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Mark Dowie on 'American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone'

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  • Ed Pearl
    Guttenplan s 500-page biography is thorough to a fault, covering not only the endless stream of controversies that surrounded Stone s own life and work, but
    Message 1 of 1 , May 31, 2009
    "Guttenplan's 500-page biography is thorough to a fault, covering not only
    the endless stream of controversies that surrounded Stone's own life and
    work, but also the intertwined social and political confusions that rocked
    an America." (from the depression into the 1980's, and fascinating. -Ed)


    Mark Dowie on I.F. Stone
    Posted on May 29, 2009

    American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone
    By D.D. Guttenplan
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages

    By Mark Dowie

    Every writer, of whatever genre, recalls one or two momentous encounters
    with a professional hero or mentor that either shaped their career, or gave
    them courage to continue. My most memorable such experience occurred in 1986
    in Amsterdam, where a small group of leftish European and North American
    journalists gathered for dinner after a conference. As the evening unwound,
    I.F. Stone, known to almost everyone as "Izzy," whose eyesight was failing,
    asked if I would walk him back to his hotel. How could I decline that

    Through the narrow streets and over the canals of Amsterdam we walked in
    silence, Izzy no doubt pondering Socrates, whose biography he was
    completing; I, more nervous than a kid on his first date, trying to think of
    a conversation starter.

    The week before I had left for Europe, a right-wing database called Western
    Goals had made a file on me available to its corporate clients. A detective
    friend, able to hack into just about any data anywhere, found and gave me
    the file. Among other things, it described me as a "radical." I was upset
    about that, fearing that such a characterization might limit, even ruin, my
    budding career.

    "That's a badge of honor," Izzy growled. "You should wear it with pride."
    What followed was a short dissertation on Edmund Burke, a conservative
    philosopher who, among other memorable things, said that "for every thousand
    people examining the branches of the tree of evil, you'll find one examining
    the roots."

    "That's radical," said Izzy. "The Latin for root is radix . same derivative
    as radical. That's what we do, isn't it? We examine the roots of things . so
    we're radicals. Let them call you what you are, and get on with your work."

    I have since that moment been comfortable calling myself a radical. So
    imagine my delight, as a fading investigative reporter, upon being asked to
    review a book about I.F. Stone, who, despite a controversial life and
    career, was clearly one of the most influential investigative reporters of
    our time . a book entitled "American Radical." I will do my best to be
    objective, although I can already hear Izzy advising me to eschew the
    charade of objectivity, a worthy idea that in a world of war, injustice and
    mendacious government, is simply impossible to attain.

    D.D. Guttenplan's vivid and introspective biography contains far more
    delightful vignettes and unexpected intersections with true left luminaries
    and other global celebrities of the era. "American Radical: The Life and
    Times of I.F. Stone" recounts, in amusing detail, the long and productive
    life of a shy but clearly brilliant Jewish boy from rural New Jersey who
    began his writing career as a cub reporter, worked harder than most of his
    peers, penned heated polemics under various pseudonyms and eventually
    changed his total identity to I.F. Stone, the name under which, for two
    critical postwar decades, he wrote and published his legendary I.F. Stone's
    Weekly newsletter, which became a teething ring for a whole generation of
    aspiring left-wing journalists, myself among them.

    The book arrives at an appropriate moment in history as the current and
    apostate left reheat their debate over the worthiness, skills,
    accomplishments and patriotism of this complex, still mysterious figure in
    American media. Was Izzy Stone a journalist, or a propagandist? Was he a
    communist or an anti-Menshevik socialist, a spy, or merely a curious
    reporter willing to talk to anyone who could offer some insight into Soviet
    policy and the world of espionage? And who paid for those lunches?

    Born in Philadelphia in 1907 (same year as my father) to working-class
    Russian immigrants, a shy and diminutive Isidor fell head over heels in love
    with the written word, dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania,
    declared himself a reporter and began working for small-town, blue-collar
    New Jersey newspapers, eventually making his way to Philadelphia, then to
    the New York Post, at the time a champion of New Deal liberalism, then to
    The Nation, a staunchly pro-Soviet journal of opinion, and finally to the
    nation's capital, where, under the mantra "all governments lie," he set
    about to expose the chronic mendacity of Washington. Along the way he met
    and married Esther Roisman and had three children. Esther became his
    assistant on The Weekly. As he went about the work of expository journalism,
    he seasoned, and as so many aging journalists do, began to ponder the
    historical significance of his work and the origins of his deepest beliefs.
    He ended his career as an amateur classicist, writing "The Trial of
    Socrates," a poignant rumination on the fate of a heretic.

    Guttenplan's 500-page biography is thorough to a fault, covering not only
    the endless stream of controversies that surrounded Stone's own life and
    work, but also the intertwined social and political confusions that rocked
    an America The Weekly tried to make sense of. The book grapples with every
    issue that confronted serious journalists of the time-civil rights,
    federalism, McCarthyism, wars in Korea and Vietnam, sexual freedom and the
    American left's gradual transformation from stodgy, pro-Soviet communism
    through democratic socialism to a vibrant new left libertarianism to which
    neither Stone nor his generation of leftists really never took. Any
    biographer would be remiss if he didn't weigh in heavily on the question of
    Stone's loyalty to his country and his alleged role as a Soviet spy. And
    Guttenplan does so, at some length, in drab detail.

    I suppose it's harder for my generation to get too worked up over that
    tiresome parlor game, although it is still played ad nauseam by some of my
    contemporaries, notably Paul Berman and Ron Radosh. And most of us are less
    likely than Izzy's contemporaries to care whether Sacco, Venzetti, Hiss or
    the Scottsboro Boys were really guilty as charged, although perhaps we
    should care more than we do. Even if, under code-name Blin, Stone did
    occasionally meet and share names and phone numbers with KGB agent Oleg
    Kalugin, who was, remember, posing as a press attaché, he hardly possessed
    or could transmit information damaging to national security, his sole source
    of documentation being the Congressional Record and other available
    government documents-all public records which any spook could have read
    without the assistance of an American reporter.

    And as someone who, before Glasnost, frequently dined and exchanged sources
    with Tass correspondents, I really can't understand what all the fuss is
    about. That was simply part of our work-sharing information with fellow
    reporters. So what if it was with people who, as it turned out, weren't
    really press attaches? It still wasn't spying. Nor was it in Stone's case,
    if there is a case at all. Those innocent lunches, most of them at Harvey's
    (J. Edgar Hoover's favorite restaurant, where Hoover was once seated next to
    Joe McCarthy in plain sight of Stone and Kalugin), should never have been
    considered treasonous, given the fact that Stone's motivations and the
    Russians' were, at the time, both anti-fascist, as was the expressed foreign
    policy of the U.S. government. A more reasonable conclusion would be that
    Izzy Stone was merely tweaking power. Otherwise he would have met Kalugin in
    a parking garage.

    I had to wonder, as I read this book, what Izzy would have thought of it
    and, even more so, what he would be up to were he alive today. He'd be
    blogging, of course, hourly not weekly. And he would certainly be arguing
    back against his biographers-and his hagiographers. But what would he make
    of Barack Obama and the crisis that capitalism faces? Surely he would be as
    glad and surprised as most of us that an African-American had reached the
    White House, but I imagine he would be after the president for allowing Wall
    Street to maintain such close ties to the Treasury, and he would be pushing
    the administration to accelerate troop withdrawal from Iraq, legislate a
    single-payer health care system, appoint some fellow radicals to the Supreme
    Court and, of course, he would still be looking for lies . and finding them.

    Would that he were still alive and kicking.

    Mark Dowie, a founder of Mother Jones magazine, is an award-winning
    journalist and author of several books, including "Losing Ground: American
    Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century," "American
    Foundations: An Investigative History" and the just-published "Conservation
    Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native
    Peoples" (MIT Press).
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