Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I'm With Izzy

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann offers his contribution to what he describes as the "hot-blooded new debate" about I.F. Stone. (No link because the article isn't available online.) This debate was sparked, of course, by the Myra McPherson biography as well as by the collection, The Best of I.F. Stone, which I edited for Peter Osnos at Public Affairs.

Lemann joins Paul Berman (in the Times Book Review) and Geoffrey Wheatcroft (in the New York Observer)--to say nothing of avowedly rightwing critics at places like The Weekly Standard--in faulting Stone for being soft on Soviet Communism. And like those other writers, he devotes many paragraphs and much energy to parsing the question of just how soft Stone was--nearly as much space as he devotes to everything else Stone ever said or did.

Focus narrowly on the critics' accusation and you might be inclined to agree with them. Immerse yourself in Stone's lifetime of journalism, as I did when editing the collection, and you'll probably come away wishing that he'd condemned Stalin earlier and in stronger terms. But it's hard to see why this issue should dominate the conversation about Stone fifty years after Stalin's death. It's not as though Stone's work was centered on Russian politics, European affairs, or the Communist and Socialist movements. He actually wrote rather little about these topics, except insofar as they affected American politics. To judge Stone's journalistic legacy primarily on the retrospective correctness of his attitude toward Stalin strikes me as perverse.

Lemann actually touches on this argument (as articulated, in McPherson's book, by Stone's son Christopher), and he dismisses it:

Stone was not only one of the leading journalists of the last century; he was specifically a moralist with a grand global scope. It seems more than a small oversight that he mainly missed the story of the greatest mass murderer in history.
But this subtly mischaracterizes Stone's work. Stone worked as a journalist throughout World War Two, and his writings during those years focused mainly on the management of the war effort in Washington. Does that mean he "missed the story" of the Holocaust? During the sixties and seventies, he wrote very little about South Africa or China. Did he "miss the story" of apartheid or the Cultural Revolution? In all three cases, the answer is No--because those stories weren't the ones Stone was after. No single reporter can cover everything in the world, and none really try. Stone was unequalled at getting the stories he went after--and they were big ones.

A zealous crusader for freedom, Stone focused his crusade on the country and the people he knew and loved best--America and Americans. His mandate in the Weekly was to write what most Americans weren't reading in their daily papers. In the 1950s, there was no shortage of editorial-page denunciations of Soviet tyranny. But there was a shortage of reporting about the growing power of the military-industrial complex, the abuses of Hoover's FBI, the insanity of mutually assured destruction, and the repression of American Negroes. Stone aimed to fill that void.

The result was a body of journalism much of which remains as insightful and relevant in the era of Iraq and the Patriot Act as it was in the age of Vietnam or the period of McCarthyism and the Blacklist.

Lemann (like the other critics) can't help acknowledging Stone's journalistic achievements:

Stone was a courageous independent voice in the conformist Cold War years, who shunned organizational life, stood up for civil liberties, and aggressively questioned the government at a time when the best-known journalists were cheerleaders. He was an impassioned advocate of civil rights long before the great events of the civil-rights movement. He opposed the Vietnam War well before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in 1964, and was one of the first journalists to question it. . . [He also had] a dazzling mind . . . even as an old man he had a young man's moral passion . . . [and] he was an excellent, if unconventional, reporter, who . . . had a great journalist's instinct for going where the stories were unfolding and for making a place come to life on the page.
This list of talents and accomplishments would be enough, one might think, to earn Stone an unqualified place on the list of great journalists of the century. But I guess not. As Lemann regretfully observes:

almost all of Stone's serious political disputes involved his being more sympathetic to Communism than to whomever he was feuding with.
And evidently these feuds and that misplaced "sympathy" weigh as heavily in Lemann's scales as the vast bulk of Stone's investigative journalism and commentary.

All I can say is: Read Stone for yourself, either in the new collection or in one of the older volumes, organized by decades, that Little, Brown and Random House published and that can still be found on the shelves of many libraries. Then decide how well Stone's political judgments and instincts, even judged with the benefit of hindsight, stand up to comparison with those of his present-day critics.

As for me, I'm with Izzy.

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