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.
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.