(I wrote “My Memorial for Alexander Cockburn” on the night and morning of July 21-22, 2012. It appears here followed by three web links to Internet sites with articles of related interest.)
21 July 2012
I wish to extend my sincere condolences to the family of Alexander Cockburn, and to his co-workers and friends at Counter Punch magazine. I, certainly, will miss him. His sparkling intellect punched out political insights that, like whiffs of ozone puffed out by lightning during a thunderstorm, refreshed our awareness with stinging clarity. What I especially appreciate about Alex was that the focus of his thinking and writing about public affairs was always in the humane best interests of the public everywhere. In reference to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wrote that “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and I believe Alex was a man whose sound heart made sure his conscience was trained for compassion.
I am one of probably hundreds of individuals who got to know Alex through having articles accepted for publication by Counter Punch (CP), and who spent a little time with him after one of his many public appearances (in San Francisco, 2007, with Daniel Cassidy). While I cannot offer any significant insights or stories about Alex, I think simply adding to the shared collection of personal memories about him will be welcomed.
In 2006, Alex wrote one of his electrically barbed columns deriding the fantasizing about “black ops,” by 9-11 conspiracy theorists five years after the event, which fantasies he viewed as a waste of potentially useful left-wing energy diverted into a politically neutering distraction. Since this was exactly my view, I wrote Alex a letter of vigorous agreement, and went on to describe a number of possibly relevant physical phenomena that would explain what you see and hear in the video recordings of the World Trade Center Tower collapses, and also the photographs of the crash sites at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. I based my comments on my experience in engineering physics; I have a Ph.D. in aeronautical sciences, and by 2006 I had spent 28 years working as a physicist designing experiments conducted during underground nuclear explosions, or in laboratories with electrically driven high energy pulsed power machines.
Alex answered my letter, and our e-mail exchanges on this subject soon led to a commission to write a series of articles on the physical and chemical phenomenology of the September 11, 2001 building collapses in New York City. Alex certainly had a brilliant mind, but he was no scientist. He relied on trusted friends with technical backgrounds to supply the technical judgments he needed about scientific aspects of current events about which he developed a political view. I wrote my three part series on 9-11 specifically with Alex in mind, I aimed to inform an intelligent non-technical reader who simply needed a clear jargon-free explanation, which was both qualitative and quantitative, of the dominant physical forces at play in the 9-11 collapses. The resulting articles will probably be my most lasting science-related publications. I used everything I had learned during over thirty years of immersion in engineering, physics and teaching, to “make it plain” (as Harry Truman used to say) without “dumbing it down.”
Alex was most anxious that I explain the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7, which had burned from early morning and collapsed in the late afternoon. I scoured the preliminary reports (with building diagrams) issued by the engineer-investigators of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and wrote an article describing my best educated estimate (guess) of what ultimately caused Building 7 to collapse. The entire three part series appeared online at Counter Punch in November of 2006. (1)
It took the NIST team of engineers till August of 2008 to issue its final report on Building 7; my explanation came respectably close to the NIST findings, but the exact scenario was too involved for any lone engineering sleuth to arrive at independently and beforehand. (2)
It was my hope that in helping Alex anchor his views of 9-11 in reality (by providing accurate physics), Counter Punch would be seen by a wider audience as a credible source of information and political interpretation. Certainly, one would expect that millions of technically competent people, who understand the reality of 9-11 physics, would instantly dismiss the political views of any opinion magazine that espoused crackpot conspiracy theories justified with obviously fallacious pseudo-science. What I really appreciated about Alex, and which is lacking among so many self-identified leftists, was his understanding — as regards 9-11 — that effective movement politics had to be based on a clear-eyed recognition of reality, and not on wishful fantasies. Facts are facts, whether you like them or not.
The previous paragraph leads me unavoidably to Alex’s views about climate change. I have little knowledge about the genesis of Alex’s thinking on climate change (global warming) because I was not the person he relied on for his technical justifications. In 2007, Alex issued a Counter Punch column with his denunciation of the consensus view on climate change. I received e-mail from two of CP’s well-regarded authors, who are academic professionals, suggesting I write an article to change Alex’s mind. It was feared that Alex’s persistence in his contrarian position on climate change would cause a widespread rejection of CP in its entirety. I went to work on a very thoroughly researched and very patiently written article explaining the physical phenomenology of global warming and how scientists had built up their models of the Earth’s weather and climate system, and described the many principled objections (and their weaknesses) to the idea of anthropogenic (man made) climate change by skeptical scientists. (3)
I think my climate change article is about as in-depth as one can go in a piece meant for a general audience, and all around good because I had to thoroughly address the skepticism expressed by the keen intellect of Alex Cockburn. But, my article did not alter Alex’s thinking. He passed my article on to his preferred technical advisor on this matter, who panned it. On the topic of climate change, Alex had decided the scientific establishment was just subsidy sucking and up to no good (which is often enough true, but not always), and that “climate change” was one of the newly manufactured fears (a.k.a., propaganda), like fear of communism in the old days, that the public was now being herded with by the political elites. Well, of course the political elites are using the fears emanating from the recognition of climate change to herd the public, but anthropogenic climate change is still true.
In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of having a good number of my articles published by Counter Punch, and of happily finding myself in agreement with Alex on many occasions. But, not always. How people come to their beliefs is wrapped up with their sense of identity, their self-image, and as that is unique to each individual it is impossible for any two people, especially hard-headed ones like Alex and me, to always have aligned views. I believe that a broader solidarity, based on trusting in the fundamental goodness of the well-trained consciences of people you know to be of sound heart, can accommodate the inevitable disagreements that will arise over technicalities and preferred forms of policy.
Alex Cockburn was a man of such refined ken and humor that he was right much of the time, yet absolutely impossible for anyone to always agree with. He woke you up, made you laugh, and made you think. Our world sure needs more of that. Now that Alex’s light has blinked off, we may come to realize just how much darkness it used to dispel. All I can offer his friends, to compensate for his absence, are these slight memories and personal reflections of his influence on me. The only way I have now of thanking Alex, for his kindness to me over the years, is to learn from his example and possibly sting parts of society awake every now and then by sparking up some beneficially pungent political ozone of my own.
1. CounterPunch Special Report, Debunking the Myths of 9/11, 25 November 2006, http://www.counterpunch.org/ninelevenconsp11252006.html, Alexander Cockburn, JoAnn Wypijewski, Manuel Garcia, Jr.
2. The Big Heat (Thermal Expansion Downs WTC 7), http://www.counterpunch.org/garcia08222008.html, 22 August 2008
3. Climate and Carbon, Consensus and Contention, http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2007/06/climate-and-carbon-consensus-and-contention/, 4 June 2007
Of Related Interest
Louis Proyect’s Memorial for Alexander Cockburn
The Reality on 9-11 (and MG,Jr’s last word on the subject)
by MARK ROBERTS