Commentary — July 25, 2012, 2:20 pm

A Brilliant Life: Remembering Alexander Cockburn

Alexander Cockburn passed away on July 21 at age 71. He wrote many pieces for Harper’s Magazine over the years, among them “The Tedium Twins,” a classic of humor writing and media criticism.

Alexander Cockburn was no saint, and he always hated the idea that obituary writers should sanctify the dead no matter how egregious their high crimes, misdemeanors, and other failings, so he’d no doubt disapprove of what follows. But his death hit me hard, and so I apologize to him for this highly sentimental remembrance.

I first discovered Alex when I was a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Like any sensible collegian I’d taken up radical politics, though not necessarily radical writers, as so many were dull, sectarian, and humorless. For all the virtues of Harry Braverman, for example, I didn’t come away from Labor and Monopoly Capitalism wanting to invite him out for a drink or take mushrooms (another passion at the time) with him.

Then I stumbled upon Alex and his funny, vicious, and generally wonderful Press Clips in the Village Voice, and was immediately hooked. When I graduated from Evergreen I sent him a silly letter (as countless wannabe young writers surely did over the years) saying that I hoped to move to New York and wanted to volunteer to work for him.

Needless to say, I never heard back. However, some years later I did move to New York, where I worked as an intern at The Nation and got assigned to Alex. He expected a lot from interns, and I routinely put in eighteen-hour days, but it was as great of a journalism education as one could hope for.

I continued to work with Alex after the internship ended. In July of 1988, I woke up one morning to learn that the USS Vincennes had shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 civilians. The Pentagon instantly went into spin-control mode, claiming that the Iranian plane had been descending toward the Vincennes (and hence looked to be planning an attack), that it was outside of the normal commercial air corridor, and that its transponder was emitting signals that identified it as a military aircraft. Initial reports from a credulous press corps (some things truly never change) accepted this account at face value.

Alex immediately smelled bullshit and called me with a list of sources to contact. Those interviews quickly led to a Wall Street Journal column he wrote that was the first major story to challenge the Pentagon’s account and show that the Vincennes had shot down the Iranian airliner because it mistook it for an enemy warplane. Later Alex and I co-authored a piece here at Harper’s about the incident. It concluded, “A pair of binoculars could have told the officers of the Vincennes what was flying overhead. But binoculars don’t cost half a billion dollars. The more complex the weaponry, the deeper the pork barrel and the more swollen the bottom line.”

I moved to Brazil in 1989 and then to Washington in 1993, when I started CounterPunch. Alex joined the following year, and we worked together until I left five years later (at which point Jeffrey St. Clair came aboard full-time as co-editor). During that time we co-authored Washington Babylon, which is still available on remainder tables and at fine used bookstores everywhere.

Over the years we had our disputes, personal and political, and at one point went several years without speaking. (I can’t imagine any friends of Alex’s didn’t go through a lengthy period during which they vowed never to speak to him again). But though I hadn’t seen him much in recent years, we patched things up long ago and talked occasionally.

When I heard that he had died, I searched through my emails with him. One of my favorites came a few years ago, after CounterPunch had been sued (I can’t remember the details, but the lawsuit was later dismissed) and I had been included as a defendant because the litigant, who was seeking $5 million, mistakenly believed I was still part of the editorial team. Alex assured me there was nothing to fear: “I wrote to the litigant saying that while current staff of CounterPunch west of Rockies were now located in North Korea, true leader is indeed one K. Silverstein, a man of modest means, and that a simple phased system of payment at $50 a month would see satisfaction of the debt in a tad more than 33,000 years.”

I’ve read a number of dumb things in Alex’s obituaries, among them the oft-repeated and entirely bogus charge that he was anti-Semitic. Go back and read what he was writing about Israel thirty years ago; much of it has been borne out. It only generated controversy at the time because he was one of the very few people then willing to say it. Alex’s sin, as James Wolcott wrote on Monday, “was in aligning with the wrong team.”

(There have been many great remembrances of Alex. Wolcott’s was among the best, though I also recommend this piece by Michael Tomasky and this one by John Fund.)

A Los Angeles Times piece quoted Marc Cooper as saying of Alex, “He forfeited becoming a very influential writer in favor of becoming a mud-throwing polemicist,” a statement which in addition to being wrong completely misses the point. Alex was an influential writer precisely because he was such a fabulous mud-throwing polemicist. He was simply too good to ignore, which is why he didn’t write for only The Nation and Harper’s but also the Wall Street Journal and many other mainstream publications that no doubt hated every word he wrote for them.

It was a privilege to work with Alex and to be his friend, and through him to have met so many wonderful people. Among those, but by no means the only ones, were his brothers, Andrew and Patrick; the astute Pierre Sprey, who back in 1988 patiently and precisely explained to me why the Pentagon’s initial story on the Iranian airliner was so fraudulent; Ben Sonnenberg, the former editor of Grand Street; and Alex’s long-time editor and friend JoAnn Wypijewski.

“Alexander the Brilliant,” Edward Said called him. He was indeed, and he led a brilliant life.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Ken Silverstein:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2018

The Deportation Racket

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Told Us Not To Say This

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Labor’s Last Stand·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Having already determined in Citizens United that corporations are people, the Supreme Court decided in May that people, at least working people of vulnerable status, can be prevented from acting as corporations. In three consolidated cases involving disputed wage claims, the Court ruled that employers can force workers to accept individual arbitration instead of joining together in class-action lawsuits. Writing for the majority, Trump-appointed justice Neil Gorsuch maintained that the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act was more pertinent to the cases at hand than the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which asserts that workers have a right to “concerted activities” for the purpose of “mutual aid or protection.”

[caption id="attachment_270125" align="aligncenter" width="630"] Illustrations by Richard Mia[/caption]

In actuality, as this ruling and others before and since have made abundantly clear, workers don’t have any rights at all except those they wrest through disciplined organization and militant struggle. Although the Supreme Court’s decision does not affect workers in unions, it does amount to an ominous, ideologically motivated attack on the principle of collective action from which unions derive.

As expected, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke for the dissent. Noting that in 1992 only 2 percent of non-unionized employers used mandatory arbitration agreements, while 54 percent use them now, Ginsburg said that by upholding these “arm-twisted” and “take-it-or-leave-it” contracts, the Court had all but guaranteed “the under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers,” a weakening that some attorneys worry will extend to cases of discrimination and sexual harassment. Gorsuch dismissed Ginsburg’s objections as “apocalyptic.”

Detail of illustration by Richard Mia
Article
The Deportation Racket·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Con artists are preying on undocumented immigrants in detention

Detail of collage by Brian Hubble. Source photographs: © Spencer Platt/Getty Images; © Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Article
They Told Us Not To Say This·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The few white boys in our town could ball. Breakaway layups, nothing-but-the-bottom-of-the-net free throws, buzzer-beater fadeaways. They slept with basketballs in their beds and told us about their dreams. We tried not to stare at the diamond studs in their ears as they talked about winning imaginary games in overtime or seeing blurry scoreboards. It don’t matter if I can see the score anyway, I finna play my hardest regardless, Brent Zalesky said once, squinting his eyes in the sunlight. Brent Zalesky lived in the Crest. He didn’t flinch at the sound of gunshots, he received detentions weekly, and he ganked tapes and CDs from Wherehouse with the clunky security devices still attached. Brent Zalesky knew how to get them off, armed only with pliers and a Bic lighter. This was 1996, and he never got caught. He took music requests and we’d find surprises in our lockers at school. We loved him for this. We loved his buzzed blond hair, his stainless-steel chain necklace, his jawline, his position. Brent Zalesky played point guard. All the boys on the team respected him. They called him Z.

When the boys got their basketball photos from Lifetouch, we collected them like baseball cards and kept them in hole-punched plastic sleeves in our day planners. Each year, Z’s wallet-size basketball pic slid into the front of our collections. Freshman year, he simply signed his name on the back: Peace, Brent. Junior year, he wrote more words on the one he gave Marorie Balancio: Sup Rorie, I think you’re hella fine. Peace, Brent.

Back then there were two movie theaters in town and he took her to the one that didn’t smell like Black & Milds and piss. Marorie said he drove up with a cigarette tucked behind his right ear, but he didn’t light it until after he dropped her off at home. She saw the small spark hanging outside his car window because he had waited until she unlocked the front door. Marorie couldn’t help but look back and wave before she walked inside. Earlier, during the movie, Brent Zalesky had fed her popcorn. She said it was like he knew exactly how much she needed and when she needed more in her mouth. We could only imagine what it felt like, to have his fingers so close to our open lips.

“The Altar” (detail) by Robin Layton © The artist.

Amount of aid Connecticut agreed in May to provide Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund:

$22,000,000

A survey of national narcissism found that Russians see themselves as responsible for 61 percent of world history, whereas the Swiss put themselves at 11 percent

Marvel Entertainment's CEO exerts influence over the VA; Mike Pence lays out plans for The Space Force; Paul Manafort's trial reveals his tax evasion (and much more)

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today