Obituaries

Alexander Cockburn, RIP

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It's pronounced

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1984: My 14-year-old self, interested in exploring the opinions that don't show up on the news-chat shows, is looking through the magazines stacked by the exit at Internationalist Books, a leftist bookshop on Rosemary Street. This is the freebie pile: leftovers that didn't sell while they were current, now available gratis to anyone who doesn't mind the fact that the covers have been torn off. I pick up a copy of The Nation, which I've heard of but never read before. Inside I find a two-page spread labeled "Beat the Devil," written by someone named Alexander Cockburn. The feature fascinates me: First it's talking about Jesse Jackson, but then suddenly the subject is Vanessa Williams, the Miss America who had to give up her crown when an old nude photo shoot turned up in Penthouse. "And she was not just posing with anyone," wrote Cockburn. "She was posing with another woman. I doubt even a full repudiation of Louis Farrakhan and all he stands for would have gotten Williams off the hook at that point."

From there Cockburn cycled through the subject of witch hunts—the essence of which, he wrote, is "that the past is re-created as a guilty secret"—before arriving back at Williams at the end. In modern witch hunts, he wrote, "verbs like 'admit,' 'confess' and 'disclose' are pressed into ever more trivial service. Mark Twain will soon 'admit' that this was not his true name. George Sand will 'disclose' her true sex. Beauty queens, recruited to a degraded and fetishistic ritual called a pageant, will be denounced for having exploited their sex on terms other than those laid down by a bunch of promoters in Atlantic City."

I had never read anything like this before. It wasn't that the article was stylish and erudite; it's that it was a stylish and erudite response to a porn shoot, a column that casually mixed culture and politics, serious analysis and jokes. The op-ed page in the daily paper wasn't like this at all. I was hooked, and I got in the habit of picking up more free copies of The Nation at the bookstore. Eventually I subscribed, mostly to read Cockburn and this other fellow, named Hitchens, who Cockburn was always arguing with. A few years later I met Cockburn for the first time at the same store. He was in town to promote his book Corruptions of Empire, and Bob Sheldon—he owned the shop, and in three years' time he would be murdered there—held a reception for him.

I know, I know. You were hoping for a picture of Vanessa Williams instead.

Now Cockburn is dead too: Cancer killed him last night at age 71. The Irish radical came to the United States in the early 1970s, and here he quickly became one of the two or three most talented columnists in the country. I'm not referring to his political views when I say that—we'll get to those in a moment—but to his literary skill. He was a very funny writer, sort of a Marxist Myles na gCopaleen, earning my admiration whether he was invoking black magic to explain George H.W. Bush's embrace of deficits ("The Keynesian coven has been a bit indiscreet in its boasting, and now the Secret Service is investigating"), expressing his disdain for Bill Clinton ("Listening to him is like having a pillow stuffed into one's mouth"), or parodying the show then known as The MacNeil-Lehrer Report. (The latter article concluded with a debate between "the Human Meat-eaters Association, who favor a free market in human flesh," and a liberal who fretted that "some human flesh available for sale to the public is maggot-ridden, improperly cut, and often incorrectly graded.") For a while in the '80s he dominated the Nation letters column, writing long responses to his angry mail—responses that sometimes were longer than his actual column, and sometimes were as entertaining too.

His father, Claude Cockburn, was a Communist Party stalwart, and Alex was a red of one sort or another throughout his career. But after the Cold War he drifted in an anti-authoritarian direction, telling an interviewer in the mid-'90s that he was "thinking like an anarcho-syndicalist these days"; when a reader wrote to CounterPunch, the newsletter and website that Cockburn edited with Jeffrey St. Clair, to ask what the editors thought about libertarianism, St. Clair replied that "we are both anarcho-libertarians. One of us slightly more anarcho, the other slightly more libertarian." Radicals who take class seriously understand that the state is enemy territory, and Cockburn saved some of his sharpest barbs for liberals, condemning the managerial impulse that frets more about what poor people might be up to than why exactly they're poor. In the same spirit, he was a reliable foe of moral panics, denouncing the Satan scare, the child-abuse crusades, the militia panic, the war on "cults." He defended old cars, called for local control of education, and complained about the ways regulations strangled small businesses. (No, really: "A lot of the history of food regulation in this country has turned out to be a way to finish off small, quality producers by demanding they invest in whatever big ticket items the USDA happens to be in love with at the time; said love objects usually turning out to be whatever the big food processors are using. That's the reason why it's hard to get decent sausages or hams.") CounterPunch may have published its share of anti-libertarian invective, but it published several libertarians as well (including me), and Cockburn blurbed books by the libertarian writers Wendy McElroy and Robert Higgs, in the latter case announcing his wish that "liberals and even radicals felt and wrote as strongly about the Iron Heel of government power." He managed to be both a hardcore environmentalist and a global-warming skeptic, an unusual combination but one that made sense when you read him closely. The environmental campaigns that most interested Cockburn aimed to transfer power to the people affected by ecological problems: They were defenses of particular places, particular habitats, particular lungs. With climate, by contrast, the most commonly proposed solutions all seemed to concentrate power further, empowering managerial liberals and enriching whichever companies would make out best under cap and trade. Cockburn wasn't suspicious despite his politics; he was suspicious because of them.

I could reel off a bunch of topics where I disagreed with the man, from Cuba to Social Security to the science (as opposed to politics) of global warming. Still, as Anthony Gregory put it today,

Cockburn embodied the admirable concerns of leftism—good conditions for workers, anti-racism, social equality, good living standards for the masses. But he was no blind supporter of the state. Far from it. He supported gun rights, was skeptical of regulation, and favored Ron Paul over Barack Obama in 2008—with very few reservations. He was almost alone among the left in his outrage at the Clinton administration for the siege that took over seventy lives near Waco, Texas, in 1993. He did not fall for the Brown Scare tactics of the establishment left. He was very skeptical of global warming alarmism. He occasionally wrote stuff a libertarian would disagree with, of course, but most of what he wrote was more critical of the establishment, the warfare state, and even domestic leviathan than much of what you'd find almost anywhere else.

I met him once, at a peace conference hosted by the Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the summer of 2008. The first thing I said to him was, "You're my favorite commie." He smiled and knew and did not take it the wrong way. He gave a great talk appealing to the largely libertarian crowd in which he skewered the absurdity of government recycling mandates and the Obama cult. He was always willing to associate with free-marketers and conservatives in opposition to the bipartisan empire.

Requiescat in pace, or whatever the atheist Marxist equivalent to that is.

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86 responses to “Alexander Cockburn, RIP

  1. Threadjack:

    So…..if your small business succeeds, you didn’t build it – you owe that success to govt. If it fails, even because of govt action, that failure is your own damn fault:

    Obama’s Soft-Core Socialism

    The contempt for small business was aptly summarized by Hillary Clinton back in 1993, when she was pushing her plan to nationalize health care. Told that her proposals would devastate small companies, she replied: “I can’t be responsible for every undercapitalized small business in America.”

    1. Don’t.

    2. On an obituary post? C’mon, Longtorso.

      Back on-topic: Very well said, Jesse.

    3. Fuck off, twit.

    4. You guys laying into other people for being classless is a bit fuckin’ rich, ain’t it? Bring me ’round next time another female writer for reason introduces herself and remind me of the high-class standard we maintain around here.

      1. I don’t recognize the names above as names that do that. I could be wrong, though.

        1. I am just saying that if we are going to call out folks about being classless, we ought to do it in a consistent manner, is all.

          1. Good point. I can’t necessarily say why, but this breach of etiquette bugged me more than normal. Probably had something to do with it being the first comment.

    5. Good-ole Team Freedom taking their talking points and poutrage memes from Team Red.

      Also, getting a photo ID is so cheap anyway, so obviously the blah people who are complaining don’t value democracy anyway, right?

      1. Can’t stay away, can you, joe. DELICIOUS.

        1. I asked downthread, but what’s our evidence?

      1. Oh, HELL yes.

        Longtorso’s back!

  2. There are times I wish Reason would crank out an article or two filled with the loathing of the State that Cockburn could work up.

    1. There are times I wish Reason would crank out an article or two filled with the loathing of the State that Cockburn could work up.

      You want that, go to LewRockwell.com. You want halfmeasured contempt for how poorly the state is run compared to how libertarians would run it, Reason is the place to go.

      1. Yeah, I was just thinking the one thing libertarianism is missing is the Team Red/Blue aspect of major party politics.

        Reason publishes a wide array of libertarian perspectives (including anarchist/an-cap) and rarely, if ever, speak with a single voice. There are a number of an-cap commenters here who seem to get by just fine without launching into lewrockwell vs. the world hissyfits. I like lewrockwell.com just fine, but some of their writers and readers sure seem to spend a lot of time being annoyed by other libertarians.

      2. You want halfmeasured contempt for how poorly the state is run compared to how libertarians would run it, Reason is the place to go.

        There’s the door.

  3. I subscribed to The Nation back in the eighties. I got on their mailing list, I think, because I was a subscriber to Reason and Inquiry. I was not sure why a commie rag like this would think I was interested but I went for their free trial offer. A couple of reads of Cockburn and Hitchens and I actually forked over the ready and actually subscribed for some years before I tired of sifting through leftist drivel for any gems.

    Jesse Walker sums up my feelings exactly.

    By 2000 The Nation was officially a Team Blue organ, something you could never have accused it of in the eighties.

    I read Cockburn from time to time in Conterpunch. I believe he tended more libertarian as he went on. I think that when all said and done he was not capable of blind loyalty to any party or creed. His eyes were always open to flaws wherever he found them.

    Sad to see him go.

  4. Sounds like a man of principle. Which is so unfortunately rare.

    1. What is odd is how much of this type didn’t emerge among the left with the rise of online journalism. Even Occupy Wall Street seem in lock step with TEAM BLUE.

      Then again maybe it is just that only the Soros funded ones are allowed to be seen.

      1. The anti-state strain of leftism suddenly disappeared or moved to the far fringes for some odd reason in late 1992 as I recall.

    2. Maybe this is what you mean, but I liked him (despite his leftism) because he seemed like someone who was not simply a doctrinaire partisan. Like Hitchens (and Mickey Kaus and Camille Paglia), he seemed perfectly willing to disagree with his “team.” I admire that. It makes them so much more interesting than the typical and predictable partisans.

      1. Good post. Much appreciated in partisan times.

        1. Thank you. The blatant cartoonish partisanship of my Obama-cheering Facebook friends is already getting to me. November can’t come soon enough, but then of course, whatever happens, there will be weeping and wailing….

  5. I’ve never read much by Alexander Cockburn. His Leftism scared the shit out of me. I knew people who read him, knew he had difficulties with Christopher Hitchens, and the little I had read revolted me.

    Godspeed to him.

  6. Counterpunch was such an entertaining read, thanks to Cockburn. It does have good writing, but also a lot of breathless leftist dreck. The fun was sifting through all of that, only to find Cockburn skewering much of that dreck in his weekend columns and blistering the abuses of power caused by agencies programs leftists reflexively support.

    Political commentary is considerably poorer for the loss of his voice, whatever one’s politics. May he rest in peace.

  7. This is sad news to hear.I was a big fan of Cockburn’s “Press Clips” during his tenure at the Village Voice and after his sacking I began reading him in The Nation.

    RIP

    1. The VV laid off Nat Hentoff, too. Looks like getting out of step with Team Blue gets you that much closer to losing your VV paycheck.

      1. Hentoff hung on a good long while.Cockburn was sacked in 1982 for taking money from people who didn’t like Jews.
        The Village Voice was a heck of a good read in the mid/late 1970s/early 1980s.I read it regularly from when I was about 14 to 28 and I never lived anywhere near NYC.

  8. Sort of off topic, but since Jessie wrote “Alex was a red of one sort or another…” and “He was a very funny writer, sort of a Marxist Myles na gCopaleen.” I was reminded of something I’ve been confused for a while about – this TEAM RED, TEAM BLUE thing.

    Historically if I recall. the left wing have been called RED and the right have been called BLUE – what’s with the current reverse label? I think it happened during the 2000 election when a TV Network showed states won by Repubs in red, and by Dems in blue… is that how it began? Anybody?

    1. I seem to recall Peter Jennings, during the end of the 2000 campaign season, announcing collusion between the big three broadcast networks, that in order to help the unwashed in fly-over country understand what was happening with their oligarchical elections, to the fact that The Three had agreed to use the same color scheme for their prophetical Electoral College maps that year with the further agreement that it would be reversed for the following election cycle. And the damn meme just stuck with all the news coverage of AlGore’s electoral idiocy. I personally would prefer that the Dems would be called out as the reds that they are, but apparently Roon Arlidge has overrulled us all.

  9. …oops re un-italicizing..

    1. REDS were commies until 2000 when NBC deemed flag-wavin’, pick-up drivin’,gun-slingin’,Bible-totin’, corn skweezins-swilling, daughter-fuckers should be known as REDS.

      1. I think it was a sort of “let’s not reinforce stereotypes” thing… especially if it makes Democrats look bad.

        1. Alright, again, there is no massive conspiracy here. Go back at some old television clips and you will see all kinds of variations throughout the decades.

          1. I know it varied in the past, and I’m not saying it was a conspiracy, just a… sensitivity toward one side… which coincidentally happens to be the side that 90% of news professionals are on.

    2. Uh more accurately and less ridiculously, the networks mixed up the colors all the time, some election-to-election. It just happened that in 2000, most of the major networks used red and because the map was stuck on the television for months on end, the association stuck too.

  10. There is no conflict between the politics and science of climate change.

    The physical sciences show that greenhouse gases trap energy. Ecological and Agronomic sciences show how much this damages people.
    Economics shows that the best way to reduce greenhouses emissions is to change laws so that the marginal damage of emissions is reflected in markets.

    If the only way to be “non-political” about climate change is to defer to the Job Creators most holy and say that any government action is VERBOTEN, then the definition of “political” is obviously intended to stifle climate scientists and create a bias for non-action.

    Saying that the government should impose higher prices on externalities is not political, for the same reason that forcing restaurants to dispose of trash in a way that doesn’t attract tons of vermin and horrible stench is not political.

    So fuck this whole “climate scientists politicized their field” business.

    1. Ecological and Agronomic sciences show how much this damages people.

      No they don’t.

      Economics shows that the best way to reduce greenhouses emissions is to change laws so that the marginal damage of emissions is reflected in markets.

      Economics also says that if you choose to play a big game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, then you’re a fool.

      Saying that the government should impose higher prices on externalities is not political

      There is no evidence on kind of externality CO2 emissions are.

      1. One thing I just thought about.

        Water vapor is a far more efficient green house gas then CO2.

        Between taking hot showers everyday, irrigating my lawn, and eating food that is grown from irrigated fields i have probably added far more tonnage of H2O into the atmosphere then CO2…why the fixation about the greenhouse gas that is emitted from fueling our economy if it isn’t political?

        1. CO2 increases warmth (more CO2 in a mixture of gases traps more heat – you could do this at home).

          Now, can you imagine, idiot, that there is a link between warmth and water vapor?

          Tell you what, stop fingering your freeper ass and put a pot of water on on the stove. I’ll wait.

          1. Joe, you have always been bad at science.

            If CO2 warms the atmo and causes more water vapor to go into the atmo and warms it more then why hasn’t this cascade feedback loop not simply happened with water vapor?

            Simple thought experiment:

            water vapor is in atmo…which causes warming which causes more water vapor which causes more warming which causes more water vapor…and on and on and on until the earth is a cinder.

            This doesn’t happen so what is so magical about CO2 that suddenly this would happen?

            By the way the whole CO2 causes warming which causes more water vapor has been proven to be bullshit.

            http://www.agu.org/journals/pi…..94-pip.pdf

            http://pielkeclimatesci.files……-20121.jpg

            Look no water vapor!!

            Data proves you wrong idiot.

          2. Take your bath salts, Mary.

    2. Economics shows that the best way to reduce greenhouses emissions is to change laws so that the marginal damage of emissions is reflected in markets.

      If this is true then why has CO2 emissions in the US dropped to lower then 1995 levels?

      The physical sciences show that greenhouse gases trap energy. Ecological and Agronomic sciences show how much this damages people.

      This is too idiotic to even attempt to parse.

      Saying that the government should impose higher prices on externalities is not political

      You are king idiot of idiot land.

      1. You are king idiot of idiot land.

        Everybody’s favorite transportation planner from Lowell, Mass.

        1. No way…really?

          Would joe hide like this?

          1. Yup. He’s using at least 2 handles.

            1. What’s our evidence?

              1. What’s our evidence?

                Well it has been a long time, 3 and a half years, so it is hard for me to remember how joe was.

                But look at “Apparently a ‘statist’s comment above.

                His denial of the politicization of climate science is striking similar to his past denial of left wing media bias.

                “The universe has spoken the truth and that truth is left wing and therefor being left wing is not a bias but only living and speaking the truth.”

                Lots of people call this arrogance but I see it more as the righteous indignation of a zealot.

                It could be Joe…I have no other proof. I am hoping SIV does.

                1. SF and Warty spotted him.Search up some comments from the last 2 months under the above handle and it’s obvious, or the best spoof ever.Look for one where he makes multiple comments in the same sub-thread and you can’t miss the asshole persona. Bonus points if you can then identify another one he is using that has been around a bit longer.

            2. Joe is back!!!

              What the hell Joe? Quit being a d-bag with all this cloak and dagger garbage and fess up.

              1. Joe is at heart the worst sort of intellectual coward. Fessing up to who he is would mean defending all of the stupid things he said about Obama.

                He comes back under a different handle so he can avoid making an account for himeself. I knew he would be back. I figured it would be after a Republican retook the White House so he wouldn’t have to defend anything. But he has come early. Oh joy.

      2. “If this is true then why has CO2 emissions in the US dropped to lower then 1995 levels?”

        *Really?*

        “This is too idiotic to even attempt to parse.”

        Introduce CO2 in any mixture of gases and the heat is trapped. You should consider killing yourself.

        “You are king idiot of idiot land”

        Nah – I’ve yet to see anyone claim that forbidding the throwing of your garbage on a neighbor’s lawn and fining transgressors is political.

        1. *Really?*

          Really. per capita CO2 emissions have been dropping for at least the last 20 years at fairly a steady pace. It was only a mater of time before total emissions began to fall.

          Are you denying that they are falling or are you denying that market forces caused this to happen? Both?

          Introduce CO2 in any mixture of gases and the heat is trapped.

          You missed a couple of steps there but whatever the same can be said about water vapor.

          Nah – I’ve yet to see anyone claim that forbidding the throwing of your garbage on a neighbor’s lawn and fining transgressors is political.

          How about a fine for one blade of grass per yer for a hundred years blowing into a neighbors yard…and the reason that blade of grass blows in is because you are pulling billions of people out of bone crushing poverty…oh yeah and even if you implement that fine the grass will still blow in…but it will keep millions in poverty.

          Arbitrary fine that takes far more then it protects. That seems pretty political to me.

          1. How about a fine for one blade of grass per yer for a hundred years blowing into a neighbors yard

            Oh I forgot to mention that millions of blades of grass are blowing in and out every day naturally.

    3. The IPCC is heavily politicized. The wacko-green fringe has picked up CAGW as their cause and it is entirely tied up with their “apparently” statist politics. Jim Hansen has become an activist as are a number of other well recognized names. Are all scientists in the extremely broad field of “climate” studies politicized? No. But to argue that it is not politicized is ridiculous. You know better.

      1. Right, Like I can believe Inhofe and Fat Rush among the greasy redneck crowd?

        Fuck you.

        I like reason and science.

        1. Would you care to debate the science of politics, economics, or finance? Because you regularly get your clock cleaned on all three subjects.

        2. I like reason and science.

          Then you should hate the IPCC which is not peer reviewed and has been caught multiple times using advocate (green peace, sierra club) literature as the bases for its conclusions.

      2. “The IPCC is heavily politicized”

        And it’s critics are all heavily ideological and, twenty dollars to one, more likely to be right-wing (homophobic, think tax cuts increase revenue, rattle their shields at Iran) in general.

  11. Whatever will Ron Bailey do without the only gonzo climate skeptic on the left to kick around ?

    The good and great late Cockburn tried to persuade Nationreaders that global warming arises from the Earth’s core growing hotter as time goes by .

    1. Indeed, that is gonzo climate skepticism!

    2. The good and great late Cockburn tried to persuade Nationreaders that global warming arises from the Earth’s core growing hotter as time goes by.

      Ever been in a cave? Nice steady 55 degrees. It is the same temperature in a cave on the equator as it is in Antarctica. It is the same regardless if it is day or night or if it is summer or winter.

      He is not entirely wrong.

      1. Snow insulates. Many small mammals in these regions use that fact to stay alive.

        1. Again, you are terrible at science joe.

          First what the fuck heat is snow insulating in Antarctica if it is not heat from the earths core? Animals heat their own snow caves…what the hell is heating the earth below the multi-million year old ice pack?

          Second there is no snow at the equator so the heat from the sun sure as fuck isn’t penetrating the earth there otherwise those caves would be hotter then 55 degrees.

          Lately go talk to a geologist and ask him/her if the earth is radiating heat into the atmosphere.

          Anyway Cockburn is wrong because there is no evidence that the heat radiating from the earth fluctuates. But he is right in thinking that core heat does warm the atmosphere to a temperature higher then it would be otherwise.

      2. Caves at the equator are a constant -65F all year around?

        I didn’t go in any caves while I was at the equator, but I’ve been in the utility tunnel at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station – and it was -65F in the summer. I doubt this is true at the equator.

        Temperatures in caves approximate the average surface temperature in the area. You have to go really deep before you get other results.

    1. I find it hard to believe Obama will do better in Florida than he did in 2008, when he barely squeaked by McCain.

      1. Read the article carefully:

        The PollTracker Average currently shows an extremely close race in Florida, with Obama barely edging Romney.

        So he’s just squeaking by Romney, too.

        Translation: Everything remains the same for 2012 as it did in 2008.

    1. What an irrelevant discussion. It surprises me not at all that smug Dopers have no clue how to approach a viewpoint different from their own.

      Can I give you hint? The public masturbation discussion can be analogized to gun control – laws are not effective in either case. People don’t regularly masturbate in public, not because of any law against it, but because they don’t want to acquire a reputation, or they have no desire to be sexual in front of others, or they recognize social standards.

  12. Damn, go away to spend a few rare hours in the sun and then dining out, come back to find out about this. I had corresponded with him in the early 00s when he was taking a trip cross country in a rebuilt car, and I recommended a few places that were on his route. Damn shame I can’t find them.

    Also, if anything happened between me and the misses, he was my one contact to Olivia Wilde, him being her uncle.

    For a commie he was a fine fellow, and if there is one kind of commie whose better than a dead commie that is one who hates the state as much as I do. Now he’s just a dead commie, which is much worse.

    Rest or do what ever decaying corpses do, and as far as peace goes, I don’t think it makes much of a difference if a bulldozer is rumbling through your sod or not. I know you would not care for a trite sentiment like R.I.P anyways.

    1. No offense to those who did RIP, it was right in context, your obligations are not the same.

    2. While we’re in the thread – yes, Alexander Cockburn is what lesser communists could only hope to aspire to. He will be missed.

  13. Water vapor is a far more efficient green house gas then CO2.

    Not to take issue w/ this particular statement, but to those of you who complained about my Hillary quote in the first comment, then got off on this tangent, fuck you all with Hillary’s dick.

    That is all.

    1. Cockburn was a climate change skeptic. My comment was a reply and you thread jacked way too early.

      At least 90% of the hate you received can be attributed to premature threadjackulation.

  14. At least 90% of the hate you received can be attributed to premature threadjackulation.

    I have a life. I can’t wait for all you losers to get your inane comments in before posting the same off topic BS the rest of you post w/ reckless abandon.

    Besides, jumping into a maudlin thread about a dead guy to make a snide comment about a political opponent would be what Cockburn would have wanted.

    1. I thought the same thing.

  15. in the latter case announcing his wish that “liberals and even radicals felt and wrote as strongly about the Iron Heel of government power.”

    I chuckled involuntarily when I read that.

  16. His obit for Kay Graham was a classic:

    http://www.thenation.com/article/she-needed-fewer-friends

    Moynihan will probably find a way to bitch about that one too…

  17. Funny that Joe, the very kind of vicious, mindless, dishonest partisan hack that Cockburn hated, showed up to comment on the Cockburn death thread.

    While Cockburn did and wrote some good things, in the end he was a communist, which is just as bad as being a Nazi. If he had been a Nazi and done all of those things, would people be so forgiving? Why is being a communist any different?

    1. To put it in perspective, I don’t think the people suffering under Castro, a regime whom Cockburn served as a reliable apologist, probably don’t have such nice things to say about him.

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