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Cockburn Country


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In October 2009, KGOE Program Director Tom Sebourn posted to his personal blog a video he took at a Eureka peace rally.  He noted that rain dampened the crowd but not the spirit, and added "Here is local resident Alexander Cockburn addressing the crowd."

I missed that peace rally, probably because of the rain. Most of my fellow lefties skipped it too; the video shows only about two dozen people.

That's what makes the video so remarkable. Sebourn had to divide Cockburn's speech into four parts, the man spoke so long and with such passion. That was so Cockburn. He didn't care that it was raining, or that he was talking to a ragtag bunch of nobodies about as far removed from the rest of the world as you can get, or that only two dozen people came to hear him, when he might have attracted several hundred at least in the Bay Area. And I bet that he didn't care that someone like Sebourn would label him on the posting only as "local resident."

By the time he died in Germany a week ago Saturday, he had been living in Petrolia for two decades. I found that out in the Associated Press obituary the Times-Standard ran three days later — two days after I'd read an obit in the Sunday New York Times. Our local paper added no local quotes or color to the wire story.

Early last year, I complained in this column that the Times-Standard had failed to report the death of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, a man who influenced a generation of musicians. For the political left and for advocacy journalism, Cockburn was similarly unique and influential. But Van Vliet's presence in our community was a bit of a secret. He kept to himself. Cockburn was very much of his community in Petrolia, even as he maintained his role as one of the left's most important and controversial voices in the nation and around the world.

On the Web you can find a terrific interview he did for C-Span's Book TV, which came out to his Petrolia home. In it, Cockburn introduces us to his dog and his bird and his horse. He proudly shows off the old classic cars he drives around, his house and other structures he built on his property like a rammed earth "cider house," all decorated with art by his friends in the area.

He talks about how he came to Petrolia after living in Ireland, London, New York and Key West, and how he based the business operations of his Counterpunch publishing company in Petrolia.

"I basically am a country guy," he said. "I lived in Central California and I came up here. The days when you'd say rural seclusion, the remote writer ... coming out wearing a belted Muji shirt like Leo Tolstoy is not really where it's at. With modern communications you can wake up in the morning and read every newspaper in the planet. It's very different. ... Personally I don't like living in cities. ... I can be in San Francisco in five hours if I need to be for meetings. It is an ideal circumstance for me."

You can also find a classic column he wrote for this paper a couple of weeks after "Operation Southern Sweep" -- in which state and federal police agencies managed to seize only 30 firearms, and after the Supreme Court affirmed the Second Amendment right to bear arms. In the column, Cockburn noted that his neighbor Curly Wright had had more than that in his home alone.

"Only 30 firearms seized in SoHum!" he wrote. "Mr. McGregor probably had better home defense against Peter Rabbit. If that's all that a passel of alleged cultivators can muster in SoHum, heaven help us when the Chinese declare World War III. They could land at Shelter Cove, and scythe their way through the woods to Garberville with only token resistance from pacifists bunkered down in their plastic greenhouses flourishing watering cans. The red flag would be flapping over Willits by sundown, and San Francisco right down 101 waiting to drop into the hands of the Commie-Capitalists like a ripe plum."

Cockburn was unique as a commentator for taking on the most sacred of sacred cows. (Heidi Walters summarized some of his stands on the Journal's blog in a July 23 post titled, "He Knew How To Live." ) He questioned abortion because he felt it was being used as a tool for eugenics. And he questioned what he called hysteria over global warming. But even at his most politically outrageous, he based his ideas on thought-provoking facts and notions. People in China and India do abort female fetuses regularly, and people are starting to abort fetuses with non-serious deformities. And people are using fear of global warming to support the building of questionably safe nuclear power, even as they fail to force power companies and manufacturers to stop polluting our air, earth and waters.

I compulsively read obituaries about notable people. For the New York Times, obits are as much the paper's bread and butter as the crossword puzzle is. We like discovering and being reminded not only of the great things extraordinary people did while they lived, but also of how they lived their daily lives. My favorite local reading is the little profiles of my neighbors in the advertising inserts for Murphy's markets. They are a weekly reminder of how interesting the people around me are. It disappoints me that the Times-Standard shirks what I see as a prime task of local papers -- to celebrate the lives of our residents through the reports of their deaths.

I've been in awe of Cockburn for a long time, as I am about most people clearly smarter and more prolific and more daring. But in his obituaries and in my Web search of remnants of his life I find how much we had in common: Both of us writers and haters of hypocrisy, both of us having ended up at the edge of the civilized world after living in big cities and both of us very much a part of the rural communities in which we made our homes.

Reading obituaries leaves me with feelings of regret for how much I missed out on someone else's life and accomplishments -- in Cockburn's case very much so. I wish I had invited him to speak to my classes; I bet he would have come and I think we would have hit it off. I like to think that at times he read my column and passionately disagreed with whatever it was I said.

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 in which most people try hard to avoid thinking, for calling out the bullshit you saw in the world around you, for exasperating people of all political stripes and for being a part of our little world out here.

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.


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