From Petrolia with Love: Alexander Cockburn RIP

If the San Diego Free Press can learn anything from the likes of Cockburn and Vidal, it is that we should unapologetically leave the sham of objective media coverage to the commercial outlets—mainstream and “alternative.”

Petrolia Sign

I learned of Alex Cockburn’s death when I picked up a copy of the North Coast Journal in a gas station minimart in Eureka.  My family and I were in transit between the deep woods near the California-Oregon border and our next destination off the Lost Coast Highway when we stopped to fuel up and get snacks.  While I stood waiting for my son to finish buying a candy bar I picked up the paper and randomly flipped it open to an article entitled “Cockburn Country” in which Marcy Burstiner chastised the local daily, the Times Standard, for failing to adequately comment on Cockburn’s demise.

To rectify this omission Burstiner details how Cockburn had been living in Petrolia for two decades where he co-edited the left online journal and publishing outlet CounterPunch, continued to pen his column for The Nation, and published many books challenging the sacred cows of American Empire and skewering the pieties of the right and left alike.  Burstiner tells the story of Cockburn giving a speech in 2009 to “a rag tag bunch of nobodies” in the rain in Eureka with incredible passion and energy despite the circumstances.  She then ends her tribute by musing, “Alexander Cockburn, if your spirit hovers over me at some rainy Eureka rally in the future, know that one of your fellow residents appreciated you for being a thinker in a world where most people avoid thinking, for calling out the bullshit you saw in the world around you, for exasperating people around you of all political stripes and for being part of our little world out here.”

In The Nation, JoAnn Wypijewski remembers Cockburn’s love of nature, animals, and “the small change of life” and notes that, “He embodied a kind of radical democracy, harbored utopian dreams; he was a romantic, but as an act of will, despite life’s messiness.” She also tells the story of how he would wryly ask new interns: “Is your hate pure?”  Her colleague Victor Navasky, in the same issue, reminds us of Cockburn’s slash and burn style, intellectual courage, and mourns, “Who will ever insult us a well as he?”

And that is what Cockburn at his best did: call out bullshit with an unyielding fury.  Just as he did right after 9/11 when even many on the left were too timid to contest the historical blindness and hypocrisy of the “war on terror.” Undaunted, Cockburn went straight into the fray and pointed out the linkages between the CIA’s adventures in Afghanistan in the 1980s and America’s new enemies.  It was history, he insisted, not mythological talk about good and evil, that best illuminated the horror—and we may not like what it tells us.

And Cockburn remained unrelenting to the end.  As Jefferey St.Clair writes in his CounterPunch farewell:

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.

Cockburn’s house

Though I did not know Cockburn well, I did once have the pleasure of spending a week in the Redwood Tower on the hill above his house in Petrolia.  My wife and I had seen an ad for it in CounterPunch and called to reserve a stay only to be surprised to find that Cockburn himself answered the phone and put Kelly through an entirely charming 40 minute interrogation before accepting us as his guests.  He asked about our politics, whom we knew, what we did for a living, why we were coming, how old our son was, what books we were reading, whether we were familiar with difficult driving on steep roads, what we’d be interested in doing there, and on and on.  He seemed amused to hear that there were actually people with leftist sensibilities in San Diego, like we were odd, rare creatures he was surprised to find on his doorstep.

The cider house

When we got to Petrolia we were bedazzled by the beauty of Cockburn’s spot in the capital of nowhere, across the road from the Mattole River.  We met his fine horses, his beloved dog, his bird and some of the local deer.  He showed us his gorgeous cider house decorated by local artists, walked us through the garden pointing out more original sculptures, gestured toward a few of the vintage cars he collected, gave us advice on what trails to hike, and even invited us to a meal at his house.  During the course of our dinner conversation Cockburn asked whom we liked to read and then promptly eviscerated several of the authors we cited with a smile.

The Garden

He gossiped with us about some of the writers I’d had the opportunity to meet during my stint as a book fair director and took no prisoners there either.  At the same time, Cockburn was immensely kind to our then-little boy and was an incredibly gracious host in every way.  He struck me as a fascinating mix of anarcho-syndicalist, formidably workmanlike writer, amiable crank, and English country gentleman.  He was a compelling presence, but someone who suffered no fools.  Cockburn’s hatred for hypocrisy, inequity, and injustice as he perceived it was indeed pure.  In our conversations it was clear that he was terribly proud of the community he was building with CounterPunch and had taken pains to build it to last.  “It’s the last voice of the left in America,” he told us.

More than anything else I left Petrolia with a sense that Cockburn was fighting a rearguard action against the barbarism of civilization from his undisclosed location in utopia, lobbing verbal bombs at the people who were wrecking the world.  While I didn’t agree with everything he wrote, he was indeed one of the few heavyweight polemicists of the left who wore the mantle with pride.  As Geoffrey Wheatcroft recently noted in the New York Times, we seem to need to import them from Britain as the H.L. Mencken legacy in America has been killed by “a solemn cult of accuracy and balance, fearful of even a hint of honest opinion, to the point that statements of the obvious must be sterilized by such quaint circumlocutions as ‘analysts say that . . . .‘”  This summer we have also lost Gore Vidal, another left contrarian with the courage to wish ill on the hegemonists.  They will both be missed.

Progressive media is only worth a damn when it has the courage to think bad thoughts and consistently afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

If the San Diego Free Press can learn anything from the likes of Cockburn and Vidal, it is that we should unapologetically leave the sham of objective media coverage to the commercial outlets—mainstream and “alternative.”  Progressive media is only worth a damn when it has the courage to think bad thoughts and consistently afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  It’s not our job to prove how fair we are to the right or to make the Democrats feel better about selling us out.  Our job should be to call out bullshit from a principled progressive position, not to substitute snarky hip for real creative resistance.  We need to have the courage to be utopian and not let stale convention in the guise of pragmatism limit the range of our thinking.  Otherwise, we’ll just be more information glut.  Yawn.

The luminescent Pacific

As we drove down the Lost Coast highway last week, the traffic disappeared and the late afternoon light on the Pacific was luminescent.  When the highway turned inland toward Petrolia we went by Cockburn’s old house and took one last look.  It was a heartbreakingly beautiful day and you had the sense that the world should always be this way—aching with the promise of life.


Jim Miller

Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.


  1. avatardorndiego says

    Thanks, Jim Miller, for reaching quickly to the core of what is more and more becoming evident: we’re all in an almost juvenile pursuit of approval, right and left, and that most of the time we’re repeating ourselves. I knew Vidal and he had no hesitation calling me out when I didn’t know what I was talking about. Bullshit is bullshit; wherever it finds a home it perverts and redirects communication.
    And good on you for reminding us that us lefties ought to wear “the mantle with pride.”