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Hedonist, Populist, Brawler, Dandy: on Alexander Cockburn’s Colossal Wreck

Hélène Barthélemy26 September 2013

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In his great fight against the clichés that weigh down language, Alexander Cockburn had condemned the word “contrarian” to the guillotine. Yet today the banned word is sometimes paradoxically applied to him. Both George Sciallaba’s review of Colossal Wreck in the LA Review of Books and Andrew Cockburn’s interview on Wisconsin Public Radio decapitate the idea of a contrarian Cockburn and emphasize his unwavering political ideals and his talent for highlighting the hilarious absurdity of life.

Sciallaba celebrates Cockburn’s sense of humor, describing Colossal Wreck as “a near-unique fusion of saeva indignation and joie de vivre.” Unclassifiable, it is “a potpourri, a gallimaufry, a salmagundi, highly seasoned” (we can guess that Cockburn would not have discarded any of the above words to his tumbril cart):

Between the malevolence of the Republicans and the mediocrity of the Democrats, the last four decades have been a pretty dismal time to be a left-wing radical in the United States. Few of us have stayed scrappy; still fewer have kept a sense of humor. Cockburn — hedonist, populist, brawler, dandy — made it a little easier. I wish the next generation one of him.

As indicated by his brother Andrew Cockburn on WPR, Alexander bridged the left-right cleavage, believing the adage that “a newspaper should have no friends.” A radical journalist, Cockburn followed an undeviating course, which, though it zigzagged between party lines, was always on the side of the people. As Andrew declares,

He didn’t try to promote himself by being the person who always took the opposite side. People call him contrarian because he took some positions that surprised people. He didn’t fit. He didn’t get up in the morning and put on the uniform of your standard liberal left commentator complete with cap and boots and whistle.

Resisting the conceited myth of the unbiased journalist, Alexander Cockburn “wrote it like he saw it” and, as it turns out, wrote it well: as described by Sciallaba,

Cockburn’s suave prose style and stinging wit delighted his readers and infuriated his targets: blandly deceptive corporate or governmental spokespersons and self-important newspaper or TV pundits spouting conventional wisdom.

Visit LA Review of Books to read the review in full.

Visit Wisconsin Public Radio to listen to the full interview.