Sunday, August 16, 2009

Alexander Cockburn, RIP

This is not an easy post for me to write. I have been reading Alexander Cockburn for over two decades. He was unlike most "progressive" writers in that he took the time to critique American liberalism, although always with a tint of a leftover from the '68 siege in Paris. And like in the US, upon losing their revolution many of these white leftists across the pond devolved into skepticism, self-hatred, and over time admitted their defeat by slouching themselves to the right. Christopher Hitchens, David Horowitz, Dennis Miller, Joshua Muravchik, et al. The list of white ex-lefties over 50 is long as it is instructive to the inquisitive mind in what happens to people when they begin to lose their values and beliefs.

Now, we can include on this list of old leftovers Alexander Cockburn. It should not come as too much of a surprise. He has spouted off contrarian views to the left for the better part of two decades. I have posted on these right-wing leftists in the past, with most of the converts becoming over time either neo-conservatives or libertarians. Whereas Hitchens malformed to the Manichaeism of neo-conservatism, Alex has cast his lot with the Old Right paleolibertarians (i.e., right-wing isolationists, social conservatives, and Social Darwinists). This is a strange descent for a man whose father was a leading voice for Communism in Great Britain back in the day, but Alex was never the organizer or politician that his father was, and ideologically Alex's greatest influence came from anarchism, not Marxism. This is a curious marriage, considering the role Claud Cockburn (Alexander's father) played in repressing the anarchist-influenced POUM during the Spanish Civil War. Then again, the Cockburn family is one filled with several generations of ambassadors, diplomats, and servants of the British Empire. Contradictions have never been a problem with this clan, although Claud was probably the most principled of the lot.

Unlike Hitchens' seemingly quick pre/post-test dip to the pools of the proprietor, Alex's was a long, slow march towards the politics of Ron Paul. He started probably under the influence of so many on the New Left, as victims of government persecution during COINTELPRO, instilling in our educated middle-class denizens a healthy suspicion of government, to the 1980s and '90s by becoming an apologist for anti-government militias, even supporting their cause celebre of opposing gun control. In that context, dislike for government is entirely understandable and still is, since the FBI continues to harass political radicals and leftists to this day (even monitoring pacifists and peace activists under the Patriot Act). What is less understandable is the attraction to the politics of white supremacist militia groups.

I first noticed it in Cockburn's support for the Branch Davidians and its pedophile leader David Koresh, and later on the Michigan Militia group following the Oklahoma City bombing. Some have opined that Alex's love affair with guns and militias might be a product of his own rural living in Northern California. This may be true, but there is nothing wrong with liking guns per se and a huge gap between hunting for game and claiming that David Koresh was a religious dissident on par with past political martyrs in this country's history. I think it was for him a sincere support for anything that opposed government power (a reductivist methodological obsession for anarchists and why so many of its ranks ultimately transformed over to those who stopped pretending that you could use such a tactic to build a cooperative society) since Alex's interest in anarchism following the 1960s brought him down his path.

You will also notice that if you bother to read Counterpunch over the years there is a disappointing lack of class-consciousness or much of anything to say about labor unions (unless it is a periodic guest article from JoAnn Wypijewski). There is a reason for that, particularly because so many of his site's articles are written by people (like Paul Craig Roberts, Bob Barr, and Ron Paul himself) who oppose the Wagner Act and would just as soon see labor unions outlawed. This is the same man who once wrote in his diary/autobiography that whenever he was bored or down he would go back and read Marx and Lenin to gain proper insight, advise previously given to him by his father. I suppose somewhere between his hunting trips and gun cleanings Murray Rothbard and Herbert Spencer must have entered Cockburn's daily reading list.

What is almost as disturbing as anything else, and the tipping point for me, is Cockburn's love affair with that other great cause of the right, anti-abortionism. Most recently, Alex has taken to comparing abortion to eugenics, and when not insinuating that being pro-choice is basically the equivalent of being a Nazi, he synopsizes modern liberalism and by extension feminism to this overtly misogynist statement.

Since the major preoccupation of liberals for 30 years has been the right to kill embryos, why should they not be suspect in their intentions toward those gasping in the thin air of senility? There is a strong eugenic thread to American progressivism, most horribly expressed in its very successful campaign across much of the twentieth century to sterilize “imbeciles.” Abortion is now widening in its function as a eugenic device.

Unless Alex has endorsed abortion under the guise of eugenics, there can be no other interpretation than abortion is the same as murder, especially if you equate the use of embryos for research to 'killing.' What compounds this nonsense is his views on the poor, in the same article.

"The poor die sooner, starting with black men who tend to drop dead in their middle 60s, usually from stress and diseases consequent on diet. The better-off folk drink less than they did in the 1950s, take a bit more exercise, and sometimes live longer. The poor get fatter and fatter."

"Mostly shunned in all this are the major causes of modern disease, which are environmental. Between 70 and 90 per cent of all cancer is environmental in origin. Heart disease and stroke – the largest killers today – are largely caused by hypertension and stress, which are derived from social conditions."

"America is very efficient in promulgating Death Plans –- tobacco, sugar additives, excessive salt, nitrous oxides out of power plant chimneys, nuclear testing in the 1950s, industrial accidents, speed-up at work and lengthening of the working day, rush-hour traffic – launched in the hope of making a buck and protected fiercely until, very occasionally, the mountain of corpses gets too high to be occluded by even the most refined techniques of the PR industry and the most lavish contributions to politicians. Thus it was with tobacco."


Note, this is the same Alexander Cockburn who in the late 1980s attacked the ban on smoking in commercial flights, and compared good health advocacy to fascism. I guess it is all environmentally-caused now, which is his way of saying if you are poor you are too stupid to be healthy. For such a great defender of the unborn, Alex seems quite Darwinian when writing about the poor in our current health care debate.

These are all part of the ambiguities of Cockburn's character. He can, on the one hand, attack Bernie Sanders for being insufficiently socialist for his support of NATO's attack on Serbia during the Kosovo War, while simultaneously not betraying any recognition of his own anti-socialist tendencies when endorsing Bob Barr for the 2008 presidential elections (an ironic choice for an anti-choicer, considering Barr's past run-in with embryo hate during a nasty divorce case). Alex can advise Paul Wellstone that he should not even think of running for president, because his politics is not liberal enough, and the Democratic Party beyond redemption, while endorsing the likes of Bob Dole (yes, Bob Dole) for the White House. He can write a book on the environmental battles of a group like Earth First! while then asserting that climate change is a hoax. He can be an opponent of the death penalty and in the same exact article advocate killing all of the CEOs of food companies.

Thus it is the diminution of Alexander Cockburn's career into a dustbin of rants and ravings against the evils of liberalism, while touting his progressive roots, and obliquely using all of this as a cover to give aid to the very same people that would have had his father thrown in prison fifty years ago, if they were in a position to do so.

I suppose at this pace, within the next decade or so, if Alex is still amongst the living, he will be talking about the slovenliness of unions and finishing off his act of self-immolation by converting to Catholicism and leading a Mass for the forgotten fetal heroes, 'killed' by those greedy middle-aged women who aborted them. Who knows, maybe he will tell us all why he is posting articles written by a man who thinks the Confederacy was right and that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. When Ron Paul's candidacy died a year ago, I wrote a eulogy for the death of the right-wing left (those leftists who lived the illusion that a grand political coalition could be built with people who want to banish all public welfare, the minimum wage, and advocate secession as a Constitutional right). Cockburn was one of the right-wing left's last great proponents, a rank and assembly he can no longer consider himself amongst, seeing how he is now a full-fledged rightist.

One speculates what his father would have thought in 1937 Spain. I surmise Alex would have probably been on Franco's side, while telling us how Naziistic the Republicans were. A sad loss, but like with the all of the old rock bands who go on their elderly fund raising tours, I choose to remember Cockburn when he was still a radical progressive.


joseph said...

Where do I find Alexanders response

TA said...

I don't anticipate that you'll find one. What else can he say? That he really cares about the values he once claimed to believe in, while being a libertarian (a party who opposes the legal existence of labor unions, never mind the right to collectively bargain)? It probably wouldn't bother me so much, but for the fact he's posited himself over the years as the lead critic of the selloutism of liberalism, when he himself is guilty of the same offenses (if not even more so). The descent into social conservativism on embryonic stem cell research and abortion was the last straw, eliciting my response and mourned loss of what was once a great journalist, but this isn't anything new. This descent has been ongoing, for almost two decades (at the very least I would date it back to the rise of the militia groups in the early '90s).

I could tell even then he had changed since his early days as a radical reporter for the Village Voice and, yes, remarkably enough, the Wall Street Journal. He used to actually report on the failings and crimes of business and the right-wing, in between his fulminations against the failures of contemporary liberalism to meet and respond to those political challenges (and from a progressive viewpoint). Sometime in the early '90s, he started to care more about proprietorship and the fate of firearms. I'm not sure what tipped him, maybe he was always this way, but I noticed the alteration in his writing style and focus from that point onward--thus, the reasoning for my depths of disappointment.

Here are but a couple of other retrospectives of the lost sage of northern California.