The Assassin’s Fate: Paul Berman Shoots and Misses (Again)

George Scialabba in The Baffler:


Alexander Cockburn

We Sicilians are connoisseurs of malevolence. So I approached Paul Berman’s hatchet job on Alexander Cockburn (The New Republic, August 1) with an alacrity tempered only by my apprehension that Berman wasn’t quite up to the job. His previous attempts at character assassination (Noam Chomsky, Ian Buruma) had been disappointing: shrill, inaccurate, marred by too-obvious rancor and wounded vanity. Cockburn, in the shape of his final collection, A Colossal Wreck, seemed a perfect target: lethally sharp-tongued and infuriatingly charming while alive but now conveniently dead. I feared, though, that Berman would muff it.

From the technical point of view, he turned in a creditable performance this time. Berman (or his editor) managed to leaven his usual portentous and overwrought style—as though the intellectual honor of the age had been entrusted to his keeping—with a few dashes of wit and sly malice. Cockburn was an “eccentric British journalist,” a “famously insolent … old rogue,” who could nevertheless be “wonderfully charming,” with his “odd and clever combination of English literary self-satisfaction and outrageous raillery.” With an “air of bookish sophistication,” he was always dropping authors’ names (“Browning and Conrad and Trollope”) and quotations into his columns, though of course it was just a veneer, as was his insular New Left Review Marxism, at least when compared with the grittier, more rooted democratic socialism of Michael Harrington and Irving Howe. A glib and supercilious Euroscoundrel, in other words, unlike the high-minded, erudite Berman, the plodding but salt-of-the-earth working-class types over at Dissent, and the cold-eyed tragic realists of The New Republic.

More here.