Alexander Cockburn is an irascible old codger, true, but (or maybe therefore) he’s also damned hilarious. At his Tuesday night Heyman Center-sponsored talk on the death of the American left, attendees (who included Bilgrami, Khalidi, Foner, Mamdani, Ed Said’s widow, a bunch of student activists and a handful of old NYC lefties and journos) were treated to what seemed like an almost completely extemporaneous rant skewering Todd Gitlin, Barack Obama, environmentalists, Israel, Bill Clinton, neoliberalism, John Muir, Bill Richardson (“he’s kind of a dubious character”), and On the other hand, Cockburn afforded circumspect praise to Mike Gravel, Ron Paul, hippie bread and coffee, Bella Abzug, Quakers, and the internet. All said, Cockburn (pronounced “Coh-burn”) was preaching to the choir, but he also managed to piss off part of it by dismissing an avuncular old man who didn’t like his comments about Islamic resistance and by basically denying global warming. Nevertheless, his incisive commentary on society and liberal history rang true, and the applause at the end of his talk seemed warmer than one would have expected.


UPDATE: Cockburn vs. Foner after the jump!


On Wednesday, Eric Foner spoke “in dialogue” with Cockburn in a follow-up session, which felt more like a chat between buddies than an interview. If the two can find some free time when they’re on the same coast, the team could challenge Rush Limbaugh for entertainment value. Foner’s easygoing humor works well with Cockburn’s hyperbolic blasting of nearly everyone on the political field, with the Columbia professor setting him off in nearly every direction imaginable.

Foner generally solicited Cockburn’s opinion instead of taking him to task on his words, but the debate was such a good time it was hard to be upset. While Cockburn did provide serious answers to serious questions on whether there was much hope left for the left in Europe (not much, but more than in the U.S.), whether capitalist collapse is impending (there’s a chance, but don’t count on it), or his thoughts on global warming (it’s happening with or without us), his best moments came when he played to the crowd. He described his dream scenario of international arrest warrants that would make Bush “fearfully dash across the tarmac at international airports,” and suggested that David Horowitz would have turned out differently if he’d been allowed to watch Doris Day movies when he was young. When a middle-aged woman said she noticed that CounterPunch wrote in favor of legalizing marijuana “and I appreciate that,” he emphasized that he preferred decriminalization because it would prevent corporations like Phillip Morris from ruining the product.

The easygoing atmosphere, was, however, somewhat of a negative as far as it was too, well, easy. While Cockburn did an ample job of bringing in arguments to support his view, he never really got to sparring with opposing views. His hardest question came from an audience member after he repeatedly denounced interventionism in the form of aid. The man pointed out that his criticisms of corruption and inefficiency could be applied to nearly anything, and suggested that it might be a leap to dismiss all forms of aid. Cockburn dismissed these possibilities as theoretical fantasies and told a story about an earthquake he experienced in Northern California, during which he said the help squads cut down trees and made a lot of money but never actually helped anybody.

Interestingly enough, although Cockburn got along very well with Foner, he didn’t seem to go out of his way to please him. At one point during the Q&A, Foner asked Cockburn what historians influenced him, and the latter cited Charles Beard as one of his favorite historical writers. In his work on the Civil War, Foner is known for rejecting the Beardian interpretation.


PS: Cockburn gets bonus points for drinking water of out of a mason jar, which is the correct way to drink water.