch of Communists could manage a paper so well”). The Institute for Arab Studies had in 1982 given Alexander $10,000 to fund a trip to Lebanon so that he could write a book on the Israeli invasion. He had not disclosed this to his editor. The muck flew that the Institute and Alexander were anti-Semites. It was rubbish. Still, Alexander was suspended from The Village Voice. It would not be the last time that Alexander would be accused of anti-Semitism. As he put it, “Anti-Semitism has become like a flit gun to squirt at every inconvenient fly on the window pane.”
Victor Navasky of The Nation (founded in 1865) poached Alexander on the advice of Andrew Kopkind. Alexander began to write Navasky a column, which he wrote until his death: it was the longest-running column in the history of this venerable magazine. If you read Alexander’s essays, you know that an immense influence on him was his father, the former Communist, journalist and newsman Claude Cockburn. It was his father’s novel Beat the Devil (made into a film by John Huston in 1953) that provided Alexander with the name of his column. At The Nation, Alexander went after the same old scoundrels. The columns from The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal and from The Nation sit on my shelf in his great collections: Corruptions of Empire (1987), The Golden Age Is In Us (1995), Washington Babylon (1995), and one that I anticipate, Colossal Wreck (2012).
In 1994, with the U.S. convulsed by the madness of the Republicans and the neoliberalism of the Democrats, Alexander joined with Ken Silverstein and later Jeffrey St. Clair to produce an alternative, Counterpunch. I remember taking out a subscription to the hard-copy newsletter (before the website was produced) and enjoying the honest journalism. It tells you something about the integrity of Alexander that he forsook fame and fortune for the small magazine, preferring to keep to his opinions and build his audience than to align himself to the advantages of corporate power.
Within 10 years, Counterpunch’s website would receive three million daily hits, with 100,000 unique visitors and 300,000 page views. The website scintillated after 9/11, when Counterpunch was one of the few U.S.-based harbours for critical thinking around the War on Terror, the war on Afghanistan, the growth of domestic surveillance, and the emergence of a new kind of political arithmetic that favoured free markets and unfree citizens. Alexander found writers from across the political spectrum who were willing to stand sentinel against the madness.
For two years Alexander battled his cancer privately, letting only his daughter, Daisy, and a few friends know of what had begun to overrun his body. His suffering remained private, but his own thoughts continued to appear in Counterpunch until his last week. He missed only one column during his last month.