Couldn't sleep Sunday night (which is typical of late -- I look like a haggard lunatic in daylight), and instead of YouTubing, I remembered that C-SPAN 2 was re-running a three-hour profile of Alexander Cockburn at midnight, so I plopped on the couch and joined the show about 20 minutes in. Whatever one thinks of Cockburn, he is an entertaining figure, eloquent and glib, his right eyebrow sharply arched as he vents about whatever is thrown at him. And he did not disappoint, though it appears that age is fucking with his memory as he occasionally stumbled over names or blanked out completely. The man's entering his late-60s -- is that what awaits?
While watching Cockburn, I thought back to my initial discovery of his work in the Village Voice, around 1981 or so, and how electric his column was. I was just beginning my adult political education, so I didn't get all of Cockburn's points or references, but I instantly recognized first-rate prose and sharpened wit, and from that point on, I made it a point to read Cockburn whenever I could. By the time he landed at The Nation in 1984, after being suspended by the Voice for taking money from an Arab foundation (to write about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon), Cockburn really hit his polemical stride, and within months his "Beat The Devil" column was the must-read in that dusty, liberal space. What I loved about Cockburn back then was his open, unapologetic radicalism. When he celebrated the achievements of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, he did so robustly, at times putting The Nation's more cautious liberals on their heels. Only Christopher Hitchens kept up with him on the column front, while regular contributors like Holly Sklar fleshed out Cockburn's themes in longer pieces. Add in Andrew Kopkind, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Robert Sherrill (whose book reviews in the mid-80s practically burned through the page), among others, and it's easy to see why The Nation was so vibrant in those days. Its editorial mix and overall attitude helped steer me away from the comedy scene and into the world of media activism, where I began to learn the basics of writing political essays. And Cockburn was my primary model.
The danger with venerating your creative influences is that, should you spend any time alone with them, you will inevitably be let down or disillusioned. This is for the best, as deification is a dead end, and those you elevate usually turn out to be assholes of one kind or another, so one should take the work on its own merits and not grasp at something that doesn't really exist. I learned this first-hand with several influential figures I've met, talked to, or gotten to know; and this was especially true with Cockburn.
In my defense, I was young. Mid-20s. Politically naive. I actually believed that the guy who wrote "Beat The Devil" would be as exciting and engaging as he was in print. But when I first met Cockburn at The Nation's offices in Manhattan, he was extremely condescending, snide, sarcastic. I left myself wide open for his hostility, smiling and turning cheek after cheek. After all, he was The Man, while I was no one, still learning about politics from the ground up. I think my enthusiasm for his work stirred in him contempt; and once he saw that I would take anything he dished out, he made cracks about my youth, my gullibility, my obvious hero worship. In retrospect, I probably had it coming, as I tended back then to gush over those who inspired me. But I also realize that Cockburn was in full control of the situation, and could've shown a bit more patience and mercy to a kid wet behind the ears. That he chose instead to make me feel like a fool suggested that perhaps Cockburn wasn't that generous a person. He seemed to get a kick out of knocking me around. But I didn't care. I thought he was the best.
In time, I learned to hit back when needed, no matter the heavy rep of the target. Not that I relished combat or sought it out, but after years of writing at various levels and in numerous forms, I felt comfortable and quite capable of defending myself, and when Cockburn and I finally clashed in the letters pages of New York Press, nothing he said, no matter how stupid, petty, or deceitful it was, got to me. Indeed, it made me laugh. He no longer was The Man, not to me, anyway. And his reliance on gutter tactics proved how dumb it was of me to venerate him in the first place. Prick a prick, and he'll bleed all over you.
Still, I agree politically with Cockburn more often than not, and share his disdain for the Dems and those liberals sworn to defend the mule. Even with our recent falling out, where he essentially ordered me to not write about Hitchens or I'd lose my Counterpunch access, I keep his site on my blogroll. He posts at least one interesting piece there a day, and once in a while, Cockburn himself brings some old heat from the days when his work had more force and reach. This occasionaly touches the younger part of me still alive -- the schmuck.