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Alexander Cockburn: the Christopher Hitchens who the left could love until the end

Journalists are ten a penny today. Every other person you meet is one, in one sense or another. And that’s not because we all hang out in particularly meretricious settings with the haves (not the have-nots), but because we’re all writing, all giving our opinion, all setting the tone among our friends and beyond.

That’s apparently good. Fine. But if this is what we’re all going to be doing now, we need to keep things interesting. What is not interesting today among young journalists is that they need to play safe. They need to play to their gallery because they still probably want to become politicians.

This is what is killing journalism. Not that we’re all doing it, but because our options still have to be open when we are doing it. It’s the equivalent of our front page Facebook pictures. The interesting ones are where we’ve decided to stick two fingers up; sure, this may damage my job prospects, but I’ve made my choice, and that choice is fuck you.

But journalists today are doing the equivalent of a conservative headshot, a light smile with nothing too lumpish or suspicious. The manner is gauche, but then they know they really ought not to be doing it – their designs are on jobs that will bring about many other more exiciting photo opportunities, pointing at cracks in the road or pigeon shit on a school playground.

Journalism is dying because of this. Dying all the time. And another of its greatest representatives has died again. Alexander Cockburn was that exciting voice who was so enthused by the real world that he’d cut his eyes out before he reported on it in a way that sat well with everyone. Not least those in his own coterie.

I think this is what we forget about the “status quo”. There’s elites and then there is us, but there are various status quos, and we each try to appeal to it in our groups. The political left may want to disturb the elitist status quo, but by God do we want to wine and dine our own elites.

Cockburn didn’t do this. His story starts off like so many others. Oxford educated radical goes on to work for the Times Literary Supplement before staffing at the New Statesman. A young Marxist who travelled the US, it could scarcely be a different explanation if I were to describe the early life of Christopher Hitchens, that other great journalist who hated his core audience more than they hated the bourgeoisie.

When we read through Cockburn’s back catalogue, what we don’t find is someone who has been well-versed in the left wing political primer and eaten everything that it has secreted. Cockburn challenged orthodoxies of the day and orthodoxies of his tribe, the political left.

We admire and find Hitchens exciting for the same reason. We may not agree with everything he says, but what’s not to like about good old-fashioned political in-fighting. The problem with him was that he really did admire George Bush Jnr. At that point the ambiguity was lost, he’d sided with a right wing politician and ceased to make the left wing case for war.

Cockburn is proof that journalists should and could have the knowledge and personable know-how of a politician (is supposed to have…) with the independence and guts to talk their mind freely as a gin-soaked academic.

When Cockburn was being accused of anti-Semitism he published a rebuttal called My Life as an “Anti-Semite”. In it he trashed the link between anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel and hatred towards the Jews. The polemic, in my opinion, misses the point. The problem is not that the left hides an anti-Semitism, but that its curious alignment with bourgeois sentimentalism and the tyranny of liberal “guilt” (see here) meant that it could not properly deal with the anti-Semitism that had aquainted itself with the anti-war left.

What’s important here is that Cockburn didn’t buckle; even as mild-mannered as he was with his pen he was able to stun his enemy into submission. This is good polemic, this is good journalism.

Of course it’s not all roses for Cockburn towards the end either. Obscurity persevered, adding to the fact you couldn’t pin him down, but in ways that made him particularly unappealing. He was added to that list of those who ignored the man-made link with climate change and started to write for the paleoconservative magazine Chronicles, funded by the anti-immigrant US think-tank the Rockford Institute.

At the height of Gaddafi’s revenge on rebels in his country Cockburn decided the best course of action from his desk was to turn out copy saying the former autocrat was proved right about al-Qaeda influence in the National Transitional Council (not true) and question whether he had in fact committed war crimes (he had).

We can question his political opinions, and we will even in his death, but what is admirable is not playing to the gallery. Your own or any other one. Journalists are inherently existential, cold and miserable. It is this quality that gives them total legitimacy over the information we swallow. Whether we spit it out afterwards is up to us, but who serves it us remains the most important thing.

Cockburn’s death is not the end of this journalism. But it is another reminder of its demise. And if I can end on one note, a reptition, sure, I want to say if you’re going to be a journalist, be a bloody journalist. Don’t be a politician. Don’t try to be a politician. Air your mistrust of people in the open, not in the back of a car when still wired up to Sky News. Throw your toys out of your pram with your words, and the world will be a much happier place.


  1. Jim Denham says:

    “Not playing to the gallery”!?!: all CounterPunch ever does is play to the particular “gallery” it’s aimed at: Cockburn may or may not have been personally an antisemite, but he was certainly happy to give space to people who arfe (eg Gilad Atzmon and various other far-right “anti- Zionists”, “troothers” and conspiracy-nuts).

    He was a vicious Stalinist who was happy to consort with the far right. Hitchens had his (very considerable) faults, but unlike Cockburn, he was a consistent anti-fascist.

    The article above is an appaling white-wash of this vile character.

  2. Mick Hall says:


    Alexander was a middle class scribbler that most people did not even know existed, the George Bush’s or Tony Blair’s of this world are vile characters, try and keep things in perspective.

    The article is not a white-wash, he correctly points out some of the man’s weaknesses and he is spot on when he writes that many young scribblers write as if they are auditioning for the main chance. They never quiet ‘bite through’ the hand which they hope will feed them, merely nibble around the edges.

    Which is a great shame for them, as the independent can only employ so many ‘potential’ turncoats.

    Comradely regards

  3. Carl says:


    Unsurprisingly I agree with Mick, who I must thank for backing me up. As he noted I detailed some of the faults, I even explained that the problem with lefties like him are, not that they are personally anti-Semites, but they seem incapable of dealing with anti-Semitism raised today.

    My post is about journalism, and for his faults Cockburn was among a group of radical journalists who raised two fingers to the establishment and tried to do what was best by their tribe, ie the left. That’s not to say they can’t be wrong, but this type of commitment to debate is an art often lost on journalism today, which appears more and more like a talent contest where the prize is something different than journalism entirely.

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