Monday, November 16, 2009

American Radical

American Radical

After a career that saw him rise to national prominence not only on television and radio, but as a correspondent for the Nation and a columnist for PM -- the legendary New York tabloid that refused advertisements and revolutionized American newspapers – I.F. Stone slowly vanishes. Although he is the author of four books, each one more successful than the last, when he writes another, on the Korean War, no publisher in America will touch it. He is effectively blacklisted as a reporter. For some time he lives in a kind of internal exile. He decides to launch his own newspaper. I. F. Stone’s Weekly that gives him a platform from which he can rally his fellow heretics, attack their persecutors, and encourage resistance. For readers who want a radical perspective on current events free from sectarian distortion, the Weekly has no competition. Throughout the long nightmare of the American inquisition, whenever citizens stand up to claim their rights, I. F. Stone is there. Somehow he survives.

And slowly his audience returns – a new generation of readers looking uncomfortably at the world they are to inherit. It is this generation that plucks I. F. Stone from the dustbin of history and places him, once again, on the front ranks of American activism. The Weekly – after ten years of struggle – has barely 20,000 subscribers before the incident in 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin that gives rise to the large-scale involvement of U.S. forces in Vietnam. The figure has risen in 1969 above 70,000.

Fearless opponent of McCarthy and radical pamphleteer, scourge of official liars, Stone becomes an amateur classicist out to solve one of the great mysteries of Western civilization : how it came about that the ancient Athenians, inventors of democracy and originators of the humanist ideal of free speech, put a man to death merely for speaking his mind. Published as the author turns eighty, The Trial of Socrates is an international best-seller.

In January 2008 on the CBS Evening News Katie Courie asked John Edwards, then running for the Democratic nomination as President of the United States, to name the one book, other than the Bible, he would consider “essential to have along” as President. Edwards chose The Trial of Socrates because, he said, of the way Stone treats “the challenges that are faced by men about character, about integrity and about belief systems.”

Stone remained a real reporter all his life. For him that meant a deeply ingrained skepticism about the claims of power – as in his famous quip that “every government is run by liars.” Yet his skepticism never degenerated into cynicism. Stone’s deepest roots were in his native ground : Tom Paine’s appeal to revolutionary common sense, the unyielding dignity of Frederick Douglass, and above all Thomas Jefferson’s view of a free press as the keystone of American liberty.

Stone was not only a great reporter. He was always an irritant to those in power – for his ability to publicize the most inconvenient truths, for his dissatisfaction with a society that forces its children to go to war in order to pay for college and that allows the earth to be spoiled and the sick to go without medicine so corporations can continue to pile up treasures without let or hindrance.

I. F. Stone was a troublemaker all his life. From his youth as a soapbox orator for the Socialist Party to his dying words in support of the students who risked death on Tiananmen Square by demonstrating against the Chinese government, he always relished a good fight. The list of his causes is itself a fair index of the rise and fall of American radicalism : equality for African Americans, government assistance for the poor, economic justice for farm laborers and factory workers, opposition to fascism (whether the jack-booted European variety or the “chrom-plated” American fascism), support for colonial independence and opposition to an American empire, workers’ rights, universal health care, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and most of all, the right to dissent.

In the tempest of the 1950s, harassed by the State Department, followed by the FBI, blacklisted by the mainstream media, and ridiculed by many liberals, Stone refused to trim his sails. But when the storm passed, his geniality made it easy to overlook the man who, long before the sit-ins and freedom rides, regularly chided American blacks not for their restiveness but for their patience, the man who described the war in Vietnam as “genocide”.

I write these words near the end of a decade during which our country was again covered in darkness. Dissent has again been equated with treason, while domestic prosperity has been laid waste to finance a president’s imperial arrogance. In such times, Stone’s life and writings can again serve as a beacon to rally the republic.

And when the tide turns, Stone’s various flourishings will remind us to seize the day, to face our tasks undaunted, and to focus less on the minor differences that may divide us and more on what we can accomplish together.

This is a book about a man who lived through extraordinary times. Our times. Taken together his writings amount to as vivid a record of those times as we are likely to get.

It was Lenin who observed that however much great revolutionaries may be persecuted and slandered during their lifetimes, once safely in the grave “attempts are made to turn them into harmless icons.”

All four major television networks made Stone’s death an item on the evening news broadcast; his death was front-page news in the New York Times (which called him an “iconoclast of journalism”), the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times (“the conscience of investigative journalism”), and dozens of small newspapers. The day after Stone died, Peter Jennings, anchorman of ABC’s World News Tonight, the top-rated news program in the country, ended his broadcast with a tribute to the man he called “a journalists’ journalist”. Quoting from Izzy’s credo in Who’s Who – “To write the truth, to defend the weak against the strong, to fight for justice....” – Jennings told his audience,

“For many people, it’s a rich experience to read or reread Stone’s views on America’s place in the world.”

D. D. Guttenplan

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