Returning to New York in 1979 after an abortive attempt at becoming an industrial worker in Kansas City as part of the SWP’s “turn”, I wanted to put as much distance between me and the left as possible. Keeping in mind that I was still loyal to the cult, the left was pretty much synonymous with the SWP. When I rejoined the consulting company I left to go out to Kansas City, I asked around to see if anybody knew of an available apartment. When my boss told me that he changed his mind about renting a place on 91st and Third and that I could take it if I wanted, my first reaction was to almost turn the offer down. Why would I want to live among a bunch of yuppies in a neighborhood whose only real distinction was that Woody Allen lived there (you have to remember that he was still funny at the time)? Upon further reflection, I decided that the neighborhood would make sense given my state of mind. At least I wouldn’t be running into any SWP’ers.
I had plans back then to begin writing novels and enjoy New York’s cultural attractions. (I have long given up on the first option.) In order to keep track of what was happening in NY at the time, the Village Voice was still necessary reading. With film reviews by J. Hoberman and other informed pieces, the paper was worth the dollar or so it cost at the time. (Now it is free and correspondingly worth nothing.)
Alexander Cockburn had begun writing a “Press Clips” column for the Voice in 1973, a good 3 years after I had departed the city. He was still writing it in 1979 upon my return and I became addicted to it immediately. Having been used to the stodgy and dogmatic style of the Trotskyist press, it was a wonder to see someone who was both radical and fun to read. Cockburn also partnered with James Ridgeway to write a weekly column on politics. Many of their articles were collected in “Corruptions of Empire”, one of the best books ever to carry the Cockburn brand.
In 1982 Cockburn was suspended from the Voice for taking money from an Arab studies foundation. As a highly marketable journalist, Cockburn told the Voice to take their job and shove it. From there he went to the Nation Magazine, which like the Village Voice (most of the time) was worth reading.
I took out a subscription to the magazine for the express purpose of reading Cockburn and cancelled my subscription in 2010 after his column was cut back to one page. Around the same time I began subscribing to Harper’s, another venue for Cockburn. In August 1982, he wrote a critique of the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS that can be described as vintage Cockburn. It opens with the two centrist bores reporting from Galilee way back when:
ROBERT MACNEIL (voice over): A Galilean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and says the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?
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?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, the provinces of Judaea and Galilee have always been trouble spots, and this year is no exception. The problem is part religious, part political, and in many ways a mixture of both. The Jews believe in one god. Discontent in the province has been growing, with many local businessmen complaining about the tax burden. Terrorism, particularly in Galilee, has been on the increase. In recent months, a carpenter’s son from the town of Nazareth has been attracting a large following with novel doctrines and faith healing. He recently entered Jerusalem amid popular acclaim, but influential Jewish leaders fear his power. Here in Alexandria the situation is seen as dangerous. Robin?
I have taken the liberty to put the entire article on my website. Read it to see how good Cockburn was when his juices were flowing.
I became such a huge Cockburn fan that I even began subscribing to the Wall Street Journal just to read his once every 3-week column (triweekly?), a token to diversity that would never be allowed under Murdoch’s ownership. Taking advantage of one of my most valued benefits at Columbia University, I looked into the WSJ archives to find something good by Alexander. Ironically, one of the best pieces was a blast at Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which along with the McNeil-Lehrer Snooze Hour was considered necessary viewing by educated middle-class Americans. Written in 1990, it described his appearance on a show devoted to the collapse of the USSR. Needless to say, Cockburn was feisty as ever:
At the ABC studios they make me up and sit me down. The drill with Mr. Koppel is that you look into a camera and listen to you earphone. You can’t see what’s happening. You have to keep looking at the camera because you don’t know when Mr. Koppel, the only person who can see all the people on the show, who controls everything, is going to call on you. Swivel your eyes away from the camera and millions will think you have something to hide.
Suddenly we’re off. I can hear the soundtrack of some footage; of people hammering down the Wall, denouncing communism. Then I hear Mr. Koppel saying, “. . . the state of distress in which Communism finds itself. . . . seems easier for some Soviets to accept than for . . . left-wingers like Alexander Cockburn or leaders of the American Communist Party like Angela Davis.” So it’s a setup: The viewers have been invited to watch scenes of collapsing communism, then here’s Mr. Koppel cutting to the last dinosaurs, clanking into the studio dragging the ball and chain of dead, bad ideas. Had Tracy Day told Mr. Koppel the lines I was thinking along? Had Mr. Koppel decided to shackle me and Prof. Davis as gauleiters of the gulag, offset by the virtuous Mr. Sturua, symbol of New Thinking and penitence for the past?
This was the trend of the show. Mr. Koppel got increasingly testy. Why, he asked, did I keep bringing up capitalism? We were meant to be talking about communism. It became a dialogue of the deaf. I said in order to understand why millions of people around the world are still fired with socialist ideals you have to understand that if actually existing communism was and is abhorrent to some, actually existing capitalism is abhorrent to others.
I was going to add that on the same May Day that Russian workers were booing the Soviet leaders, workers in the Philippines were demonstrating against the regime and the U.S. bases, and in South Korea striking shipyard workers were still battling police.
No time for this though. By now Mr. Koppel was saying that I was putting words into his mouth and Prof. Davis was trying to explain that capitalism was not working too well for black people here in the U.S. and Mr. Sturua was saying that Karl Marx was right when he said that theory was gray but green the tree of life. From the corner of my eye I saw a copy of Business Week featuring on its cover the best-paid executive of 1989, Craig McCaw, weighing in with $53.9 million. Why didn’t I just hold it up to the camera and say that against salaries like this, how could the ideals of socialism ever die? But it was all over. I didn’t even have time to tell Mr. Sturua that Goethe, not Marx, said the thing about the green tree. At least he had Marx associated with living things.
I realize now why I loved Cockburn so much. His business about “Mr. Koppel cutting to the last dinosaurs, clanking into the studio dragging the ball and chain of dead, bad ideas” embraces the idea of being unfashionable. Alexander Cockburn was never interested in being accepted by the political tastemakers. Wherever he wrote, from the Village Voice to House and Garden, he always told it like it is–unrepentantly.
As leftists in the U.S. and other prosperous countries in the First World, our problem has never been repression although we have always had to watch out for Cointelpro, getting fired from a university or a newspaper for having unpopular ideas, and other such inconveniences. It has always been about refusing to bow to the pressure of the intellectual and ideological hegemony of the ruling class. It is so easy to get that cushy job in academia or in the bourgeois press for just playing along. You can even refer to Marx just as long as you don’t try to make his ideas too relevant to what’s going on the world.
Cockburn always put his ideas on the line. He was courageous and he had integrity by the railroad carload. I can honestly say that I only decided to continue with radical politics in the early 80s because of his writing. I can also say that in my own crude and muddling fashion, I have tried to write like him. Granted, my half-assed Bard College education could never compete with the kind of training he must have gotten at Oxford but at least I was encouraged by his example to speak my mind and let the chips fall where they may.
Even when I disagreed with Alexander Cockburn, I always respected the courage of his convictions. He did not give a shit if the entire left disagreed with him on global warming. He had made up his mind and would not budge an inch. With so much groupthink at work on the left, it was essential to its health to have a legendary journalist not to be afraid of being a minority of one. If we are ever going to have a revolutionary movement in the U.S. capable of going up against the most powerful ruling class in history, we will need activists with the courage of their convictions. As Karl Marx once said, we need ruthless criticism of the existing order. I have no idea what words will appear on this great journalist’s tombstone (or if he will be cremated) but “ruthless criticism” are the words I will always see as his epitaph.