…nil nisi bonum. —The Seven Sages
Got it! Alexander Cockburn died two years ago. And that, one would’ve thought, was that. But earlier this year, Perry Anderson decided to pick at the scab. His gassy, 19-page elegy for Cockburn is, of course, not worth reading; worse, I found it the entry point to the tour of a witless horizon. “With the posthumous publication of A Colossal Wreck, the triptych for which Alexander Cockburn will be remembered is complete,” reads the first sentence. It seems unlikely. Cockburn made a career of quick bursts of venom. Even in small doses, his writing was toxic. For Anderson to declare that it is for this that someone will be remembered, or even whether someone will be remembered at all shows that he hasn’t learned much from his many years. The “triptych” is a nice touch, though, very much in the tradition of Leonid Brezhnev’s Trilogy, which gathered dust in Russian bookstores during the Soviet Union’s last years, which Cockburn described as a Golden Age for the Soviet working class. Anderson devotes first few pages to a long appreciation of Claud Cockburn, the noted Stalinist wit and father of Alexander. Alexander was a good family man. But he was, foremost, a writer. Anderson praises him—sounding like a character in a David Lynch movie—for his “incomparable zing.” After Cockburn published something, “The response was electric.” He writes that “Alexander gave Reagan no mercy, in one blistering entry after another.” If Monty Python’s Black Knight ever needs a squire, now Cockburn’s gone, Perry Anderson’s still around. There are pages of blather about the man behind the turgid prose, with loopy phrases like “his debonair swathe” and “his feeling for l’Amérique profonde.” In fact, there was one interesting thing about Cockburn. It is possible to find ardent latter-day Stalinists, who affect a style, particularly sartorially, that announces their revolutionary purity. Cockburn captured the authentic 30’s manner: the bon vivant revolutionary. Perry Anderson is reliably oblivious. He writes about Cockburn’s collection of classic cars, an odd hobby for an arch-radical. For Anderson, it’s just more proof of Cockburn’s largeness of spirit. He tells us that, “His only close friends in New York were marginal to it: Edward Said, Palestinian in a fastness of Zionism; Andy Kopkind, gay out of New England; Ben Sonnenberg, cripple amid a forest of gyms.” Marginal? Said was probably the most celebrated academic in New York and an enormous cultural presence beyond the academy. New York is a magnet for both gay men and people from elsewhere in the country. And gimps are all over New York, if this deucey could be bothered to look. If you asked Perry Anderson what day it is, would he know?
If you asked him what was wrong with Cockburn, he wouldn’t know, and wouldn’t say. Over 30 years ago, I had my own moment with Cockburn’s writing. In 1981, I came across two old Cockburn columns. One was his last column before the 1980 election. He talked about how interesting a Reagan presidency might have been. Jimmy Carter’s re-election was a foregone conclusion. He called the election wrong. So did lots of people. But Cockburn’s sheer certitude was a thing apart. And being so wrong gave the lie to Cockburn’s pose; the truth-teller immune to ideology and bourgeois mystification. Cockburn proved to be some hybrid of David Gergen and an alley cat.
The other column picked up on a statement Brezhnev released in fall of 1979. He announced that he was, in the interest of peace, reducing the number of Soviet troops in East Berlin, and invited NATO to reciprocate. Cockburn applauded the statement and lambasted the American press for failing to trumpet Brezhnev’s statement. When, weeks later, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, Cockburn declared that Afghanistan deserved to be raped. From Brezhnev to Milosevic to various Arab bully-boys, Cockburn had a soft spot for tyranny and genocide.