By Farid Marjai
There was something special about Alex Cockburn. And I knew that when I was first introduced to him and his writings in the early 1980’s, my first year of college.
In the early 80’s, Central America was in upheaval; the right wing paramilitary death squads had the Reagan Administration’s green light and logistical support to assassinate labor union leaders, journalists, priests and student leaders, and occasionally massacre peasants in the uphill villages by the thousands. While the liberal press was indifferent to all this, Alex Cockburn’s column was informative, engaged and reliable- remember the NYTimes’ Abe Rosenthal’s trying to cover for the Reagan policies in the region?
At that time, in the early 80’s, the progressives, the anti-war/ peace movement and Amnesty International had an unspoken agreement not to speak about Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinians. As an iconoclast, Alex was one the first to confront this taboo. I remember during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra & Shatila massacres, Tom Haydon (former member of S.D.S. Students for Democratic Society) and Jane Fonda left for a fact-finding mission to Lebanon. It was Alex who exposed that this so called fact finding mission was really sponsored by the Israeli military. In subtle ways, through the power of his pen, style and courage, Cockburn forced the Middle East discourse in the media to change. Many among the literati had great respect for the integrity of his written word. He had developed friendships with likes of Edward Said and the British historian Tariq Ali.
When he left the Village Voice, hundreds of letters were sent to the Voice in his support by his readers-not many journalists had a loyal following like Alex Cockburn did. Of all the letters published, I remember one that said, “no Bishop, no Rev; no Cockburn, no Voice” referring to Maurice Bishop, of the New Jewel Movement and the progressive prime minister of Granada at the time.
Alex was so effective, that the right and right-wingers would notice him more than any writer; one of the neocon journals described Cockburn’s work as “blood-sport, gutter journalism”. While in New York, he would accept invitations to speak at the Brecht Forum. It would be full-house when he was lecturing. That’s where I would meet and briefly speak to him.
His utterances were unique, funny and would sting. Once he called the Western intelligence agencies that had produced bogus reports on Iraqi WMD, as “piss pots”; another time he wrote in his column that the offices of the weekly magazine New Republic were attached to the back of the Israeli embassy. Some of Gore Vidal’s polemical essays would remind me of Alex’s acerbic prose.
He had a special place for his father Claud Cockburn as a writer and a man of principle; and would occasionally mention him proudly in his writings.
Funny thing, many years ago, Alex would write a column twice a month for the Wall Street Journal oped page; his loyal readers could not easily locate the dates of his column in the newspaper. He did not stay long with the Mother Jones monthly magazine. When first started at the Nation, his critics would send letters to the editor, but Alex would be given a chance for response and a comeback; his responses came with such devastating punches, that people stopped sending letters critical of Alex’s writings, as to be saved from further embarrassment.
Alex Cockburn did not like to be called an English man; in his column he would correct his retractors that he is Irish-English, but born in Ireland.
The latter part of my life I developed an interest in the dominant media discourse; the distortions of the corporate media; the culturally embedded journalist that knowingly and unknowingly perpetuate misconceptions about the world and the Middle East in particular; and the 5 thousand business reporters who thought they were benefiting from the pre-recession financial arrangements. Years later, now that I look back, I see it was Alex’s writings and columns like “Press Clips” in the Village Voice that kindled this awareness and interest in me.
To friends I would sometimes playfully refer to him by the Persian pronunciation of his name, “Eskandar Cockburn.” English journalism, critical social justice discourse and dissent discourse is just not the same without Eskandar.
Related Video: In depth with Alexander Cockburn
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