Toward Freedom: Reflections of a Former Editor

When I first edited an issue of Toward Freedom Ronald Reagan was midway through his second term as US President and the Sandinistas were running Nicaragua. Although the Cold War was actually almost over, at times it seemed like the geo-political battle between the US and Soviet Union would continue indefinitely. That says quite a lot about making assumptions.

Until the early 1980s my experience was mainly domestic, as a local journalist, human services bureaucrat and community organizer. I’d traveled outside the US a bit but seldom wrote about international issues. However, William B. Lloyd, TF’s founder and editor since 1952, had asked me to write up an anti-apartheid conference in New York in 1981. After that, we continued to discuss issues and, in the summer of 1986, he suggested that I step in as editor as he moved toward an emeritus role while consulting on articles and contributing editorials.

The Board of Directors was still based in Chicago then, but Bill had recently retired to Vermont. By the end of that year, when he officially stepped down, the question became whether the publication could or should survive its founder.

The basic argument is favor of continuing was that TF’s ongoing mission – analyzing the developing world from a progressive, internationalist perspective – remained valid and vital, but the format and scope could and should change. The Board agreed, and as I explained in January 1987, “In the future, TF will attempt to describe and evaluate the non-aligned movement while expanding its coverage of developing countries.”

In that edition, expanded from six to 12 pages, I looked into the ways in which religious ideals were fueling cultural confrontation and political combat in Africa. “Is an endless string of ‘holy’ wars avoidable?” that cover story asked. Other articles examined barter in Nicaragua, voodoo in Haiti, the growing impact of AIDS in Africa, and a recent non-aligned summit. Our editorials addressed the environmental impacts of the Vietnam War and recent revelations about the “privatization” of war – namely, a CIA-supported network of “contras” that stretched from Afghanistan to Central America.

More than two decades later, some of the names have changed but the US and other nations are still doing damage, and many of the core issues remain the same.

Long before the anti-globalization movement emerged, Bill Lloyd and other democratic internationalists understood that political independence would bring few benefits for the vast majority if it came with too many economic strings. TF’s long-term editorial focus on “third world” development had produced an early awareness of the impacts of World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs, and how the struggle between a corporate New World Order and indigenous movements was taking shape.

As the Cold War ended the publication’s scope continued to expand and TF, under the editorship of Kevin Kelly from 1988 to 1993, established itself as an independent market for international freelance writing. Fortunately, the emergence of the Internet eventually made it easier for a small operation to have a global reach and active roster of correspondents. By 1993, the once-modest newsletter had grown into a 24-page magazine that published more than 100 exclusive reports a year. The Utne Reader repeatedly cited it as one of the best alternative magazines covering international affairs.

In 1988, I had moved to Germany, and upon returning to the US worked as coordinator of the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington, and as manager of a political bookstore in Santa Monica while serving as both a member of TF’s board and contributing editor. In 1994, when I returned as editor, the next phase of globalization was just exploding. In Mexico, the Zapatista movement emerged dramatically in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Africa was re-stabilizing after the end of apartheid in South Africa.  And around the world indigenous resistance to “structural adjustment” programs was percolating. The March issue of that year, which included a guide to World Bank and IMF policies, was titled “Imminent Revolutions.”

Yugoslavia presented an early editorial conundrum. Progressives were divided over whether US intervention would help, and if so, what kind. At TF, Dave Dellinger’s nonviolent leadership provoked us to look beyond convenient options. In an editorial, we criticized the failure to safeguard political tolerance and called for a loose confederation. Beyond that, we offered an alternative agenda that included reform of arms export policies, modernizing communication technology, amnesty for former fighters, safe havens for refugees, inclusion in a united region, and an expanded role for the UN as impartial mediator.

Nations can’t do this alone, we argued. It takes “non-statist tactics of solidarity, forms of nonviolent diplomacy that respect international law and demand observance of human rights.”

That fall, TF tackled the state of the Left with a collection of articles from Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa, India, Nicaragua and the US. It was one of many thematic issues published throughout the rest of the decade on topics ranging from the environment, labor and immigration to spirituality, media, and women. Annual issues on “Global Media” and “Women’s Visions” were published from 1994 to 2000.

During this period TF began to define two topic areas that would inform its editorial choices for the next decade. Complementing its concern for human rights and self-determination, they were the impacts of globalization and the state of mass communications. The publication’s scope seemed to continually expand, an evolution I sometimes found frustrating. My concern was that such a broad view, in a modest format, would diffuse its appeal. Many small publications were concentrating on either a niche audience or one or two strong editorial personalities. Instead, TF showcased unknown talent along with its better known contributors, and normally included reports from more than a dozen countries.

By 1997, Toward Freedom had established a Website and was attracting new readers with its distinct, often groundbreaking coverage. An article on the forced vaccination of US troops during the Gulf War was one of the first exposes on this controversy. In the same issue, a special on the labor movement, we also looked at workplace problems and solutions around the world. The previous year, TF had welcomed the end of dictatorship in Zaire; now we were also watching closely as rebellion threatened stability in the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo. As usual, the mainstream media was ignoring what happened in Africa.

The death of Bill Lloyd had left the organization with a modest bequest. This helped to finance TF’s first major attempt to dramatically increase its circulation through direct mail solicitation and retail sales. In a sense it worked. By 1998 TF had a more retail-friendly cover and was available in bookstores. That and the direct mail campaigns brought in new readers. But we also learned that it was a never-ending cycle and, as a small non-profit with limited money for marketing, TF couldn’t sustain such a campaign forever.

As the publication approached its 50th anniversary it struggled to compete in the commercial marketplace. It was often dispiriting to accept that, no matter how fresh and relevant the content, most people still had no idea the publication existed. While attending a conference I was told by a former subscriber that, although she enjoyed TF, she was dropping it anyway. There was simply too much to read.

I began to wonder whether the time for this type of medium had passed. On one hand, we were finally attracting the recognition of our peers. In 1998, for example, TF made the Project Censored list with “China’s War on Women,” which made the case that China’s violation of human rights in Tibet constituted genocide. TF articles have been on the Projected Censored list many times since then. On the other hand, financial limitations forced us to drop retail distribution in 2000 and return to a more streamlined newsletter format. The quality didn’t change, but the decision represented an admission that TF wasn’t able to transform itself into a mass market publication. This sparked more soul-searching about the future.

In late 1999 anti-globalization activism finally burst into prominence with the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. TF had been covering the issue for years, but this new mobilization, combined with the development of Independent Media Centers (IMC), pointed to a potential strategy. If TF could effectively appeal to media and globalization activists, and also develop projects that went beyond traditional thinking, it might find a new audience and a 21st Century mission.

The first step was to develop an independent media focus, beginning with a conference. That event, “Building Independent Media,” brought together about 300 people in October 2000 and helped TF enlarge its support network. The following spring both staff and board members were active in the mobilization against the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Quebec City and developing an IMC in Vermont.

As we prepared for the events in Canada, the Zapatistas were getting ready for their own historic caravan to Mexico’s capital. Their March for Indigenous Dignity, chronicled in TF, was a dramatic demonstration of the changes underway. In Mexico, a long era on one-party rule was finally over. But in the US, George W. Bush was president, and a time even greater change and challenge was about to begin.

For many years there had been a subtle tension between the global vision of the publication, TF’s small but loyal national readership, and the local nature of the Board of Directors. After the organization moved to Vermont most board members lived within a few hours of Burlington and tried to combine publishing with involvement in local events like the Vermont International Film Festival and campaigns related to the issues being covered.

After the media conference, we looked for a more local project, one that addressed an obvious need and reflected TF’s mission. Focusing on human rights we decided to build on the prison rights work that Dave Dellinger and his wife Elizabeth Peterson had been doing for years. Based on exploratory meetings with prisoners, their families and activists already at work we organized another conference, published a special issue, and spurred the formation of the Alliance for Prison Justice. As privatization and prison conditions became front burner issues in Vermont, the Alliance played a crucial and constructive role, combining policy expertise with grassroots involvement.

We had come pretty far from collecting articles and producing a publication. Part of the reason was practical: For non-profits, special projects are easier to fund than ongoing operations. But it also reflected TF’s original approach – combining the newsletter with classes and public events, support for important campaigns, and special publications that expand awareness of global issues.

The next few years were tumultuous and sometimes terrifying. Looking back at the issues during this period, cover story headlines underline the situation and the stakes: Siege Mentality, Turning the Tide, Colonial Comeback, The Power of No. As Michael Parenti explained in the first on that list, Bush exploited terrorism to promote a reactionary domestic agenda. But a few months later, writer Lata Mani responded, reporting that a multi-platform social justice movement was gathering momentum.

The colonial comeback discussed in the spring 2003 issue was happening in the Philippines, but this Pentagon operation wasn’t the only one in the pipeline. In response, we developed a Board-written editorial that reflected TF’s view. Rejecting both isolationism and imperialism, we called for strengthening the rule of international law. “At a minimum,” the editorial argued, “that includes fighting for true Iraqi self-determination – of its future and the use of its resources, dismantling weapons of mass destruction in all countries – including Israel, US and the rest of the WMD Club, supporting institutions like the International Criminal Court, and reducing the risk of more conflict through work toward economic, social and environmental justice.”

Less than two years after 9/11, the US had lost the confidence and sympathy of the world. By asserting the right to reshape the Middle East the Bush administration was stirring up a nascent global resistance to US supremacy. Which brings me to “The Power of No.” That refers to an article by Soren Ambrose about resistance to New World Order economics at a Cancun meeting of the World Trade Organization. Ambrose and photojournalist Orin Langelle had attended the summit as TF correspondents, filing reports that offered hope for a restoration of the movement for globalization from below. The phrase also speaks to an ongoing predicament – the need to balance dramatic withdrawal of consent from illegitimate rulers with constructive alternatives that billions of people around the world can embrace. “No” has power, as the current Tea Party movement has discovered. But it needs a “yes” to solve most problems.

That was also often my struggle as editor of Toward Freedom; to balance criticism and analysis with viable solutions. In some cases, the alternatives we found felt small and tentative when measured against the enormous forces of capitalism. But at least we were searching, contrary to the cynical idea that lurks between the lines in corporate news. With arched eyebrows or flat out ridicule, the talking heads tell us, “There is no alternative.”

As long as they keep feeding us that line there will be a need for outlets like Toward Freedom – honest voices for change, critics with conscience and eyes on the far horizon. It was an honor and a joy to play a small part.

Toward Freedom President’s note: Greg Guma edited Toward Freedom from 1986 to 1988, and from 1994 to 2005. Since 2005, Ben Dangl has been our editor and webmaster, dealing with many of the above issues and dilemmas, and expanding our coverage of Latin America.