Fetters of the Old Contrarians

Over the past few weeks, progressive writers such as the Guardian‘s George Monbiot have attempted to engage Counterpunch editor and Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn’s provocative writing on the subject of human-caused climate change.  Wrongly presupposing that his argument denying man-made global warming comes “from the left” (or, for that matter, from any particular politics whatsoever), these writers have missed a problem that goes beyond Cockburn or any particular political issue, but rather goes to the heart of the hollow, contrarian parlour tricks that invariably come along with a certain brand of charismatic journalism predicated on personality.

Regular readers of Cockburn’s Counterpunch know that among his favourite targets are the blogosphere (referred to routinely as the “blathersphere,” though discernable from Counterpunch only in that most blogs have far fewer typos), Christopher Hitchens, and now the pointy-headed “grant farmers” of climate science who defy logic and bend backwards to justify their continued employment. The contempt which Cockburn reserves for those who use the space provided by internet ersatz-journalism to natter impotently ad infinitum, or for those who resort to intellectual gymnastics and petty theatrics to keep themselves in work, comes off as a combination of projected self-loathing and, in the case of Christopher Hitchens, professional jealousy.  After all, Hitchens is a writer who has done much of what Cockburn has tried to do – which is to say he’s punctuated a vague association to left-wing politics with ‘wacky,’ ‘out-there,’ ‘telling-it-like-it-is’ rightist stunts and postures aimed at improving the salability of books and columns (the best assessment of this tendency of “maverick unpredictability”, to which I’m deeply indebted, is Norman Finkelstein’s ‘On Christopher Hitchens’) – to infinitely greater effect, wealth, popularity and influence than has Cockburn.  Whether writing against equal marriage, espousing lunatic politics that require a complete ignorance of the dynamics of racial violence in America – such as defending militias or, more recently, the posse as an instrument of popular justice – Cockburn has yet to attain anything approaching the notoriety of his anti-choice, pro-NATO destruction of Yugoslavia, pro-War on Terror fellow British ex-pat, who just this week received another gushing assessment of his contrarianism in the New York Times review of his book God is Not Great.


Of course, there’s no reason to pick on just Cockburn.  There’s a litany of progressive columnists who’ve upped their devil’s advocate credentials by making similarly nutty conservative pronouncements.  As Finkelstein wrote of Nat Hentoff, he “would jazz up his interminably dull Village Voice columns by suddenly coming out against abortion or endorsing Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination.”  Here in Canada, a cottage industry has cropped up of fake and/or former leftists writing conservative columns dressed up as progressives making (for them) ‘anomalously’ conservative points.  Look, I’m a progressive just like you, but… The ‘but’ here is instrumental; like the one that follows the self assessment ‘I’m not racist…’.


The most successful has been Andrew Potter, a vacuous and self-contradicting lightweight who has managed to secure a column in Maclean’s Magazine and who authored The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed, which has the distinction of being one of the emptiest books written in the past decade.  At one point in the tract, still nominally posturing as progressives, Potter and his co-author Joseph Heath assert that African-Americans themselves are to blame for the bleakness of the Detroit cityscape, because of their rioting.


A slightly more pathetic Canadian attempt at staking a claim on Potter and Heath’s territory has come from a self-proclaimed fan of their work, Terry Glavin, an accomplished British Columbian writer on labour and environmental issues.  Far less competently, Glavin turned his writing talents to a Simple Simon “left” reading of Samuel Huntington.  Writing from relative isolation on one of B.C.’s Gulf Islands, Glavin asserted the anti-Semitism and pro-fascism of the anti-war left, before taking a break from his regular columns.  As someone with a degree in Middle East History and Islamic Studies (take that, potential employers!), I’ve often likened reading Glavin’s writing on the Muslim world to a trained biologist’s being made to listen to a Young Earth theorist.  Part of that coterie of white writers who try to up their ethno-credits by peppering their writing with random snippets of Gaelic, Glavin’s been somehow unable to see in, say, Hezbollah any parallel to the homophobic, sexist, rhetorically-religious anti-imperialists of the Irish Republican movement.


Living in British Columbia, I’ve come into contact with scads of Glavin’s former comrades who wonder aloud “What’s happened to Terry?” as though the transformation were one based on bad politics but good faith.  Similarly, writers like Monbiot are trying to draw out from Cockburn a meaningful defense of his position, as though he dearly held it and were willing to fight for it.  As Finkelstein correctly had it in his article, if this sort of thing were based on actual political conversion, we could expect the traffic to be fairly equally divided between those traveling left and those traveling right, but that’s not what happens.  Furthermore, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck never do the equivalent of what Cockburn is doing – Ann Coulter never says “You know what, I’m going to break from the mould here and agree with Fidel about the Third World debt.”


Being a writer is a fun life – you get to write down your ideas, read a lot of books, you get to eat lunch whenever you want, you inhale no aluminum dust or asbestos, your hands are soft and you get to tell girls you meet that you’re a writer.  Because of this, there are shitloads of people who want to be one.  Most pick some area in which to specialize (I do mostly book reviews and comedy writing, myself), but some – the lucky ones – get to weigh in weekly or monthly about the issues of the day, and get paid to do it.


The problem is, there’s no premium on a columnist who agrees with broad social consensus, and personality-driven essays require dynamism and unpredictability.  And so if one wants to retain one’s privileged spot in the division of labour, one has to be quick on one’s feet.  Having for years nurtured the image of the cranky, Democrat-hating leftist curmudgeon, Cockburn’s denial of climate change – we’re supposed to believe that Cockburn, who is undeniably a very brilliant man, is actually willing to hitch(ens) his wagon to one lone kook against the scientific world – is, I would argue, less about his actual politics, and more about keeping with a script, the following of which is one of the duties attending the maintenance of certain social and material privileges. 


Getting beyond this hollow, theatrical contrarianism and into a realm of real, good-faith debate will require overhauling the way that writers, especially political writers, make their living.  Perhaps the left critique of professional politicians – who despite the best of intentions tend to become empty shells, enslaved to the prerequisites for maintaining a social and political position abstracted from society at large, cushioned from the drudgery of daily work routines – ought to be turned against the very people who’ve been mounting it all these years.  


[Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly described a statement of fact about the popular support for Malcolm X made in ‘The Rebel Sell’ as unsourced. Though not footnoted in the hardback edition, the claim is referenced in the authors’ endnotes.]

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