Alexander Cockburn, sharp-witted provocateur of the left, dies at 71
By Matt Schudel,
Alexander Cockburn, a sharp-witted journalist and unapologetic provocateur of the left who brought a hard-nosed intensity to his political columns in the Nation, the Village Voice and other outlets, died July 21 at a medical clinic near Frankfurt, Germany. He was 71.
He was being treated for colorectal cancer, said Jeffrey St. Clair, co-editor with Mr. Cockburn of CounterPunch, a magazine and Web site.
Mr. Cockburn (pronounced KOH-burn) brought a British tradition of argumentation and outrageously opinionated journalism to the United States when he arrived in the 1970s. He was an avowed liberal — even a radical — who eagerly engaged rhetorical battles with opponents and friends across the political spectrum.
“Alex had an uncompromising vision of life and of his writing,” St. Clair said. “He was writing incredibly controversial columns, and American readers had no experience with that forthright British style.”
Mr. Cockburn came to the United States in 1972 and quickly established a journalistic beachhead at the Village Voice in New York. His columns about politics and the media were marked by stylistic grace and sharp opinions.
After he was suspended in 1984 for accepting a $10,000 grant from an organization with Arab ties, Mr. Cockburn began writing for the Nation, where his columns appeared until his death. He also wrote books and was, at various times, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s and the Atlantic magazines and, since the 1990s, CounterPunch.
Mr. Cockburn was an undisguised leftist who “defined the frontiers of candid progressive ideas,” consumer advocate and former Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader said Saturday in an interview. “He was fearless.”
In the 1980s, Mr. Cockburn condemned U.S. intervention in Central America and later military forays in the Middle East, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. He wrote books condemning depredation of the environment. He was a long-running critic of Israel and what he considered the mistreatment of Palestinians living in Israel.
He disputed the notion of a “liberal media” in the United States, writing in the Nation of “the needless buckling under by the mainstream press to the forces of the right.”
Since the 1980s, he had a standard speech called “The Media: Watchdog or Lapdog?”
“Basically, the press will never defy power, will never defy the administration in the long run,” he said in 1987.
Consistently critical of conservative policies and politicians, Mr. Cockburn seemed to reserve his deepest scorn for Democrats and other liberals who lacked the courage of their putative beliefs. He encouraged the creation of a third party that would be a liberal alternative to the Democrats and Republicans — whom he considered virtually interchangeable.
“He had a no-holds-barred mind,” Nader said. “Even though he had progressive views, it didn’t mean he didn’t go after progressives. One slip, and he’d pounce on you.”
Mr. Cockburn was critical of what he deemed the conservatism of President Obama and denounced filmmaker Michael Moore as a “blowhard and a jerk.”
He and St. Clair wrote a book attacking former vice president Al Gore from the left.
“He denounces the rape of nature, yet has connived at the strip-mining of Appalachia,” they wrote in one of the milder passages about Gore.
Historian Douglas Brinkley, writing in the New York Times Book Review, once called Mr. Cockburn “a life-loving anarchist more imbued in the whimsical tradition of Abbie Hoffman than the stern politics of Eugene Debs.”
Seldom predictable in his views, Mr. Cockburn was a proponent of gun rights and believed global warming was not necessarily the result of human activity.
“He had an open ear to a lot of political philosophies,” St. Clair said. “It was not a sectarian point of view.”
Mr. Cockburn delighted in creating a ruckus and never found a battle he didn’t want to fight. He carried on long-running feuds with fellow British expatriate writers Henry Fairlie and, especially, Christopher Hitchens, whom he called a “portly scribbler.”
He and Hitchens were colleagues at the Nation but had a violent disagreement over the U.S. invasion of Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
After disputes over the international peace movement, another fellow writer at the Nation, David Corn, called Mr. Cockburn a “master of the underhanded attack,” a purveyor of “outright prevarication” and a “skunk.”
“I’ve found that journalists are rather thin-skinned people,” Mr. Cockburn said in 1985. “A few have threatened to come around and take a punch at me after they read something I wrote that they didn’t like.
“But I learned a long time ago that if you hand it out, you’ve got to be able to take it.”
Alexander Claud Cockburn was born June 6, 1941, in northern Scotland, where his mother had taken refuge during the bombing of London during World War II. He grew up mostly in County Cork, Ireland.
His father, Claud Cockburn, was a well-known British journalist and avowed member of the Communist Party. Mr. Cockburn’s brothers, Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, also are well-known journalists.
Alexander Cockburn was an English literature graduate of Keble College of the University of Oxford and worked at the Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman in England before coming to the United States. He had lived in recent years in Petrolia, Calif., where he was known for cooking and for growing his own apples to make hard cider.
His marriages to Emma Tennant and Katherine Kilgore ended in divorce.
Survivors include a daughter from his marriage to Tennant, Daisy Cockburn of London; and two brothers, Andrew Cockburn of Washington and Patrick Cockburn of Canterbury, England. A half-sister, Sarah Cockburn, who wrote mystery novels under the name Sarah Caudwell, died in 2000.
In 1987, writer David Rieff reviewed Mr. Cockburn’s book “Corruptions of Empire: Life Studies and the Reagan Era” in the Times Literary Supplement, calling it “a mass of bile and invective, some of it tremendously funny and some of it monumentally ill-judged.”
He also wrote, “The American political scene is immensely enlivened, and I think improved, by his presence in it.”
In that book, Mr. Cockburn proudly pointed out that an ancestor had helped burn the White House — and a newspaper office in Washington — during the War of 1812.
He believed, in other words, that his firebrand views were something of a birthright.