In Memoriam

Doug Payne Always Made My Day

He was a fearless leader in the permanent fight between tyranny and liberty.

By 8.25.09

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With Doug Payne, political reporter, socialist activist, mensch, you lied at your own risk. He had an unerring ear for the distortions, the omissions, the denials, the subterfuges, the outright falsehoods, that people use to get around the simple truth. Not to mention the excuses. Doug took no excuses.

This is a moronic piece, he once told me of an article some dumb or lazy American traveler in Egypt had sent in to the magazine I edited. I don't know much about Egypt, but I know B.S. when I see it. Doug, who worked at the outfit, almost as an afterthought, published the little magazine, had no formal editorial role, but he gave advice if you asked him, straight up. Or even if you did not ask him, as in this case.

I knew what happened. My loyal deputy had put him on to it because he perceived he wouldn't get anywhere with me who had my own, dumb and dishonest, reasons for wanting to run the piece. For dumb and dishonest reasons I pulled rank on both of them. It was an innocuous and forgettable piece. But that was one of the excuses Doug would never accept, and the lesson took. Henceforth, I worried about what Doug would say. It was one of the most constructive worries I carried with me during my career as an editor in the organization Doug and I inhabited for a few years, a liberty-promoting organization called Freedom House.

Doug, it could be said without exaggeration, saved the joint's integrity, and this was surely why he had such a sharp nose for any stinks, however faint, that wafted back in. He was part of the reason I myself, who had viewed Freedom House, before he was there, with misgivings, figured it and its publications, of which Bruce McColm and Jim Finn invited me to take charge, could make a contribution to the permanent fight between tyranny and liberty. Doug was a man who did not think an organization or a job -- or a magazine -- had any inherent justification; you had to do the right thing. He was a bit of a Puritan, Doug, and when he gave you his stern avenger look (his resemblance to Clint Eastwood was uncanny), he made you ashamed of every second-rate effort.

Thanks mainly to Doug and his good friend Bruce McColm and one or two others such as the Cuban democracy militant Frank Calzon, Freedom House regained a respectability and credibility unknown since the days when Eleanor Roosevelt created it as an anti-Nazi shop. Way back then, it was important to alert Americans that the war in Europe was soon going to be our war too, and to win it we had to get ready, and getting ready included insisting that we were bringing into the effort convictions about liberty, about civil rights, about labor union democracy that, for dumb and dishonest reasons, we still found too many excuses to forget.

I guess that is what I liked about these anti-totalitarian socialists, these social democrats, these democratic socialists, that they did not forget. Sometimes, it has to be said, they didn't learn, either. Forgot nothing and learned nothing -- I think that was said of the Bourbons. They had very little in common, these defenders of the privileged and those champions of the wretched, but both were pretenders. The Bourbons were the pretenders to some sort of old world divine right to something or other -- rule, I believe. The socialists of Doug's temper were pretenders to some sort of, I can't say noblesse oblige, since they objected to privilege, but humanity oblige. That's what it was.

Doug's way of acknowledging that he owed people something was to be decent in an ordinary and consistent way. Quite honestly, how many people do you know who are like that? He worked mainly in the political analysis industry, specializing in Latin America. As I say, he and McColm made the Latin American studies center at Freedom House credible and then Doug carried it on successfully after his old friend left for other glories in Washington, D.C.

Things rather went downhill after that, in the way things sometimes do at these kinds of places, and Doug took a dim view of the place losing its soul and its integrity, and he left (as did I). Maybe they turned it around again by and by -- I lost track -- but the important thing is that Doug did not look back. Life's too short, he said, to waste time, if you've decided to devote a chunk of yours to the fight for freedom, on people who just want to… pretend. He found other ways of doing his thing, and he went right on doing it.

Doug Payne belonged to a tradition that usually is referred to as the anti-communist left. With communism relegated, maybe somewhat prematurely, to the dustbin of history, we have quickly forgotten how much the 20th century's escape from its appalling encounter with totalitarian tyranny owed to anti-communist leftists like Doug and his social democrat comrades. Some conservatives argued that the left, under any guise, weakened the cause of freedom in general and liberal democracy in particular. After all, the democratic socialists, however committed to democracy, were still committed to socialism.

My view is that it came down to what they did on the ground. Doug insisted that in democratic socialism, the emphasis had to be on democracy because without democracy, socialism was tyranny. If this meant socialism remained a forever unreachable dream, a process not an end, good enough.

The democratic left was able, thanks to this perspective, to help build an American labor movement that participated in the fight for freedom around the world, even as it strengthened democracy at home. Doug's comrades of an older generation, men like Sam Fishman of the UAW, a close ally of Walter Reuther, and near-contemporaries like Tom Kahn of the AFL-CIO, an advisor to George Meany and Lane Kirkland, and Penn Kemble, whose work linked the labor movement and the Democrats, brought inestimable insights into what they always viewed as a battle on two fronts. The right they viewed as indifferent to injustice, the left they saw as cynical and manipulative. Either side rode on the backs of people that, in the end, they despised. Doug and his friends viewed contempt as the political sin that brewed all the others. Human dignity was not an abstraction for them; they took every individual seriously.

Doug was an active member of the Socialist Internationale, the old house that had from the very beginning opposed the Bolsheviks and their Stalinist sequels, insisting they were a monstrous perversion of the old ideals of social justice for all.

You can argue that "social justice for all" is in itself a dangerous delusion, but there was no mistaking what Doug and his friends did, through their work in the Internationale, to help all kinds of people who found themselves trapped between thuggish authoritarians on the right and thuggish totalitarians on the left. This is, after all, a large part of the story of the 20th century. And, under other guises, it is a continuing story in the 21st. All these individuals are gone now, and I for one feel distinctly less secure in our continuing ability to fight the good fight.

Doug was a great basketball player in his New Jersey childhood and youth, and he quit, he once told me, because with weakening knees he could no longer play "above the rim" and he did not like the idea of playing a diminished game. Maybe he should have taken a leaf from his comrade Penn Kemble, a great handball player almost the very end, but, well, Doug put his energy into other things, notably a relentless travel schedule that took him to remote places where he always insisted on living not out of the comfortable hotels favored by parachuting correspondents but in the neighborhoods of the people whose perspective he was trying to grasp.

He took this attitude with him everywhere. I met him in New York on the occasion of a visit there, after he had left the city to move way upstate near Canada, and told him about the high schools of the south Bronx in which in a fit of madness I had gone to do what I took to be some kind of duty. "It's not madness," he said, "It's one of the coolest things to do." He eagerly accepted my invitation to come and speak to some of my kids as soon as it could be arranged.

When he came to the broken down school not too far from Yankee Stadium to talk to our journalism class, he asked the kids why they wanted to write, what they wanted to write about, what they thought it might involve to find out facts and report them, and what, too, they knew about their own origins. Most of them, or their parents, were from countries Doug knew, of course -- he could even tell from their accents and their idioms, in either English or Spanish, which cities or regions they came from. He told them stories of his adventures in their "back home" places. He told them he loved the work he did, but it was not easy -- maybe they were better off finding something to do up here, in da Bronx or the great city downtown. Either way, they'd do well to learn to read and write.

We met with some of my colleagues after, and the one he liked best was a burly security and attendance A.P., a football-player-sized man whose entire life was dedicated to keeping kids in school who were tempted every day to stay on the streets. Doug learned as much from a half hour spent talking to him as I would from months of watching the system work, or fail, on a daily basis. As to the kids, they often asked me when Doug would come back for another "lecture" -- some lecture, since he had done most of the listening. He had other things to do, I told him, but he thought about them. He sent them a little piece about the school as he had seen it, which he wrote for the issue of the newspaper they put together that spring. It was a nice piece, too, full of observations about what we were doing in the Bronx, and I wish I could quote from it, but unfortunately I haven't got a copy.

Doug died last month after a spirited, stoical, courageous battle with lung cancer. I know it is sentimental to say this, but we are poorer, weaker, more vulnerable for this loss.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.