By Pam Martens: July 21, 2012
Alexander Cockburn succumbed to a battle with cancer on the early morning of July 21, 2012. The news came to me in an anonymous tweet posted to a listserv. I imagined Alex stomping about the fluffy clouds inside the pearly gates and cursing that a life dedicated to the written word was, at death, announced by a 160 character electronic blip.
Alex was The Nation’s “Beat the Devil” columnist for 28 years and co-edited the internationally popular political journal CounterPunch with his cherished friend, Jeffrey St. Clair. I never met or even spoke with Alex Cockburn but for five years we exchanged emails about the articles I was writing for CounterPunch. Alex may have been radical in his writing, but as an editor of the work of others, he was thoughtful, respectful, and appeared to view each written word as a jewel to be polished and protected from the evil doings of knaves. Alex graduated from Oxford in 1963 with a degree in English literature and language and he was wedded to those roots; perhaps more than easily recognized from his sassy writing.
Once, Jeffrey St. Clair asked me to check over two previous articles I had written on President Obama (about his ties to Wall Street bundlers and lobbyists) for an upcoming book anthology. I emailed Jeffrey with a copy to Alex to inquire about the punctuation style – since Alex was notorious for moving periods outside quotation marks as done in Britain. I received a response from Alex the purist: “Chicago Manual of Style – murderer of so much.”
Perhaps I saw a different Alex Cockburn because I viewed him only through the lens of the written word that arrived in my email box. And more frequently than not, what arrived was about words. Not politics or radical thoughts – just the proper use of words.
Looking back, and now knowing that he kept his illness a secret, I suspect he started his tumbrils thing around the time he learned that his days might be limited. A tumbril is the name for a cart used during the French Revolution to carry the unlucky to the guillotine. Alex began carting off words in his CounterPunch columns. Below is an example:
“First up: ‘sustainable.’ It’s been at least a decade since this earnest word was drained of all energy, having become the prime unit of exchange in the argot of purposeful uplift. As the final indication of its degraded status, I found it in President Obama’s ‘signing statement’ which accompanied the whisper of his pen, as on New Year’s Eve – a very quiet day when news editors were all asleep — he signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2012 which handed $662 billion to the Pentagon and for good measure ratified by legal statute of the exposure of US citizens to arbitrary arrest without subsequent benefit of counsel, and to possible torture and imprisonment sine die, abolishing habeas corpus. Don’t bother to ask what happens to non-US citizens.
“As he set his name to this repugnant legislation the president issued a ‘signing statement’ in which I came upon the following passage: ‘Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists…’
“So much for ‘sustainable.’ Into the tumbrils with it.
“Obama is against signing statements, at the theoretical level. In 2008 he said, ‘I taught the Constitution for ten years, I believe in the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution of the United States. We’re not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress.’ ” – From Into the Tumbrils With Them, January 6-8, 2012, CounterPunch.org.
There didn’t seem to be much of anything on which Alex wasn’t well versed. That was likely because he had researched and written on just about everything important. He co-edited two Penguin volumes on trade unions and the student movement. He wrote for The Village Voice for many years about the press and politics. He had a regular column for a decade in the 80s at the Wall Street Journal. In 1987, he published a best-selling collection of essays, Corruptions of Empire. With Susanna Hecht, he co-authored The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon.
In 1995, Verso published his diary of the late 80s, early 90s and the fall of Communism, The Golden Age Is In Us. With his friend and co-editor at CounterPunch, Jeffrey St. Clair, he co-authored or edited a number of books including: Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press; The Politics of Anti-Semitism; Imperial Crusades; Al Gore, A User’s Manual; Five Days That Shook the World; and A Dime’s Worth of Difference, about the Republicans and Democrats.
Alex was born in Scotland and grew up in County Cork, Ireland. He became a permanent resident of the United States in 1973 and has lived here since. His father, Claud Cockburn, was a well known British journalist. His two brothers, Andrew and Patrick, are also journalists and their work has appeared on the CounterPunch web site, as has his niece, journalist Laura Flanders. Alex died in Germany, where he had been receiving treatment since May, with his daughter, Daisy, by his side.
I would say, rest in peace, but I fear Alex would have me carted off in a tumbril for use of a cliche. So I will just say, goodbye, and I am contented that you and Claud are no doubt having weighty deliberations right now on saving this Nation from its doom.
Update: Jeffrey St. Clair has posted a tribute to his friend and colleague here. Read the tribute from John Nichols of The Nation here. By the afternoon and early evening of July 21, the first abbreviated tweet had mushroomed into an outpouring of recognition of Alexander Cockburn’s close to half century of writing excellence, including in-depth articles at the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Village Voice and hundreds of other newspapers and periodicals.