Alexander Cockburn was probably the most distinguished left journalist in his adopted land. He was fortified by his father Claud’s career in British journalism and the Communist Party, above all in the crucible of the late 1930s, when the British government abandoned the Spanish Republic to Franco’s Nationalists, and appeased Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
I knew Alex only as an editor, one with a light but sure touch. He ran one piece of mine in the CounterPunch newsletter, titled “Suez 1956, Iran 2007?” It described how Israel, in invading the Sinai peninsula, provided the excuse for Britain and France to invade the Suez Canal Zone. It was intended to draw parallels with Israel’s role in fomenting the crisis with Iran. Today, alas, only the title would need updating, as Alex would have agreed.
Michael Tomasky, who worked for Alex as an intern at The Nation, wrote: “Alex struck American journalism like lightning when he first started writing for The Village Voice in, I think, 1974…the Voice really mattered then…the first and most important alternative newspaper, its place in the profession’s history [was] already assured, with towering figures like Nat Hentoff, Jack Newfield, Ellen Willis, and Andrew Sarris.” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/22/alexander-cockburn-1941-2012.html)
Alex’s column with James Ridgeway was essential reading; his Pressclips column popularized “media analysis”, especially of the New York Times, and inspired a host of imitators. He would probably have become editor if he had stayed, but instead was forced out just as the times demanded such a pulpit for his talents, as Reaganism was setting the stage for our present apocalypse.
Alex’s departure from the Voice came in early 1984, after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the massacre in the Palestinian Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israel’s Phalangist allies, which it facilitated; the seizure of a security strip in south Lebanon, under the control of the turncoat “South Lebanon Army”, and contingent horrors. Alex’s coverage was suitably critical, and tempers were very high at the Voice because many Jewish writers simply couldn’t take the truth. There had been the usual hyperbolic slander of “anti-Semitism on the left” in Voice columns.
This was the backdrop to the contrived controversy over the grant from the Institute for Arab Studies, an affiliate of the Association of Arab American University Graduates, to write about the invasion of Lebanon. The Boston Phoenix discovered this grant, in a piece which ran on January 10, 1984. The Phoenix responded to Alex’s passing by crowing
How the Boston Phoenix got Alexander Cockburn fired from the Village Voice
This ghoulish display links to the 1984 piece, retrieved and rendered for the web on Monday, July 23, immediately after the weekend announcement of his death by CounterPunch co-editor Jeffrey St. Clair.
Alexander Cockburn’s $10,000 Arab connection
A question of propriety
This is purely an Israel lobby hatchet job, early 1980s edition. The author inflated a controversy, by citing the Anti-Defamation League, et alia, as independent, unbiased sources, repeating their attacks on the AAUG and IAS as sinister propaganda outfits simply because they represented an Arab point of view. AAUG and IAS were non-profit, academic research institutions, supported by private, not governmental funds. They were a perfectly respectable source of funds for a book, though the Voice editor called them a “special political interest” in the manner of the ADL’s attacks. “Alex’s death brought back many ugly memories of Zionist hysteria over Arab organizations,” said a senior Arab-American scholar with knowledge of the events.
The topic was special, Israel’s conduct. Absent that, there would have been no “controversy” at all. The Voice ran a “Blazing Typewriters” issue of commentary on the matter (after Mel Brooks’s film, “Blazing Saddles”), including a piece from Noam Chomsky. Alex was suspended indefinitely, and eventually invited back, which he sensibly declined. A writer on the Voice at the time told me that he was popular there, and his effective dismissal may have been a coup by the incumbent editor against a threat to his position. But only in the US would Zionism be a factor in office politics at a left publication.
The Wall Street Journal, for which Alex wrote a monthly column, shrugged it off. The New York Times reported that the Journal “was considering whether to continue running the column.” Indeed, stated the Journal, his “editor had just penned a purple paragraph threatening to fill that space with Letters to the Editor unless Mr. Cockburn started to deliver his copy on deadline.” Upon learning the facts, his editor said, “’Well, among all the things I can imagine Alex doing, this one seems fairly innocuous.’” The Journal stated that “we have no opinion, except that even Arabs should enjoy freedom of speech.” (Wall Street Journal, “Alexflap,” January 13, 1984).
Voice readers were very supportive. The best letter, I recall even now, came from a reader in Brooklyn, and said simply,
NO BISH, NO REVO
NO COCKBURN, NO VOICE
This was at the time of the US invasion of Grenada, an early Reagan exercise of muscle-flexing. The popular revolutionary leader, Maurice Bishop, was eulogized in Grenada in the first line.
In 2008, Alex became an exemplary US citizen, having long enjoyed popular music, barbecue, old cars and other Americana, while providing the keenest analysis of our degenerate politics. I felt that his iconoclasm registered a false positive over climate change, and a few other questions, but mainly I cheered as he burned the conventional wisdom, left, right and center, like his British naval ancestor, Admiral Sir George Cockburn, burned Washington in the War of 1812. Alex fought to the last for the things he believed in, not burdening us with his suffering, but inspiring us with his writing, like his wonderful playlet about Christopher Hitchens, written only three months before his death (“At the Pearly Gates”, http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/20/at-the-pearly-gates/).
What Maurice Bishop meant to Grenadians, Alex meant to many of us. NO COCKBURN, NO VOICE.
A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the CounterPunch newsletter memorial issue, v 19 n 5, September, 2012.