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The five Leftist Luminaries I want to give my impressions about are:
George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950)
Avram Noam Chomsky (7 December 1928 – )
Eugene Louis “Gore” Vidal (3 October 1925 – 31 July 2012)
Christopher Eric Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011)
Alexander Claud Cockburn (6 June 1941 – 21 July 2012).
This article is an account of personal opinions and recollections, it is not a work of journalism based on exhaustive research.
For me, George Orwell was the essential Leftist Luminary of the second quarter of the 20th century, and he remains the source-point of political writing and criticism from the socialist point of view in the English language to this very day. I have read his two most famous novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well the two non-fiction works The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. In addition, I have read Essays, a collection of “more than 240” of Orwell’s essays published by Everyman’s Library (Alfred A. Knopf), a 1370 page book. I recommend these all.
I had not previously written about George Orwell, but the following article (linked just below) mentions him along with Noam Chomsky, and a number of other historical personalities.
Left Conservatives Under Right Progressives
12 February 2016
In the fields of Linguistics, Political Philosophy and Political Criticism, Noam Chomsky is the equivalent of Albert Einstein to physics. Chomsky is the essential Leftist Luminary of the second half of the 20th century, and to this day. Besides being most brilliant and authoritative, he is supremely moral, ethical and gentlemanly. He is a man of deep feeling for humanity (read At War With Asia): a mensch. I have read many of Chomsky’s books, essays, articles and tracts. If you have not read him, The Chomsky Reader (edited by James Peck) and Deterring Democracy are excellent places to start.
The only article I have written about Noam Chomsky is this:
On Reading “At War With Asia,” by Noam Chomsky
20 June 2012
Gore Vidal was a Left Luminary author of fiction and political criticism, which both served the purpose of being witty intellectual entertainment. Vidal was very much a media star renowned for his appearances on television talk (and argument) shows. Essential to Vidal’s image was his projection of absolute overconfidence, and command of his material, giving him a withering authority expressed pithily in either the spoken or written word. I have read numbers of his essays (I read more non-fiction than fiction), and these may ultimately be what he is remembered for instead of his mainly historical novels, which were very popular during his lifetime.
Chris Hitchens was a brash, outrageous and witty Left Luminary and intellectual entertainer in the Gore Vidal mode, but even more bristley. He was a confrontational person that assaulted rather than persuaded points of view that differed from his own. Hitchens succeeded in maintaining his very public career as a pundit even after heedlessly dashing the expectations of his original and most faithful audience, when he flipped from being a scathing leftist critic of US militarism and imperialism to a vociferous allegiance to George W. Bush’s “war on terror” (i.e., on Islamist militants) after the 9-11 attacks. The events of 11 September 2001 completely shocked and shook him, and he was characteristically and explosively indelicate about expressing his reformed view of international relations. Hitchens career success after 2001 was analogous to that of Bob Dylan’s after 1965, when Dylan trampled cacophonously on the expectations of his gentle folk music devotees by erupting onto the folk-pop music scene with an all-out rock-and-roll band and persona.
The memorial article I wrote soon after Christopher Hitchens died is this:
Christopher Hitchens, Coyote, or Saint Paul?
2 January 2012
Alex Cockburn was a close contemporary of Christopher Hitchens, also a product of the United Kingdom (an Irishman who went to boarding school in Scotland, and received his university education in England). Cockburn was essentially Hitchens’s twin as regards his US Leftist Luminary persona and highly sharpened attention-getting literary style, and he was also an intellectual entertainer. Both Cockburn and Hitchens assumed themselves to be hip Leftist Luminaries and projected that enthusiasm (presumptuousness?) as a supreme self-confidence that could at times reach the point of arrogance.
Where Cockburn and Hitchens differed significantly was in consistency of ideological commitment. Unlike Hitchens’s precipitous swing from left to right, Cockburn never wavered in his Stalinist-derived ideology.
Alexander Cockburn’s father, Claud Cockburn, was an Irish communist journalist during the Spanish Civil War, and also secretly a propaganda agent of the USSR. Claud Cockburn wrote some factually inaccurate news accounts of the fighting in Spain that were very favorable to the Republican side (despite them suffering a disastrous loss), which was being aided by Stalin’s foreign intervention. These false accounts were purportedly justified as helping buck up international socialist resolve to the anti-fascist (anti-Francoist) cause.
However, Stalin’s main concern was to directly control communist parties and socialist movements worldwide, and Stalin’s military, spy and police agents were vigorously undermining communist and socialist parties not obedient to the Kremlin, and having the leaders of such independent parties executed. One victim of this secret purge (during the “May Events” of 1937 in Barcelona) was the leader of the POUM, a small independent communist party in Spain that George Orwell had joined to fight against the fascists (led by Francisco Franco). It was Orwell who exposed Claud Cockburn (read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia), and Claud subsequently lost his credibility, and with Stalin’s favor now replaced by his ire, and he lost his Irish foreign correspondent newspaper job and had to return to Ireland and Scotland.
Claud Cockburn later married for a third time, to a woman of means with whom he had three sons, the eldest being Alexander Cockburn. Claud continued with his literary career, and one product of it was the comic novel Beat the Devil, which American film director John Huston turned into a 1950s movie that was not too successful even though it starred Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, and Robert Morley.
I was motivated to learn this story about Alexander Cockburn’s father, after an e-mail exchange with Alex in which he surprised me by scathingly dismissing my admiration for George Orwell.
Alex Cockburn was vituperatively critical (in his editorials in Counter Punch, his magazine with Jeffrey St. Clair) of the character of Christopher Hitchens. Cockburn’s ire was aimed not just at Hitchens’s ideological reversal of 2001, but at a graver sin in Cockburn’s eyes: betraying by ratting out on an earlier colleague who was in the crosshairs of a US government witch hunt. As I recall, the designated victim had been a left-liberal friend of both Hitchens and Cockburn, and he was being set up by government investigator-prosecutors as the culprit of some political-financial activity the government (the administration of George W. Bush) was seeking to criminalize in order to silence a critic of the regime. This is all plausible, as Hitchens never sued Cockburn for libel.
These US-from-the-UK Leftist Luminary battling twins, sadly, were fatally stricken with cancer at nearly the same time, with Hitchens dying first and Cockburn seven months later. Cockburn was entirely closed-mouth about his disease, which was only disclosed when his death was publicly announced. In contrast, Hitchens was completely open and publicly confessional, in print and on video, about his disease throughout its entire course. Cockburn was acerbically critical of what he viewed as Hitchens’s mawkish attention-getting, so in contrast to Cockburn’s own tight-lipped reserve during his own demise.
These were sad endings of the public presences of the Twin Battling Berserkers of Hip Modern Leftist Luminosity in the United States. A similarly sad and publicly sour ending of an American Leftist Luminant (as subsequently revealed by the legal battle over his will) was that of Gore Vidal, ten days after Alexander Cockburn’s final exit.
I hope that for both Cockburn and Hitchens the private within-the-family passings were as peaceful and loving as can be had for such an event. For Cockburn I have no doubt it was; for Hitchens I don’t know; and for Vidal I know it was not.
I believe that Alex Cockburn was always jealous of Christopher Hitchens for being more successful at accomplishing what they both wanted to accomplish in their careers: public recognition as major pundits. It seems to me as if Hitchens, despite his character flaws and likely ethical lapses, always threw shade on Alex Cockburn, even if unconsciously and unintentionally, and that Alex deeply resented this because he saw himself as the significantly more ethical man. I can’t judge.
I did not know Christopher Hitchens personally. From my several (not many) interactions with Alexander Cockburn, I have no doubt he was an ethical person and good family man. My only significant criticism of Alexander Cockburn is that he was inflexibly ideological and this inflexibility, much more than his lack of scientific knowledge, could even undermine his usually sterling ability for critical thinking – his ability to be rational and logical – on matters of science like climate change.
The memorial article article I wrote the night Alexander Cockburn died is this:
My Memorial for Alexander Cockburn
11 August 2012
Of my five 20th century Leftist Luminaries only Noam Chomsky, the third oldest, is still wonderfully alive and will complete his 89th year in December 2017.
For me, the lesson I think it is reasonable to draw out of this review of Leftist Luminaries is to value the honest and helpful insights offered by the thought-provoking, elegant and entertaining works of five very human men, who were clearly motivated in no small part by a sense of solidarity with the rest of humanity in the timeless quest for the lessening of life’s pains, and the emergence of a better and brave new world.
(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