Point Austin: Giving Thanks

In a dark time, among us walk ordinary heroes

Point Austin
In general, I'm not a big fan of holiday-themed columns. But this year, despite the twin storms of war and economic crisis, I've got a lot to be thankful for. In particular, I want to mention a couple of people who have passed on and to whom I owe great thanks, because over long, well-lived lives as observers and writers, they did what they could to keep their eyes and ears open and to tell the truth.

The first is the inimitable Studs Terkel, who at the very ripe old age of 96, died at his home in Chicago on Oct. 31, a few days before he might have celebrated the election of Barack Obama along with thousands of other Chicagoans. Near the end, he was mostly housebound, and I suspect he voted absentee. Terkel had been an actor, reporter, radio and TV interviewer, and activist most of his long life – "a long, full, eventful, sometimes tempestuous, but very satisfying life," said his son – and by the end was most famous worldwide for his books of "oral history" (a term he thought pompous) interviews with people from all walks of life. Perhaps the most succinct and heartfelt tribute came from his friend and colleague, the film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote, "He was the most widely and deeply loved man I ever hope to know."

Although famously convivial, Terkel had no use for sanctimony. He would be pleased to know that he still annoyed the high-and-mighty sufficiently that a few days after his death, The New York Times published a sneering retrospective by Edward Roth­stein, who accused Terkel of being overinfluenced by "models shaped by Marxist theory"; worse, Rothstein harrumphed, "He even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class." Now there's a dangerous radical.

When I was just a kid in Indiana, maybe 13, I wrote a letter to Studs thanking him for hosting Stokely Carmichael on his TV show and for talking frankly about race. Remarkably, he wrote me back, advising me "never to be silent." I've tried to keep the faith. Raise at least one glass of red wine this weekend in honor of Studs, and recall this bit of Terkelian wisdom: "Who built the pyramids? It wasn't the goddamn pharaohs who built the pyramids. It was the anonymous slaves."

Hashish for Sale

Although he passed on nearly 20 years ago, I seldom think of Studs without also recalling I.F. Stone (1907-1989), another journalistic hero with a healthy contempt for official power and official information. Stone, who covered Washington virtually on his own for decades, was famous for ignoring press conferences, press releases, and especially "off the record" communication designed to obfuscate and justify as much as inform. Asked how he could hope to cover current events without relying at all on official sources, Stone would say: "Establishment reporters undoubtedly know a lot of things I don't. But a lot of what they know isn't true." I thought of that aphorism often in the run-up to the Iraq war, when most of the entire corps of mainstream journalists, from the Times on down, was uncritically transmitting the pro-war propaganda from its "inside" sources without ever stopping to examine the dishonest presumptions underlying it.

Stone's most famous reporter's dictum was that "All governments lie," almost a truism. Fewer remember his corollary, "but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out." Much of the national and international catastrophe of the last eight years is a consequence of an administration and a political class that has been smoking its own hash. It will take more than one election to purify the air.

Like Terkel, Stone had no taste for sanctimony, and he would be gratified to know that he's still being vilified these days (again in the Times) as a supposed Stalinist sympathizer, which is patent rubbish. A radical all his life, Stone would probably prefer the attacks, however, to being respected as "venerable." "If you live long enough," he said, "the venerability factor creeps in; you get accused of things you never did and praised for virtues you never had."

Humanity's Cross

So here's two cheers and lifelong thanksgiving to Studs and Izzy, and to contemporary reporters in their tradition, who heroically and persistently dig out the news as they find it and tell the truth as best they can. I think most immediately of Seymour Hersh and Amy Goodman, but Jeremy Scahill and Chris Hedges are also on the list, and a host of less well-known writers who work precariously on the slightly disreputable margins of the media but thus are less likely to succumb to the groupthink always in the public air. At the moment, led by the Times, the groupthink is devoted to "centrist pragmatism" – declared to be the only path available to the new Obama administration and to be patrolled on the boundaries by the established media for any deviation from conventional orthodoxy.

Well, I take my wisdom where I find it. Reading through stories about Studs Terkel and I.F. Stone, I came across John Nichols (another fine reporter) quoting, of all people, President Dwight Eisenhower on the futility of war. Consider it something to read aloud over your Thanksgiving dinner, as we wait, once again, for this country to turn away from the out-of-control militarism that has dominated our last dishonorable decade.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed" ("Eisenhower declared in the spring of 1953," wrote Nichols, "as he was dialing down the Korea conflict").

"This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. ... This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."


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Studs Terkel, I.F. Stone

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