Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cockburn vs Hitchens; Growing Up (and old) With The Nation...

I started reading The Nation magazine back in college. I loved its newsprint feel and its trade book size. Very little advertising present; within its pages I was introduced to the essentials of (mostly) East Coast Liberal opinion. Those were bad days to be a Liberal back in the early 80's. But because of the major shift to the right (something this country still hasn't emerged from), subscriptions to the magazine did well. We had to circle the wagons and attempt to fight back the powers of barbarism present in Reagan.

I was still young enough, and lucky enough, to actually read a column or two from some of the great Left Wing thinkers who emerged from being Communists back in the 30's. I remember reading I.F. Stone-- there was something about Izzy's writing that felt authoritative. Plus he wore really cool glasses. And there were other famous names: Howard Fast, Michael Harrington, Claud Cockburn, Kirkpatrick Sale introduced me to deep green thinking, Jesse Jackson, Tom Hayden. Writing for The Nation is a rite of passage for liberals, leftists and radicals of an unspecified nature; if you wanted to be a player in the intellectual left in the US, sooner or later you would need to have a piece in The Nation.

And yet, it was also incredibly ingrown and is weighted way too much towards East Coast thinking. Proximity is the number one predictor of relationship and it also accounts for those who get published too (along with nepotism). I find New Yorkers to be stuffy, rude and, mostly, boring. The same was true for The Nation.

I read the magazine for the articles, but to tell you the truth, I never really made it through most of the over written critters. I did read the columnists though. My favorite being Alexander Cockburn.

Back in those days, Alexander Cockburn alternated weekly with Chris Hitchens. Both of them from England. Cockburn's dad was the renown Communist journalist, Claud Cockburn. Chris Hitchens didn't have a famous pedigree. Both Alex and Chris were educated in Oxford. They both cut their teeth in the Trotskyist left in England. Both proclaimed themselves to be leftists, socialists--in Cockburn maybe even a bit of Communist leanings.  It was rather off putting in a parochial sense: Couldn't we find our own American Left leaning writers? Why must we have two columnists from England in our country's Left Wing answer to Buckley's  National Review?

It didn't matter. I tended to side with Cockburn; I liked his writing better than Hitchens, although I noticed Cockburn could be spectacularly wrong. Often. Didn't matter. His writing made up for when he got things wrong. All through the 80's and 90's I read him. Every week. And when he founded Counterpunch, I couldn't wait for Friday when he would write his weekly column. I stopped reading The Nation in the early 2000's. When they cut Alex from two pages down to one page, and then from every other week to once a month, I just didn't have the interest in reading the polite writings of the Wish Washy Politically Correct East Coast Liberal Establishment.

At some point, Cockburn and Hitchens turned on each other. It was part of their evolution. Hitchens moved to the right, first with his opinions on abortion, and later with his cheerleading for war in Iraq. Hitchens moved from New York to Washington DC, where he had an apartment that overlooked the Capitol. Hitchens left The Nation for more lucrative writing assignments, ultimately landing in Vanity Fair. It is hard to get rich writing from the left side of the aisle--I think Hitchens figured that out and since he had no inheritance nor any training to be anything else but a writer (and Hitch admitted that too), well, Trotskyites don't get rich; famous Washington journalists do get rich. Christopher Hitchens' parties in Washington are legendary. He was to DC for journalistic partying as Hunter Thompson was to Colorado. I don't know if the two ever met; I doubt it.  Many of Washington's elite liked to party til dawn in the Hitchens stately apartment. Hitchens was famous for his drinking and his cigarette smoking.

Alex Cockburn, at one time excoriated Ed Abbey and the Earth Firsters as the inheritors of Malthus, ended up on the West Coast in a small town of Petrolia. Hitchens loved power; Cockburn loved solitude. And so Cockburn created a very influential left wing radical daily internet newspaper called Counterpunch. This was years before the Huffington Post came along. Cockburn ended up a great admirer of Ed Abbey. And he became difficult to define; he never really did define himself. He became kind of a crank: he denied climate change and he believed in the abiotic theory of oil. He still quoted Lenin and seemed to love Russian (Soviet) literature, philosophers and even scientists. Most of the abiotic oil scientists are Russian. Some say Cockburn drifted towards anarchism towards the end. On one video on the Internet, Cockburn states the best influence the Left had in this country was the fact that you can buy a good loaf of bread in most towns.

Cockburn and Hitchens had feuds that started in the late 80's and lasted until Hitchens died of cancer in 2011. They didn't like each other much, and in a way, they taught all of us how to have an epic feud in print. Nothing you read on a trolls page mimicked the sheer joy of reading the Cockburn/Hitchens exchanges. They were masterful. A delight to read. And I think it probably boosted magazine sales.

They both died within six months of each other. Both died of cancer. Hitchens wrote very publically about his cancer, and the process of dying. Hitchens was a drunk (the same was said about Cockburn). They both smoked cigarettes, chain smokers, although Cockburn quit at age 40. While Hitchens was dying publically from throat cancer; Cockburn was fighting his own battle with cancer, etiology unknown to me (probably lung?), very privately.

They became similar polar opposites and remained such up to the end. When I read in the summer of 2012 that Alex Cockburn died, a part of me died. A part of my youth. A part of my introduction to left wing thought. Cockburn was young, aged 71. Hitchens was even younger; he died at age 62.

May they both rest in peace.


  1. Cockburn drank, but unlike Hitchens wasn't a drunk. Wonderful piece. C writing on the invasion of Lebanon the greatest journalistic experience I have ever had. Cheers

  2. Your comment made me revisit this little piece. I'll have to revisit the archives to see what Cockburn wrote about Lebanon. Since I wrote this, I've learned that Cockburn died of colon cancer. I also read Patrick Cockburn's book on schizophrenia recently: an excellent read and very instructive. This is one talented family.

  3. You must read his fathers autobiography, one of my faves, and Patrick Cockburn was the only journalist in Iraq who would leave the green zone, disguised in the back of a taxi, a dangerous thing to do, and one of the few who speaks Arabic, and not a man who can run for it as he walks with a cane from childhood polio. Alexander wrote about the first invasion of Lebanon in 83 in the pages of the Voice, and it was the only reporting in the country telling it. His brother is a good writer as well, and the father of Olivia Wilde. and somehow Laura Flanders is a niece as well.

  4. I read Claud's book years ago. I think I should give it another look, as I was too young to fully appreciate it. Quite the talented family. I think there might be some of that Village Voice coverage in Alex's first book of memoirs, or maybe the second? You sound pretty familiar with the Cockburn clan. Have you ever met any of them? I heard Alex speak once back in the 80's, but I never managed to meet him. I did travel to Petrolia once, but felt a bit like a stalker, so I just spent the afternoon at their wonderful beach. I regret that I never rented his guest house while he was still alive. Then again, his death came as a total shock and I thought there would always be time.

  5. I assumed I would see Prince in concert, the illusion of time never ends. I think that would be in the first memoir. Of course he always felt like a friend, his writing had such charm, but I never met any of them, though being mostly in Canada I am a little out of the way. I heard him once, and anyone so fun and informative can only be liked. I didn't know about the guest house, but now I have one more thing to look forward to. I agree totally with your thoughts on Hitchens, that once you're part of Washington you have an agenda, conscious or not, to be known, and there is only one path to that there.