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.