Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 22, 2010

Alexander Cockburn and the Oregon Petition

Filed under: Ecology,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

Alexander Cockburn, fading fast

Dr. Arthur Robinson: circulated Oregon Petition as well as publishing Dr. Edward Teller

In responding to Alexander Cockburn’s atrocious commentary on climate change over the past few years, my tone has been characteristically acerbic. Since Cockburn is one of my major writing influences, it should come as no surprise that I often take the same tone that he does. But all the while when I am responding to him, it is hard for me to suppress a feeling of sadness and worry that his outstanding mind is beginning to fade.

When I first ran into his writing in the Village Voice in the early 1980s, after having resigned from the SWP, I was amazed at his investigative reporting skills. Like a radical version of “Sixty Minutes”, he had a way of digging up the dirt on any number of malefactors. That’s why I am so dismayed by his seeming inability to check the sources he uses in writing about climate change. Perhaps he is unaccustomed to using search engines on the Internet but when he decided to cite Zbigniew Jaworowski as an expert on climate change, he apparently failed to turn up this character’s long standing relationship with the Lyndon Larouche cult, something I was able to do in less than 15 minutes. I fear that he is so into his climate change denialism that he lacks the ability to fact-check his own material. Since he is such a dominating figure, I doubt that his partner Jeff St. Clair has the backbone to take him on even though it is quite likely that he disagrees with him.

But more worrisome is the possibility that Alexander Cockburn has grown intellectually flabby over the years. I imagine that cranking out dozens of articles a year must take a toll on one’s mind. I have been programming for 42 years now and I know what it means to be burned out. Of course, I would switch jobs with him in a heartbeat even though I wouldn’t wish that disaster on the financial records at Columbia University.

The most recent occasion of Cockburn nuttiness was a January 4 Nation Magazine article titled “From Nicaea to Copenhagen” that is not worth reviewing in any kind of detail since it mostly rehashes old arguments with an aggressiveness buttressed by the British email hacks that were posted on the Internet. The opening sentences sets the blustering tone for the remainder of the article: “The global warming jamboree in Copenhagen was surely the most outlandish foray into intellectual fantasizing since the fourth-century Christian bishops assembled in 325 AD for the Council of Nicaea to debate whether God the Father was supreme or had to share equal status in the pecking order of eternity with his Son and the Holy Ghost.”

In the February 8th issues, there are a number of letters attacking this article that Cockburn responds to in his trademark supercilious fashion. One thing in his response did catch my eye: “More than 30,000 scientists have signed the Oregon Petition, which refutes the AGW theory.” (Anthropogenic global warming.) My first impulse was to find out more about the Oregon Petition, something apparently that Alexander could not be bothered with.

Perhaps he might have not heard about this very useful online resource called Wikipedia. If he had, he might have found an entry for “Oregon Petition” that reveals the following:

The original article associated with the petition (see below) defined “global warming” as “severe increases in Earth’s atmospheric and surface temperatures, with disastrous environmental consequences”. This differs from both scientific usage and dictionary definitions, in which “global warming” is an increase in the global mean atmospheric temperature without implying that the increase is “severe” or will have “disastrous environmental consequences.”

Well, what the heck. Who cares about scientific usage when you have bigger fish to fry? After all, Cockburn is dead set on establishing a vast conspiracy involving 99 percent of the world’s scientists and major corporations bent on developing nuclear power. When you are in the business of uncovering conspiracies, who wants to be bothered by petty details? Like the ability of jet fuel to melt steel?

The article that was attached to the petition also appeared to be damaged goods:

The article followed the identical style and format of a contribution to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific journal, even including a date of publication (“October 26”) and volume number (“Vol. 13: 149-164 1999”), but was not actually a publication of the National Academy. Raymond Pierrehumbert, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Chicago, said that the article was “designed to be deceptive by giving people the impression that the article…is a reprint and has passed peer review.”

There were also problems with the signatories, some of whom appeared to have little connection with climate science as the Seattle Times reported in 1998:

Several environmental groups questioned some of the names in the petition. For instance: “Perry S. Mason”, who was a legitimate scientist who shared the name of a TV character. Similarly, “Michael J. Fox”, “Robert C. Byrd”, and “John C. Grisham” were signatories with names shared with famous people.

It also seems that Cockburn failed to check what www.sourcewatch.org had to say about the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM), the outfit that circulate the petition. One of its founders is Arthur Robinson, who was a biochemist not a climate scientist. Surprise, surprise. According to its website, it also markets a home-schooling kit for “parents concerned about socialism in the public schools” and publishes books on how to survive nuclear war. Like the Larouchite fellow traveler Zbigniew Jaworowski, the OISM tends to pooh-pooh the danger of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Just the kind of people Alexander Cockburn would normally have a violent aversion to, unless of course they shared his screwy ideas about climate change. Sourcewatch reports:

It published two books, Nuclear War Survival Skills (foreword by H-bomb inventor Edward Teller), which argues that “the dangers from nuclear weapons have been distorted and exaggerated” into “demoralizing myths.” Robinson also co-authored another civil defense book titled Fighting Chance: Ten Feet to Survival, in collaboration with Gary North, who like Robinson is a conservative Christian. North is also a prolific author of doomsday books with titles such as None Dare Call It Witchcraft; Conspiracy: A Biblical View; Rapture Fever; and How You Can Profit From the Coming Price Controls. Following his collaboration with Robinson, North built a web-based marketing empire built around apocalyptic predictions that the Y2K bug would make the dawn of the 21st century “the year the earth stands still.

When I read about the shoddy reality of the Oregon Petition and the group that circulated it, I almost felt a tear coming to my eye as I considered the sheer fecklessness of one of America’s most respected radical journalists. How the mighty have fallen.


  1. Interesting the mention of how jet fuel melts steel in connection with Cockburn because while he has an aversion to 911 Truthers he simultaneously makes utterences that orbit their circles, particularly regarding climate change. His nuclear power conspiracy theory in this regard reads much like those on sites like prisonplanet.com.

    The melting steel aspect of that debate is ridiculously distorted. Frontline aired a totally convincing analysis of how the WTC structure was built, using the original blueprints, and why it so easily failed. Each floor was supported by relatively tiny steel brackets, kind of like the metal brackets you see on wooden celing joists. All the heat had to to was get the brackets hot enough so that they bent (not melted) and down came the load, one floor pancaking on top of another.

    Amazing how the Truthers are real keen on all the black ops & terrible foreign policy crimes Uncle Sam routinely perpetrated throughout history but they cannot seem to get their brains around the notion of blowback from all those actions? Instead, the most incompetent Presidency ever somehow managed to pull off this amazingly competent false flag operation? It’s truly nuts.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 22, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

  2. Conspiracy nuts are often in my experience tending toward the left. Global warming deniers, Cockburn excepted, tend to be cranky right wingers. And contrarians with a chip on their shoulder.

    But with general conspiracy theorists, I think it is more than a refusal to understand “blowback”. An underlying assumption — often unconscious — of much conspiracist thinking is that the system works, if only we could get rid of this evil gang of conspirators who have taken it over/perverted it etc. So their seeming radical attack at the corrupt system rests also on a naive faith in same system.

    I don’t think the greenhouse denialists are in the same boat. Superficially they may exhibit some of the conspiracy nut traits, but I think the best analogy is the smoking industry’s earlier campaign of denialism about lung cancer — which i think used some of the same PR firms as the fossil fuel industry is using now to deny climate change. Now there’s a conspiracy! Actually, the popularity of conspiracy theories could help in a way if the left/greens could put more effort into uncovering the nasty details of just how the fossil fuel lobby is feeding/controlling this “denialist” movement.

    But the actual denialist movement rests more on the sympathetic media coverage from dumb right wing journalists and media moguls like Murdoch, I think, than the huge sums spent on PR by the coal companies. Most of the denialists are aging men with a chip on their shoulder and an absurdly overinflated opinion of their own intellect. They have a fairly limited market for recruitment to their cause with that demographic repelling most sane people. Given the shameless promotion afforded them by the mainstream media, as though there was a legitimate debate between climate deniers and actual climate scientists, it is doubly sad to see a left journalist like Cockburn joining them.

    On which note: this, then, must be another Alexander Cockburn? http://climateemergencynews.blogspot.com/2010/01/sinking-sundarbans.html I thought he might have seen the light when I read it but no such luck I guess.

    Comment by Ben Courtice — January 22, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

  3. You may have a point about the difference between the “truthers” and people like Gregg Easterbrooke but there’s at least one respected leftist who is climate change skeptic: David Noble. And Noble is nearly as cranky as Cockburn.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 22, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

  4. Ah, that little flag-waving Cockburn the day he became a US citizen last year… I remember it well. Even keep a copy of it on my hard drive… Wanted to poke fun at him, but then felt he was not worthy of much time. The more you write about him the more publicity he gets.

    Still, in Swans Infamous Predictions (http://www.swans.com/library/art15/xxx139.html), I wrote:

    Having thrown his fate with the angels by becoming an American citizen earlier this year, right-wing leftist and muckraker par excellence Alexander Cockburn will get in bed, figuratively, with Justin Raimondo and open his brain, if not his legs and ass, to the non-global warming crowd of the Paulistas and constitutionalists the two supported in last year’s presidential election. Left meets right to one’s brainy ass fulfillment and pocketbook galore. Ralph Nader will officiate the marriage.

    Jeffrey St. Clair, not wanting to be left behind his more famous co-editor, will join the Libertarian Party in order to espouse the Good-Old World Order advocated by Cockburn and Raimondo. The triumph of Ron Paul and Chuck Baldwin is finally assured in the nothingsphere. Ralph Nader reluctantly officiates the marriage of convenience, though refrains from publicly supporting it.

    Thinking of it, our traditional silly predictions are more often than not based on reality.

    I’m sorry for Jeffrey, though — he is a fine and thoughtful journalist. Too bad he did not follow the example of Ken Silverstein. He is now placed between the rock and the hard place — not an easy situation. I do not fault him. I remember vividly how much I got enthused with Bruce Anderson of the much over-rated Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2004/2005, to wake up to the sad realization that he was a deeply reactionary con man. Not surprisingly, Cockburn and Anderson are best pals.

    In some ways, right-wing leftists are scarier than the Tea Partiers. With the Becks and Palins of this world, at least one knows what to expect. It’s much harder to decipher the damages caused by people like Cockburn et al. Then again, he does walk in the steps of his father Claud, no? So, I guess we should forgive — and ignore — him.

    Too bad, I do not have a flag to wave him goodbye.


    Comment by Gilles d'Aymery — January 22, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

  5. I don’t think Alex Cockburn, if he is honest, would deny the physical reality that excess CO2 emissions in the air spell major problems for humanity in the long term. It’s just that (1) in the scale and order of priority of human problems, it does not rank very high (2) you cannot expect the same people who spend enormous amounts of money to dodge taxes, and invest funds all over the world for maximum profit to assure the luxury lifestyle of a few hundred million people, rather than invest to create stable, productive communities, to solve the problem of climate change, especially if those very people pro rata are in fact cause the largest amount of pollution anyway. And therefore, the leftwing hysteria about climate change is mostly ludicrous. The central problem is that suppressing polluting industries and consumer lifestyles and reorienting to “clean” industries and lifestyles (however defined) carries a cost, a price tag, i.e. somebody has to pay. And that cost, with the aid of all kinds of “sophisticated” financial manipulations, will be passed on to exactly those people who are least able to defend themselves against having to pay for it, i.e. those people cannot pass on that cost to “someone else” but must ultimate pay for it with their labour and energy. For that reason, it is totally absurd to pursue climate change as a “single issue”, and the fact that the Left is obsessed with it merely demonstrates its own political disorientation. To the extent that Alex Cockburn lampoons the idiocy of fighting against hot air in a rich society in which more cars are parked outside the home than people living inside it, and in which people prop up their selfdestructive lifestyles with a badly insured healthcare system that costs one-third more than it should, I think he has a very valid point. The waffle about “the environment”, “pollution” etc. apart from being a vulgar joke at dinner parties, neatly abstracts from the social, economic and political relationships which not only gave rise to the problem but also perpetuate it, and thus this discourse in fact helps to perpetuate a decaying capitalism. Rich people do not in truth have a problem with pollution and environmental despoilation, because they don’t have to live in it, or can shut it out from their lives. Environmental despoilation is a problem for people who die because of it, or suffer disease because of it, people who are in no position to evade its consequences and who in fact themselves pollute least, simply because they don’t earn enough to support polluting lifestyles. If your idea of politics is to tell those people that they should cut back on necessities “for the sake of the environment” you are mad, and you are in fact aiding the project of the elites to regiment ordinary people’s lives even more; something the elites do, because their own “values” are far removed from the values from the people they rule over. I have just been editing a book on the long-term consequences of the abolition of slavery, from which you can learn how, despite the legal abolition of slavery, slavery continued anyway. Indeed, in absolute terms, there are more enslaved people today than there were ever before, and insofar as slavery was indeed abolished, other forms of forced labor and exploitation took its place. It is not accidental that absolutely gruesome conditions exist, for example, in a place like the Congo today, that’s the outcome of a very lengthy historical development. Was it entirely futile to campaign against slavery? Of course not. But the point is that righteous moral indignation about slavery often neatly played into the hands of empire-building nations, who indeed annexed new colonies with the motto of wiping out slavery! The rhetorics about environmentalism suffer from exactly the same problem, you can go any which way you like with that, and therefore it helps to promote all kinds of nutty schemes which do not help humanity forward, fully utilising technological progress, but conjure up the image of a doomed civilisation that ought to return to the “great chain of being” in a romanticized feudal past. All that does, is scare people and lower their expectations of what they can achieve in the world, instead of increasing their confidence in their own ability to create a better life. In turn, that doesn’t just get in the way of active popular political participation by people in the problems that really affect them – by telling their problems are really about something else, which is quite alien to their lives – but it is utterly reactionary. By the time that Gilles d’Amery starts mouthing about “rightwing leftists”, he is really saying that he doesn’t even know anymore what it means to be “Left” and that these labels have no meaning anymore. But at a deeper level, it mystifies the very processes by which people attach meaning to their actions, and how they validate that meaning – a matter of being sunk so far into your own dogma that you can no longer understand why other people would see things in a different way. That, surely, is a supreme form of alienation. Rather than endorse it, sane men ought to heckle the dumb propaganda, and to the extent that Alex Cockburn does this, he makes good sense.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — January 23, 2010 @ 2:31 am

  6. In the interests of transparency, it should be understood that Jurriaan was a fellow traveler of the Spiked Online current around Frank Furedi who has developed his own ideology (it is beyond me to characterize it) but retains the Furedi-ite global warming denialism. In fact the way he expresses himself in one long breathless paragraph seems part of the problem. Style and substance often go together.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 23, 2010 @ 2:53 am

  7. Forget Jurriaan’s breathless style. Who can deny the substance of his post does a good job of putting the climate controversy in a class context? What I want to know is how come Cockburn doesn’t do this? Moreover, Cockburn argues the planet’s been actually cooling the last 4 years. As far as Furedi, he makes some valid points about Western fear mongering but what kind of person goes out of their way to attack the critics of a reactionary rube like Sara Palin as sexist?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 23, 2010 @ 8:08 am

  8. […] Louis Proyect lets loose his acerbic style on Alexander Cockburn to devastating effect. Sadly, Alexander Cockburn has been promoting lazy Climage Change denialism, […]

    Pingback by SOCIALIST UNITY » AROUND THE BLOGS — January 23, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  9. If I was a fellow traveller of Spiked on-line, I would be a fellow traveller of anything I read and spend time on. Louis Proyect does not know what a fellow traveller is and his quasi-religious, racist ranting, smearing and labelling other people with the pretense of holding the “true Marxist doctrine”, without providing any cogent argument or response, is completely unhelpful to the debate. Louis’s “transparency” is in fact clear as mud. I am not a “fellow traveller” of Spiked On-line, nor a member of any political tendency, because I follow my own path, and in the process examine arguments from all kinds of sources across the political, cultural and academic spectrum. The cliquey, gossiping banter of self-righteous “Marxists” who haven’t got a political clue, and understand very little about social relations, does not interest me one iota, except as an obstacle which misleads people.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — January 23, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  10. Well its one thing to say that there is a problem pursuing climate change as a ‘single issue’. Its quite another to suggest that climate change is therefore not an issue, or that its the result of a conspiracy by 90 per cent of the worlds scientists. Confusing these two arguments is not a ‘class perspective’ at all. And the whole argument about fearmongering is simply of a part with campaigns by corporations to persuade us that nothing they do does any real harm.

    Comment by johng — January 23, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

  11. I’m not quite sure where johng’s example of “Confusing these two arguments” is but is he also saying that Furedi’s critique of Western fear mongering helps the corporate agenda?

    Well that’s true at least as far as the Imperialist war in Afghanistan, where he sounds like Hitchens. Furedi argues that the Western obsession over Safety & Risk has curtailed the British & American militaries from their historic warrior culture, rendering them less effective at slaughtering their adversaries! This, he argues, strengthens the hand of the enemy, who cares far less about Risk & Saftey — a racist jab at Muslims if there ever was one. Clearly this asshole doesn’t understand who the real enemy is.


    Here’s where Furedi’s logic really proves to be a perfect fool. If Uncle Sam is so preoccupied with risk management & safety then why does he allow Wall Street to undermine his own economy to the brink of collapse (not to mention why are corporations so easily allowed to detrimentally modify genes & poison food supplies with chemicals, bacteria, virus & carcinogens — or ruin water supplies, watersheds & the coastal wetlands that dampen hurricanes?)

    If, as he argues, the logic of the West is this big aversion to risk, which is presumably lessened by regulations, then why all the deregulation over the last 30 years?

    I suppose such theoretical nonsense is to be expected from a group that cheered Clinton’s bombing of the Serbs. Ironic how they have such an aversion to Muslims everywhere except in the former Yugoslavia.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 23, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

  12. Another point of neglect on A. Cockburn’s part:

    Last year saw the emergence of one of the most significant social movements in the Middle East: the Iranian people’s movement for social justice, more specifically. Not only did this very verbose journalist/commentator not say a word about any of it, in his year-end piece summarizing the most significant moments of 2009, not a single word is mentioned about this most important development of the last 30 years in Iran.

    When Counterpunch did allow pieces by others to shed some light on the situation in Iran, as a way of providing ‘balance’ (I suppose), there was always Paul Craig Roberts, who was given free reign to spread propaganda of the most disgusting nature that seemed to have come directly from some state functionaries of the theocrats in Tehran.

    Considering that at one point (twenty years ago, for example) Cockburn used to talk about the atrocities of the Islamic Republic regime, we are forced to ask: What changed there? Is Counterpunch’s silence and/or outright falsifications (re Iranian people’s movement) bought, or merely out of ignorance? Either way it doesn’t sit well.

    Comment by Reza F — January 23, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  13. There might be global warming or cooling but the important issue is whether we, as a human race, can do anything about it.

    There are a host of porkies and not very much truth barraging us everyday so its difficult to know what to believe.

    I think I have simplified the issue in an entertaining way on my blog which includes some issues connected with climategate and “embarrassing” evidence.

    In the pipeline is an analysis of the economic effects of the proposed emission reductions. Watch this space or should I say Blog


    Please feel welcome to visit and leave a comment.



    PS The term “porky” is listed in the Australian Dictionary of Slang.( So I’m told.)

    Comment by rogerthesurf — January 24, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  14. Ben in #2 wrote that: “Conspiracy nuts are often in my experience tending toward the left.”

    Actually conspiracy theories are a distinctly right wing phenomena insofar as they discount the masses as agents of historical change and instead elevate individuals. In the 20th century such thought began in earnest after WWII around the time of Orwell’s famous Noir writings like 1984, written in 1948, a product of his own rightward turn, which were a product of the Cold War that began ramping up again in 1948. (I say “again” because, contrary to popular mythology, the Cold War really began shortly after the Bolshevik Revoultion but was interrupted temporarily by WWII).

    After WWII you had the McCarthyite witch hunts based on a conspiracy myth; you had the John Birchers with their “flouride in tap water” being a communist conspiracy; & the KKK began formulating the notion of ZOG.

    While your point about a “naive faith in the system” insofaras “the system works, if only we could get rid of this evil gang of conspirators who have taken it over/perverted it” is an excellent one — what you’re really saying is that they’re conservative, the hallmark of right wing ideology. They want to “conserve” what they feel has been lost or taken by the evil doers. The definition of a conservative, after all, is: somebody who longs for a past that, unbeknownst to them, can never be recreated.

    Thus the underlying naive faith in the system you correctly identify is really a conservative worldview, that is, it’s right wing at its core, which translates ultimately into reactionary politics.

    Since IMO Cockburn was always really, like his father, a CPer at heart (with the distinct exception that he uniquely rejected the CP’s Democratic Party coat-tailing) perhaps the stunning collapse of the USSR, like it did to so many old CPers with their bedrock annulled, scarred his psyche to the extent that an encroaching conservative worldview was inexorable? The abject apathy of the masses & the collapse of trade unionism in conjunction with soviet unionism poisoned his ability to ever see them as agents of change.

    The point is that leftists, at least the ones rooted in Marxism, tend not to be conspiracists precisely because they see onerous political outcomes flowing from class interests, not individul conspirators. It’s precisely the abandonment of a Marxian analysis of socio-political phenomena that denotes the rightward lurch of any leftist current, leaving them vulnerable to conspiracy theories, which again, are rooted in right wing politics, which in turn are based on the denial of the ability of the masses as the only truly effective agent of positive historical change.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 24, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

  15. Um Jurrian, louis is racist because? Hypocrite, if your going to complain about supposedly being unfairly accused then you shouldn’t engage in it yourself!

    Comment by SGuy — January 25, 2010 @ 8:43 am

  16. To be taken seriously you have to deal with the facts, you and Cockburn are both irrelevant flat earthers who need to take a big bite of a reality sandwhich.

    Comment by SGuy — January 25, 2010 @ 8:50 am

  17. “I have been programming for 42 years now and I know what it means to be burned out. Of course, I would switch jobs with him in a heartbeat even though I wouldn’t wish that disaster on the financial records at Columbia University.”

    Sorry for the late comment, but did a search for “proyect cockburn” and got here..

    Comment by Eugene — June 5, 2010 @ 4:47 am

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