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Mister Answer Man:  Special ‘Fancy Dress’ Edition!

Dear Mister Answer Man: What in the world is going on in Alexander Cockburn’s latest column for the Nation?  You know, the one where he gets all bent out of shape at people who criticized Prince Harry for wearing that Nazi armband, complaining that “some jerk snapped Harry” at what was, after all, a “Colonialists and Natives” party?  The one where he says “the Afrika Korps uniform was a nice idea and a lot more original than putting some shoeblack on his face and going as a native”?  And where he gets all impatient about those bothersome Jews and their little obsessions:  “Of course, the leaders of major Jewish organizations have had a field day, broadcasting their shock and dismay on an hourly basis and telling Harry to jog round the Auschwitz perimeter another couple of times. Moral reprobation from these folk about fancy dress looks threadbare in an age when Israeli soldiers force a Palestinian to play his violin at a border crossing.” And that’s just the coherent part of the column!  The second half turns out to be a rambling, free-association mess featuring writing like this: “Actually, Rommel was outgeneraled by the matrons who ruled over matters of hygiene at the schools attended by the British officer class. How well I remember the matron at my own school, Heatherdown, who used to line us little boys up and then clasp our testicles in her chill hand and demand that we cough. . . .  It was these matrons, so I was recently reminded by Mark Harrison in the Christmas issue of Oxford Today, who instilled in British officers the importance of hygiene. In the Western Desert of Egypt in 1942, Harrison writes in his essay ‘Medicine and Victory,’ because of ‘proper waste management’ the British Army ‘enjoyed a marked and consistent advantage over their opponents, as sickness rates were 50-70 per cent lower than in the German forces. By the time of the climactic battle of El Alamein, the Afrika Korps carried the burden of 9,954 sick out of a total strength of 52,000.’ Out of 10,000, the Panzer division had slightly less than 4,000 men fit to fight.  All this gives fresh resonance to the phrase ‘dirty Germans.’”

This doesn’t make a shred of sense, Mister Answer Man!  What’s happening?  Has Cockburn finally come completely unglued? –J. M. LePen, La Trinité-sur-Mer

Mister Answer Man replies: Mister Answer Man questions the motive behind your question.  In fact, Mister Answer Man does not even believe this is a real letter from a real reader!  Mister Answer Man thinks it’s pretty damn obvious what’s going on with Alexander Cockburn’s latest column for the Nation, and he doubts that anyone really needs to ask.  Though he admits that the Rommel- Heatherdown-matrons- testicle-clasping- British- hygiene segue came as a bit of a surprise!

Of course, Mister Answer Man still insists that a great deal of criticism of the state of Israel is perfectly legitimate, and that anyone who believes in the ideal of universal human rights (that is, as opposed to people who just blather on about them on Inauguration Day and then spend the rest of the month backtracking) and with the legitimacy of the United Nations should be concerned about Israel’s history of human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories and its dismissal of U.N. resolutions.  Mister Answer Man rejects the simple and opportunistic equation between criticism of Likud and actual anti-Semitism!  (Mister Answer Man has also sharply criticized Arafat and the Second Intifada, too.  Mister Answer Man doesn’t romanticize either party in this conflict.) But that one violin-playing Palestinian aside, Cockburn’s column isn’t really about the state of Israel, now, is it.  It’s about his exasperation at whiny Jews who get all riled up about a little swastika here and a little Holocaust reminder there.  On the very week of the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, no less.  No, there isn’t much ambiguity about this one– the stench rising from Cockburn’s column is unmistakable.

As a longtime Nation Associate and occasional Nation contributor, Mister Answer Man is sad to see swill like this in its pages.  In fact, Mister Answer Man thinks it’s bad for the left.  Mister Answer Man wonders whether it might not be a good idea to let poor Cockburn spend his declining years and powers mumbling ominously to himself in the pages of Counterpunch, or, better yet, perhaps, Post Concussion Syndrome, the official journal of far-left intellectuals who have taken a few too many blows to the head.

Posted by on 01/28 at 07:58 AM
  1. Mr. Answer Man - who would you be referring to when you mention “people who just blather on about them on Inauguration Day and then spend the rest of the month backtracking” and human rights? I simply can’t imagine. It can’t be Bush - he referred to freedom 27 billion times or some such on the day you mention, so he must be very attached to the ideal, right? And of course he’s opposed to tyranny, too, which is handy. Oh, wait. Perhaps he meant ‘other people’s tyranny’? I seem to have mislaid my rule-book.

    Posted by  on  01/28  at  09:26 AM
  2. Dear Mr. Answer Man,

    I think you are doing Jean Marie LePen an injustice.  Sure, he tits the fascist tag every now and again, and he doesn’t seem to have much good to say about the Kingdom of Isreal, but to accuse him of reading the Nation is to go too far.  I happen to know that there are four people in the world who read the Nation, and they’re all dead.

    Do your worst to our friend LePen, but unfortuneatly he’s very much alive.

    Posted by Ryan  on  01/28  at  11:02 AM
  3. I happen to know that there are four people in the world who read the Nation, and they’re all dead.

    Pat Monahan’s easy, but who are the other three?

    Posted by  on  01/28  at  12:46 PM
  4. I wistfully remember when The Nation had better regular contributors, and when Cockburn was one of them, but then I am an old bastard. 

    Are you sure this is not a sly attempt to discredit him so that he may be replaced by a new and vibrant voice who is now only heard sporadically in The Nation.

    Posted by  on  01/28  at  01:14 PM
  5. You open “The Nation”: what’s that stench?
    Just arsehole Cockburn, puckered and clenched.
    He hates whiney Jews
    With Holocaust issues,
    But the Royals think him such a mensch!

    - Calvin Trillin

    Posted by  on  01/28  at  01:28 PM
  6. According to “Mein Kampf” the Jews are dirty.  According to Alexander Cockburn the Germans are dirty.  How can I choose retroactive sides when personal hygeine is so underappreciated?  And what’s the 1-900 number to have an English matron clasp my testicles in her chill hand?  Maybe now I understand what Roger Waters was on about.  If that’s education, I don’t need none neither.

    Posted by corndog  on  01/28  at  02:40 PM
  7. I apologize for taking the wrong tone - but maybe someone here might read the following.

    Avigail Abarbanel, an Australian psychotherapist, formerly a staff sergeant in the Israel military, describes “Israeli Denial Dysfunction”. She believes it could be cured by “justice” - her idea is simple, but not easy, and would require attitude adjustments by populations in place that would be difficult, but perhaps not impossible.


    Posted by mistah charley  on  01/28  at  02:53 PM
  8. I happen to know that there are four people in the world who read the Nation, and they’re all dead.

    Pat Monahan’s easy, but who are the other three?

    Me, for one...my death comes as news to me, but it’s not much of a shock, as I’ve had my ability to be shocked by anything put into cold storage until The Dear Leader is out of office.

    But seriously...Cockburn’s piece was truly a big steaming pile. I find myself hoping he’ll pull a Hitchens one of these days, and spend the rest of his days writing alcohol-soaked screeds about the perfidious Left for Slate and the New Republic. They’re welcome to him.

    Posted by  on  01/28  at  04:38 PM
  9. I’m 28, and I read the Nation.

    Posted by  on  01/28  at  05:22 PM
  10. Actually, the Nation‘s circulation is up over 120,000, last I heard-- surpassing that of the New Republic and bumping up against the New York Review of Books.  All the more reason to object to columns that combine a defense of Nazi “fancy dress” with vaporous exhalations about British hygiene.  Next to this item, that “Babe Lincoln” cartoon is looking positively brilliant.

    No word yet on subscription figures among the French far right.  But Cockburn could be a big draw in that area!

    Posted by Michael  on  01/28  at  05:58 PM
  11. OK.  I made that part up.

    Posted by Ryan  on  01/28  at  06:06 PM
  12. Damn fictional readers.  There’s no telling what they’ll do next.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/28  at  06:41 PM
  13. On the other hand, he does wonders for livening the pace of discourse!

    Posted by  on  01/28  at  08:26 PM
  14. The last time I read Cockburn in The Nation, he was defending Scientologists against the dirty Germans who were trying to marginalize them.  For some reason, that column bugged me; musta been one of the Thetan hoard living in my head telling me to be pissy.

    Posted by  on  01/29  at  01:20 AM
  15. I’ll note in passing that “whiny Jews who get all riled up about a little swastika here and a little Holocaust reminder there” is your construction of Mr Cockburn’s article and bears no relation to what he actually wrote. Gosh, you’d think a cultural studies theorist would be able to avoid that sort of thing. Cockburn’s piece is about false outrage - I notice neither you nor Mr Le Pen (if that is his real name) bothered to mention Cockburn’s other illustrations of the hypocrisy in these kinds of beat-ups.

    Michael, I can understand why you would wish to maintain your commitment to distancing yourself from real leftists, since the same strategy did so much to help the Democrats win the White House last October, but don’t you think implying they’re anti-semitic and mentally unfit is a tad extreme?

    Posted by  on  01/29  at  12:11 PM
  16. Hey, RobW, I think Cockburn’s work speaks for itself.  And I don’t think it speaks for anything I would want to call a “real left.”

    Posted by Michael  on  01/29  at  02:50 PM
  17. Michael, Cockburn’s work does speak for itself. In fact, your post amply proves his central point: No one seems to give a shit about the theme of the party:colonialists and natives. Certainly, I’ve not seen any press about that. You certainly haven’t blogged about it. I think if Harry went dressed as an 18th century slave ship captain, there wouldn’t been any ruckus raised.

    Posted by  on  01/29  at  03:48 PM
  18. Was that, in fact, Cockburn’s central point?  Hmmm, he does have a paragraph that almost supports such a reading:  “How bitterly Harry must regret not dressing up as Captain Cook. Then he could have had an enjoyable Tour of Contrition to the Antipodes and the Pacific region, apologizing to the Maoris and Hawai’ians for insensitivity to genocide.  Who wants to go to Auschwitz at this time of year?” But then again, these witty, sparkling sentences do as much to trivialize the Holocaust as anything in the column.  Unless one gets a kick out of the faint suggestion that spreading disease among Pacific Islanders is more or less the same thing as deliberately executing six million Jews as a matter of state policy.  And as for “who wants to go to Auschwitz at this time of year,” wouldn’t it be better-- regardless, by the way, of what happens to Democrats in any election, RobW-- if we left such bon mots to LePen and his ilk?

    Posted by Michael  on  01/29  at  05:17 PM
  19. I guess now that Hitchens is gone they have to husband what little because I said so contrarian bullshit they can get heir hands on.

    Posted by julia  on  01/29  at  05:42 PM
  20. Riiiight. Accuse a man of anti-Semitism - sorry, imply - without bothering with actual evidence and argument, and then say his work speaks for itself. How very Fox Newsy of you.

    I do apologise for “real leftist” - the “real” was a foolish addition. Although you’re stuck in that part of the world where political terms seem to have no meaning, I’m sure you still understand why liberals aren’t leftists of any description. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Still, if American liberals wish to argue their droit de seigneur to act in the US political sphere on behalf of everyone to their left, I can’t help thinking they might have better things to do with their time than traducing someone in that direction for daring to mock a tabloid media flap - again sorry, for trivialising the Holocaust. (I won’t engage with your trivialising of genocide in the South Pacific, except to say that, coming from Australia as I do, I get quite enough of that at home, thank you very much.)

    No matter - my original comment was just a little finger-wagging. It’s not like I’m not still a fan.

    Posted by  on  01/29  at  09:35 PM
  21. We have enough people making sombre speaches and enough people spouting self-important bull-shit about the holocaust as it is.

    My guess is that every time somebody disingenuously genuflects on the holocaust a wee baby loses an eye.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to say nothing at all.

    Posted by Ryan  on  01/29  at  11:26 PM
  22. oh, la, la… speeches....

    Posted by Ryan  on  01/29  at  11:44 PM
  23. Dear Answer Man,

    My guess is that Cockburn is usually three sheets to wind when he writes his silly screeds. When The Nation cut back the size of his column (as they did all their regular columns), he threw a big temper tantrum and his many fans wrote letters of support. The notion of Cockburn fans concerned me even more than the derk he was writing at the time. I wrote to the magazine and suggested that Cockburn’s column be eliminated altogether, and thanked them for at least taking a step in that direction. Even Katha Pollitt, who can be an utter airhead and babbler, is 100 times more coherent and relevant to the world than Cockburn ever is. Even on her worst day.

    Posted by  on  01/30  at  03:11 PM
  24. My apologies, RobW.  I thought I’d supplied enough material from Cockburn’s essay-- on top of the hyperlink-- to make the point all too clear.  And while we’re talking about how liberals and leftists might best spend their time, we might as well wonder what moved Cockburn to pick the Prince Harry episode, of all things, as the topic of the week.

    As for the history of genocide in the South Pacific, all I meant was that Captain Cook is not, pace Cockburn, the moral equivalent of a Nazi officer.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/30  at  04:56 PM
  25. Maybe that’s because it’s time to stop thinking in terms of moral equivalences and think a little harder about `*political* differences, Michael. You wonder why Cockburn would pick this episode as the topic of the week. I wonder why in the world you would pick this column as the topic of the day – as opposed to, say, Cockburn’s column on CIA agents on university campuses – , only to cap it all off by putting the ghost of a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and colonialism (oh, heresy!) in the mouth of the first reader who questions the caricature you presented us. In those moments you remind me of ultraconservative literary scholars in the 1980s brandishing the ghost of “postmodern relativism” at anyone who questioned their canon and their methods. The rhetorical procedure is rigorously the same. You present a caricature, then someone questions it, then you defend yourself by saying ‘all I mean was that A is not morally equivalent to B.” It is sad that you borrow these tactics from that tradition. They’re not worthy of your intelligence.

    I don’t care to discuss Cockburn’s piece – this one in isolation, anyway – but for the life of me I still haven’t found the ‘defense of ‘Nazi fancy dress’ you refer to. Nor any of the other caricatures of your posting. As for his motivation, what if we considered the possibility that he may be – as many of us are – worried about the “false outrage” RobW alluded to, or worried about the growing irresponsibility with which accusations of anti-Semitism are brandished, quite often by people who seem to have a real stake in hiding the current genocide going on in the Middle East?

    I confirm with sadness that we’ll have a hard time understanding each other as long as you continue to use the word “conflict” to refer to the occupation of Palestine (and daily humiliation of Palestinians) or the phrase “removal of the Taliban” to refer to the bombing, invasion, and occupation of Afghanistan (as you did just a few days ago again when replying to a comment). I invite you to think long and hard about what kind of company that puts you with.

    Sorry, Michael, you know I love you to death and we have a private conversation about this, but I couldn’t hold this comment.

    Posted by Idelber Avelar  on  01/30  at  09:11 PM
  26. … all I meant was that Captain Cook is not, pace Cockburn, the moral equivalent of a Nazi officer.

    I didn’t really think you were trivialising genocide, MB. That was just my unnecessarily snarky way of illustrating the hollow ease with which such accusations can be made.

    Idelber writes with more eloquence and good grace than I could what I should - if I was a gentleman - have simply posted and left at that: saying - even sotto voce - that Cockburn is an anti-Semite is an unsupportable slur much beneath you. That’s all.

    But briefly (can’t help myself) - let’s not confuse the equivalence of two things themselves with equating their depiction, in this case, dressing up as them. For example, a tsunami is clearly not the moral equivalent of a Nazi, but dressing as a giant wave at any recent Red Cross event would probably offend as many people as would dressing as Hitler. Cockburn could have chosen a clearer illustration than Cook but he very obviously wasn’t making the comparison you claim. As the quote makes clear, he was comparing insensitivities.

    (Incidentally, the link to the piece in The Nation is not available to non-subscribers but anyone remotely interested can read the reprint here. Although no evidence of bigotry, it is rather a silly piece, so you’d probably be better served reading the warm tribute to John L. Hess that immediately follows it.)

    So much for that. Let us never speak of it again.

    Posted by  on  01/30  at  11:51 PM
  27. Hell, sometimes the people we love make us truly sad, Idelber.  That “what kind of company that puts you with” line really should have been retired after Kosovo, when one side tried to play guilt-by-association with Milosevic and/or DeLay, and the other tried to play it with Albright and/or the KLA.  And it’s because I have so much respect for you and your work that I won’t go near the foul Hitchensian version of that argument in response.  Besides, you know perfectly well that I would have preferred the Taliban to have been overthrown by Belgium (or Brazil!), and without a single shot being fired.

    As for Israel and Palestine, I do not see what worthy cause is advanced by chastising me for using the word “conflict” in the same paragraph as the phrase “Israel’s history of human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories.”

    Posted by Michael  on  01/31  at  01:51 AM
  28. What this thread says to me is that while we on the left all revile the evil and stupid machinations of the neocons, and detest the spinelessness of their liberal enablers, it is when discussing divisions among ourselves that the gloves really come off.

    Full disclosure - I am an occasional Counterpunch contributor, and I count Jeffrey StClair among my friends. And I thus recognize that Alex is one of the most persistent offenders there is when it comes to taking potshots at leftists. (As Michael will certainly attest.)

    I can tell you that it is not that hard to rise above the fray constructively.  In the 1990s, I edited a regional enviro publication to which both Cockburn and Judi Bari were frequent contributors. The two were involved in a particularly nasty feud at the time, one which continues to this day despite Judi’s demise. Both contributed excellent work to my magazine, with absolutely no personal friction nor sniping across the staples a la The Nation. And I’m not a particularly skilled mediator or anything: it’s just that I kept the work as a priority.

    None of which is to say that Michael was out of line in his comments about Cockburn’s latest piece, though I found at least the pre-hygiene portion of said article to make a few important points. I just find it perpetually sad that this is how the left seems, mainly, to operate.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  01/31  at  12:50 PM
  29. Michael,

    Next you will be bashing VP Cheney for wearing a parka and a stocking cap at the Auschwitz memorial (sartorial insensitivity).

    To paraphrase George Wallace, you are out-jewing the ADL on this.

    It is only recently that you have discovered that Alexander Cockburn is not solicitous of Jewish sensitivities?

    Posted by  on  01/31  at  04:48 PM
  30. Dear Michael: I’d never use a ‘watch your company’ argument as a slur or disqualification – in the way you call Hitchensian and that I tend to associate with other people. I know you wouldn’t come near that and I didn’t. It’s a genuine concern:  that of hearing from US progressive intellectuals (from the ones I admire the most, no less!), descriptions of the Israeli/Palestine question – and I mean the very initial stage where you *name* things – characterizations that would sound inaccurate even in, say, a European center-Right newspaper. I don’t rule out the possibility that I am wrong or exaggerating, but it’s just a concern, never a slur. I don’t recognize my own position at the time of the Kosovo crisis, btw, on either of the sides you name, though I understand your point.

    On the other hand a clarification is in order: I was reductive in picking on ‘conflict’in a paragraph where you stated a position that is admirable, so apologies are in order for that. It was in fact the entire sentence ‘not idealizing either side,’ in an equation where the very idea of two ‘sides’ is in question, and all the more one’s possibility of easily ‘idealizing’ them in this symmetrical way. It was not only the sentence, but the echo of other pieces of yours, such as that paragraph on Camp David. I just perhaps think that Mr. Answer Man might want to consider the argument that the brutality of the asymetry, in this particular case, has done something to the truth of those words, ‘conflict’, ‘not idealizing either side’! That’s all.

    You know we have better pieces from which to start this conversation anew elsewhere. I do remember the two-comment-per-post rule and won’t post again to this thread. Sorry about their length as well!  See you soon, um abração.

    Posted by Idelber  on  01/31  at  08:27 PM
  31. Thanks, Idelber.  I appreciate it.  You know I don’t mean to imply any simple symmetry by means of the word “conflict.” And all I was saying about the “company” argument is that in recent years it’s been used (not by you, or by me) to try to delegitimate such a wide range of positions that it seems to me to have lost its sting.

    And feel free to write at any old length.  The comments section is designed to take it.

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  12:00 AM
  32. "In fact, Mister Answer Man thinks it’s bad for the left.  Mister Answer Man wonders whether it might not be a good idea to let poor Cockburn spend his declining years and powers mumbling ominously to himself in the pages of Counterpunch, or, better yet, perhaps, Post Concussion Syndrome, the official journal of far-left intellectuals who have taken a few too many blows to the head.”

    Yeah, you are right on target. We do not have to tolerate dissenting voices. Boot him out of The Nation! He’s only a troublemaker. If we kick him out of The Nation, 125, 000 readers will not be exposed to his ..well, anti-liberal left ramblings that are so, so, hum, troubling? And, afetr all, hey, we know what we are doing. We even supported the US participation in...well, WWI. We won the last el...ooops.

    Posted by  on  02/09  at  01:09 AM
  33. Why would an Anti-Semite regularly publish many Jews at Counterpunch (in fact I would deduce at least half of the contributors are tribe members?) Why would an Anti-Semite virtually introduce and popularize the Gush Shalom movement?  Cockburn may be as you say “impolitic” and willfully provocative, but Alexander is not at all an anti-semite.

    Your issues with the “hard left” are disagreements that you should adresss honestly, not with implying racism.

    Posted by  on  02/09  at  11:06 PM
  34. This thread has become something like a history dept. party where only the drunk teaching assistants are left in the kitchen and the host just wants to go to bed but they just keep arguing about something and someone’s girlfriend is rolling her eyes and lays a calming hand on the arm of the loudest combatant but they all keep on clarifying and taking offense and accusing because this issue is REALLY IMPORTANT and one wants to be perfectly clear on this point and it suddenly seems really late and the kitchen lights too bright and their voices too loud now that most of the guests have left and, yes, these are your friends and co-workers, so you try to pay attention and be respectful because this issue is really important but SWEET JESUS!!—ENOUGH ALREADY!!!

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  05:11 AM
  35. You’re struggling with your attention span, dear Dory. But bear with us and keep your personal experiences (pulled in here as analogy) about drunken folks at prof’s. parties to yourself and real and close, not simple friends. (A simple friend wonders about your romantic history. A real friend could blackmail you with it).

    The host should dwell on the matter at hand, and maybe follow the advice of “areyouamember:”

    “Your issues with the ‘hard left’ are disagreements that you should adresss honestly, not with implying racism.”

    Cockburn is not a racist!

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  01:01 PM





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