“When I began work on this biography, I intended it to be a very favourable portrait,” began a book on Graham Greene, published amid great controversy some 20 years ago. Alexander Cockburn quotes this phrase to expose Michael Shelden’s duplicity, suggesting it had all along been Shelden’s intention to do a hatchet job on Greene, an Oxford friend of his father’s.
Truth to tell, I find myself in a similar predicament vis-à-vis Cockburn. When I began work on this review, I want to aver, I intended it to be a very favorable portrait.
To avoid charges that, instead, I had been contemplating a debunking from the moment my review copy of this book was on the doormat, I ask the reader to put himself in my slippers. What possible advantage can I, by all accounts a viciously paleoconservative malcontent, garner by trashing a famous leftie like the dear departed Alexander Cockburn? What kind of article would that make? Would it gratify the reader to learn that in his lifetime Cockburn was an apologist for every scumbag west of Stalin and north of Che Guevara, while I, every inch the upstanding citizen, am bad-mouthing his book because I take exception to scumbags?
No, this would never do. It would make me sound like a smug, didactic, hypocritical prig, a personage out of Molière or, to draw the point closer to the American context within which the British-born Cockburn moved since his immigration to the United States in 1972, a kind of Hillary Clinton with political polarities reversed.
I say of Cockburn that he was a Brit, though he himself insisted on his Irishness and Scottishness with a vehemence that was Englishly coquettish. Eldest son of the Daily Worker stalwart Claud Cockburn, Alexander was born with a silver pen in his mouth: His father’s Oxford friends included Greene and Evelyn Waugh, his mother was likewise an author, while the family’s roots reached deep into the imperial past, all the way back to Sir Alexander de Cockburn, Keeper of the Great Seal between 1389 and 1396. Renouncing Britain and all that went with her came easy to them, as renouncing privilege always does for the privileged. One may recall the mind-set of Kim Philby, who glided from Cambridge and the OBE to Comintern and the KGB with a facility that might have unsettled Alcibiades.
“Among the many anguishing rites de passage was the transition from care by nanny to supervision at the boarding school by Matron,” writes Cockburn of his school years. Not exactly the kind of memory most of us would have, to say nothing of the village cobbler’s son Stalin, but Cockburn is never reticent about his background for fear that it does not square with the proletarian persona. Where a Soviet writer would twist a fact of genealogy until it fit a fiction of autobiography, Cockburn does not bother. He is what he is, he intimates to his audience, a son of the empire for whom empire bashing is the principal means of intellectual self-definition.
It was for this reason that Cockburn had quit Britain, by the 1970’s much too ineffectual and outmoded a punching bag for anyone’s taste, and moved to the United States, where imperial ambitions, particularly in the twilight of the Evil Empire, were in the ascendant. And here a strange thing seems to have happened. The more anti-imperialist Cockburn waxed, the more tenuous his affinities to the American left became; and the more he excoriated Big Government with its handmaiden Big Business, the more his views chimed in and his critical vocabulary overlapped with those of this country’s radical right. With the result that, after some four decades of thrashing about in the shallow puddle of this paradox, Cockburn was politically more populist than leftist; philosophically more of a libertarian than a socialist; and, at least on certain issues, more genuinely conservative than the average Young Republican stiff on the night shift at National Review.
But there is more. The average citizen in a putative democracy like the United States is a harebrained creature, and the populist knows and cherishes this. The citizen in a democracy isn’t supposed to be clever, any more than a president is supposed to have been a professor of ancient history or a juror supposed to possess a keen legal mind. “That’s what’s so great about America,” the American populist congratulates himself—and an American populist was, for all intents and purposes, what Cockburn had become. With the passage of years, his view of the United States, and of the wider world insofar as it interacted with the burgeoning empire politically or culturally, had come to mimic, or mirror, that of the statistically average Joe Blow—whose mind may well be a preposterous mishmash of disparate and often mutually contradictory assumptions and conclusions, yet whose heart, statistically speaking, is in the right place.
“His cantankerous politics,” wrote a reviewer of A Colossal Wreck at CounterPunch, which had for so many years been Cockburn’s home turf,
seemed driven as much by Reality as by an urge to piss off the East Coast elites. On gun rights, on climate change Alexander would take contrary positions that were totally inflexible (I once tried to raise the climate issue with him, only to be swatted away impatiently). His journey out of the stabilities of the Left brought him to an idiosyncratic place—a fantasy of a populist combine of right-wing libertarianism and left-wing socialism. This would have been the unity of anti-war.org and High Times, Ron Paul and Noam Chomsky.
With all the goodwill in the world, one cannot sweep such perceptions under the carpet. A Colossal Wreck is more apt a title for what was to be Cockburn’s last book than the author realized.
This book is the story of how an aristocratic Brit developed into the average American, with all the complexes, contradictions, phobias, and dreams that characterize this very real creature. Except that, unlike this creature, Cockburn had a name, a pen, and a means of access to the editorial pages. Saddam Hussein was a bad egg? So thinks the man on the street. Yet his trial and execution at the hands of the Americans were a travesty of justice? The man on the street would agree. Better to live in Israel than in Iraq? Hell, yes. Is it right, though, for the Jews in America to use their influence to enable Israel to ride roughshod over the Middle East? It sure as hell isn’t. Do you like the Serbs? Never heard of ’em. But do you think we should bomb them? No, why in blazes should we bomb someone who’s done us no harm?
This is how A Colossal Wreck reads, give or take a foray or two into Renaissance iconography and the history of investment banking. Here, for instance, is Cockburn on Serbia:
This was the Cowards’ War, bombing a country for two and a half months from 30,000 feet. It was the Liberals’ War waged by social democracy’s best and brightest, intent on proving once again that wars can be fought with the best and most virtuous intentions: the companion volume to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village turns out to be It Takes an Air Force.
Original? Hardly. Incisive? Not very. Witty? Comme ci comme ça. But was his heart in the right place? It sure as hell was.
[A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption, and American Culture, by Alexander Cockburn (New York: Verso) 586 pp., $29.95]