Praise The Progressive. The June issue of the monthly magazine that is published in Madison, Wis., and read most every place else where bulletins from the front are cherished, carries a ball that the rest of the media dropped. It provides a fitting farewell -- seven pages of space -- to Milton Mayer, one of this century's most clearheaded journalists, teachers and dissenters.
Mayer died a few weeks ago at his home in Carmel, Calif. He was 77, the same age as The Progressive, for which he wrote hundreds of articles since the 1940s as a roving reporter and free-rein prophet. Erwin Knoll, the magazine's editor, said that "Mayer's contributions to The Progressive drew more subscriber mail than any other author's, and at least as many wrote to damn him, and often to cancel their subscriptions, as to praise him. One reader offered to pay extra if we would excise Mayer's articles before mailing him his magazine. Mayer was delighted."
I was one of the many who scanned the magazine first for a Mayer article. You looked for him the way you opened The New Yorker hoping for a piece by E.B. White, or Dissent and Irving Howe, or Saturday Review and John Ciardi. An essay by Mayer would be a balm. It delivered a quick-flash of stylish, idiomatic prose that had both the feel of freshness and the power of personal conviction. Mayer was the rare leftist who was opinionated while being free of fixed opinions. No matter the subject -- from his refusal to pay taxes that go to the military to waggery on strange bedfellows who "do not long remain both strange and bedfellows" -- Mayer could rowel the reader into new perceptions of seemingly roundabout truths.
The uproars stirred at The Progressive by this independent spirit who was once called a Jewish Christian Quaker Thomist were part of the storminess he roused elsewhere. In the Saturday Evening Post in 1939, with World War II about to take 50 million lives, Mayer wrote an essay, "I Think I'll Sit This One Out." He took the pacifist position that he believed in national security as much as anyone except that wars don't bring security -- they bring less security and more wars. "I cannot fight animals their way without turning animal myself," he wrote. "Society may make many demands on me, as long as it keeps me out of the cave. It may take my property. It may take my life. But when it puts me back into the cave I must say, politely but firmly, to hell with society. My ancestors were cannibals without benefit of parliaments."
The article sent enough people into the usual tizzy that the magazine summoned Wendell Wilkie -- who would be running for president in 1940 -- to set Mayer straight. He didn't. Nor did anyone ever. One of Mayer's last essays blazed with as hot an antiwar fire as in the 1939 article. He took on the fashionable 1980s stance that selectively opposes nuclear war but stays mum on conventional wars. Addressing the young who do the fighting, Mayer wrote, "As long as war was non-nuclear, your elders preferred to see you dead than red. But they themselves would rather be anything but dead. So now they crusade against war -- nuclear war . . . Do they mean that non-nuclear is moral and holy? You bet they do. They have always spread their blessing on it. They always will, unless by saying No you convince them that it is war that is immoral and unholy."
Mayer stayed in touch with the young through the classroom. He worked from 1928 to 1937 for the Associated Press. With Robert Hutchins and others, he founded the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. For four decades, he taught at universities in the United States and Europe. He told one group of students, "The world will change you faster, more easily, and more durably than you will change it. If you undertake only to keep the world from changing you . . . you will have your hands full."
That philosophy irradiates the best of his books: "What Can a Man Do?," "The Art of the Impossible: A Study of the Czech Resistance," "The Nature of the Beast" and "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945."
Among such American radicals as Scott Nearing and A.J. Muste, with whom he shared a wide arc of dissent, Mayer had a strength of his own. His intellect was broader, as though a hard-won position wasn't secure until he could defend it against his own skepticism. He saw the cinders in his own eye and could laugh at the temporary blindness: "By comparison with the rest of mankind, I have always had too much money, too many good jobs, too good a reputation, too many friends, and too much fun. Who, if not I, is full of unearned blessings? When, if not now, will I start to earn them?"
Mayer, wedged tight between his private aspirations and public failures, paid off his debts by finding the precise words for everything he thought needed saying. He wrote earnestly without an offensive earnest tone. He took stances without posturing. There is art in that. Force, too: the kind of force, Mayer would argue, that well-expressed convictions always exert and which is the only kind a person or a nation ought to fight with.