. . . to live in
D.D. Guttenplan's definitive new biography,
American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone,
brings to mind the parallels between his idiosyncratic
career and KPFA's uniquely uncensored and
unabridged radio journalism.
In the early 1960s, I. F. Stone and KPFA had much in common. Don Guttenplan writes:
"Investigative reader" — a seminal phrase that takes us back to the traditions of classical scholarship, in pursuit of which Izzy would spend his final years. In similar fashion, the KPFA newsroom in those days was occupied by the News Director and one or two volunteers, poring over the latest New York Times together with well-thumbed stacks of official documents and highbrow periodicals. In the background, the teletype chattered away with the AP newspaper wire service – not the radio wire, which was minimal.
The daily evening news slot was followed by a roster of commentators who provided fifteen-minute analyses, some of which were recorded in the studio and others sent in on five-inch tape reels. I remember several of the latter coming from I. F. Stone, none of which seem to have survived. What a loss!
And so his first appearance on KPFA that anyone remembers is his hour-long slot in the 1963 Vietnam Day Teach-In on the UC Berkeley campus [right]. While Izzy was deftly scuttling the Washington Ship of Fools, I was back in the studio, keeping the telephone line feed on the air and doing the air-check. If I or the tape recorder had malfunctioned that day, one of the great I. F. Stone documents would have been lost forever. You can listen to it here.
Guttenplan goes to great lengths to strip away the cozy elder statesman image with which the establishment media attempted to sanitize Stone in his later years. An ardent supporter of the new State of Israel, he nevertheless had from the beginning an active sympathy with the Palestinian Arabs who were displaced to make it possible. Not for him the glib myth of “a land without a people”. In 1956 he wrote from Jerusalem:
"It is time," Stone insisted, "we American Jews balked [at] the tail-wag-the-dog tactics of drift and hard-line Israeli politics." Today as much as ever, such sentiments would, in the eyes of the “Israel Lobby”, consign him to the "self-hating" ghetto. (In quoting them with implied approval, Guttenplan risks placing himself in the same category.) Nevertheless, I. F. Stone, possessing as he did a profoundly open mind and a subtle intellect, insisted on maintaining at the same time his identification with his own people and with the displaced Palestinians. Similarly, when asked how he could express such strong sympathy for the slave owner Thomas Jefferson, he replied, “Because history is a tragedy, not a melodrama”. Carve it on the wall!
This Hellenic dichotomy was to occupy the final years of Stone's creative life and would take him deeper inside the minds of Socrates and his Athenian contemporaries than many a complacent classical scholar had been able or willing to penetrate. The latter were often so enamored of Socrates’ unflappable One-Upmanship that they chose to ignore the profoundly anti-democratic content of his arguments, and they did not take kindly to Izzy's storming their ivory towers.
Stone was painfully aware of the lofty detachment that comes so easily to the intellectual who places himself above the society to which he regards himself as morally and intellectually superior. Between them, Stone and Guttenplan sum it up beautifully:
As accelerating consumption, compulsive gambling, unchecked soil depletion and ultimate energy exhaustion bring civilization crashing down about our ears, the cacophony of our Socratic word games would make Nero’s legendary fiddle-scraping sound sweetly melodic.
In a life as immersed in Washington’s dirty secrets as was Izzy's, there were bound to be events and ramifications that even Don Guttenplan’s twenty years of burrowing couldn’t dig up. In a long conversation in 1993, Chris Koch, himself a prize-winning investigative journalist and media producer, told me of Stone’s sudden and unexplained volte face over one of the biggest muck-raking exposés of the middle 1960s. He's worth quoting at length; you can listen to him here:
What’s the explanation? Did someone or something put the fear of God into the ardent atheist? We’ll probably never know. Several years ago I gave Chris’s email address to Don, who wrote to him to find out more. He never got a reply. In June 2009 over dinner in Paris (my first reunion with Chris since the above conversation), I asked him why he hadn’t responded to Don’s enquiry and was told that the e-mail never reached him. What a shame! If two of the best investigative journalists I’ve ever known had blended their potent mixtures, the spontaneous combustion might still be blazing!
In 1988, a year before he died, I. F. Stone was engaged in a two-hour public conversation in New York sponsored by the New School and The Nation. Recorded by WBAI and subsequently broadcast by Pacifica’s other stations, it was sent to me on cassette by the late Ned Paynter, my dear friend who can be heard elsewhere on this website. The event, a fitting tribute to a glorious life, can be heard here and then here.
Budding young muckrakers who have read Barbara Ehrenreich's commencement address to the 2008 journalism graduating class at UC Berkeley will know that I. F. Stone’s rocky road to self-publication may be the only one now open to them. In these internet blogging days, that’s not so difficult or expensive as it used to be, but there are millions already out there trying to outshout each other.
Izzy’s epic narrative is fortunate to have in Don Guttenplan a surviving scholar/journalist who has traveled the same road. Having himself experienced the obstacles that lie in the path of truth-telling, he is able to capture vividly the exitement, the frustration and the ultimate satisfaction of picking the locks on doors that our rulers intend to remain firmly shut. If you're over fifty, this biography will be an extraordinary recreation of some of recent history's worst and best moments; if you're under thirty and want to tell it like it is, it will show you what you're up against.
©2009 John Whiting