A powerful voice silenced

Journalist Alexander Cockburn dead at 71

The author is a former coordinator of the Chico Peace & Justice Center and former executive director of the Chico Creek Nature Center. He's also a local musician.

Journalist Alexander Cockburn died of cancer in Germany on July 20. He was 71. He was born in Scotland, grew up in Ireland but settled in Petrolia, Calif. His father, novelist Claud Cockburn, penned the novel Beat the Devil, which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Alex adopted the title for his column in The Nation.

I met him when I was assigned to cart him around before his lecture at Chico State in the early ‘90s. Alioune Fame, then-director of the Chico Peace and Justice Center, had brought him here. Cockburn said the center, then located at Seventh and Flume streets, was the biggest “P&J” building he’d ever visited. He’d seen a few, tucked into the corners of communities he’d visit in support of antiwar efforts and environmentalism. Fame, by the way, is mentioned in Cockburn’s book, The Golden Age Is in Us.

Cockburn graduated from Oxford but never studied journalism. Still, he’ll be remembered as one of the most knowledgeable and uncompromising writers and critics in that profession. He was a columnist for The Nation, edited Counterpunch with Jeffrey St. Clair, wrote for The Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal, and authored several books.

He also wrote for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, out of Boonville. Former Editor Bruce Anderson’s recent appreciation notes that Cockburn wrote perfect first drafts, and quickly.

His caustic wit set him apart from other political writers. Though to some he embodied the quintessential left, he skewered players from across the political spectrum with an illuminating disdain for hypocrisy, corruption and greed. His jousts with writer Christopher Hitchens and others were well known, but the challenges he offered rivals led to a greater understanding of the issues for the reader.

I last saw Cockburn on C-Span with Brian Lamb. For more than two hours he eloquently responded to questions from the host and callers, some of whom unjustly attacked him as an anti-Semite. He quieted them with reasoning that undermined the premise of their accusations. He never sugarcoated his views on the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, but that does not an anti-Semite make.

One Chico activist said to me she felt like she’d lost a friend even though she didn’t know Cockburn. She isn’t alone. “He brought clarity,” writes Anderson. Indeed he did. Here’s to you, Alex! I think I’ll hold onto my dusty Nation magazines a little longer now in case I need a laugh or a lesson from you.