Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sol Stern on Ramparts

Sol Stern, one of Ramparts magazine's key staff writers, just published a piece in City Journal on the magazine and its legacy. Sol either wrote or contributed to some of Ramparts' most important articles, including two on the CIA's involvement with Michigan State University and the National Student Association (NSA). He also wrote the first big piece on the Black Panthers for the New York Times Magazine. In short, his perspective on Ramparts and its achievement is a very valuable one.

In this new article, Sol argues that Ramparts' legacy "was not a positive one for the country." He recalls Warren Hinckle's improvidence and appetite for conspiracy theories, and he regrets his own role in creating "the myth of the Black Panthers as righteous rebels fighting off brutal police oppression." Sol also laments the turn the magazine took after David Horowitz and Peter Collier took over. For him, Exhibit A is the May 1970 cover, which showed the Isla Vista branch of the Bank of America in flames, the culmination of student protests at UC Santa Barbara. The caption declared that the incineration of the bank "may have done more for the environment than all the teach-ins put together."

Sol makes a number of other points, but you get the idea. He also maintains that whatever good the magazine did was for the wrong reasons. After questioning the claim in my subtitle--that Ramparts magazine changed America--Sol concedes the point but characterizes that change as "baleful."

Sol's article suggests that my book is unclear about the nature of that change, but I spell it out clearly in the final chapter. Ramparts magazine changed America by reviving the muckraking tradition, by triggering the first attempts to rein in the CIA, and by promoting the civil rights, anti-war, and Black Power movements.

I agree with Sol (and Bob Scheer) that the left's contempt for Cold War liberals was, on balance, counterproductive. Many Ramparts folks I interviewed were ambivalent at best about the Panthers, and most agreed that the Ho-Coll years, when the Bank of America cover appeared, were not the magazine's heyday. But even if we grant Sol's misgivings about the magazine's specific contributions and motives, I think the scale still tilts toward a positive effect on the nation's media, governance, and society.

Consider, for example, the case of Dr. Martin Luther King. While Ronald Reagan was receiving standing ovations for his opposition to fair housing legislation, Ramparts was a staunch ally of Dr. King. When King decided to oppose the war after reading "The Children of Vietnam" in Ramparts, he submitted the text of his famous Riverside Church speech to the magazine, which ran it the next month. Predictably, the mainstream media criticized King for coming out against the war, which even LBJ knew was unwinnable. As Ramparts staffer Bill Turner asked me rhetorically, "When you look back on it, where else would those articles appear? The Saturday Evening Post?"

Consider, too, the case of the CIA. When Ramparts exposed the agency's links to Michigan State University and the NSA, readers were shocked, but that indicates how little Americans knew about the agency's more nefarious activities. The CIA responded by launching an illicit investigation of the magazine and then widening that investigation to include other publications. When Sy Hersh exposed that surveillance in the New York Times, Congress set up its first oversight committees. We soon learned about a wide range of CIA and FBI mischief, including COINTELPRO (to investigate Dr. King and others) and the CIA's recruitment of American mobsters to whack Castro.

i would argue that Ramparts was on the right side of history in both cases. Or would we rather live in a country where the government illegally spies on its civic leaders and journalists, allows landlords to rent only to whites, and decimates countries like Vietnam when that serves some geopolitical purpose?

If those questions hit a little too close to home, maybe that's because they aren't merely academic.

This has become a long post, so I'll leave it here for now. But I encourage you to read Sol's piece and see what you think.



At 2:20 PM , Blogger ronradosh said...

Those interested in my response to Stern, Collier and Richardson may read it at:

Or go to www.pajamasmedia.com/ronradosh and it will open up.

Ron Radosh


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