The political devolution of Alexander Cockburn

It's taken me a day to get over the initial shock of reading Alexander Cockburn's advice to Cherokee activist/scholar Ward Churchill's who is preoccupied with genocide against the North American Indian. Churchill states in his "A Little Matter of Genocide" that there were an estimated 15 million Indians at the time of Columbus, and only 250,000 counted in a census taken in 1890, which by his reckoning, would make this the worst genocide in modern history. And Cockburn's advice? He says that Churchill should "Get over it" because gambling casinos have reinvigorated the American Indian. What in the world could have gotten into this famous radical journalist to come up with such an insensitive and reactionary comment?

Part of the problem would seem to be the inability of superstar leftists like Cockburn, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore to rely on feedback from other leftists. Unlike Doug Henwood, they don't expose themselves to the rude and rowdy Internet. When Chomsky makes a gaffe, he never acknowledges it. His stubborn pride would be the only explanation for refusing to admit his error in judgment in writing the preface to a book by holocaust denier Faurisson. Instead of admitting that he was wrong, he came up with grotesque arguments about the need to defend free speech. Moore went out on a limb not too long ago when he wrote in the Nation Magazine that leftists cared more about Nicaraguan peasants than American blue-collar workers in the 1980s. It was obvious that he didn't know too much about the grass-roots movement when he wrote this, since it was obviously wrong. Moore had obviously become rather isolated from ordinary radicals in his pursuit of a big-time television career. When he made the same criticisms at a recent Socialist Scholars Conference, veteran activists roasted his ass.

Up until recently, Cockburn has had unerring instincts when it comes to the sensitivities and values of rank-and-file leftists. In 1979, shortly after I had left the Trotskyist movement, I moved to NYC in order to continue with my programming career and try my hand at novel writing. When I began reading the Village Voice to find out about interesting movies and concerts, I stumbled across Cockburn's columns, which rekindled my interest in politics. His passionate criticisms of US warmongering in Central America convinced me to join CISPES and then to help form Tecnica, a project that sent programmers and other skilled professionals to Nicaragua and southern Africa.

Of course, there were some things about Cockburn's politics back then that I always found a bit troubling. He supported the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan on the basis that it was a lesser evil to the misogynist fundamentalism of the village chieftains. He probably was influenced on this score by the CP politics of his father, another famous journalist, Claude Cockburn. But Alex was not a plain vanilla Stalinist. He also extolled the newspaper of the Trotskyist Spartacist League. This I found much more disturbing than his old-line Red Army apologetics. The Sparts, who also supported Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, were--to put it bluntly--nuts. During the Vietnam war, they raised the slogan "Drive the GI's into the sea!" As somebody who had leafleted draftees and knew how important tactful formulations were, I would found have found this slogan an invitation to a broken nose.

I have always been puzzled by the appeal of the Spart newspaper to otherwise intelligent journalists like Cockburn and Doug Henwood. I suppose to a degree it is a function of the workerist self-destruction of my own group, the SWP. When the Militant began running bizarre articles about "worker-Bolsheviks" (in reality, recent college graduates who were slumming in a factory or mine), I suppose it was inevitable that some radicals would turn to the Sparts for inspiration. Part of the appeal of the Sparts no doubt lies in their libertarianism. They would mix in appeals for smokers' rights with cheerleading for the Red Army in Afghanistan. Both Cockburn and Henwood are susceptible to nicotine militancy. I guess it has something to do with the natural contrariness of the radical journalist. Although I have to admit that I don't recall John Reed caring too much about cigarette smoking on demand. He was more into free love.

After the Central American revolution was stopped in its tracks in the late 1980s, socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe started to unravel. This had an enormously disorienting effect on most radicals. Some began to accommodate to the "end of history" mystique. To Cockburn's credit, he remained adamantly anticapitalist. The only sign that something weird was going on was his flirtation with the militias. Some people have a crude economic determinist explanation for this. They take note that Cockburn was having big trouble with the IRS and surmised that the militia's hatred for all federal agencies, including the IRS, must have seduced him. This could be correct, but I wouldn't rule out as an additional factor his coming out as rustic misanthrope in the Robinson Jeffers mold. There is a hoary tradition in the US of backwoods lunacy. It tends to occur with most overeducated people who become hermits, with Henry David Thoreau the notable exception.

Cockburn's most infamous article on the militias likened them to the Zapatistas. He couldn't seem to understand why leftists in the US were willing to solidarize with Mayan peasants fighting for land reform and democracy, but held the American militias at arm's length. Any fool could have explained to Cockburn what the problem was. The American militias were primarily composed of xenophobes, who not only hated the federal government but blacks, American Indians and immigrants as well. Their goal was to return the US to its constitutional roots, a dubious prospect for all those disenfranchised peoples that the founding fathers had little use for, including the slaves and the indigenous peoples. One could only wonder where Cockburn would be going next with this glorification of rural neopopulism. Would the Ku Klux Klan be the next group to be eulogized as "misunderstood white workers"?

Actually, Cockburn's not the journalistic superstar he once was. The Wall Street Journal dropped him, and the Nation Magazine cut him back to a single page.

For the past year or so he has been writing a weekly column for the NY Press, where his attack on Ward Churchill just appeared. A word or two is necessary on this newspaper. It is a freebie that was launched by a certain Russ Smith, who has his own weekly column titled "Mugger" that often exceeds 3 pages. It is filled with neoconservative rants and recommendations on where to get a good meal. If there is anything that Smith hates more, it is insufficiently attentive waiters. The more they grovel, the better he likes it.

You can get the flavor of this "alternative" newspaper by examining the front page of the latest issue, which contains the attack on Ward Churchill. There is the start of an fawning interview with Christopher Buckley, William F.'s son and editor of a supplement to Forbes Magazine, the "capitalist tool". There's an article announcing the addition of Taki, the reactionary racist journalist, to the stable of NY Press's writers. Taki's maiden column states that because Atahualpa, the Incan emperor, kept concubines, "No wonder the puritan Pizarro turned him into sirloin steak, well done." This would come as a big surprise to those of us who believe that the real reason for exterminating the Incas was to be able to get at their silver. Russ "Mugger" Smith's column, which begins on the first page, tells us that he had a fine meal at Spartina's the night before, and that even though "the kitchen was a bit slow, the waitress and hostess were hospitable." Boy, I tell you, its good to know that the underlings who wait on the Mugger know their place.

This milieu has had an effect on Cockburn. He has become great pals with the Mugger, even though their politics would seem to be at odds. A few months ago Cockburn reported on his dining experiences in New Orleans and for the life of me I couldn't tell whether it was Cockburn or the Mugger who I was reading. Frankly, I can't think of anything more superficial and boring than reports on how a gumbo agreed with one.

More to the point, Cockburn and the Mugger have a regular tag-team going which attacks well-known left/liberal figures, from Todd Gitlin to Mark Crispin Miller. The Mugger complains about their "political correctness" while Cockburn lacerates them for taking money from liberal foundations. One can only wonder if there is an economic determinist explanation for Cockburn's animosity. Since he probably doesn't enjoy the income he once did, no doubt he envies other people's success.

I suppose if I had a choice between Cockburn's radicalism and the tepid left-liberalism of Miller or Gitlin, I'd opt for Cockburn. However, with his latest attack on indigenous peoples, I say screw him.