Buckley’s Unlikely Heir: Remembering Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012
The American Conservative, September 2012
I first encountered the writing of Alexander Cockburn in the early 1990s on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, where he served as a regular columnist. Given that Alex was one of the premier radical-left journalists of our era, this highlights the unique background of the man.
Being myself then a rather moderate and mainstream conservative, I don’t recall reading any of his particular pieces or holding them in high regard. With the Berlin Wall having already fallen, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe overthrown, and the Soviet Union itself undergoing dissolution, I had the sense that Cockburn was a bit dismayed by these revolutionary changes which were so welcomed by almost the entire thinking world. So I put him down as something of a stubborn left-contrarian and after glancing at his column usually shifted my attention to the endless discussions of tax policy and free trade that occupied the entire remaining sheet of gray newsprint. Eventually, I noticed that his columns had stopped appearing, which didn’t much surprise me.
His second act in reaching my awareness came just over a decade later, following the September 11 attacks. During the years of public build-up to our ill-fated Iraq War, which my old friend Lt. Gen. Bill Odom later described as “the greatest strategic disaster in United States history,” it was extremely rare to find an opinion in any mainstream media outlet not fatally contaminated with the sort of ignorance or cowardice that was leading America straight over the cliff.
In this parched desert of rational discussion, I somehow in 2002 or 2003 stumbled across a link to one of Alex’s Counterpunch columns, which seemed to provide the sort of remarkably good sense almost totally absent from the pages of the major newspapers and opinion magazines. As I told a few friends at the time, perhaps that Cockburn fellow really isn’t the silly leftist I’d vaguely assumed him to be. And as I gradually began to spend some time reading the collection of well-written commentary he daily provided on his shoestring website operation, its perspective on reality came to seem more and more credible, while that of the New York Times op-ed page sank at an equal speed.
Given my own scientific background in theoretical physics, I tend to follow a simple rule in attempting to discover the reality of the world. When people say things widely denounced by all established opinion but that turn out to be correct, I grant them an extra point. But when allegedly well-informed people backed by massive resources say things that seem absurd to me and these turn out to be totally false, they lose a point. By the time the massive hoax of the Saddam’s WMD had exploded into international ridicule and national disaster, Alex’s Counterpunch and the Sulzbergers’ Gray Lady had largely switched their positions of credibility in my mind, at least across a broad range of issues. In the years that followed, there were many mornings when I would read endless amounts of absurd, dishonest nonsense in the news pages of the New York Times and theWall Street Journal, only to discover a far more plausible and accurate discussion of world events on Counterpunch’s bright pages.
Meanwhile, my own intellectual horizons were steadily broadened by his stable of regular contributors, sometimes in unexpected ways. Alex was very decidedly a man of the left, indeed of the second generation, given that his father Claud had been one of the leading communist journalists of the 1930s. But the severe compression of the allowed ideological landscape in American journalism had established his website as a port in the storm for conservative voices as well.
It was at Counterpunch that I first encountered the pungent military analysis of William Lind. When I once showed one of Lind’s articles to an acquaintance, he denounced Lind as an ignorant leftist, only to be shocked when I explained that Lind had had an illustrious career as a congressional staffer specializing in military reform and was also the longtime closest collaborator of Paul Weyrich, one of D.C.’s most prominent movement-conservative leaders.
I appreciated the thoughtful commentary on our Middle East policy by Kathleen and Bill Christison, former CIA analysts specializing in that region, and later discovered the same last name on articles of the same subject in back issues of National Review from the mid-1980s. NR’s loss was Counterpunch’s gain.
Similarly, Paul Craig Roberts had for decades been one of the leading conservative intellectual figures at the intersection of academics and policy, playing a major role in crafting the economic policies of the Reagan administration and holding a variety of top-ranking appointments in the conservative firmament, while being one of the most widely distributed national columnists. But after he refused to toe the line following 9/11, he was ruthlessly purged, and his important voice might have been lost if Counterpunch and a few other websites had not provided him a venue.
Add the names Ray McGovern, Winslow Wheeler, Franklin Spinney, Pierre Sprey, and a few others to this list, and it sometimes seemed like half the Counterpunch articles I read were by authors with unassailable national-intelligence, military-affairs, or even movement-conservative credentials. Purged, blacklisted, or simply ignored by Conservativism, Inc., they often relied upon Alex’s webzine as the primary distributor of their well-informed writings. Once or twice I joked with Alex that perhaps he was actually Bill Buckley’s truest heir.
Credibility represents a valuable capital asset, one that may easily be invested for further gain or loss, and Alex always had the courage to risk his holdings boldly, including on those issues which greatly infuriated his usual allies on the left.
In the mid-2000s, I was quite surprised to read Alex’s columns unmasking himself as a global-warming “denialist,” making some pretty good arguments for his skepticism, and ridiculing the notorious group-think of America’s lock-step—and scientifically illiterate—punditocracy. Not having investigated the subject myself, I don’t really have a position, but I would say that Alex’s sincere perspective counted more for me than that of a hundred dutiful oil-company hirelings writing for conservative think tanks and could go toe-to-toe with the absolutely universal views found among all their mainstream opponents.
Alex Cockburn was simply a remarkably courageous, honest, and free-thinking journalist, which in these dark days marked him as a very rare figure indeed.