AJR  Books
From AJR,   December 1996

An Absolutist in an Age of Moderation   

An Enemy of the State:
The Life of Erwin Knoll

By Bill Lueders
Common Courage Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


An Enemy of the State:
The Life of Erwin Knoll
By Bill Lueders
Common Courage Press
277 pages; $17.95 paperback

"One of the joys of editing The Progressive," Erwin Knoll once told an interviewer, "is we feel it's part of our job to offend our readers."

During his 21 tumultuous years at the small liberal-to-radical magazine, Knoll proved faithful to his credo, a rare editor who could remain uncompromising, unpartisan and undomesticated even as he approached semi-celebrity status.

"An Enemy of the State" is an admiring, near-reverential biography by a journalist who once worked for Knoll. But it is also unsparing as to Knoll's tendencies toward the dogmatic and abrasive. It is, in short, the story of an absolutist in an age of moderation.

In Lueders' view, Knoll's steadfastness traced back to the Holocaust. Born in Austria, he fled from the Nazis at age 7, but a third of his family, including his grandmother and beloved aunts, were murdered.

This childhood experience, Lueders writes, helped imprint on Knoll two "bedrock principles: an absolute commitment to nonviolence (he even opposed the use of violence to stop Hitler) and an absolute commitment to freedom of speech (he went to the mat to defend the right of bigots to preach hate)."

These principles ossified as Knoll progressed from reporter (he worked for Editor & Publisher, the Washington Post and Newhouse newspapers) to editor (he took over The Progressive in 1973). Eventually, he became as much a movement-builder as a journalist„ tirelessly pushing a reformist agenda as an editor, speechmaker, radio essayist and commentator on "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."

Along the way he unsettled nearly everyone, including close friends:

• To the chagrin of his pro-labor colleagues who favored reform from the inside, he abruptly quit the Newspaper Guild, whose interests he had contentiously championed at the Washington Post, when he learned it had received CIA money.

• Asked to stand up for an old friend — the best man at his wedding — against controversial charges of racism, Knoll rebuffed the man, fracturing their relationship.

• At The Progressive, he vigorously defended the right of Nazis to protest march in Skokie, Illinois; scorned the impeachment of Richard Nixon (on grounds that his continuance in office served better to expose the evils of the U.S. government); happily accepted pro-tobacco and anti-abortion ads; and exasperated liberals ("people who will try to promote just enough change to allow themselves to sleep comfortably at night") by refusing to vote for president or endorse presidential candidates.

• He was aggressively pacifist. In one essay, he attacked the very notion of a just war. Wars victimize the just, not the unjust, he argued, and violence inevitably produces more, not less, suffering. "Of all the ways to stop Hitler," Knoll believed, "war was the worst — the way that inflicted the most pain, the most suffering, the most damage on everyone — especially on Hitler's victims."

• Finally, he masterminded the 1979 publication of an article exposing the secret behind the H-bomb. The government successfully obtained one of the few prior restraint orders in U.S. history to stop the piece from running, labeling it a how-to recipe thýt could help spread nuclear weapons around the globe. The Progressive eventually demonstrated that the crucial information at issue was already publicly available, and another publication soon published some of it, leading the govern- ment to drop its case.

Lueders recounts Knoll's career in a serviceable chronology. Though Knoll died in 1994, Lueders makes good use of previously recorded interviews with him. He also resourcefully tracks down the federal judge who issued the prior restraint order in the H-bomb case and wins a fascinating admission that he may have overreacted to government scare tactics.

What Lueders doesn't really do is explain how Knoll remained so defiant and unbudging amid all the moderating pressures of friends, media and his rising status in society. Knoll was a true independent thinker, capable of maintaining an outsider outlook even as he operated more and more on the inside. Such independence is a rare gift, worth special efforts to understand.

Also, this book tells us little about Knoll the hands-on editor. Only a few pages are devoted to his editorial style, with writers praising his "mastery" and "courtesy," but there's little insight into his day-to-day technique.

On balance, though, this is a layered look at one of late 20th century journalism's leading rogue intellectuals. Lueders calls Knoll "a monumental figure on the American Left" and "the nation's most visible, vocal and articulate proponent of radical ideas." Erwin Knoll was an outside-the-box thinker before that phrase came into fashion — so far outside the box that we find it fascinating, and even a little scary.