Alexander Cockburn, Presente: Tributes from Friends and Colleagues

July 23rd, 2012 - by admin

Jeffrey St. Clair, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Robert Scheer / CounterPunch & TruthDig – 2012-07-23 01:00:27

Farewell, Alex, My Friend

Alex Cockburn: Tributes to A Friend and Colleague
Jeffrey St. Clair / CounterPunch

(July 21/2012) — 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 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.

Remembering Alex Cockburn
Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz

Alexander Cockburn succumbed to a battle with cancer on the early morning of July 21. The news came to me in an anonymous tweet posted to a listserv. I imagined Alex stomping about the fluffy clouds inside the pearly gates and cursing that a life dedicated to the written word was, at death, announced by a 160 character electronic blip.

Alex was The Nation‘s “Beat the Devil” columnist for 28 years and co-edited the internationally popular political journal CounterPunch with his cherished friend, Jeffrey St. Clair. I never met or even spoke with Alex Cockburn but for five years we exchanged emails about the articles

I was writing for CounterPunch. Alex may have been radical in his writing, but as an editor of the work of others, he was thoughtful, respectful, and appeared to view each written word as a jewel to be polished and protected from the evil doings of knaves.

Alex graduated from Oxford in 1963 with a degree in English literature and language and he was wedded to those roots; perhaps more than easily recognized from his sassy writing. Once, Jeffrey St. Clair asked me to check over two previous articles I had written on President Obama (about his ties to Wall Street bundlers and lobbyists) for an upcoming book anthology.

I emailed Jeffrey with a copy to Alex to inquire about the punctuation style — since Alex was notorious for moving periods outside punctuation marks as done in Britain. I received a response from Alex the purist:
“Chicago Manual of Style — murderer of so much.” Perhaps I saw a different Alex Cockburn because I viewed him only through the lens of the written word that arrived in my email box. And more frequently than not, what arrived was about words. Not politics or radical thoughts — just the proper use of words.

Looking back, and now knowing that he kept his illness a secret, I suspect he started his tumbrils thing around the time he learned that his days might be limited. A tumbril is the name for a cart used during the French Revolution to carry the unlucky to the guillotine. Alex began carting off words in his CounterPunch columns. Below is an example:
“First up: ‘sustainable.’ It’s been at least a decade since this earnest word was drained of all energy, having become the prime unit of exchange in the argot of purposeful uplift.

As the final indication of its degraded status, I found it in President Obama’s ‘signing statement’ which accompanied the whisper of his pen, as on New Year’s Eve — a very quiet day when news editors were all asleep — he signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2012 which handed $662 billion to the Pentagon and for good measure ratified by legal statute of the exposure of US citizens to arbitrary arrest without subsequent benefit of counsel, and to possible torture and imprisonment sine die, abolishing habeas corpus. Don’t bother to ask what happens to non-US citizens.

“As he set his name to this repugnant legislation the president issued a ‘signing statement’ in which I came upon the following passage: ‘Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists’ “So much for “sustainable.” Into the tumbrils with it.

“Obama is against signing statements, at the theoretical level. In 2008 he said, ‘I taught the Constitution for ten years, I believe in the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution of the United States. We’re not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress.'” (From “Into the Tumbrils With Them,” January 6-8, 2012,

There didn’t seem to be much of anything on which Alex wasn’t well versed. That was likely because he had researched and written on just about everything important.

He co-edited two Penguin volumes on trade unions and the student movement. He wrote for The Village Voice for many years about the press and politics. He had a regular column for a decade in the 80s at the Wall Street Journal.

In 1987, he published a best-selling collection of essays, Corruptions of Empire. With Susanna Hecht, he co-authored The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon. In 1995, Verso published his diary of the late 80s, early 90s and the fall of Communism, The Golden Age Is In Us.

With his friend and co-editor at CounterPunch, Jeffrey St. Clair, he co-authored or edited a number of books including: Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press; The Politics of Anti-Semitism; Imperial Crusades; Al Gore, A User’s Manual; Five Days That Shook the World; and A Dime’s Worth of Difference, about the Republicans and Democrats.

Alex was born in Scotland and grew up in County Cork, Ireland. He became a permanent resident of the United States in 1973 and has lived here since. His father, Claud Cockburn, was a well-known British journalist. Cockburn’ s two brothers, Andrew and Patrick, are also journalists and have appeared on the CounterPunch web site, as has his niece, journalist Laura Flanders.

I would say, rest in peace, but I fear Alex would have me carted off in a tumbril for use of a cliche. So I will just say, goodbye, and I am contented that you and Claud are no doubt having weighty deliberations right now on saving this Nation from its doom. Claude, Alex’s father, was a lifelong Communist, Alex a lifelong Marxist.

I posted this about Alex’s influence on me: Back in the late Reagan years, Alex did a book talk at Modern Times in San Francisco, the crowd spilling out on to the street. He noted that everyone seemed lost and afraid, and wanted to pass on the wisdom his own father gave him.

When Alex was an adolescent and going through what one does in that time of life, his father, Claude Cockburn, would tell him to go read a little Marx and he would feel better. And Alex said, “It works, so do it.” And I’ve been doing it ever since.

It works. Try it.

Goodbye, Old Friend
Robert Scheer / TruthDig

(July 21, 2012) — Uncompromising, provocative, brilliant. There are many things to say about Alexander Cockburn, who died Friday, and his critics and friends will have their day.

He could be infuriating in his lust for truth and social justice as well as for the unparalleled sharpness of his polemics. But no serious student of our time can deny Cockburn’s importance as one of the most principled and insightful political journalists of the past half-century.

Having been on the receiving end of more than a few of his darts, I can attest to the pointed power of his pen but also the accuracy of his criticism. He could get it wrong, but never intentionally so, he worked the issues as hard and thoughtfully as any I have known, and few modern journalists have so thoroughly discredited their critics by later being proved right.

Cockburn always had the courage of his convictions and a well-honed contempt, informed by an elite Oxford education, for the arrogance of the powerful, as well as a deep-rooted compassion for their many victims. Reprinting his final column for The Nation magazine is the finest tribute I can offer. We’ll miss you, Alex, and spare me the wry smile acknowledging that I am winging this on deadline.

Cockburn’s Last Column
Barclays and the Limits of Financial Reform

Alexander Cockburn / The Nation

(July 11, 2012) — Hardly had the boyish visage of JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon quit CNN screens than it was succeeded by that of Bob Diamond, former chief executive of Barclays, accused of masterminding the greatest financial scandal in the history of Britain. Columnists shook with rage at the “reeking cesspool” being disclosed — disclosed, mind you, four long years after the Wall Street Journal broke the story that the Libor was being fixed.

Libor, which stands for “London interbank offered rate,” is supposed to be based on the average rate of interest banks charge to borrow from one another. The rate is set every morning by a panel of banks. Each bank “submits” the rates at which it believes it can borrow from the collective money pool, from overnight to twelve months.

Libor is the benchmark for investments all over the world — the Financial Times estimates that $350 trillion worth of contracts have been pegged to it. It is also considered a barometer of a bank’s health. Just as customers with bad credit records have to pay higher interest rates, banks deemed in financial distress have to pay more to borrow. In October 2008, a doomsday month for the world banking industry, it looked like Barclays was next in line for a rescue after taxpayers bailed out the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds/HBOS on October 13.

One big warning flare was that beleaguered Barclays could borrow from the common money pool only at a very high rate of interest. The answer was to fix the rate, with Barclays traders secretly winching it down. It was all completely illegal.

Next thing we knew, there was Diamond being reprimanded by a select committee of the House of Commons for being nothing better than a common thief. But then into the hurly-burly suddenly intruded a new actor, actually one in the form of a savior: Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England. It turned out that Diamond and Tucker had had a conversation of considerable moment, one prudently recorded by Barclays, on October 29, 2008.

Diamond said Tucker had relayed concerns from “senior Whitehall figures” that Barclays’s Libor was consistently higher than that of other banks. Tucker is alleged to have conveyed the view from Westminster that the bank’s rate did not “always need to appear as high as it had recently.” In other words, Westminster wanted Barclays to massage its rate to a lower level.

But all with full deniability. According to Barclays, “Bob Diamond did not believe he received an instruction from Paul Tucker or that he gave an instruction to [former top Barclays deputy] Jerry del Missier. However, Jerry del Missier concluded that an instruction had been passed down from the Bank of England not to keep Libors so high and he therefore passed down a direction to that effect to the submitters.”

Barclays said there was no allegation by the authorities that this instruction was intended to manipulate the Libor. And when he was questioned by Tory MP David Ruffley on July 9, Tucker testified that “a bell did not go off in my head” that banks were lowering their Libor submissions.

Marvelous: the join between civil society and state was tactfully seamless, with deniability all round.

So first there are the “senior Whitehall figures” (one turned out to be Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood) — i.e., the permanent government running Britain. When a senior Whitehall figure urges the commission of a serious crime, he merely murmurs that the bank’s Libor did not “always need to appear as high as it had recently.”

There then follows a flurry of talk about misunderstandings but, Lord save us, certainly not an order to fix the Libor. Then, unmistakably, there is a huge plunge in Barclays’s rate. The government’s concern — that Barclays might appear to be on the brink — is averted.

But we live in a capitalist world, duly furnished with its rewards and penalties. Barclays has agreed to a $450 million settlement, and Diamond and del Missier have resigned. On his way out the door, Diamond said he’d been promised £18 million ($28 million) as a golden handshake. The standing committee had a good jeer, but Diamond stuck to his guns, and there the matter rested until July 10, when Barclays announced that Diamond will forfeit up to £20 million ($30 million) in bonuses and incentives but will retain one year’s salary, pension and other benefits worth £2 million ($3 million).

Of course, there have been furious calls for further punishment and reform. Labour leader Ed Miliband says “we should break the dominance of the big five banks…and strike off those whose conduct lets this country down and prosecute those who break the law.”

He also wants to increase competition by forcing the big banks to sell off up to 1,000 of their branches. In the current culture of rabid criminality in the banking system, that would surely be unwise, unleashing 1,000 small-time banksters.

People calling for banking reform on either side of the 
Atlantic are underestimating the problems of enforcement. A writer on the financial news blog Zero Hedge recently 
remarked that “the Libor scandal seems to be waking people up to manipulation and fraud by the big banks.”

Of course, there are tools at the ready: sanctions, tribunals, a ban for life for crooked traders. But Libor was meant to be the prime glittering advertisement for the free market. Now it turns out that the whole thing is a fix — a grimy hand all too visible. It’s like the spy in Conrad’s Secret Agent vowing to destroy the first meridian.

Is it possible to reform the banking system? There are the usual nostrums — tighter regulations, savage penalties for misbehavior, a ban from financial markets for life. But I have to say I’m dubious. I think the system will collapse, but not through our agency.

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