Truthdigger of the Week: Columnist William Pfaff
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Born in Iowa, educated at the University of Notre Dame, William Pfaff was “all-American in his origins,” as The Atlantic’s James Fallows notes in his May 2 tribute to the writer. And although Pfaff never turned away from his American roots, he had the courage to defy mainstream media and establishment politics and present a consistent, thorough bird’s-eye view of failing U.S. foreign policy.
Perhaps it was his military service in the Korean War that, as Pankaj Mishra speculates in The New York Review of Books, “made him particularly alert to the trauma and resentments of societies conquered or manipulated by the modern West.” While much of the American media regurgitated the Bush administration’s lies before and during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, Pfaff denounced what he called “a crisis of thought and assumption in the mainstream intellectual community over foreign policy.” That crisis, he wrote, led to an unquestioned “war on terror … founded on an edifice of illusions.”
It wasn’t just the Middle East interventions he opposed, but also those that occurred earlier in Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Panama, among other places. Pfaff called attention to the belief in manifest destiny that time and again has led the United States into failed military campaigns and has, to use political analyst David Reiff’s words, turned the U.S. into “a danger to the world and to itself.”
In an interview for UC Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies “Conversations With History” series (which you can watch below and read in full here) Pfaff said:
American society is very preoccupied with itself. It’s a rich society, it’s intensely interesting, and the rest of the world has never been of that much interest to Americans. We are an intellectually isolated society. I don’t think there’s much that’s going to change that. Nonetheless, I must say, I think the press does a very bad job, and much worse than it did even 20 or 30 years ago, in telling people about the rest of the world. And then they say, “Well, nobody is interested!” But one reason nobody is interested is nobody makes an effort to interest them—there’s a vicious circle here.
He went on to criticize what he described as the extreme difficulty faced by journalists and diplomats who seek to present views that differ from Washington’s narrative. That condition, he said, keeps U.S. citizens in the dark about what is occurring abroad, both in countries that we invade and other Western nations that have structures and ideologies that differ from our own.
Pfaff spoke of his encounters with American visitors, especially youths, in Paris, where he lived:
You realize that for them, America is so totally the norm, and nothing in their education has ever made them test anything against an external reference. There is no external reference in their minds. There are merely satellites to America that exist, which may be worth exploring out of curiosity, or out of a scholarly interest, but the notion that there is an alternate reference, a way of making a civilization and of living your life, comes as a blinding revelation to them.
Pfaff died in Paris at the age of 86 on April 30 as a result of complications from a fall. A dedicated writer to the end, he filed his last column only eight days before his death, according to his syndicate, the Tribune Content Agency.
I read the news of Pfaff’s death in Brazil, where I was working at the time, just as I was preparing to post his weekly column on Truthdig. Like Pfaff, I have spent much of my career writing from abroad, sometimes from Europe, sometimes from Latin America. Being in these radically different locales has informed my understanding of the United States, the pride instilled in me as a child of immigrants eager to assimilate in their new home, and the anger and sadness I have felt at domestic media that allow the machinations of political and corporate elite to go unchecked. But whenever I read Pfaff’s columns, whether they concerned U.S. follies in the Middle East or, more recently, our approach to the crisis in Ukraine, I heard a sensitive voice of reason calling for the sort of measured, empathetic policies that have been ruled out by fearmongering and misinformation.
Although Pfaff shared my disillusionments concerning our home country, there was hope for the nation’s future in his words every week. His wife, Carolyn Cleary, said after his death, “He lashed out at America because he loved it, but he became sadder and sadder about the nation that was so great, yet was belittling itself. He wanted America to stay home and fix its own country.”
Pfaff’s even voice had faded from much of American mainstream media, where he often was seen as a wayward iconoclast. Fallows wrote: “One reason Pfaff’s name is no longer as well-known as it should be in the United States is that he did not live by the rules of the modern media-industrial complex. He moved to Paris in 1971, in his early 40s, and never moved back. If he ever appeared on an American TV program, I don’t remember seeing it. Although I felt as if I knew him, through the clarity of his expression and thought, I never saw or heard him in person. Until I went looking for pictures of him just now, I had no idea what he looked like, and I still don’t know how his voice would sound.”
At Truthdig, Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer wrote, “On foreign policy he was our conscience to the end, an informed establishment voice of rare integrity … someone we were truly honored to publish.”
For all this, William Pfaff is our Truthdigger of the Week.
To read Pfaff’s columns, published on Truthdig since 2008, click here.