First Christopher Hitchens, now Alexander Cockburn. A few months ago, Cockburn wrote a snide obituary of Hitch, which was partly deserved.(*) (And largely not. For example, he hilariously accuses Hitch’s prose of being “limited in range”. He sneers at Hitch’s long-running association with Vanity Fair.)
But Hitch at his worst never came up with anything like this gem from Cockburn in 1980, which reminds us just how low some members of the left could stoop in defence of the Soviets:
“We all have to go one day, but pray God let it not be over Afghanistan. An unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the occidental world. I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakably cruel too.”
When Cockburn wrote that Hitch obituary, he himself had been battling cancer for over a year, but kept it secret except from his closest circle. Even in this matter, it seems, he wanted to be the anti-Hitch: “He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done.”
Both Hitchens and Cockburn wrote some rather controversial things. Ultimately, I think, only one of them had the ability to resonate even with people who disagreed with him: publicly and sincerely mourned by people who should, in theory, have found some of his writings highly offensive and even blasphemous. And that is important. A writer, to be relevant, should be able to have a dialogue with the unconverted. A column in Vanity Fair is a consequence, not a cause, of that ability.
(*)After writing that, I got reminded of George Galloway calling Hitchens a “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay”. Hitch’s response: “Only some of which is true”.