An Exchange on John Ross

We received the following letter from Nation columnist and CounterPunch founder Alexander Cockburn and reply by contributor Wes Enzinna.

Dear Editors,

I thought Wes Enzinna’s obituary of the writer John Ross was a patronizing and in overall effect rather nasty piece of work, planting a marker for John in what Trotsky, apropos of Celine, once called the “Cemetery of Exhausted Possibilities.”

After some paragraphs nuzzling the theme that Ross made things up, Enzinna sidles towards his finale about one more mangy old leftist beached in the margins of history: “At the end of his life, few people needed Ross or the paper newsletter he sent to a couple dozen subscribers to get their news about the city and its politics.” This is nonsense. Ross was a disciplined journalist who put out at least an informative article a week. For many years, until his death, we ran him weekly on our CounterPunch website. Since our site has anywhere from a million to three million unique visitors a month (depending on invasions, slumps, and kindred upheavals across the world) that’s a huge regular audience for any writer, whether left or right, and containing many thousands of Ross fans.

Wedded to his mission of belittlement, Enzinna actually visits John and keeps poking the dying man in the eye about being a marginal figure. John tells him he thinks the Zapatistas are now marginal. “‘Do you think that makes you more marginal than ever?” Enzinna asks poor Ross, adding helpfully for n+1′s readers,

I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. I was just curious what he thought his relevance was. For if there are many ways to read Ross (as a sibilant political propagandist, as a political and stylistic experimenter, as a hack, as a heroic revolutionary) my feeling was that to read Ross as nearly all of his fans do—as a “master of speaking truth to power”. . . . is probably to mistake what’s worst in his writing for what’s best. What’s worth remembering about Ross isn’t necessarily his Zapatista reportage, despite the partisan meticulousness that defines that work; it’s his sad, hilarious revolutionary picaresque.

From the silly word “sibilant,” to the coup de grace of “sad,” we have here the utterly conventional reduction of a left writer, who brilliantly, unconventionally pulled off the tricky, demanding shot of highly informative reports from Mexico and elsewhere, to a walk-on role in the history of literary picaresque. It’s a standard issue tactic in right-wing publications. Why in n+1? Wes, stop writing as though you’re auditioning for a column in Slate.

—Alexander Cockburn 


Wes Enzinna replies:

Would that it weren’t the case, but John was as marginal as they come. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the most basic facts of his life. And to fail to ask why that might have been the case is a disservice to the complexity of Ross’s legacy and—importantly—to the historical moment during which he lived. Ross was not simply another John Reed-esque figure and should not be remembered as such, if only because the post-’68 and then post-’89 eras were fundamentally different from the era of revolutionary possibility that Reed or even left wing journalists in the 1960s lived through. Whether Cockburn and Ross’s other fans (among whom I include myself) like it or not, Ross was a contradictory, complicated figure who was much more than simply the gumshoe gringo reporter that Cockburn would like him to be. Of course, Ross was that. He was also a fuck-up and a drug addict and a relentless self-doubter. His self-doubt and ambivalence are important and ignored themes in Ross’s work, and did much to fuel his huge sense of irony and humor (which Cockburn, not to mention most if not all of Ross’s obit writers, seem entirely to have missed). To his credit, unlike so many surviving New Leftists, Ross acknowledged and wrestled with the question of his own marginality and failure even while maintaining his revolutionary faith, and the argument of my piece—the one that Cockburn seems ultimately to take issue with—is that this might have been one of his greatest virtues. Cockburn says I reduce Ross to a walk-on part in a “literary picaresque” rather than acknowledging him as yet another of the great left-wing journalists. This isn’t a right-wing tactic on my part at all but rather a way to get at what was peculiar and unique about Ross’s life and work.

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