THE SPINE OCTOBER 2, 2006
There are three or four living political intellectuals by whose ideas I test my own. I blame none of them for what others may think my excesses. But I am always both eager and nervous to find out what they think. Paul Berman is one of these by whom I judge myself. Maybe it is solipsistic to introduce a third person by what he means to me. But probably you have read him in TNR many times (here, here, and here) and elsewhere, too. He is one of our contributing editors and, therefore, one of our gang.
When Paul writes in others' pages, I immediately feel a kind of sullen envy. But, after reading his essay on a biography of the iconic left-wing journalist I.F. Stone and a new collection of Stone's writings in Sunday's New York Times Book Review, I knew that the Times was the right place for it to appear. Put aside the venues where the nation's hard left does its catechismic readings. A review of "All Governments Lie," The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone in In These Times fails to tell you that Stone somehow believed that the Stalin regime was an exception to this rule. I can hardly wait for Victor Navasky's review in The Nation. He, too, will forget that Stone was actually a petition-signing, crowd-rousing Stalinist until roughly the mid-fifties and that he supported the tyrant in the depredations of the Soviets against his opponents.
The Times's book section was, as I said, right for Berman's review of this biography by Myra MacPherson and of The Best of I.F. Stone, a collection of favs edited by Karl Weber and introduced by Peter Osnos, one of Stone's sixties gophers (Osnos has Stone as one of his three-man inspirational pantheon lauded in a leaf of each of his books at Public Affairs Press, where he works as editor, the two others being Robert Bernstein and Ben Bradlee). And it was right because it is the critical marketplace for the intelligent and literate reader, across politics and across class. And by "across politics," I mean that Berman's readers will include, among others, many sentimental liberals and soft radicals who have never been exposed to a critical treatment of I.F. Stone at all. Berman's reading of Stone is so compelling that it might even affect "pink" or "red diaper" babies.
Berman's treatment of Stone is actually quite balanced. He gives Stone more intellectual and moral leeway than I would. He allows Stone the error of perfervid passion that almost always obliterates complexity. And Berman did Stone the enormous favor of not dealing with the silliest, if not the most malevolent, of his books, The Hidden History of the Korean War, compared by his publishers, Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy of the Monthly Review--fellow-travelers at least, who knows what at most?--to Emile Zola's J'accuse. In his "hidden history," Stone alludes to the founder of modern North Korea, Kim Il Jung, with an analogy to Cadmus, the legendary Phoenician founder of Thebes. What would Stone have said about his son, Kim Jung Il, the successor on the cruel throne of patrilineal communism? After all, Stone, who had been altogether too sympathetic to Stalin (and rarely touched on Stalin's eastern European satraps), was similarly understanding of Mao, Castro, Ho. So why not Kim? Surrounded by South Korean capitalism, Japanese capitalism, Russian capitalism, even Chinese capitalism, isn't Kim being set up for the slaughter?
And while I'm writing about Berman, I want to recount a conversation with him in New York a year, perhaps a year and a half ago. I was asking him to write something for TNR. I forget about what. He suggested another subject. And it was that the two Koreas make for a symptomatic retrospective reading of and a definitive judgment on the cold war. Both countries were founded after the Second World War. But the territory of Korea as a whole had been occupied by Japan since the early twentieth century. The division of Korea into two separate, isolated, and hostile societies set up competing economic and political paradigms, one communist and the other capitalist but authoritarian. How these paradigms evolved is the basis of the intellectual and ethical judgments about which Berman was talking.
Berman has not done the essay. I am hoping he will ... soon. And for our pages.