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 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2019

Downstream

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Stonewall at Fifty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Maid’s Story

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Is Poverty Necessary?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Is Poverty Necessary?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

Article
More Than a Data Dump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last fall, a court filing in the Eastern District of Virginia inadvertently suggested that the Justice Department had indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other outlets reported soon after that Assange had likely been secretly indicted for conspiring with his sources to publish classified government material and hacked documents belonging to the Democratic National Committee, among other things.

Article
Stonewall at Fifty·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

Article
Downstream·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

Article
Warm, Weird, Effervescent·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Lore Segal’s short story “The Reverse Bug,” a teacher named Ilka Weisz invites her conversational En­glish class to a panel at a Connecticut think tank: “?‘Should there be a statute of limitations on genocide?’ with a wine and cheese reception.” The class is made up of immigrants to the United States. Although Segal doesn’t give a date, we are to understand that most came several decades earlier as a result of World War II: Gerti Gruner, who recently arrived in the United States from Vienna, by way of Montevideo, and can’t stop talking about her lost cousins; the moody Paulino from La Paz, whose father disappeared in the American Consulate; and the mysterious Japanese Matsue, who tells them that he worked in a Munich firm “employed in soundproofing the Dachau ovens so that what went on inside could not be heard on the outside.” He’s since been working at the think tank on a “reverse bug,” a technological device that brings sound from the outside in. The class takes advantage of his poor En­glish to ignore what he is saying.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Gene Simmons of the band Kiss addressed Department of Defense personnel in the Pentagon Briefing Room.

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

“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