It’s hard to believe that Alexander Cockburn died today. Only a few days ago, I read his commentary in CounterPunch–and before that, for the past fifteen years or so, and before that his column in The Nation, and before that in the Village Voice, and through it all, his books and the controversies he spawned, the positions he took. The incredulity is also grounded in the way he died–quietly, without drawing attention to his illness nor his death.
I read a great deal of Cockburn, and delighted in everything I read. You did not have to agree with every position he held, but you could not resist the fire in his style, the clarity of his argument, the courage of his convictions. What I found so instructive in his writing was the precision with which he used words; it was the kind of precision which allowed, encouraged, radical irreverence, inventive coinages (“food porn” from Perversions of Empire comes to mind) and unrelenting attacks against a gallery of politicians, fellow writers, hack intellectuals. The precision of his style was sustained by a near-encyclopedic knowledge of history and politics, which he wove effortlessly into the fabric of his writing. At times, you could not help but be awed by how much he knew–and shared. Reading Cockburn was an education.
His co-editor at CounterPunch, Jeffrey St. Clair, in a moving eulogy said that cancer had made Cockburn’s life the last two years a living hell. You would not know any of this, reading his columns, even the last one from last weekend’s CounterPunch. Which is to say that the life and the writer never took center stage in his journalistic career. He did not personalize his trade; he did not own his causes nor his death. He died slowly, it seems, but without much publicity. To have died so is to live.