Alex Cockburn, funny man

Photo from Counterpunch

So Alex Cockburn is dead. What a piece of work he was.

Yeah, he was vitriolic and could be savage when going after his enemies. Yeah, he was an old-fashioned leftist who was sometimes accused of Stalinist tendencies (tho he also had a weird libertarian side to him). But most of the obits missed the fact that Alex could be really, really funny.
Left-wing writers (and right-wing writers) have a grand tendency toward self-importance, and he was as guilty as any of us. But he didn’t always take himself and what he was doing so seriously that he couldn’t make fun of it.

I remember hearing him talk once about a piece he was doing lambasting some poor East Coast academic for writing something that Alex found way too pro-Israel. The poison pen was out and sharpened, the vitriolic hit-piece for The Nation was halfway done ... and then, he said, he decided he ought to call the guy for comment.

Big mistake. Turns out the man was a huge Alex Cockburn fan, his comments had been misinterpreted, he really agreed with everything Alex was writing and saying ... and, as Alex told us, it totally ruined a good column.

“I learned,” he said with a smile, “that you should never call the other side, because it just screws up the story.”

He was at his best when he was being funny; the piece on McNeil and Lehrer and the insanity of balanced journalism is one of the best things I’ve ever read, and I cite it all the time when I talk to journalism students:

ROBERT MACNEIL (voice over): A Galilean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and says the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified? (Titles)
MACNEIL: Good evening. The Roman procurator in Jerusalem is trying to decide whether a man regarded by many as a saint should be put to death. Pontius Pilate is being urged by civil libertarians to intervene in what is seen here in Rome as being basically a local dispute. Tonight, the crucifixion debate. Jim?

In a classic 1986 piece in the Nation, he discussed a missive from the Spartacist League discussing ways to travel across the nation without hitting any states with anti-sodomy laws:

I am in receipt of mail from intending vacationers, perturbed by the Supreme Court decision upholding the Georgia sodomy laws and anxious about their travel plans. For many of them the question comes down to this: Can you drive coast to coast across the United States without entering states that have legal sanctions against the practicing sodomite, remembering that the Georgia law defines sodomy as "any sex act involving the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another'?

After laying out the best options for “sods on the road,” he ended: “And I didn’t think the Sparts were into that sort of thing.”

He will be remembered for his columns in the Village Voice, for being the token leftist on the Wall Street Journal oped page, for blasting all of us who weren’t quite pure enough for him .... And I will remember how he was a rare guy on the Left who made me laugh, even in the 1980s when we were all way too serious.


Cockburn was a bastid, but he was our bastid.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

(Did you by any chance mean "Stalinist?" -- and if so, how do you justify that? Is being a leftist the same thing to you?)

However you spell it, its a damn good thing he got a chance to write his erstwhile friend Christopher Hitchen's epitaph -- rather than the other way around.

Farewell Cockburn. Your brand of analysis and willingness to analyze ideas regardless of the source will be sorely missed.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

I can't mean "you" in the sense of "you, Tim Redmond," because I realize you were writing a description of what you heard others say; but I still would like futher explanation of what might lead anyone to brand Alexander Cockburn a Stalinist. It seems outlandish.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

I'm not even sure exactly what a "Stalinist" is in 2012, but plenty of people accused Cockburn of being one. George Will called him "the last Stalinist." Others not so much on the right used similar language -- Ex:

I honestly think it's dumb to try to pin anyone as wild and crazy as to the ideologies of dead communists, but there you go.

Posted by tim on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

book on baseball, "Men At Work," but as time goes by, I think perhaps its due for a re-analysis. The man is generally speaking terribly clever and says little of value.

I agree with you that it is dumb to pin "Stalinist" on anyone -- and I'd add that that is especially true for anyone who has not ordered the deaths of at least several people in furtherance of their personal power goals; otherwise, even if you want to brand someone as the most radical of communists, you must stop at referring to them as a Trotskyite... which anyhow might mean you were axed by a Stalinist, in fact.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 24, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

I learned to take everything he wrote with many grains of salt, a lesson that Cockburn himself managed to teach through his great press columns in The Village Voice in the 1980s. And he was very, very funny, not in a one-liner way but in the manner in which he punctured pomposity. He was a great voice.

Posted by sfmike on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

Two people who tried too hard sometimes, but at least tried to keep their values intact as they gained political influence. Hitchen's and the gulf war was a bit much, he thought he was Orwell during ww2, Cockburn was a little better, he was correct in claiming Ford the best president ever, doing the least of all presidents, thus doing the least damage.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 25, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

No. No. No. Hitchens and Cockburn were *far* apart.

Hitchens *did* court power to the great detriment of his own moral compass. Cockburn never did.

Figures you'd come out with some total bs on this.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 25, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

than the other one where you just deny the reality of Daly threatening to move out of his below market rate housing to district shop to run in another district.

Because someone does not agree with your self appointed genius does not mean they have lost their moral compass. "Moral compass" meaning here the morality of the Internet's self proclaimed smartest poster.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 25, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

You lie about being a "moderate" and you goddamn well lie when you falsely portray my statments. I can tell I'm getting to you because your spew gets to be 100% billious horse shit.


Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 25, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

ravings of the self appointed genius.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 26, 2012 @ 5:37 pm
Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 26, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

Hi, thanks for sharing.

Posted by card on Apr. 10, 2013 @ 6:57 am