Alexander Cockburn, Acerbic Writer and Critic, Dies at 71

Alexander Cockburn, seen in 1977, critiqued the news media in a column for The Village Voice.


Alexander Cockburn, the mordant left-wing journalist and author who though born in Scotland thrived in the political and cultural battlegrounds of the United States, died on Saturday in Bad Salzhausen, Germany, where he had been receiving medical treatment, his family said. He was 71.

The cause was cancer, said Jeffrey St. Clair, a friend and colleague.

Mr. St. Clair announced Mr. Cockburn’s death on CounterPunch, the Web site that the two men edited. Mr. Cockburn kept his illness a secret, Mr. St. Clair, added, and continued writing until the end of his life.

“His body was deteriorating, but his prose remained as sharp, lucid and deadly as ever,” Mr. St. Clair wrote on the site.

Mr. Cockburn at various times had regular columns in ideologically disparate publications like The Nation and The Wall Street Journal. He became known as an unapologetic leftist, condemning what he saw as the outrages of the right but also castigating the American liberal establishment when he thought it was being timid.

His opinions, however, were not easily predicted. In a 2009 CounterPunch article on health care reform, for instance, he expressed misgivings about legalized abortion, saying that it was “now widening in its function as a eugenic device.”

Wayne Barrett, who worked with Mr. Cockburn (pronounced CO-burn) at The Village Voice in the 1980s, recalled him in a telephone interview as “a punishing writer.”

“He had a remarkable mind and he could write so quickly,” Mr. Barrett added.

At The Voice, Mr. Cockburn wrote a political column with James Ridgeway and another column, called Press Clips, in which he critiqued the news media and often mocked what he saw as the ethical failings of journalists.

But Mr. Cockburn, a fierce critic in the columns of Israeli policies in the Middle East, was dismissed from The Voice in 1984 after The Boston Phoenix reported that he had accepted a $10,000 grant from a group that its critics called pro-Arab. David Schneiderman, The Voice’s editor at the time, suggested that the grant created a conflict of interest.

Mr. Cockburn said he had taken the money for a book project and had planned to return it.

That particular book was never written, but after leaving The Voice, he wrote several, including “Corruptions of Empire” (Verso, 1988), a collection of essays; “The Golden Age Is in Us: Journeys and Encounters, 1987-1994” (Verso, 1996); and “The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon,” written with Susanna Hecht (HarperCollins, 1990).

Alexander Claud Cockburn was born on June 6, 1941. He grew up in Ireland and graduated from Oxford. Among his ancestors was Sir George Cockburn, an English admiral who helped burn down the White House in 1814, during the War of 1812.

His attachment to left-wing journalism — and controversy — was forged very early. His father, Claud Cockburn, while covering the Spanish Civil War for The Daily Worker, joined the Republican forces fighting the rebellion of Francisco Franco. (Claud Cockburn, under a pseudonym, also wrote novels, including “Beat the Devil,” which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and which his son used as the title of his column in The Nation.)

In London, Alexander Cockburn worked for The Times Literary Supplement and The New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973.

He joined The Nation in 1984 after leaving The Voice, and took that magazine’s old rivalry with the more centrist New Republic to a new level. He referred to the contents of The New Republic as “the weekly catchment of drivel.”

After Martin Peretz, the longtime owner and editor in chief of The New Republic, had a fainting spell in Paris in the late 1980s, Mr. Cockburn gleefully wrote that Mr. Peretz had been dining at an expensive restaurant where patrons were “so bloated that they have to be rubbed down with Vaseline to squeeze through the door.”

When Mr. Cockburn wrote a column drastically revising downward the number of deaths attributable to Stalin, Mr. Peretz suggested that Mr. Cockburn “has a sentimental interest in this controversy but not the credentials to evaluate it.”

Mr. Cockburn is survived by a daughter, Daisy Cockburn, and two brothers, the author Andrew Cockburn and the British journalist Patrick Cockburn. The actress Olivia Wilde, a daughter of Andrew Cockburn, is his niece.

Mr. Cockburn also famously feuded with Christopher Hitchens, a fellow British expatriate and onetime friend who also wrote for The Nation, over a variety of polarizing issues.

When Mr. Hitchens died of cancer last year, Mr. Cockburn did not mince words in a remembrance on CounterPunch.

“He courted the label ‘contrarian,’ ” Mr. Cockburn said of Mr. Hitchens, “but if the word is to have any muscle, it surely must imply the expression of dangerous opinions. Hitchens never wrote anything truly discommoding to respectable opinion and if he had he would never have enjoyed so long a billet at Vanity Fair.”


Categories: Anti-War, Economy, Government, Health Care, History, International, Labor, Media & Culture, U.S. News, Workers Struggle, Zionism

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