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Mon Dec 16 07:12:21 MST 2002
Boston Globe, Dec. 15, 2002
By Laura Secor
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ SHOULD be used to this by now. Journalist and activist,
historian, poet, and mystic, he's published 13 books, many of which
excoriate the community of left-wing activists where he once sheltered.
But this time something is different. His latest work, ''The Two Faces
of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror,'' a
no-holds-barred attack on the Saudi fundamentalist creed known as
Wahhabism, has made Schwartz the talk of the political talk shows and
the toast of Washington's anti-terrorism crowd from William Kristol to
Schwartz, a voluble 54-year-old with a booming voice, a shock of white
hair, and a flair for the dramatic, is loving it.
''I just debated Prince Turki!'' he shouts gleefully into the phone to a
reporter. He's just returned from the CNN studios to his office at the
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank
associated with a range of prominent conservatives, including Newt Gingrich.
The odyssey that brought Schwartz to Washington and Wahhabism is as
colorful and unique as anything in American intellectual life. Though he
never finished college, Schwartz has what Sells calls ''the erudition to
have about five PhDs.'' He's proficient in nine languages, and his books
have covered everything from the Spanish Civil War to the Albanian
national movement. ''He's a model of a public intellectual,'' says his
longtime friend, hawkish Cold War scholar Ronald Radosh. Robert Collier,
who worked with Schwartz at the San Francisco Chronicle, describes him
as ''an autodidact omnivore.''
A red-diaper baby native to San Francisco, Schwartz inherited his
parents' radical politics, but not their militant atheism. When he was
eight years old, a neighborhood bookstore displayed a Bible in its
window, turning a page each day; Stephen read most of it standing in
front of that window on his way to school. By the end of his teenage
years, he was steeped in the writings of Friedrich Engels, the Catholic
mystic Raymond Lull, the Sufi philosopher Idries Shah, and the
Surrealists. He wrote poetry. And by correspondence, he joined a
Trotskyist group of Spanish exiles living in France.
In the late 1960s, Schwartz studied linguistics at Berkeley, but
academic life did not agree with him. Nobody had told him, he says, that
''in order to succeed you have to swallow everything you know and
pretend that you don't know it all already.''
Instead, he shipped out with the merchant marine, then worked in the
longshoreman union, and then on the railroad for seven years, weighing
freight cars and writing union pamphlets. Schwartz treasured his
proletarian job, but he was also part of the circle of Beat poets around
the City Lights bookstore. He wrote political satire for a magazine
published by Francis Ford Coppola, managed a punk rock band called The
Dils, and traveled to Spain as often as he could.
Schwartz left the railroad when he was 32, taking a job as the official
historian of the sailors' union just as his allegiance to the political
left began to crack. It started with Cuba, whose revolution Schwartz had
supported in its early days, only to be bitterly disillusioned with
Castroism. Determined not to make the same mistake with Nicaragua, in
1984 he endorsed the Sandinista defector Eden Pastora, who had joined
the US-backed Contra movement. When Schwartz made these views public and
took a job at a free-market think tank called the Institute of
Contemporary Studies, he says, ''Within a week, I lost all my friends.''
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