Jonathan Mirsky reviews D.D. Guttenplan’s biography of I.F. Stone in ‘The New York Review of Books’.
I have a couple of thoughts, not totally connected; I’ll follow the order of their appearance in the piece.
Guttenplan notes that Stone saw himself reflected in the central character in Jack London’s ‘Martin Eden’. Stone said “I look to the state for nothing. I look only to the strong man, the man on horseback, to save the state from its own rotten futility”.
This is a sense of government that We lost after the 1930s were swallowed up by the 1940s: World War Two and then the Cold War. The engaged folk of the 1930s were tempered by the Depression, and saw the increasing “iron triangle” (they wouldn’t have used that phrase) of government-and-wealth (the new corporate kind) as oppressing the working folk of America. There wasn’t so much of a middle-class then, raised up by the wealth generated from the 1940s war production and then launched into the suburbs in the later 1940s by the automobile.
And they saw that the War to End All Wars that had ended in 1918 had accomplished no such thing, despite Woodrow Wilson’s ringing assurances. They felt more than a little bamboozled. And they sensed that it was precisely the government in Washington that had been the agent of the scam.
There wasn’t so much of a middle-class (and I don’t use the term disparagingly, or quite in the sense that the Boomers used the term ‘bourgeois’ in the later 1960s) embrace of ‘respectability’ and ‘fitting in’. In the 1930s folks were starving, even though they were working as hard as they could (when there were jobs for them) and the only decent thing anybody of good-heart could do was to try to fix that.
And there wasn’t yet the emphasis on national order and organization and teamwork that was imparted by the experience of dozens of millions of Americans, on the fighting fronts and on the home front.
Nor the deep need for some peace-and-quiet felt by the former children of the Depression who were also the military and civilian veterans of the massive deprivations and exertions of World War Two. And their desire to make sure that their kids – the aforementioned Boomers – had a better time of it than they had.
The engaged adults of the 1930s felt themselves duty-bound to try to improve the lot of the average American, and they felt that to do so they had to vigorously engage the government and show it the error of its ways. Which is precisely what a democracy is all about.
Alas, the governments of the Soviet Union and Mussolini’s Italy seemed to be more vitally concerned for their people and more successful at providing for them than the Wall Street-wracked American government. After Wilson in 1913 gave the power over the currency and the fiscal system to the very bankers of the Federal Reserve who most folks would have imagined to be the foxes who should not be guarding the national henhouse, it seemed like there was a cabal in Washington far more immediately dangerous to Americans than whatever might be happening in governments elsewhere. (In the early 1930s, Hitler had not yet come to power, and it wasn’t til the mid-1930s that his monstrosity started to become evident outside Germany.)
So a lot of those 1930s concerned intellectuals and activists wound up taking a closer and somewhat wistful look at the Soviet system. That system was shrewdly spinning itself to the world as the ‘workers’ paradise’ and making all the right noises and wearing all the right clothes to induce the civilized peoples of the planet to imagine that here, at last, was a government that was working for its people – and not indentured to its Big Money classes.
Alas, nobody realized then that a government can become as monstrous if it indentures itself to a ‘revolution’ and a ‘revolutionary ideology’ as a government that indentures itself to Big Money. And, after all, every government – possessed of a monopoly of power and authority – seeks first to preserve and extend itself … that’s what governments, and all living organisms, do. That’s why the Framers built such a careful cage around theirs – and folks still remembered that then, though We certainly have forgotten it now.
And so Stone, vital and energetic, poured his energies into genuine active efforts on behalf of the average American, taking his encouragement where he might find it. Thus “the strong man on horseback” (a pose Mussolini particularly liked to strike whenever the cameras were rolling).
In this kindler gentler era I’m not so much worried about a “man on horseback” as I am about a national Daddy or Mommy, whose parental wisdom would guide the gaggle of unenlightened citizens. Sort of like John Wayne riding herd on – well, the herd – except without all the macho, ‘traditional’ Wild West stuff like a horse and the sweaty, imposing leather accoutrements. But still with a six-shooter, hidden somewhere – no government, no matter whether a Daddy or a Mommy or a Nanny – ever gives up its six-shooter; sometimes, with blundering herds, you have to fire off a few rounds, or even take down one or two of the offending mammals so as to encourage the others. It’s what governments do.
Stone sensed a (or, in his words, “the”) “rotten futility” of government. It’s not hard, sometimes, to feel that way. But if that’s what We’re going to settle for then We might as well close up shop now rather than wither away into herd-dom. And I still feel like We as Citizens have a responsibility to improve the heritage that Our forebears passed on, for the sake of future generations, not only here but around the world. In that sense, especially, I embrace the mantra “for the children”. But it’s also for Ourselves, because in allowing government to go bad through Our own lack of civic competence or civic courage is to betray Ourselves, and each other. We are all – despite what the multicults and the rabid-Right loonies insist – Americans with responsibilities: to each other, to Our common American heritage, and to the rest of humankind – present and future.
How, I sometimes wonder, can anybody be bored here? This isn’t enough to make a life meaningful?
Guttenplan goes on to note that Stone displayed an ability “to get to the bottom of things”. Yes. The 1930s generations weren’t quite so trapped on the level of appearances – they knew that there was a substance and a reality to things, and that more often than not it was hidden away down below somewhere. And it was preferable that the non-elite and those not ‘in the know’ didn’t go looking beyond what ‘information’ was sprinkled upon them by their enlightened betters. To which Stone would have said Phooey and Baloney. And upon him be much peace.
In 1933 Stone wrote “The way to a Soviet America, the one way out that could make a real difference to the working classes, was closed”.
A couple of things.
Clearly We can see that in some of his beliefs Stone, like many of his cohorts, was wrong: the last thing America or any nation should undergo is a Soviet-style government. But We can also see that although they wrote and spoke and tirelessly tried to persuade, they did not mount a coordinated effort to effect a ‘revolution’ here. They went digging, and reported back to the Citizens. But they never chose to take it upon themselves to see to it that their ‘vision’ was imposed upon the Citizenry.
Which cannot be said for later generations (see my immediately previous Post “Michael Lind’s ‘The Next American Nation’” of September 29th). Whether in waging a ‘revolution’ or a ‘war on’ this or that, far too many eager and certain souls among Us have gone gaga over imposing what they think will work best, for Us all or at least for their own favored demographic. And the government – over the past few decades – has shown itself not simply to be responsive but to be invertebrate in its serious deliberations as to what might be and might not be such a great idea.
Second, the “working class” has had a tough time of it. In the 1930s it was attacked, as always, by Big Money – especially the corporate kind. In the 1960s and since it has been under sustained assault from the erstwhile Liberals, a ‘New Left’ that has left the ‘Old Left’ of Stone’s era in history’s dustbin. Again, see my immediately previous Post: whether from Multiculturalism and the more radical elements of Feminism, or from the corporate-worshipping Rightists who see building military equipment – and using it – as pretty much the perfect solution to everything that bethumps Us.
Nor did he lightly yield his hopes, even the misplaced ones. It took until 1956 (the year of the Hungarian uprising, brutally suppressed by the Soviets) for him to declare that “the Soviet Union is not a good society and it is not led by honest men”. Spare me the ejaculation that if only the Soviets had allowed women into their government, things would have been much different, much kinder and gentler. It’s hard to let go of hopes and admit that you had misplaced yourself emotionally and intellectually – who wants to admit that? And in so doing cast yourself once again onto the arid plain of a human History whose evil seems always and everywhere to triumph over its good?
And is it too “quaint” to expect that a government be led by “honest men” (or, yes, women)? When was the last time you asked yourself if your government was so led? Or is it simply enough that this or that elected personage makes the right noises and the desired choices for your taste?
But before that he had degraded himself somewhat by trying to defend the Moscow show trials of 1937: “Revolutions do not take place according to Emily Post [google her].The birth of a new social order, like the birth of a human being, is a painful process”.
That’s actually a bit of ‘realism’ in its way. Very big changes in the social order are bound to be messy things; especially when they are imposed by those cadres who ‘get it’ upon the unenlightened masses who ‘just don’t get it’. Which is why the Framers were especially concerned that a competent Citizenry would have the authority to deliberate before knocking down walls (decorative walls or carrying walls – there’s a big difference) and throwing all the ‘old’ furniture and books out the nearest window.
But the Boomers had read Mao’s Little Red Book and knew that the Master Helmsman had revealed that “A revolution is not a dinner party”. And indeed, Our own Secretary of Defense but one opined not so long ago that even “democracy” can get messy or untidy (I forget exactly which). Sigh – just the time for Mary Poppins to fast-rope down and clean the mess up. Although both the Helmsman and the Secretary seemed willing to see a lot of stuff – and lives – broken first; perhaps to encourage the others.
But by 1972 he was publishing bitter attacks on the Soviet Union for, among other things, “its use of bogus psychiatry” against dissidents. Surely, especially against males in the past few decades, there has been enough government-approved bogus psychiatry claiming that the entire gender is potentially an ‘enemy of the revolution’. Funny how the night moves, as the songster saith.
A supporter of Israel – and himself Jewish – he finally wrote about the Arab-Israeli conflicts (expanding, rather than receding, with every year): “For me the Arab-Jewish struggle is a tragedy. The essence of tragedy is the struggle of right against right. When evil men do evil, their deeds belong to the realm of pathology. But when good men do evil, we confront the essence of human tragedy”.
Well, I can see where he’s coming from. And where he’s going with this.
But I’m not so sure. I would say that what We have here is a bunch of good people reacting against a terrible wrong, but willing to do much evil in order to accomplish their good intentions; while a bunch of other decent folk are resisting the plan that casts them as extras in some drama where they are destined to be very expendable indeed.
It’s the good folks doing evil that sticks in the craw.
There is a Sin in the world, the sum of sin in human hearts but also – I believe – supported by a grand Puppeteer of Evil residing just offstage. And well-intentioned human beings may be tempted to take short-cuts, to take an easy or at least a quick path to their goals, no matter what it costs. That cost is far too often seen as some price to be paid by others, but the well-intentioned themselves inevitably wind up darkening their own selves and souls. And imprinting on themselves a dark pathology indeed.
This may indeed be tragedy in some definition of the concept, but when the well-intentioned intentionally do evil or start a predictable chain reaction that they gamble will not sustain itself but then it does and they have to descend deeper and deeper along steep dark paths … then I’m not sure ‘tragedy’ is the accurate descriptor.
But something akin to it, perhaps.
In 1963 he was already writing that the war in Southeast Asia was being lost. He hadn’t gone over there, but he had gone to France to consult the French who had just recently gotten whipped out of the place (which is how We – flush with cash, might, and good intentions – came to find the rental available). He knew just from putting the elements together in a sort of ‘virtual’ gaming (before there was any such virtual equipment) that this thing would never stay in the air, even if got up there.
Other reporters, including Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, went over there but also became – for a while anyway – carried away by the high-ranking smoke-and-mirrors which seem to occupy as many Pentagoons as the fighting itself does. And who wouldn’t want all those kids sent over there in the flush of life and youth to succeed at their assigned task? And upon them all be much peace.
And he got to the bottom of the Tonkin Gulf attacks of 1964 very quickly. They were a) hugely exaggerated and b) triggered by the presence of US military and CIA units carrying out secret attacks on North Vietnam and Laos. As Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense so aptly middle-named “Strange”, revealed and confirmed, finally, decades later. Nice of him to let Us know.
I keep asking myself, in regard to this or that current development: is this something that’s going to do a lot of damage, that could be stopped or reworked now, rather than have it admitted ‘finally’ decades down the road from now, when all the damage has already been done? It’s an unpleasant question, especially if you keep room in your mind to ask it frequently or make a habit of it … but how else does a Citizenry keep an eye on the government that works for It? Government, as the Framers saw, is not some half-dozey, friendly old rent-a-horse you pick up at a stable for 50 bucks an hour; it’s a very high-powered war-horse that really has a mind of its own and intends to take the hour you just paid for to pursue its own plans and amusements. So you need to keep a tight grip on the reins, sit right in the civic saddle, and show it just who’s boss. Or you will wind up on your butt in the cactus and out the 50 bucks as well.
But maybe We sort of see that now.