The Best of I.F. Stone

I. F. Stone; Karl Weber, ed.
  • Review
By – March 26, 2012

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 his col­lect­ed essays, or to start with MacPherson’s biog­ra­phy of this leg­endary jour­nal­ist? Both approach­es are defen­si­ble, but ulti­mate­ly, the deci­sion was made to absorb how Stone him­self per­ceived impor­tant events and then to use his beliefs as a check against his biographer’s exam­i­na­tion of his life. 

I.F. Stone’s Week­ly, a one-man newslet­ter pub­lished between 1953 and 1971, was as inde­pen­dent of out­side influ­ences as Stone: sus­pi­cious of gov­ern­ments and the spin they put on events, fierce­ly intol­er­ant of dem­a­goguery, fear­ful of man’s poten­tial for caus­ing nuclear dis­as­ter, and although a philo­soph­i­cal sup­port­er of Zion­ism, crit­i­cal of the State of Israel. In his week­ly analy­ses, Stone illu­mi­nat­ed these issues, chal­lenged pop­u­lar ideas, and engaged his devot­ed read­ers to refine their beliefs and iden­ti­fy heroes. 

Karl Weber, edi­tor of The Best of I.F. Stone, chose and anno­tat­ed a series of essays writ­ten by Stone over three decades, includ­ing some orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished else­where. Orga­nized by theme, these works illus­trate Stone the con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, the occa­sion­al satirist, but always the polemi­cist who is com­mit­ted to expos­ing sacred cows and to sup­port­ing human rights. Stone’s basic phi­los­o­phy may be under­stood by read­ing a 1949 essay: “…you can­not have free­dom with­out the risk of its abuse. The men who wrote the Bill of Rights were will­ing to take their chances on freedom…everything we know from the past teach­es us that sup­pres­sion in the long run pro­vides an illu­so­ry secu­ri­ty, and this is 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 more com­pli­cat­ed and con­tro­ver­sial. Although pas­sion­ate­ly iden­ti­fied with the right of Jews to sur­vive after fac­ing the authen­ti­cat­ed hor­rors of the Nazi intern­ment camps and death cham­bers,” Stone opposed the seizure of Arab-owned lands. He detest­ed the Amer­i­can government’s equiv­o­ca­tion when they had a chance to save Jews (although he exon­er­at­ed Roo­sevelt from blame) and decried the way Jews viewed the Arabs with con­temp­tu­ous supe­ri­or­i­ty,” while acknowl­edg­ing the Arabs’ intran­si­gence at their unwill­ing­ness to accept a Jew­ish state in Pales­tine. Yet he ulti­mate­ly expect­ed Jews to observe a high­er moral stan­dard: “…if Jews, after all their expe­ri­ence of suf­fer­ing, prove no bet­ter once in the major­i­ty than the rest of mankind, what hope for a world as torn apart as ours is by trib­al­ism and hate.” 

Izzy Stone’s writ­ings illu­mi­nat­ed the impor­tant issues of his age. This explains the pop­u­lar­i­ty and resilience of his week­ly newslet­ter. His rich­ly-nuanced essays were enter­tain­ing and provoca­tive. They reveal Stone, the man, as we con­firm by read­ing Myra MacPherson’s com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy, All Gov­ern­ments Lie.

This is a read­able, inter­est­ing depic­tion of Stone’s per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life. MacPher­son con­veys her admi­ra­tion for her sub­ject, but by unin­ten­tion­al­ly embrac­ing the iconog­ra­phy of Stone — the-inde­pen­dent, the coura­geous mav­er­ick, the ear­ly sup­port­er of civ­il rights and oppo­nent of Viet­nam pol­i­cy, she yields more insights into how sim­i­lar she and Stone are, polit­i­cal­ly, than into the dimen­sions of Stone’s rich­ly nuanced argu­ments. Fear­ful of hav­ing his judg­ment com­pro­mised by being too close to Washington’s deci­sion-mak­ers, Stone court­ed neu­tral­i­ty as he did most things, pas­sion­ate­ly, which MacPher­son under­scores by con­trast­ing him with Wal­ter Lipp­mann, the ulti­mate insid­er to the Wash­ing­ton estab­lish­ment. Yet, while this serves her pur­pose of ele­vat­ing Stone to hero­ic stature by plac­ing him square­ly on the side of the voice­less who encounter injus­tices which need to be right­ed, the effect often is to offer Stone as mere­ly an emblem­at­ic 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 is con­sis­tent in her view of her sub­ject, and her thor­ough research assists her in con­vey­ing to the read­er a ful­ly-formed, know­able human being. This con­trasts with the enco­mia offered upon his death by for­mer crit­ics, who pulled Stone into the realm of the respecta­bles,” in the words of Alexan­der Cock­burn of the Nation.

Izzy Stone died pre­cise­ly two weeks after troops sup­pressed the Tianan­men Square upris­ing. This event would have giv­en him much to write about since he ear­li­er had sup­port­ed the pro-democ­ra­cy demon­stra­tions, as MacPher­son indi­cates. Sev­en­teen years after both events, books are still being writ­ten about this unique jour­nal­ist. Atten­tion must be paid.

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

Discussion Questions