Alexander Cockburn, the left-wing radical columnist for The Nation who died on Saturday of cancer at age 71, once said he would disdain any obituary from the right that didn’t bitterly attack him. The early Alexander Cockburn wouldn’t like this one at all. The Alex Cockburn of his later years might have appreciated the irony in it.
I loathed most of Cockburn’s views when I edited his columns for the Wall Street Journal editorial page. (He was the beneficiary of the late editor Bob Bartley’s belief that his readers should know the unadulterated views of the Left.) But I came to respect him for his passion, his willingness to examine a new development outside his normal orbit without blinders, and his ability to carry on countless grudges with others for slights both substantive and trivial — sometimes for the sheer fun of it.
When Cockburn landed in the U.S. as a pathbreaking media critic at the Village Voice in 1974, America had no experience with the slashing, polysyllabic, highly personal invective of the British opinion press. Now it is everywhere around us (especially on cable-TV news), but in much less literate and entertaining forms.
I got to know Alex fairly well in editing his columns. He could be incredibly gracious in accepting editorial suggestions (“All right, the facts to back that up aren’t immediately at hand”) or snarlingly disputatious (“I won’t have your fascist hands suppressing the truth”). We had only one heated, high-volume argument at the Journal’s offices, and after that we got along very well — each of us having established that the other couldn’t be bullied into submission.
Cockburn liked to say that his family pedigree made him impeccably opposed to the American establishment (an ancestor was a British admiral who helped burn down the White House during the War of 1812) and left-wing (his journalist father was a Communist-party member who dropped his pen for a gun to fight in the Spanish Civil War). He managed to pull off the trick of explaining away the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (“If ever a country deserved rape, it’s Afghanistan”) just as the Kremlin’s subjects everywhere were rising up against its brutality. He was a fierce and often irrational critic of everything to do with Israel. His pathetic attempt to minimize the number of people killed by Joseph Stalin earned him this satirical headline in National Review: “Alexander Cockburn: A Voice of Moderation.”
But over the years he mellowed, even as he sometimes denied it. He became an American citizen in 2009. That same year he became a columnist for the paleoconservative magazine Chronicles, a platform he used to rail against American imperalism, big-business corruption, and imbecilic leftists. A conservative would have agreed with large parts of most of his columns. He was a passionate defender of gun rights and believed a well-armed society was a bulwark against anyone who wanted to control a population.
He became a true heretic to the Left in 2007 when he declared that supporters of global warming were promoting a fraud: Their “pied piper,” he said, was a “hypocritical mountebank” named Al Gore. (Cockburn was an enthusiastic supporter of Ralph Nader against Gore in 2000.)
My last meeting with Alex came in 2009, when he showed up in New York at the Heartland Institute’s conference featuring dozens of global-warming skeptics. We stepped outside of the conference for a long chat. He cheerfully recounted all the places where he had been denounced for his global-warming views. “They hate me because I tell the truth: The environmental Left wants to deindustrialize America so they can exercise political power and control people’s lifestyles,” he told me.
“I’ve felt like the object of a witch hunt,” he said as he described how the Left treated him after he dissented from the global-warming “consensus.” “One former Sierra Club board member suggested I should be criminally prosecuted.”
Cockburn was at the conference collecting material for his forthcoming book A Short History of Fear, in which he planned to explore the link between fearmongering and climate-catastrophe proponents. “No one on the left is comfortable talking about science,” he told me. “They don’t feel they can easily get their arms around it, so they don’t think about it much. As a result, they are prone to any peddler of ideas that reinforce their preexisting prejudices.”
I asked him how he felt hanging around with so many people who had more conservative viewpoints than he did. “It’s been good fun and I’ve learned a lot,” he told me. “I think what they are saying on this and several other topics is looking better and better.”
Sadly, Alex contracted cancer not long after we spoke. His book was finally published in 2011, but he was too ill to effectively promote it. That was a real shame, because he would have enjoyed doing battle with the global-warming crowd just as he and his fellow skeptics started to have them on the run — both intellectually and politically. That would have brought him immense pleasure. Above everything else, Alex loved rhetorical combat and the clash of ideas, even when he was disastrously wrong. But conservatives should recognize that he was getting more and more things “right” toward the end.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.