Sunday, August 31, 2014
A Collossal Life---Alexander Cockburn
I just finished Alexander Cockburn's last book, A Colossal Wreck, last night. I'm old enough now to have witnessed the beginning, middle and end of writer's careers. When I was in Rushford last summer, the young upstart who applied for a job as a journalist at my hometown newspaper, beating me out for the job, announced his retirement. I went on to write for a competitor paper, The Fillmore County Journal. But it felt weird to be old enough to witness the beginning and end of this writer's career.
The same thing sort of goes for how I feel about Alex Cockburn's career. I began reading him back in the early 80's when he wrote his great column for The Nation. Beat the Devil, he called it. Of course, the Cockburn family is one of the greatest examples of nepotism you can find in the US media. Claud Cockburn was Alex's father and a writer of some renown. He wrote for the Communist newspaper in the UK up until 1948. Many have said he was a paid agent for Stalin. Given the Cockburn's financial situation growing up, if he was a paid agent, the Soviets certainly didn't pay very well.
Back to nepotism. Claud had three sons and a daughter. The three sons followed Claud into journalism. His daughter became a mystery writer. Claud's son, Andrew is married to Leslie Cockburn and together they've been working for CBS news for years. They have one movie to their credit and probably the best book on the Soviet Union's military capacity was written by Andrew back in the early 80's. Andrew's book on Donald Rumsfeld is on my reading list.
Another of Claud's progeny, Patrick Cockburn, is a correspondent for a couple of British newspapers and has been covering the middle east for years. His pieces from Iraq and the middle east are must reading. However, he isn't read very often in the US Media, much to our detriment. Patrick has a son named Henry, and together they wrote a book about the development of Henry's schizophrenia. Patrick blames the development of Henry's schizophrenia on Henry's heavy cannabis abuse.
Olivia Wilde is Andrew's daughter and she is making quite a name for herself in Hollywood. She did a breastfeeding shoot for a fashion magazine that recently caused a stir. Oh, those radical Cockburns!
Claudia Cockburn was married to Michael Flanders. Their child, Laura Flanders, is another American left wing journalist who has the independent television show GRIT. She also writes for the usual lefty periodicals.
Let's just call this family the Left Wing Media's version of the Kennedys.
Alex Cockburn created one of the first websites to fully use the Internet to get information out. Counterpunch continues to offer good, and some not so good, news analysis from a variety of left wing viewpoints. They publish everything from the Socialist Workers Party to Ralph Nader. I had a piece published there once.
The thing that bugs me about many writers on the Left is that you can't really pin down their ideology. Alex Cockburn never wrote out clearly what he believed. Yes, he was a critic of all wars and imperialism. But he never came straight out and said what he was. I've read that others said he became an Anarchist towards the end of his life. Many called him an old guard Stalinist. It is obvious that the Russians did influence him, to the point that he followed the Russian line of the abiotic origins of oil. He is probably the last American pundit who quoted Lenin, Bukharin and Bakunin.
Of course, Alexander Cockburn paved the way for his former friend and colleague at The Nation, Chris Hitchens. At one time, they monopolized the pages of The Nation, both with cult followings. Hitchens actually was a Trotskyite at one time. He evolved over the years, as did Cockburn, to a space much different than from where he started. In judging the two, I think it is instructive to see where they both chose to live their lives. Hitchens had a flat in downtown DC with a view of the halls of power. Cockburn chose to live in a very isolated community of Petrolia, on the west coast of California. You couldn't get further away from Washington than Petrolia.
Alex became a climate change denier who even went to one of the despicable Heartland Conferences. Towards the end of his life, he seemed more like an eccentric writer Uncle. Always an entertaining read, but more and more influenced by a Libertarian view. In the 90's he forayed into the armed survivalist movement. And he was a Second Amendment enthusiast who thought that college kids should be armed.
You just can't pigeonhole Alex.
Alex wrote a column critical of Ed Abbey way back when only to become very much an admirer of him towards the end of Cockburn's life. He even took a trip to Ed's secret burial spot with Doug Peacock.
And so Alex is one of the major influences on my life. As such, reading his last book, A Colossal Wreck is both sweet and poignant. So how's the book? I found it less stilted than his earlier works. More approachable. Readable. Enjoyable. Honest. It is a book to bring out every couple of years and read again, if only for the beauty of the writing and the wry wit.