A problem for the reviewer: Whether to begin by reading I.F.Stone’s own writings, as presented in a collection of the best of hiscollected essays, or to start with MacPherson’s biography of thislegendary journalist? Both approaches are defensible, but ultimately,the decision was made to absorb how Stone himself perceived importantevents and then to use his beliefs as a check against his biographer’sexamination of his life.
I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a one-man newsletter publishedbetween 1953 and 1971, was as independent of outside influences asStone: suspicious of governments and the spin they put on events,fiercely intolerant of demagoguery, fearful of man’s potential forcausing nuclear disaster, and although a philosophical supporter ofZionism, critical of the State of Israel. In his weekly analyses, Stoneilluminated these issues, challenged popular ideas, and engaged hisdevoted readers to refine their beliefs and identify heroes.
Karl Weber, editor of The Best of I.F. Stone, choseand annotated a series of essays written by Stone over three decades,including some originally published elsewhere. Organized by theme, theseworks illustrate Stone the conversationalist, the occasional satirist,but always the polemicist who is committed to exposing sacred cows andto supporting human rights. Stone’s basic philosophy may be understoodby reading a 1949 essay: “…you cannot have freedom without the riskof its abuse. The men who wrote the Bill of Rights were willing to taketheir chances on freedom…everything we know from the past teaches usthat suppression in the long run provides an illusory security, and thisis why, though I am a socialist, I am also a libertarian.” Stone’s unintentionally prophetic words provide insight for different eras, and certainly for our own.
Stone’s position on Israel-as-political-entity was morecomplicated and controversial. Although passionately identified with theright of Jews to survive after facing “the authenticated horrors of the Nazi internment camps and death chambers,” Stoneopposed the seizure of Arab-owned lands. He detested the Americangovernment’s equivocation when they had a chance to save Jews (althoughhe exonerated Roosevelt from blame) and decried the way Jews viewed theArabs with “contemptuous superiority,” while acknowledging theArabs’ intransigence at their unwillingness to accept a Jewish state inPalestine. Yet he ultimately expected Jews to observe a higher moralstandard: “…if Jews, after all their experience of suffering, proveno better once in the majority than the rest of mankind, what hope for aworld as torn apart as ours is by tribalism and hate.”
Izzy Stone’s writings illuminated the important issues ofhis age. This explains the popularity and resilience of his weeklynewsletter. His richly-nuanced essays were entertaining and provocative.They reveal Stone, the man, as we confirm by reading Myra MacPherson’scomprehensive biography, All Governments Lie.
This is a readable, interesting depiction of Stone’spersonal and professional life. MacPherson conveys her admiration forher subject, but by unintentionally embracing the iconography ofStone — the-independent, the courageous maverick, the early supporter ofcivil rights and opponent of Vietnam policy, she yields more insightsinto how similar she and Stone are, politically, than into thedimensions of Stone’s richly nuanced arguments. Fearful of having hisjudgment compromised by being too close to Washington’s decision-makers,Stone courted neutrality as he did most things, passionately, whichMacPherson underscores by contrasting him with Walter Lippmann, theultimate insider to the Washington establishment. Yet, while this servesher purpose of elevating Stone to heroic stature by placing himsquarely on the side of the voiceless who encounter injustices whichneed to be righted, the effect often is to offer Stone as merely anemblematic figure, thus mitigating his complexity.
This may be a problem with attempting to dissect an idol.One’s eye may move too close to the magnifying glass. But MacPherson isconsistent in her view of her subject, and her thorough research assistsher in conveying to the reader a fully-formed, knowable human being.This contrasts with the encomia offered upon his death by formercritics, who pulled Stone “into the realm of the respectables,” in thewords of Alexander Cockburn of the Nation.
Izzy Stone died precisely two weeks after troops suppressedthe Tiananmen Square uprising. This event would have given him much towrite about since he earlier had supported the pro-democracydemonstrations, as MacPherson indicates. Seventeen years after bothevents, books are still being written about this unique journalist.Attention must be paid.