Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Great I. F. Stone

I just finished one of the more exciting projects of my career--selecting and writing brief introductions for a selection of articles by the great dissenting journalist I. F. Stone (1907-1989). The collection will be published in book form this fall by PublicAffairs, the imprint of Perseus Books founded by my friend Peter Osnos, under the title of The Best of I. F. Stone.

The book will include 65 pieces written between 1940 and 1971, covering topics including World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, Civil Rights, the rise of the military-industrial complex, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Vietnam. Most were originally published in I. F. Stone's Weekly, the newsletter Stone wrote and published from 1953 to 1971; the rest appeared in The Nation and The New York Review of Books, as well as in anthologies that are now out of print. (An online archive of the Weekly is currently under development but not yet available.)

I never knew "Izzy" Stone, but he is a legendary figure among journalists, especially, of course, on the left. If you don't know much about him, this lively, affectionate appreciation by Victor Navasky of The Nation would be a fine place to start. Stone is best known for his remarkable investigative journalism, based on exhaustive reading and analysis of public documents--The Congressional Record, transcripts of government hearings, grand jury testimony, obscure federal reports, court filings, intelligence briefings, foreign newspaper clippings, etc. etc.--in search of the revealing quotation, the inadvertant disclosure, or the crucial discrepancy that would bring down an elaborately-constructed edifice of official lies, which the mainstream media had usually accepted at face value.

So shrewd were Stone's judgments and so sound his instincts that his writings were repeatedly prescient. In 1945, he worried that U.S. policy in the post-war period would lead to a hostile confrontation with our Russian allies. In the same year, he said that a future Jewish state in the Middle East could never be fully secure until the Palestinian Arabs had a homeland of their own. When McCarthy was just a blip on the national scene, Stone was warning about his talent for demagoguery. In 1955, months before the Montgomery bus boycott, he was writing that the only hope for a peaceful resolution of the race crisis was the emergence of a Black "American Gandhi." And in 1961, he warned of the danger that an overreaching U.S. empire might become embroiled in an unwinnable war in a little-known country called Vietnam.

In this respect, Stone's journalism holds up better today than that of his more famous and more widely admired British counterpart, George Orwell. Scan the four-volume collection of Orwell's newspaper and magazine writings edited by his widow Sonia and you'll find plenty of sharp insights and memorable writing--and also quite a few wildly off-target attempts at prognosticating the future. Which is not totally surprising--after all, despite the frequency with which the title 1984 is used to evoke the horrors of totalitarianism, the post-war world didn't really evolve along the lines Orwell envisioned in that book.

Stone's gifts also extended far beyond great investigative journalism. His writings include excellent examples of satire, travel narratives, personality profiles, policy analyses, philosophical ruminations, and spot reporting. He wrote a wonderfully vivid and funny account of the gathering of right-wing loonies that nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, a blistering psychological analysis of the warmongering Air Force general Curtis LeMay (in the form of a review of LeMay's autobiography), an insightful sketch of life among Blacks and whites in rural Arkansas at the height of the Little Rock integration crisis, and touching tributes to Albert Einstein and Fiorello LaGuardia on their deaths. (All are included in the forthcoming collection.)

It goes without saying that the world could surely use another I. F. Stone today. In fact, if Stone were alive, there's no doubt in my mind that he would be blogging. How delighted he would be to be able to instantly post his latest discoveries from the worlds of government malfeasance, corporate skulduggery, and political corruption, complete with active links to the documents proving his charges. Since that's impossible, I encourage every liberal blogger to read the great man's writings, learn from him, and (hopefully) imbibe a little of his humane, passionate spirit.

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