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Mark Dowie on I.F. Stone

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Posted on May 29, 2009

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 request?

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.


book cover


American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone


By D. D. Guttenplan


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages


Buy the book

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.

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By dihey, June 2, 2009 at 11:56 am Link to this comment

When the League of Nations expired the United Nations inherited the Mandate of Palestine and with it the also inherited duty to bring this undivided Mandate to the status of self-governance.
Instead the United Nations illegally arrogated to itself the ‘right’ to divide the Mandate into Jewish and Arabic portions. Where did the UN find that right? On Mount Sinai? Guess who the United Nations appointed as the spokesman for the Palestinian Arabs? King Farouk of Egypt! It was all a gigantic scam by the Western Powers who wanted the pesky Zionists off their backs a.s.a.p.
Instead of attacking this monstrous deal I. F. Stone supported what eventually became the major sore spot of the Middle East.
Want more meat on the bones? This is it.
Not enough meat? That is your problem, not mine.
My only mistake was that I called I. F. Stone ‘blind’. He was far from blind. On Israel he was a biased hack journalist. He knew who had murdered the Dutch poet Jacob Israel de Haan in Jerusalem because Jacob had defended the rights of Arabs in British court. Stone knew who had blown up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He knew that the ‘Stern Gang’ and ‘Irgoen’ were terrorist organizations. His silence was criminal.

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By NYCartist, June 2, 2009 at 8:07 am Link to this comment

Inherit the Wind:they had the whole list,but the 3 you mention were not on it.  The obvious: they had to look at the mail to have the list, I would suppose.

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By prgill, June 2, 2009 at 7:25 am Link to this comment

Founder of Mother Jones magazine or not, this review is milque-toast. It does not inspire to buy the book or even, to read more about I.F.Stone.

What’s the matter TD Editors, have you run out of people to write tough reviews? I found Sepharad’s comment about Isaac Babel riding with the Red Army more informative.

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By Inherit The Wind, June 2, 2009 at 4:50 am Link to this comment

NYCartist, June 1 at 5:52 pm #

PS Forgot to say, (senior moment) that the government agency worker went into the boss’ office waving a list of magazine subs as evidence: IF Stone’s Weekly, The Nation and The Catholic Worker (how could you go wrong for a penny for a sub) - reading material = communists indeed in the agency “logic”.

I’ll bet he didn’t show them your sub to Time, Reader’s Digest and Popular Science!

I always figured when they hit my house they’d find my copy of Capital and say “Aha!”  Consequently I always made sure it sat on the shelf between “Wealth of Nations” and “Atlas Shrugged”.

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By NYCartist, June 1, 2009 at 2:52 pm Link to this comment

PS Forgot to say, (senior moment) that the government agency worker went into the boss’ office waving a list of magazine subs as evidence: IF Stone’s Weekly, The Nation and The Catholic Worker (how could you go wrong for a penny for a sub) - reading material = communists indeed in the agency “logic”.

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By NYCartist, June 1, 2009 at 2:40 pm Link to this comment

Good review.  I read IFStone’s Weekly in the mid60s in my mid20s.  Had a sub in the South, where I was with a relative doing Antipoverty program organizing.  A certain federal agency went to my relative’s boss and said, “fire him; they are communists”.  The boss laughed and said, “No”.  I thought it a joke:I was too young to be a communist and as an artist, not very “radical”, although I was a pt time volunteer researcher,etc for a Civil Rights Law office.  Later, I learned about COINTELPRO.

I’d have added other things Izzy would have covered about Obama:Afghanistan, the drones/missiles into Pakistan villages, the torture policies not ended, the SECRECY continuation from Bush Administration, also. I also remember learning that Izzy learned Greek in his 70s or so, so he could read in the original.

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By Sepharad, May 30, 2009 at 11:00 pm Link to this comment

dihey, I.F. Stone was not blind when it came to any subject, especially not Israel, which he knew well and understood.

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By Sepharad, May 30, 2009 at 10:57 pm Link to this comment

Inherit, I also grew up with Izzy Stone’s Weekly and BiWeekly. I’d been trying to write stories since kindergarten, but his writings were what made me want to be a journalist (and of course along with other environmental influences and experiences, shaped my politics and still do). The only equal he had was the fiction writer Isaac Babel, whose stories of the Red Cavalry (which he rode with for a time) are as politically deft as Stone’s commentaries. We could steal the old saying “from Moses to Moses there was no one like Moses”, substituting “from Isaac to Izzy. ...” (Though I’m not sure Maimonides would have approved of either Isaacs’ sentiments, he would have definitely appreciated their depth, independence and perceptiveness.)

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By Night-Gaunt, May 30, 2009 at 12:27 pm Link to this comment

You managed to not answer my question at all. Just a synopsis could have been done by you with the reading recommendation. You stop being lazy by foisting it off to me with nothing but a dismissal. I don’t know when I will be able to afford that book. Can’t you just give me your interpretation of where I.F.Stone was “blind” in respect to Israel? Is it that hard for you to articulate? If so then I will demur. If not then I will ask again one more time. Thank you for your time.

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By dihey, May 30, 2009 at 9:02 am Link to this comment

My recommendation is: please stop being lazy and read “The best of I. F. Stone”, a book edited by Karl Weber with an Introduction by Peter Osnos. What they have to say on this subject exceeds the word limit of this website.

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By Inherit The Wind, May 29, 2009 at 8:40 pm Link to this comment

One should see the MARVELOUS documentary “I.F Stone’s Weekly”.

I grew up with the Weekly, then the Bi-Weekly showing up in our mailbox.  By the time I had an inkling what it was about, and who I.F.Stone was, it was already declining.

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By Pelerin A. Galimatias, May 29, 2009 at 2:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“The Nation, a staunchly pro-Soviet journal of opinion”:  Why did Dowie make this contentious, gratuitous shot at a rival publication in this place?

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By Night-Gaunt, May 29, 2009 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment

Really Dihey, then give us something more than a facile, empty comment? No meat on those bones. Blind in what way? Why bother commenting if you give nothing but your opinion on something you haven’t iterated on. How would I or anyone else know what you mean? That is taking brevity to the point of pointlessness.

Try again. With information this time.

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By dihey, May 29, 2009 at 11:00 am Link to this comment

Unfortunately, this brilliant Izzie was blind when it came to Israel.

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