Smile Politely

A weekend with the Left

Alexander Cockburn has been stirring things up for longer than most of you reading this have been alive. Cockburn (COE-burn) grew up in Ireland, was educated at Oxford, cut his teeth at the Village Voice in the ’70s, and writes for The Nation and founded Counterpunch. Cockburn is something of the Eddie Haskell of the American Left, irreverent and cocksure whilst pointing out the idiocy and bloodlust of the powers-that-be on both sides of the aisle.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, or even something that will set your teeth on edge, head to the U-C Independent Media Center (202 S. Broadway in Urbana) Friday night at 7 p.m. Cockburn will be the keynote speaker at the 5th Annual Conference of the Illinois Coalition for Justice, Peace, and the Environment. Admission is $10 for Friday night’s program ($5 for low income), and $30 for the whole weekend ($15 for low income). Check out the link above for the full schedule; I’ll be posting my interview with Paul Street tomorrow.

Cockburn was kind enough to speak with me on the phone earlier this week, and he touched on several themes from his writing: the importance of political organizing, the worthlessness of the mainstream media, and how the Left gets pulled off course easily.

If you’re not familiar with Cockburn’s work, read his most recent Counterpunch entry, “The White House Egg Roll v. Gulag Ag.”

Smile Politely: Is there anything good going on in the world that you want to talk about?

Alexander Cockburn: Oh, well, that’s the right way to put it, because the Left has the tendency to be incredibly pessimistic all the time, which has some reason because the world isn’t a very attractive place right now, but when was it ever an attractive place from the point of view of justice and progress? But things change, and things are different. And one of the themes of this event, or this conference, rather, that I’m coming to in your neck of the woods is communication, and organizing. And I think the possibilities have obviously multiplied vastly since the dawn of the ‘net and the web. Which is of course why Counterpunch is able to exist.

I often say to people when I was at Oxford in England in the late ’50s, when we were doing anti-war stuff, we’d go out to a US/UK air base called Upper Heyford outside Oxford, and we had a box of leaflets. We’d hand them to drivers as they went into the base, and of course 95 percent of the drivers, 99 percent of the drivers would crumple up the flier we gave them and they’d throw it back in our face. Or maybe one in 50 would take it and put it in his cab and away they’d go. We’d count it a pretty good day if, at the end of standing there in the rain, usually, because this was England — although at the moment in Northern California it doesn’t stop raining for seemingly months — we’d count it a good day if we got rid of two or three hundred of these leaflets, right?

Well, ok, here we are with Counterpunch in 2003, and the Iraq War is cranking up, and you can see who your readers are on your website. We get about, at that time, between two to three million unique visitors a month at the Counterpunch site, and we were able to see that every month, 30,000 U.S. servicemen on U.S. military bases were opening up and reading Counterpunch. They weren’t just stopping there and going on; they were stopping and reading different pages.

So, we go from 100 leaflets that people weren’t reading, thrown in the bottom of a cab, to 30,000 people on U.S. bases. And we’d get letters, by the way, from Marine officers and people discussing what we were talking about. That’s a big jump in communication, a huge jump in communication. That’s a plus, and all of that — what’s wrong with it? Nothing. I’ve been in journalism and radical journalism for several decades, and in the old days, running a newsletter, you’d get on your bicycle or get in your old car, and you’d run down to the printer and make 3,000 copies and you’d try to get rid of them. Now, with Counterpunch, it’s on the website, and anyone in the world can read it.

All of this is very basic stuff I think everybody knows, but you want to stop and think about it, because the opportunities are huge. On the other hand, why is it that we had more of an anti-war movement in 2003 than we do now? Why is it that you look across — where are the demonstrations when Obama fires up a new war in Afghanistan? Obama’s doing things that George Bush did and George Bush got trashed for them and Obama doesn’t get trashed for them at all because Obama is cool, and Obama’s a Democrat, and Obama’s an African-American and all the rest of it.

So there’s also been a kind of de-politicization in a way, and that’s the other side of the coin. You have to get a kind of mix between the opportunities offered by the Internet and real, nuts-and-bolts political organizing on the ground. And that’s not just firing off 300 emails and sitting back; that’s getting back to door-to-door stuff, and meetings.

You know, the Left has changed in 30 or 40 years. I grew up in England in the ’50s and ’60s, when organized Left sectarian politics were much stronger than they are now. And you’d get all your little Communist groups, and Trotskyist groups, and a lot of it was out of The Life of Brian, but a lot of it you had to actually do work and do study groups and learn the basics of political economy. And that seems to have kind of gone downhill. And so a lot of the Left is thriving on not political economy, but just the politics of just generalized fear or depression or despair or Global Warming or some such thing. So these are issues that I think really need to be thrashed out. I think the crucial issue is How do you organize?

Smile Politely: And from what you’re saying, that has to happen on more of a local, feet-on-the-ground level than have the Internet solve all your problems for you?

Alexander Cockburn: I think so. You know, I live in northern California — Eureka, California, is my nearest town — and we have anti-war rallies, but they’ve gone downhill in the last few years. I think a lot of the people who are natural protesters have gotten completely consumed with 9/11 conspiratorial stuff, saying that Dick Cheney and George Bush blew up the World Trade Center, which I don’t agree with (laughs). I think it’s lunatic, myself. But it becomes a fixation to the exclusion of all other things.

Or Global Warming: If we fix that, we’ll fix everything, you know? And that displaces real, genuine organizing. And organizing is a real, long-term thing. You look at the great organizers with, let’s say, Civil Rights organizing in the South. When people when down to the South, they rooted themselves in the community, they got to know people, they stood up for people, and it was a long process. It wasn’t just a matter of sending someone an email every couple of weeks. You know what I mean?

Smile Politely: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I’m feeling pretty convicted right now, which is good.

Alexander Cockburn: These are the themes, at least as I see them — I haven’t totally formulated my remarks, but they’ve got some wonderful people coming to the conference like Kathy Kelly, who writes for Counterpunch. Kathy’s someone who’s been there for the long haul, who’s traveled all over the world and put herself in appallingly dangerous situations, and that tradition of radical Catholic activism… with the Berrigans, who’ve been in prison for years for protesting nuclear submarines and the like, these are very inspiring examples.

Smile Politely: It’s going to be an exciting conference. Were you just headed this direction for something else?

Alexander Cockburn: No, actually, the committee asked me if I’d like to give the keynote, and I said I’d be delighted, I was happy to be invited. And you know, air travel these days, if you use the Internet and go on Travelocity, it’s not that expensive, and I always like to get around and see what people are saying, staying in touch with people.

Smile Politely: I was curious if you’d been to Champaign-Urbana before?

Alexander Cockburn: Oddly enough, I was there in the ’80s, which was a very inspiring time. The second half of the ’80s was a very active time in American radical politics because of the wars in Central America, battling Reagan’s interventions in Nicaragua — attacks on Nicaragua — and the Sandinistas, and the Salvadoran civil war. And there was a very active movement there, and it was actually great. I have somewhere in my garage a directory of all the Sister Cities organizations in America who were partnering with towns in Central America, and the thing was the size of a phone directory. You know, people would go down there and come back there, and there were very long-term ties built at the level of towns, of labor unions, of union locals, you know, not to mention people who went down and started love affairs with people down there (laughs). I don’t know, on the personal level, every level. So that was an inspiring time. In that time period somewhere I was in Urbana. I gave a talk there. Last time I was there.

Smile Politely: Great. Well, it’s probably changed some since then.

Alexander Cockburn: I don’t know. I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose (laughs).

Smile Politely: You often write pieces critical of U.S. foreign policy towards Israel and you face charges of anti-Semitism as a direct or indirect result. Does that backlash ebb and flow over time, or is that fairly constant?

Alexander Cockburn: Oh yeah. I began writing on this issue back in the ’70s in New York, and if you so much as uttered one word of criticism toward the state of Israel in New York City in the 1970s, you’d get your head blown off. Not literally, but metaphorically. So that situation has changed 100 percent. I think this business of, if you say something like the Goldstone Report said about the attack on Gaza and they call you an anti-Semite, I don’t think people buy that crap anymore. It’s just like we had that word in the ’60s, maumauing? You really attack something for everything and you were supposed to humiliate them? I guess you’d call in flaming them now if you’d do it in the last couple of years. I don’t think people buy that anymore.

The image of Israel has changed, because Israel, there’s so many documented hideous infractions of human rights. The Palestinians are being slowly driven out and eroded. I don’t think people buy the fact that if you just go and say, ‘Here’s a situation of injustice and Israel’s responsible,’ and conveniently call the bearer of the bad news an anti-Semite, I don’t think it washes anymore.

Smile Politely: Do you think having some of these reports more widely available through online sources helps with that?

Alexander Cockburn: Oh, for sure. Oh, for sure. You see things in the papers now, even in the mainstream press, that would have been inconceivable 30 years ago. Absolutely inconceivable. And now there’s discussions of boycott movements and various approaches to the issue. I will say one thing: there’s much more discussion of the situation in Palestine and Israel, and much more airing of things that couldn’t be said or weren’t said 30 years ago. Has the situation of the Palestinians improved? No, it’s gotten worse. So, it’s a two-headed thing. Norman Finkelstein has written a book, you know, This Time We Went Too Far, it’s an online book about Israel. And he says it’s only a matter of time, that support for Israel is eroding among younger Jews in America, or people of Jewish origin — Jewish Americans who once thought none of it. And that probably is true, but what is the real future of Palestine? I mean, what it’s going to be reduced to: a couple clumps of places in the West Bank? The future doesn’t look too good, I’d have to say.

Smile Politely: Do you want to just talk about journalism in general? I had no idea that Counterpunch had that much site traffic…

Alexander Cockburn: Yeah, that was then, it’s a bit down now, because that was absolutely a peak moment. At the beginning of the war in 2003, people talked about nothing else, and read about nothing else, thought about nothing else. And now you’ve got Obama, where people think, ‘Wow that’s taken care of things.’ And now people are saying, ‘Wow, it hasn’t taken care of things. It’s bad. He’s attacking Afghanistan, and what about human rights, and all the issues that he hasn’t done that he said he would.’ And so on. So, it cranks along, I don’t know what our unique visitors are per month, probably between 1.5 and 2 million, which are pretty good numbers. It’s probably one of the largest radical English-language sites.

Smile Politely: That’s great. That compares to… (I was going to relate our miniscule-by-comparison traffic numbers, but he jumped in. That’s fine.)

Alexander Cockburn: You wanted to ask about journalism, and of course now the mainstream press is going belly-up on an almost hourly basis. And The Nation, for example, for whom I write a column, has all these columns on how to save it. I don’t see saving it — kick it into the grave as far I’m concerned. I don’t miss them. I wouldn’t miss the New York Times if it went out of business tomorrow. I think they’re a source of mystification and distortion.

Smile Politely: Sure.

Alexander Cockburn: There’s plenty of stuff on the Internet that you can read, and you can get a good education. And there are some good reporters on the New York Times, okay, but not that many. Why should we all be hooked to reading Paul Krugman or something?

Smile Politely: We kind of have that perspective about our local newspaper here as well. What do you say to the people who say, ‘Who will do the reporting? How will we get our news?’

Alexander Cockburn: How will we get our news? We’ll get it over the internet. There are various sources. Carl Estabrook is going to interview me on the Community Access channel. These are not channels looked at by millions, but there will always be vehicles. Why does the basic economic arrangement, which was made about 100 years ago, that advertisers would pay for the newspaper as long as you had some copy separating the advertising, and the advertising was for motor cars and washing machines — why is that regarded as the natural formula? There are other ways of looking at it. I mean, if you look at every disaster, major disaster in America since the Second World War, the New York Times, to take one example, has been on the wrong side of all of them. All of them. They’re wrong about almost everything you can think of. So why should I, I mean you’ve got people in The Nation writing all these Save Our Press manifestos, it’s really sickening to read it.

Smile Politely: I think a lot of that is just self-preservationist, self important, what-I-do-is-crucial-to-Democracy bullshit. I’m a former Nation subscriber, and I always thought it was funny that they had these fancy cruises in a left-wing or purportedly left-wing paper. Do you participate in those?

Alexander Cockburn: I did one, maybe two, and I thought it was just a horrible experience. I don’t know, it’s a wash. You have 4,000 people on a boat, and send them around the Caribbean, or Baja, or up in Alaska, compacting them into one place, the environmental effects are not good… I don’t know what to say. I met some very nice Nation readers, who are usually, of course, older people because they’re the people who can afford to go on the cruise. And of course, the Nation makes a bit of money out of them. But I just find it a pretty unpleasant experience — well, not an unpleasant experience. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll sit in the sun,’ but it’s never sunny. It was always cloudy. And then the temptation is to sit there and drink all day, and that’s not very good for you.

Smile Politely: No, not long term.

Alexander Cockburn: Not long term. I didn’t really enjoy it, and I never went back. Also, I said somewhere I’d never get on the same boat as Eric Alterman.

Smile Politely: Yeah, I dug that article up somewhere. I thought that was interesting.

Alexander Cockburn: Why would I get on a boat with Eric Alterman? Geez. So, that’s about it. All righty?

Smile Politely: Thanks a lot for your time sir, I appreciate it.

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