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Alexander Cockburn, a prominent radical columnist and journalist, has died at 71 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Cockburn's death was announced by his friend and journalism partner Jeffrey St. Clair on Counterpunch, the website they ran together.
In 1988 I watched Alex give a command performance to a large attentive crowd at the University of Chicago during his Corruptions of Empire book tour. During the Q&A portion of the talk, Cockburn gave a snotty Buckleyesque Chicago student a cheerful tanning of a sort that I’m sure can still bring a cringe to the recipient when recalled. This was a younger brawling Alex, still in his mid-40s. I got to know Alex during America’s post 9/11 retreat from reason. While American journalism stumbled in a climate of fear and reticence, Alex and Jeff used the web to expand CounterPunch’s reach, and I joined other writers helping fill the space they made for critique.
As a writer, Alex had few equals.
In a single column he could mix the sardonic with the devastating, sharing the same disdain for the selfish-right as he held for a liberal-left following democrats to corporate or militarized ends. I doubt most of his readers understand how quickly and apparently effortlessly he wrote. I once watched him punch out his 1000 word Beat the Devil column on his laptop sitting in the shade of my backyard, and submit it by email in less than an hour and a half. Not stewing about phrases or arguments, whatever analysis of argument he had to delineate had already been worked out in his head or done on the fly; and as anyone who knew him knows, bits of conversations were prone to show up as lines in his columns–sometimes morphed into the ineffective arguments of strawmen, other times championed with his own brand of vibrato-rich rhetorical authority.