Alexander the Brilliant

Edward Said

  • Corruptions of Empire: Life Studies and the Reagan Era by Alexander Cockburn
    Verso, 479 pp, £14.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 86091 176 4

Much the best way to convey appreciation of Alexander Cockburn’s rousing and combative prose is to quote him at length. The protocols of reviewing, however, preclude such a practice, so one has to resort to the altogether drearier method of describing what he is about. Recently I mentioned to him that I was reading his book in order to review it. He was calling from Eugene, Oregon (the week before he had been in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and just before that we had had breakfast in London, to which he had just come from Moscow). ‘Noting with pleasure and admiration the superb prose, the witty observation, the admirable structure,’ he immediately volunteered. Why, in the desert of today’s journalistic mediocrity and cowardly trimming, anyone with Cockburn’s gifts and courage should be modest, or mock-modest, I shall leave to others to discuss. Certainly the darting, cruel and unsparing wit displayed by this oldest son of Claud Cockburn stands out brilliantly in the pages of the Nation, the Wall Street Journal, In These Times, week after week. Few people have the courage to accumulate enemies the way Cockburn has. Starting with Ronald Reagan, whom he twits remorselessly, he has been on the wrong side of the entire US Government, of the New Republic, of Norman Podhoretz, of nearly every journalist of note, left, right and centre, of the New York Times, of the McNeil-Lehrer Report (see in particular his devastating replication of that TV programme’s famous ‘balance’, with the ponderously sober ‘Robin’ McNeil, ‘Jim’ Lehrer and ‘Charlene’ Hunter-Gault studiously examining both sides of the slavery question, Hitler and the Crucifixion), of most academics and of all TV networks, of the rich and the famous, of the military, of Israel, of Thatcher, Kissinger, and many others. He has, it should be added, his softer side, which emerges occasionally in gay or commendatory remarks about family, good cooking (excluding Chinese), figures of stoic calm and moral truthfulness (Israel Shahak, Chairman of the Israeli League of Human Rights), socialism, P.G. Wodehouse.

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