It has been sad, though not altogether surprising, to find no reportage in the mainstream Irish media of the death of the brilliant Scottish/Irish/American journalist, Alexander Cockburn, who died of cancer last weekend at the age of 71.
Sad, because Cockburn was not merely a great radical writer and intellectual in Britain in the 1970s and in America thereafter, but because he was Irish. Son of the great Claud Cockburn, and elder brother to Andrew Cockburn (documentary-maker; biographer of that Tweedledum/Tweedledee pairing, Saddam and Rumsfeld; and father to actress and star Olivia Wilde) and Patrick Cockburn (superb veteran Middle East correspondent of the London Independent), Alexander was born in Scotland in 1941, but came with his family to Youghal in 1947, and grew up there. He was educated at public schools in England, and read English at Oxford. He began his writing career at the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, before his move to America at the end of the 1970s.
Alexander Cockburn was not just any journalist. He was part of that formidable levy of intellectuals of the British New Left (many of them Irish), who eventually coalesced around the New Left Review – still, in spite of controversies, one of the finest leftwing journals anywhere – Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali, Francis Mulhern, the late Ronald Fraser, Robin Blackburn – and he held his own easily in that august company.
It was Cockburn who brought a particular style to leftwing American journalism: Anglo(-Irish, in his case) in tone, classical in language, given to the humour of Wodehouse and the irony of Pope, all combined with a tremendous range of reading and learning. Cockburn was a wonderful polymathic writer, as capable of discussing anthropologies of food or writing gentle memoir, as of skewering the vagaries of American neoconservatives or exposing the moral bumbling of liberals everywhere. In the United States, at the turn of the 1980s, he initially found a berth at the Village Voice (owned, incredibly, by Rupert Murdoch at the time), later coming to his brilliant column for The Nation (‘Beat the Devil’, after one of his father’s novels), and eventually setting up his own superb news-sheet and website with Ken Silverstein and Jeffrey StClair, Counterpunch. All the while he was also writing books, travelling, and speaking.
I found his work – in the form of the compendious Corruptions of Empire – in the late 1980s, and became an admirer immediately. His monitoring of the American media – merciless twitting of the pompous neoconservatives and Reaganite Cold Warriors of Commentary and the New Republic – was always hilarious and on the mark. Repeatedly he discussed the most difficult issues – the Reagan administration’s ravages in Nicaragua, the hypocrisy of most of the American political class on Israel and the Palestinians – in terms both illuminating and stylish. But he could also write deftly about cookery, or Colette, or sexuality. Nothing human was alien to him. His books – Corruptions of Empire, but also The Golden Age Is In Us, Washington Babylon, Al Gore: A User’s Manual, The Politics of Anti-Semitism among others – all bear repeated reading in a way that much journalism does not.
Often compared to Christopher Hitchens, Cockburn was a more mature and less self-regarding writer, and he never swilled at the troughs of power in the way Hitchens so ostentatiously did in the last decade of his life. Cockburn’s finest qualities – the lethal pen, the defence of the underdog, the swift courage – were never given to his own aggrandisement.
Edward Said compared him to Theodor Adorno: they were both students of the ‘consciousness industries’, but while Cockburn shared Adorno’s mordancy, he never gave in to defeatism or gloom. Perhaps a more apt comparison might have been to Swift. He is a huge loss to writing and to political commentary. Saeve indignatio.
Photo is taken from the photo essay Cockburn at the Village Voice by Sylvia Plachy which has been published on Counterpunch.