Farewell to our radical US columnist Alexander Cockburn

Jul 22, 2012
Nigel Horne

Cockburn kept his cancer treatment a secret – he did not want the disease to define him

THE DEATH of Alexander Cockburn at 71 robs political journalism of one of its most radical and honest voices. In his columns for The Village Voice, The Nation and The First Post (latterly The Week), and his articles for CounterPunch, he shared his controversial views on US foreign policy, global warming and the sins of corporate America.

In one memorable article for this website, he argued that Tillikum the orca whale, who drowned his trainer in a Florida aquatic park in 2010, was a victim of corporate enslavement. Like Spartacus, Tillikum chose to fight back.

“No one could skewer the banksters, the robber barons and the crony capitalists of this broken era quite so ably as Alex,” John Nichols, a fellow columnist on The Nation, wrote yesterday.

What turned out to be his final two columns, written about ten days before he died on Friday night from complications with cancer, were classic Cockburn.

In his last piece for The Nation, published on 11 July, his subject was the Libor scandal and the “culture of rabid criminality” in international banking. “Is it possible to reform the banking system?” Cockburn wrote. “There are the usual nostrums — tighter regulations, savage penalties for misbehaviour, a ban from financial markets for life. But I have to say I’m doubtful. I think the system will collapse, but not through our agency.”

His last article for The Week, posted on 13 July, was devoted to General McChrystal’s call for a return to conscription. “A draft is never going to happen,” Cockburn wrote. Obama planned to spend more money on defence in the coming four years and the new era of robot/drone wars meant there was “no need for suicidal soldiers or politically awkward draftee casualties. The money all goes to Lockheed and the other big aerospace companies.”

Cockburn’s approach to Obama’s presidency was typically hard-nosed. While many of us were still celebrating America’s readiness to hand the White House keys to a black man, Cockburn saw through the charm to the Chicago politician beneath.

He allowed Obama no honeymoon: in Cockburn’s view, the new president was quick to show his subservience to Wall Street bankers and to renege on his promise to close Guantanamo.

By last autumn, he was calling Obama’s America a banana republic after the administration employed a drone to “incinerate” two US citizens in Yemen suspected of terrorism – Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan – rather than bring them to justice.

When the White House claimed it had canvassed legal opinion before assassinating the pair, but then refused to disclose what that opinion was, Cockburn wrote for The Week: “If presidential death warrants beyond the reach of scrutiny and review by courts or juries are the mark of a banana republic, then we were all waving the flag of just such an entity.”

His unapologetic stance against operators of all political colours, and the too-often timid Fourth Estate, cost him friends along the way. As John Nichols wrote, “Alex's radicalism was genuine, and he could offend not just foes on the right but friends on the left. He parted company with mainstream liberals on issues ranging from gun control to global warming.”

He fell out with Christopher Hitchens when the English writer backed George Bush’s post-9/11 intervention in Afghanistan. And when Hitchens died last December after his own long battle with cancer, Cockburn wrote on CounterPunch: “He [Hitchens] courted the label ‘contrarian,’ but if the word is to have any muscle, it surely must imply the expression of dangerous opinions.

“Hitchens never wrote anything truly discommoding to respectable opinion and if he had he would never have enjoyed so long a billet at Vanity Fair.”

This lack of sentimentality extended to the circumstances of his own death on Friday at a clinic in Bad Salzhausen, Germany, far from his home in Petrolia, northern California.

Cockburn had managed to keep his cancer treatment a secret from all but his closest friends and family for nearly two years. As Jeffrey St. Clair, his co-editor at CounterPunch, wrote following his colleague’s death: “He didn’t want the disease to define him. He didn’t want his friends and readers to shower him with sympathy. He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done.

“Alex wanted to keep living his life right to the end. He wanted to live on his terms. And he wanted to continue writing through it all, just as his brilliant father, the novelist and journalist Claud Cockburn had done. And so he did. His body was deteriorating, but his prose remained as sharp, lucid and deadly as ever.”

We’ll drink to that at The Week, where Cockburn’s regular columns from America will be much missed. They were consistently among the site’s best-read articles.

  • Alexander Cockburn was born in Scotland on 6 June 1941 and brought up in County Cork. He became a permanent US resident in 1973. He is survived by his daughter Daisy and his younger brothers Andrew and Patrick, both journalists.

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Despite disagreeing with him as often as I agreed with him, I will greatly miss Alexander Cockburn's opinions, politics, and prose. People like him are good for people like me. RIP.

"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... [I]f 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."
- Alexander Cockburn, 21 January 1980, Village Voice

So much for "one of [political journalism's] most radical and honest voices".

Always have to get a dig in at Christopher Hitchens, even when BOTH are dead.
Christopher Hitchens' columns about his illness, which he did not let define him, were some of his best. They meant a great deal to people similarly afflicted, and otherwise.

There are few journalists I can stand to remember, fewer still I've ever found myself agreeing with, but on many issues his poignant prose elucidated points of view that appear all too sparsely in today's media. He enjoyed a larger, often wiser, perspective on the great game fought between feuding nations east and west. The radical discourse that I seek to shape my own perspective on the world will feel a loss for the commentary we all will miss.

VALE Alexander. Another independent voice silenced - he had a blind spot about ecology and was often excessive in his use of the vitriol but he'll be missed.
There are not many such remaining.

I will greatly miss Alexander Cockburn's pithy and to the point writing. Many times I would disagree but his comments were never not worth reading. Above all his commentaries had a personal honesty which was refreshing in these days of corporate and politically flavoured columnists, most of whom could not hold a candle to him. Missed? Definitely....

I'm sure he was simply referring to the men

Damn shame. Who, now, will take his mantle as the strikingly unorthodox and outspoken purveyor of political prose?