It really is the ultimate sentimentality.
That concern with how we will be remembered, or how those for whom we care will be treated in the minds of others, or who is saying what about whom now gone. It is too obvious to say we will never know the reputations we will have: that we project, we project. Every thought about the future outside of the most simple heavenly fantasies is a projection. We cast our wishes into the coming times and imagine that a reality that will not be ours is one that can make a difference to us. Good people have had their heads cut off, noble people been tortured in and into obscurity, infants murdered. What matter if some people think you a philanderer, a schnorrer, a charitable woman, a nice guy when you are gone? You know you take a secret self with you. They are anyway bound to get you wrong; for sure, not entirely right.
Certainly we would prefer not to leave a foul or evil reputation, at least for the benefit of those we care about, still living. There was a Greek fall not just for Oedipus and Joe Paterno, but for their families, too. Still, the big falls, the little ones, we can’t control them. Maybe Donald Trump has no idea how quickly his name will fade, even from the building facades that bear it, a name that will stand for grandiose buffoonery the way a doctor’s name was Mudd.
Still, we try to project our egos into the after-here. We are not, no we aren’t, wholly rational creatures. Strange, then, the choices of Alexander Cockburn, or at least of some who claim to admire him. Cockburn died on Friday, and now the first final assessment begins. As for any person, there are those who loved him and who thought him good, and more. There are others – plenty – of radical left and contrarian temperaments, who think his journalism was groundbreaking and worthwhile.
Many others, in contrast, will point out as long as necessary that Cockburn made a career of trafficking in every bitter, unsubtle and self-defeating excess of far left thought, to which he later added the same from the right. More, he was one of the voices on the Western left who introduced the incoherence of promoting oneself as “anti-racist” while simultaneously mocking and scorning the oldest grounds for anti-racism, our woebegone civilization has produced: anti-Semitism.
It is inconceivable, of course, that any form of racism could prevail in any culture, nation, or region of the earth without the proper focus of unremitting attention, labeling, and combat from the left. With a modest swell of anti-Muslim feeling in the United States since 9/11, the left has joined with those combating anti-immigrant sentiment and the long-presiding, even institutionalized racism against African-Americans. Yet with the entire Middle East region, and much of the Islamic world, steeped in the vilest manifestations of anti-Semitism, the labeling of that racism has become just that ground for rejection and mockery that Alexander Cockburn helped establish.
You will not hear a voice on the left – as you will from the right – deride accusations of racism against Blacks. You will not encounter on the library shelves, books by longstanding writers of The Nation entitled The Politics of Racism, though Cockburn, who was that Nation contributor, did co-author and co-edit The Politics of Anti-Semitism, with such contributors as Cynthia McKinney, Robert Fisk, and Norman Finkelstein. If the calculations of justice and the moral equation in the Middle East, and for Jews, became garbled in only the second thirty years after the Holocaust, producing garbage, Alexander Cockburn was a journalist who played a prominent role in that outcome.
Given an opportunity to provide evidence of an unprejudiced mind – a typically bilious column piling on the mean, small-tongued Don Imus when the broadcaster finally went too far on his radio program – Cockburn found words to name every group victim of Imus’s sewered mind but Jews.
Said Marc Cooper, once a colleague of Cockburn’s, “He forfeited becoming a very influential writer in favor of becoming a mud-throwing polemicist.”
At best, I say. But others will say differently. Jeffrey St. Clair, the longtime colleague and friend who co-edited with Cockburn the journal CounterPunch, which Cooper saw as a “rhetorical and intellectual dead end,” plans in that publication a series of “tributes to Alex from his friends and colleagues,” so there will be that effort to determine how Cockburn is remembered. But as I suggested, St. Clair made a strange choice to begin with.
In the two sentence paragraph lede, St. Clair announced over the weekend:
Our friend and comrade Alexander Cockburn died last night in Germany, after a fierce two-year long battle against cancer. His daughter Daisy was at his bedside.
The effort at memory setting begins in the next paragraph:
Alex kept his illness a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of us knew how terribly sick he truly was. He didn’t want the disease to define him. He didn’t want his friends and readers to shower him with sympathy. He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done.
Among the notable features of Cockburn’s life was his earlier friendship and later falling out – politically and personally – with Christopher Hitchens. Connor Simpson at the Atlantic rather overstates the case when he writes that:
most of all, [Cockburn] will likely be remembered as Christopher Hitchens’ foil.
Though maybe not, in light of that odd swipe, from grave to grave, at the manner in which Hitchens lived his final days and did his own last work. It is hard to imagine, under the circumstances, that Cockburn would not have discussed with St. Clair the manner in which the former’s death would be announced in his own publication. Cockburn did write his own unsparing epitaph for Hitchens on the occasion of that death. Either way, the rancor, among the first words in memory after Cockburn’s passing, marks a petty and graceless public, if not private, exit. Let the remembering begin.