News of Alexander Cockburn's death pierced my life force as if it were the passing of a friend, which he wasn't. For as long as I can recall, I've read his work in The Nation and CounterPunch. For the past decade, I have had the honor of my byline frequently appearing alongside his on CounterPunch, the radical, online journal he and Jeffrey St. Clair co-edited. Jeffrey, who has been a friend of mine since the mid-1980s, was one of his best friends. Through Jeff, I feel I knew Alex like a friend.
Given the events surrounding his final days, however, I will always feel a spiritual bond with Alex, the man I never knew. Early last week, I began reading what turned out to be his final piece – "Biggest Financial Scandal in Britain’s History, Yet Not a Single Occupy Sign; What Happened?" – in which his thoughts on the Occupy movement mirrored and focused my own, as usual. But I couldn't concentrate or finish it because I was fasting in preparation for cancer surgery in Indianapolis scheduled for July 18. The first thing I read when I got home on the 21st was Jeff's announcement that his friend Alex had died the day before at 71, of cancer.
The same can be said of my dilemma, with one critical distinction. While we both have spent the past two years struggling with cancer as a reality in our daily lives, mine was not, and is not, life-threatening. It is serious. Life changes when the C-word assumes a role in your internal dialogue. But mine has not been fierce. It's been more of a pain in the ass.
Both of our struggles with cancer are over. But I live to fight another day.
(The truth is, I did once succumb to the temptation and wrote about the issues involved in my medical predicament. I just used an assumed name. And it wasn't self-indulgent in the least. That piece was the first time in three decades that I have knowingly and intentionally misled readers. It will be the last. I've confessed. Enough said about it.)
Carrying the spiritual connection with Alex to the next level, the coincidence of his death and my cancer-induced downtime has allowed me more space to contemplate his life's work and reaction to his death with more leisure than I normally would have. I've read and watched quite a bit of Alexander Cockburn the past week.
Since I didn't know him and don't yet have the mental stamina it would take to summarize even the response to his death, let alone comment on his journalistic and intellectual contributions, I'm going to recommend three sources for those who want a glimpse into one of our age's great radical minds.
His friend and colleague, John Nichols at The Nation, posted a piece titled Alexander Cockburn and the Radical Power of the Word. Alex had been a frequent visitor at Nichols's home in Madison, Wis., and Nichols offers insights not found anywhere else I've found.
CounterPunch posted a link to a 2007 C-SPAN Book TV segment on Alex, his work and life called In Depth with Alexander Cockburn. It's a three-hour sit-down at the C-SPAN studios in Washington and his home in Petrolia, Calif. (Look on a map, and it's the point where the state juts the farthest into the Pacific Ocean.
But since no one knew Alex better than Jeff, his announcement is a must-read and is reprinted here in its entirety.
Our friend and comrade Alexander Cockburn died last night in Germany, after a fierce two-year long battle against cancer. His daughter, Daisy, was at his bedside.
Alex kept his illness a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of us knew how terribly sick he truly was. 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.
In one of Alex’s last emails to me, he patted himself on the back (and deservedly so) for having only missed one column through his incredibly debilitating and painful last few months. Amid the chemo, and blood transfusions and painkillers, Alex turned out not only columns for CounterPunch and The Nation and First Post, but he also wrote a small book called Guillotine and finished his memoirs, A Colossal Wreck, both of which CounterPunch plans to publish over the course of the next year.
Alex lived a huge life, and he lived it his way. He hated compromise in politics, and he didn’t tolerate it in his own life. Alex was my pal, my mentor, my comrade. We joked, gossiped, argued and worked together nearly every day for the last twenty years. He leaves a huge void in our lives. But he taught at least two generations how to think, how to look at the world, how to live a life of joyful and creative resistance. So, the struggle continues and we’re going to remain engaged. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the coming days and weeks, CounterPunch will publish many tributes to Alex from his friends and colleagues. But for this day, let us remember him through a few images taken by our friend, Tao Ruspoli.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.