Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

Alexander Cockburn, one of the finest radical journalists—no, journalists—of his generation, has died. Because of the similarities between him and Christopher Hitchens—both Anglos (he of Ireland, Hitchens of England) in America; both friends, for a time; both left (though, in Hitchens’s case, for a time); and both dying relatively young from cancer—people, inevitably, will want to make comparisons. Here, very quickly, are three (and why I think Cockburn was ultimately the superior writer).

First, Cockburn was a much better observer of people and of politics: in part because he didn’t impose himself on the page the way Hitchens did, he could see particular details (especially of class and of place) that eluded Hitchens. At his best, he got out of the way of his own story and allowed his readers to see things they never would have seen without him.

Second, he was extraordinarily well read, but he didn’t make a parade of his learning. One sly quote from Gibbons or Tacitus was enough. He understood, unlike Hitchens, that less is more, and that helped him—to an extraordinary degree—on the page. Ever the over-achieving schoolboy, Hitchens simply drew too much attention to himself, and even his finest sentences (which were quite fine) had a way of distracting from the matter at hand.

Finally, and though this does get into the politics or at least character of the two men, Cockburn managed to achieve, again at least on the page, a better equanimity between his savagery and his sweetness. I remember one of his pieces on taking his daughter to school, and it was affecting: poignant and pungent. When Hitchens was sweet, he often slipped into sentimentality. Never Cockburn. At least not that I can remember.

I should say that Cockburn had some tremendous failings as a journalist: his thoughts on climate change, his indulgence of the paleocon right, and more that I can’t immediately remember. If I had time for a fuller reckoning, I’d go back through his work and offer up a more balanced view of his virtues and failings. On the whole, for better and for worse, I’d say he was the great refusenik of our time.

But for now, on the question of Cockburn versus Hitchens, this is it.

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