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Erwin Knoll: In remembrance of Erwin Knoll

This article orginally appeared in Isthmus on Nov. 11, 1994

The first thing Erwin Knoll taught me was never be mawkish.

It was May 1984, soon after I began an editorial internship at The Progressive. We were discussing the headline of a piece I'd written about the magazine's founder, "Fighting Bob" La Follette, for a special 75th anniversary issue. Erwin wanted to call it "The Fighting Founder." I suggested "The Founding Fighter."

"No!" he exclaimed, as though in horror. "That would make it mawkish."

Erwin's rebuke -- and a few other things he imparted -- helped launch a journalistic career in which, I'm proud to say, I've never again been accused of being mawkish. And the terribly sad occasion of Erwin's death, in his sleep last Wednesday at age 63, is no time to regress.

For all his gentleness and good humor, Erwin was not a sentimental man. He would probably be embarrassed that so many people -- in Madison and throughout the land -- are remembering him fondly and grieving his loss. Yet that is what we are moved to by his extraordinary life.

He fled Nazi terror as a young Jewish child in his native Austria to become a journalist who covered the exploits of presidents he loathed for news outlets including the Washington Post. In 1973, he became editor of The Progressive, the nation's oldest and most venerable monthly political magazine. In 1979, he successfully resisted the federal government's efforts to suppress publication of an article exploding the myth of H-bomb secrecy. He was a great editor who became, in recent years, the most radical commentator allowed on prime-time TV.

Erwin celebrated his own past in the anecdotes he was forever telling. My favorite: How when he and his wife, Doris, were entertaining dinner guests including a speech writer for President Johnson, their young son David inquired from the top of the stairs, "Which one's the bloody war criminal?"

Out of the maelstrom of his own experience, Erwin Knoll became a man with a mission: to change the way people thought about politics; to champion an absolute commitment to nonviolence and freedom of speech; and to lock horns, through his own life and intellect, with the seemingly endless capacity of human beings to inflict suffering on one another.

Erwin believed deeply in the power of language -- for educating, for agitating, for fashioning a politics that is at once radical and compelling and capable of making a positive difference in people's lives. He wrote sparkling prose and spoke with great style and eloquence, yet he understood the aptness of such a fine word as "bullshit."

He also understood the need for conflict to bring about change. His politics, ultimately, were of the street.

That summer of 1984, I joined Erwin and other agitators in handing out copies of the Bill of Rights at East Towne mall, whose owners decided to suspend the First Amendment on their private property. A beefy security guard snuck up behind Erwin and tried to snatch away his copies of the Bill of Rights. Erwin turned on him and unleashed a tongue-lashing unlike any I've heard since. It contained no pejoratives or threats, yet seethed with indignation so hot it's a wonder the guard's walkie-talkie didn't melt in his hand.

When it came to things that mattered, Erwin Knoll stood on principle, and he didn't budge. He welcomed the clash of ideas because he believed his ideas were sound enough to withstand scrutiny and the test of time. And, just about always, Erwin and his magazine were on the mark.

In the 10 years since my Progressive internship, I've come to see that, even in the areas where we once disagreed, Erwin was right.

He was right to be absolute in defending freedom of speech, because any authority granted the state to curb the sleaziest pornographer or most vile hate group is power that will in the end be used to suppress threats to the state.

He was right to insist on nonviolent civil disobedience as being always the best response to oppression. He was right to oppose militarism in all its forms, to quarrel with leftists who decried tyranny but not the bloodshed committed by those who sought its overthrow.

He was right to brand the two-party system "the enemy of democracy in America" and right to underscore -- in part by refusing to vote in presidential elections -- that true reform will come only from a mass movement of the people built over decades from the grassroots up.

As the left's most prominent spokesperson, Erwin Knoll touched many people, and his influence extends in more directions than anyone can tell. Each of us is left with a sense of emptiness, a void we need to fill. There is no doubt how Erwin would have wanted us to fill it.

In September 1984, The Progressive celebrated its 75th anniversary at Bob La Follette's former home in Maple Bluff. Erwin, taking the microphone, distanced himself from the celebratory tone of other speakers and importuned the crowd to turn its energy to activism -- "to educate, to agitate" for progressive change. And he meant right away, as in put down that fizzy water.

That is, of course, the same challenging message Erwin Knoll would impart to those who mourn him: There's a world of change that still needs agitating for. Get to work. Now.

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