Eight years ago I’d proposed to Bernard White, former Program Director at WBAI, that we invite Alexander Cockburn — probably the greatest and most fascinating left columnist of our time — to broadcast a regular column on WBAI.
Bernard said, “interesting idea”, and proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it.
I nevertheless followed up by contacting Alex, whom I knew from many adventures and considered a friend. (He considered me, as he wrote in a column a decade ago, one of his “favorite anarchists” — a mis-label, true, but one I nevertheless refused to wash off.)
Alex said he’d be delighted to broadcast on WBAI, and asked that I let him know definitively, as he was about to make commitments on other projects. I reported this to Bernard White, but …. nothing.
I’d left out the story of how, in early April 1989, I had invited Alex Cockburn and Utrice Leid — at that time an editor of the Brooklyn-based City Sun — to speak at Stony Brook University on Long Island, as part of the Red Balloon Collective’s “Revolution in the Revolution” speakers’ series. No one in the Collective had a car, and so I was to meet our illustrious speakers at the railroad station, which at that time resembled something out of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
I then expected to proceed on foot across the remains of a once-upon-a-time glorious forest (a decade earlier many students “expanded our consciousness” there. We were crushed when the university bulldozed the forest to construct the headquarters of the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation on that site), the 2/3rds of a mile across the athletic fields, and finally through the maze of buildings to the lecture hall where they’d be speaking.
Of course, nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, let alone one so fraught with potential glitches. Our Collective tried to build into everything we did a sort of “planning for chaos”, which almost always wreaked havoc. In this instance, both Alex and Utrice arrived on the same train, thankfully, but they didn’t know each other and they disembarked at opposite ends.
And, did I mention that it was a blizzard?!
The fields were a gooey mess, and the university had recently built fences near the path (which was, at any rate, covered over by snow and mud). We decided to climb over the fences to avoid a longer (but saner) route. Thigh-deep in snow, Alex and I managed to hop right over, but Utrice got sort of stuck. We helped her over, at last.
Utrice braved it in fine spirit, and the three of us fell into an interesting discussion for the next 30 minutes on “identity politics” vs. “class politics” in the midst of all the mud and blizzard, the wet winds blasting in our face. We finally arrived an hour later than planned, exhausted and soaked, to a packed auditorium and very appreciative audience.
When Tony Bates became interim Program Director at WBAI three years ago, I again broached the subject of airing commentaries following (or as part of) the evening news. I met with Tony and gave him a list of 5 or 6 people who would make outstanding columnists for WBAI. Alexander Cockburn was at the top of the list.
Tony had some very good skills with regards to pitching on the air, but knowing anything about the Left, its radical history and its great intellectual tradition was not among them. And worse, he wouldn’t listen to those of us who did know, and who volunteered to contact folks like Alex Cockburn or Glen Ford on behalf of the station.
Fifteen years earlier, Laura Flanders occasionally interviewed her uncle (yes, Alex Cockburn was Laura’s proud uncle!) on her show. But WBAI — out of sheer stupidity — would never feature Alexander Cockburn or provide regular access for this most stunningly wide-ranging and incisive radical voice. Cockburn would regularly eviscerate Empire in his weekly “Beat the Devil” column in the Nation and delighted in slicing up the “sacred cows” on the Left as well, and his writings had influenced two generations of activists — but management could not make room for his rapier wit and scathing commentary on WBAI’s renowned and finely-tuned humor-filled schedule. (ahem!)
Now Alex is gone. He died two months ago, though the fruits of his life’s work continue in the pages of CounterPunch, a new book about to go to press, and with the young brood of radical journalists he nurtured.
Gone, too, is the opportunity for him to make “improvements” in his asinine denunciations of so-called “conspiracy theorists” regarding global climate change, the Kennedy Assassination, and 9/11 Truth. Nevertheless, unlike most editorialists, he welcomed comment and debate. I’d been debating him for years on those issues, and felt I was making headway.
I attended a memorial service for Alexander Cockburn last week in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Many Left luminaries spoke and shared stories and pictures of Alex, including (in person) Tariq Ali, Najla Said (daughter of Edward Said), Laura Flanders, JoAnn Wypijewski, Alex’s famous brothers (Andrew and Patrick) and daughter Daisy, and Noam Chomsky. Ralph Nader appeared via video’d message.
Among the crowd, I recognized four people from the Brooklyn Greens, even more from the ActionGreens listserve I moderate, where we occasionally post and discuss Alex Cockburn’s essays, and many from the Nation — but no one — not a single individual — from WBAI’s staff, local board or management.
Such is the pity! WBAI is the worse for wear because of its series — since the death of Samori Marksman in 1999 — of (at best) do-nothing and ignorant Program Directors and management. I can only hope that WBAI’s new Program Director, Chris Hatzis, will break from that awful tradition and add, as regular columnists, today’s sharpest radical critics and ecologists.
Alex Cockburn may no longer physically inhabit this mortal coil, but his writings live on. Even those columns of thirty years ago — with proper artistic enunciation (and denunciation), as evidenced at his Memorial by the enjoyable and witty recitations of his finest essays — would still, today, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and provide the kind of panache, political scorecard and literary sweep so needed in our media, including, especially, WBAI.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed and I’m holding my breath … but, perhaps like Alex Cockburn, I’m already turning blue.
Outgoing Chair, WBAI Local Station Board