Advice for the left-lorn

Visiting pundit Alexander Cockburn explains how to stop worrying and love the bread and coffee

Cockeyed optimist: Alexander Cockburn says globalism is great, except when it isn’t.

Cockeyed optimist: Alexander Cockburn says globalism is great, except when it isn’t.

Courtesy Of Alexander Cockburn

Alexander Cockburn, noted author and columnist, will reveal “How to Change the World, In Six Easy Lessons.” 7 p.m. Friday, May 20; at the Coloma Community Center Auditorium, 4623 T Street in Sacramento. Contact Ruth Holbrook, of the Sacramento Community Forum, at (916) 455-1396 or (916) 456-9282.

One of the left’s most prominent commentators, Alexander Cockburn possesses a wild iconoclasm that can be as much tonic for the soul as it is toxic to the system. The Irish expat, whose Village Voice columns in the ’70s and ’80s blazed a trail for contemporary media criticism, continues to expose the hypocrisies of politicians and pundits in his online CounterPunch as well as his biweekly “Beat the Devil” in The Nation magazine. Come next week, on May 20, he’ll be offering Sacramentans his thoughts on “How to Change the World in Six Easy Lessons.”

At the time of our interview, Cockburn hadn’t entirely figured out what those six easy lessons would be—“What’s the name of it again?” he asked. “How to Save the World … ?”—but promised listeners would “absolutely leave with their chests bursting with purpose and optimism.” Cockburn was in a good mood himself, having just attended the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Irma Thomas’ rendering of the gospel spiritual “Beams of Heaven” left nary a dry eye, he said) and picked up a 1982 Mercedes in South Carolina.

These days, Sacramento is practically a backyard for the 63-year-old journalist, who has a home in Humboldt County and extols the Internet-age joys of accessing information from virtually anywhere. In the following interview, Cockburn talks about how he stays cheerful in the face of catastrophe.

SN&R: CounterPunch just did a piece on Air America cheerleading the Democratic Party. Yet, mainstream media continue to portray the network as some sort of fringe outpost.

Cockburn: Right, as the cutting edge of Bolshevik activism! Isn’t it insane? I mean, Air America? My darling niece Laura Flanders is on it as a hostess, but, I mean, really.

And now Laura Bush, who I’ve always loved, gives this great comedy routine—where she makes fun of George Bush, Dick Cheney and her horrible mother-in-law—and all these liberal wusses like David Corn in The Nation all say it was very shocking, and they wouldn’t want to tell children what she said. If you want one single portrait of the utter decay of the liberal progressive so-called left, it’s that they can’t even laugh happily when Laura Bush makes a few jokes. They churn up inside and say that she was perhaps indecent. And now they’re organizing a letter-writing campaign about her raunchy language.

They’re not being ironic?

No, they’re not! This is what the left has come to. It’s absolutely sickening.

So, where do you go?

I don’t know. Go back and read the speeches of Robespierre, I suppose.

Sure, but what about “saving the world”?

Well, it helps to have an optimistic attitude.

And where did you get that from?

I’ve always been an optimist. You have to be an optimist. Because most people on the left, they tend to take a rather grim view of the world, as you may have noticed. You want to just generally be bushy-tailed about things, I think.

And how do you do that?

Well, think of all the things in life that actually have changed for the better. The food’s got better. Absolutely beyond question, the food’s got better in America. The coffee is better. Bread is better. I’ll bet you could go out from where you’re sitting in Sacramento right now, I’ll bet you could walk 500 yards and probably be able to find a decent loaf of bread. You could, couldn’t you? Now, if I said that to you 20 years ago, you would probably have had to taken an airplane and flown all the way to France.

Now, why did this happen? It’s because hippies in the ’60s decided they wanted to have whole-grain bread and be healthy, and then they also wanted to have properly roasted coffee. And so, they gradually got organic-food stores that actually were quite good, and the bread got better, and there were farmers’ markets. Now, all this happened in the teeth of political onslaughts by both parties who were, of course, in the pay of the food industry.

In Eureka, Calif., the other day, I went into Pierson’s, which is the local lumber place where you buy stuff if you’re redoing your house and all the rest of it. I looked at their coffee thing. They were selling coffee from nine beans from nine different countries. Nine! This is not some hippie hangout. This is where mighty men with measuring tapes in their waist belts and huge hammers hanging from their trousers—that’s where they go. And you could have nine different kinds of coffee. Now that’s progress.

So, globalism isn’t such a bad thing?

Yeah, globalism is great. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. Oh yeah, I’m against globalism of the bad sort: some fucking company in America going and screwing people in the Third World and not paying them properly. But globalism, I mean, it was very good when the Portuguese—well, it probably had a bad impact on Latin America—but it was good that potatoes and peppers got to Europe. That was early, early globalism. It’s much more rapid these days. You know, the first Indian housewife got the basics for what we regard as the eternal Indian diet in about 1550, and in about 1555 it was on every household menu in the whole of India. Cortez brought turkeys back to Europe in 1519, from the New World, and by about 1535, they were on every German Christmas table as the old traditional turkey dinner, right? And then the Puritans took the turkeys back to America in cages, and when the Indians gave them turkeys for Thanksgiving, there was a tame turkey looking out the little cage at it. That’s globalism.

When not detecting silver linings in rotting corpses, Alexander Cockburn buys vintage cars and enjoys the rustic splendor of Humboldt County.

Courtesy Of Alexander Cockburn

Well, I can puncture your optimism …

Oh, I know you can.

… by switching the topic to journalism.

Oh, yeah.


Well, no, no, no. I can detect a silver lining there, as well. Of course, as far as the mainstream press, it’s as degraded as it ever was. But I’m against, actually, the endless press criticism today, although I’m partly responsible for it because I did a lot of press criticism in the ’70s when people weren’t doing it so much. But, you know, endlessly attacking The New York Times. I mean, so what? The New York Times has always been a disgusting paper from day one, and its function is to tell lies on behalf of the ruling class. Why do we have to have incredibly intelligent people like Noam Chomsky explaining to us every day that The New York Times has got it wrong? I mean, I said to him one time, why don’t you just write a piece every six months saying they’ve got it right?

Let’s turn to the Village Voice, which to me was always the prototype for the alternative weekly.

When Dan Wolf and [Norman] Mailer and the other guys started the Voice in 1957, it was a genuinely countercultural magazine, although Wolf himself in many ways was quite a conservative guy actually. But Dan was a good editor. That was a period when you had Ed Sanders doing Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, and then of course you had all the underground press. … And then gradually, you know, these papers began to figure out their markets, and there was the inner-city-gentrification audience that was looking for interesting articles. And, of course, the mainstream papers have copied this a lot now. …

When I joined the Voice in 1973, it had just been sold to Carter Burden, who was a scion—he’s now dead—of Burden-Vanderbilts, and he bought it for I think $3 million. Then it was sold to Clay Felker for $50 million. Then Rupert Murdoch bought it for, I think, $45 million. This was in the late ’70s. And then finally it was sold to the dog-biscuit king of New Jersey—you know, the Hartz dog-collar guy [Leonard Stern]. The last time I looked, I think it was sold for $144 million, and that’s probably way under what it would sell for now. When there’s that much money wrapped up in something, how can you possibly do anything of any real radical content? You can’t.

Which brings us to the Internet, yes?

The Internet, yes. I came late to the Internet, unlike the guy I work with, Jeffrey St. Clair, my co-editor at CounterPunch. Ken Silverstein, who had been my intern at The Nation, actually started it. I said, you get it going, and if it works I’ll step on board the raft. And it did. And we were very happy to be selling 5,000 copies of a newsletter, and then Jeffrey really showed what we can do with the Web. And now I think we have a million hits a day, which translates to about 80,000 unique visitors a day. People read it all over the world, including 30,000 people on U.S. military bases.

What percentage of your readers did you say are on military bases?

There’s about 30,000 a month on U.S. military bases reading CounterPunch. Now that’s pretty good, isn’t it? If I said to you 30 years ago, “We’re gonna get pamphlets, and we’re gonna go stand outside a U.S. military base and leaflet—and hopefully we won’t get our brains beaten in,” we’d have been happy if we’d have given away 500 leaflets. If we had actually managed to get 500 leaflets into 500 hairy military hands—or delicate military hands, like Lynndie England’s, maybe—we’d have counted it a good day’s work. And here you’ve got 30,000 reading our seditious prose.

So, now that we all have access to the Internet, is that why things seem so much worse politically than they did when only Noam Chomsky could access that much information? Is Iraq that much worse than Vietnam?

No, no. But I think politics in the mainstream, the whole center of gravity has moved to the right over the last 25 years. I’ll give you an example. In 1976, I followed the candidates in the Democratic primary around. And there was Jimmy Carter and Jerry Brown and Scoop Jackson and Fred Harris—a whole range of people. And during that primary, there was a public interest group on the left called Energy Action, and these guys were going around asking all the Democratic candidates to sign on to their program. And their program included vertical and horizontal divestiture of the energy companies. That meant that if you were an Exxon, if you had an oil well, you couldn’t own a filling station, or a refinery, or a coal company. So, in other words, it was breaking up the oil companies. Every single candidate, from Scoop Jackson, who was of course totally in the pay of Boeing, to Jimmy Carter to the lot of them. They all felt it necessary to sign on to that. Even though they, of course, didn’t have the slightest intention of doing anything about it, with the possible exception of Fred Harris.

And Fred Harris left the campaign trail pretty early, as I recall.

Yeah, he had a great joke. He said, “I was the guy for the little people, and they couldn’t jump high enough to reach the levers.”

And my old friend Jim Abourezk, a one-term senator from South Dakota, he put a bill through the Senate calling for vertical and horizontal divestiture, and it failed by four votes. … Can you imagine now the U.S. Senate even admitting that resolution into D.C.? No, no, of course not. Can you imagine any candidate assenting to this stuff?

Uh, no.

No, these days, we have the Democrats about to sell out on Social Security. They sold out last month on Chapter 7 bankruptcy. You know, they’re incapable—even the most fundamental primitive efforts of protection of ordinary people are beyond them. They can’t do it. I mean, I think they’re a dead letter. They’re a huge rotting albatross hanging around the neck of every single left person in this country. And the left are putting a handkerchief to their nose trying to ignore this festering carcass, dripping with worms, reeking, hanging around their necks: “No, it’s not. I like it. It doesn’t smell bad.”

And it’s just getting worse and worse. If you put Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush together, I’d vote for Laura Bush any day of the week. What’s [Clinton’s] program? It’s build higher fences at the borders and join the militias in Arizona and drive the illegals out. That’s points one, two and three of their program. She’s calling for an attack on North Korea. She called for an attack on Syria. I mean, I’m just talking Hillary Clinton, because she comes to mind. But, I mean, how can you possibly even think of voting for this party?

So, what’s that leave you?

I don’t know. Not much. A few organic potatoes.

You know, people have to start thinking creatively. I mean, I think a lot of things can be done. All the best things in life have absolutely nothing to do with any real politics in the last 35 or 40 years.

So, why do you keep writing about it?

Why have I written about it? Well, you know, [Edward] Gibbon wrote about the fall of the Roman Empire. He didn’t say it all ended well, did he?