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The Assassin’s Fate: Paul Berman Shoots and Misses (Again)

Portrait Of Alexander Cockburn

We Sicilians are connoisseurs of malevolence. So I approached Paul Berman’s hatchet job on Alexander Cockburn (The New Republic, August 1) with an alacrity tempered only by my apprehension that Berman wasn’t quite up to the job. His previous attempts at character assassination (Noam Chomsky, Ian Buruma) had been disappointing: shrill, inaccurate, marred by too-obvious rancor and wounded vanity. Cockburn, in the shape of his final collection, A Colossal Wreck, seemed a perfect target: lethally sharp-tongued and infuriatingly charming while alive but now conveniently dead. I feared, though, that Berman would muff it.

From the technical point of view, he turned in a creditable performance this time. Berman (or his editor) managed to leaven his usual portentous and overwrought style—as though the intellectual honor of the age had been entrusted to his keeping—with a few dashes of wit and sly malice. Cockburn was an “eccentric British journalist,” a “famously insolent … old rogue,” who could nevertheless be “wonderfully charming,” with his “odd and clever combination of English literary self-satisfaction and outrageous raillery.” With an “air of bookish sophistication,” he was always dropping authors’ names (“Browning and Conrad and Trollope”) and quotations into his columns, though of course it was just a veneer, as was his insular New Left Review Marxism, at least when compared with the grittier, more rooted democratic socialism of Michael Harrington and Irving Howe. A glib and supercilious Euroscoundrel, in other words, unlike the high-minded, erudite Berman, the plodding but salt-of-the-earth working-class types over at Dissent, and the cold-eyed tragic realists of The New Republic.  

And Cockburn’s views—how dreary! On and on he maundered about his “hobbyhorse,” the CIA: “Uncle Sam’s true face … not a ‘rogue’ Agency but one always following the dictates of government, murdering, torturing, poisoning, drugging its own subjects, following methods devised and tested by Hitler’s men, themselves transported to America after World War II.” Berman wrinkles his nose at this, and also at Cockburn’s vision of late-twentieth-century America: “the corrupt and hypocritical center of a doomed imperialism … swinish, criminal, tawdry.” “This was not a subtle picture of the world,” Berman sniffs. New Republic readers, accustomed to hearing leftists ridiculed and left-wing views dismissed without argument as pernicious or absurd, will snigger and nod along with Berman’s lofty contempt, confirmed in their conviction that the Beltway-centered chatter and TED-talk-level idea-mongering that the magazine specializes in are the real substance of politics and culture.

It’s familiar enough, this ideological blood sport with which intellectuals occupy ourselves while waiting for the world’s attention, and no doubt harmless in the larger scheme of things. Anyway, Cockburn drew a lot of blood in his time, some of it Berman’s, so why shouldn’t Berman try to get his own back now? In our wiser moments, most of us recognize how little all this matters. But how few and far between, those wiser moments! And so once more, wearily, unto the breach.[*]

For decades Berman and others have promulgated a misleading and self-serving distinction between the “anti-imperialist” left and the “anti-totalitarian” left. The former allegedly attribute all the world’s evils to capitalism, unquestioningly support anti-capitalist revolutionary movements, and are reluctant to criticize any regime that calls itself, however unjustifiably, “socialist” or “communist.” For the anti-imperialist left, the United States can do no right and its enemies can do no wrong. (“Human rights was never an issue that could appeal to a man of [Cockburn’s] spirit,” jeers Berman, whose long record of non-support for Timorese, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Turkish Kurd, and Palestinian human rights speaks eloquently for itself.) The anti-totalitarians have moved beyond this outworn, simplistic binary thinking, asserting instead the primacy of democracy and human rights. Social and economic justice is important, of course, but freedom of speech is fundamental. And since American leaders repeatedly profess their determination to assist freedom and democracy everywhere, American foreign policy, even if it involves the illegal use of military force, will often deserve support.

The anti-imperialist/anti-totalitarian distinction is misleading because, broadly speaking, one side (Cockburn’s) is protesting crimes that their readers can readily, as citizens, do something about, and in fact are ultimately responsible for, while the other side (Berman’s) is not. Abuses by Castro and Chavez, and crimes by Saddam and Iran’s ayatollahs, are undoubtedly real. But the U.S. government did/does not support those regimes and was/is not responsible for their crimes. (Actually, the U.S. did support Saddam for decades, during his worst crimes, but the anti-totalitarians mostly kept quiet about that.) Certainly the U.S. should do everything possible (and legal) to undermine, or at least chastise, those authoritarian regimes. But of course, it already does that—and in fact does a great many illegal things as well—not out of excessive zeal (or in fact the slightest concern) for human rights but rather for strategic reasons. Embargos, support for coup attempts, and outright invasions are all acts of aggression—crimes, strictly speaking—which the anti-totalitarians have a distressing tendency to wink at.

They also seem remiss about protesting atrocities for which the U.S. bears considerable responsibility. For the last four decades at least, human rights abuses in U.S. client states—Turkey, Indonesia, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua under Somoza, Argentina, Brazil, Iran under the Shah, Iraq under Saddam (until 1991)—vastly exceeded those in Soviet client states. The anti-totalitarians said comparatively little about the former, even though the U.S. could usually have halted the abuses simply by threatening to cut off military and diplomatic support. On the other hand, the anti-totalitarians kept a sharp focus on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, over whose governments they had no leverage and whom the U.S. government needed no encouragement to oppose.

The anti-totalitarian position amounts, in practice, to this: vigorous criticism of the crimes of one’s government’s enemies, whose policies one cannot affect; feeble or no criticism of the crimes of one’s own government, whose policies one can affect. That doesn’t sound like moral seriousness to me. And yet the anti-totalitarians do so earnestly insist on their own higher Seriousness and the other side’s deplorable frivolity! It’s tiresome, of course, but a little amusing too, this pantomime of moral superiority.

There’s nothing amusing, though, about Berman’s many brazen insinuations of anti-Semitism on Cockburn’s part. “He shivered at Zionism, whose nature seemed to him intrinsically ghastly.” He could never understand the American public’s affection for “the Zionist entity”—putting the jihadist designation in Cockburn’s mouth. His “distaste for Jewish concerns” (i.e., for Berman’s calumnies about “Noam Chomsky and Holocaust denial”) explained his otherwise unaccountable “sniping” at the innocent young Berman. “When it comes to the tears of the Jews,” Berman approvingly quotes Jack Newfield, “Cockburn’s heart is made of stone.”

Anti-Semitism is race-hatred, persecution, discrimination, and libels about the collective guilt of Jews. A healthy contempt for AIPAC, A. M. Rosenthal, Norman Podhoretz, and Martin Peretz is not anti-Semitism. Harsh criticism of Israel’s relentless expansionism and violent repression, and loathing for the hypocrisy and deceit of Israel’s American apologists—this, pretty clearly, is all Berman means by “anti-Semitism,” in accordance with the first principle of hasbara. And yet this is the substance of Berman’s measured and scrupulous rebuke—so much classier than Cockburn’s indiscriminate “railing” against “the Israel lobby, homosexuals, Democrats [and] liberals,” and a shining example of the moral fastidiousness and intellectual integrity Berman has been preaching to his readers for many decades.

Cockburn was occasionally cruel, taking an unholy pleasure in taunting thin-skinned types like Berman and Irving Howe. (A brontosaurus like Newfield, with a hide of steel and a brain of stone, was impervious to Cockburn’s rapier.) Regrettably, he was not content to prove his political opponents wrong; they had to appear fools or villains as well. The fact that many of them were indeed fools or villains is neither here nor there. Cockburn was one of the forefathers of snark, the mindless verbal savagery that has overgrown the Internet like kudzu. Snark has countless progenitors, of course, but Cockburn must take his share of blame for it.

Still, snark kills no civilians and blows up no power stations. At least Cockburn was never an American exceptionalist—the incarnation of useful idiocy in our time—urging the leaders of his benevolently hegemonic country to subdue and civilize the turbulent heathen in the name of the higher values. That his country’s leaders had, throughout the previous century, dutifully professed but, whenever convenient, brutally disregarded those values was not lost on Cockburn, as it evidently is on Berman.

“Ultimately,” Berman surmises, “his problem was an unreliable sense of humor.” There’s something in that. Cockburn’s keen Irish feeling for absurdity; his simultaneous zest in lampooning prigs like Berman and lummoxes like Newfield and despair at their amazing resilience, their seemingly inexhaustible reserves of uncomprehending indignation and robust self-satisfaction; and a long-delayed but finally devastating recognition that he had broken his lance on the American behemoth and it had scarcely noticed—perhaps all this, along with the isolated beauty of Humboldt County, eventually impelled what Berman perceives as a demoralized retreat to “democratic and screwball California.” “We are never permitted to despair of the commonwealth,” Thomas Jefferson exhorted us. I suspect Cockburn did. In an age of Clintons and Bushes, Rahm Emmanuel and Lawrence Summers, Samantha Power and Cass Sunstein, I find it hard to blame him.


[*] My own view of Cockburn is comprehensively set down here and in the title essay of What Are Intellectuals Good For?