In the fall of 2013, Martin Duberman got a phone call from a friend telling him that Doug Ireland, the tirelessly radical journalist, had died. By that point, Duberman, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, had been communicating with Ireland only by phone since Ireland couldn’t leave his apartment, having suffered two strokes. The two friends had been talking about publishing a collection of Ireland’s writing: vigorous, sometimes-blistering, always clearly argued columns and articles that had appeared in the Village Voice, New York Observer, L.A. Weekly, The Nation, POZ, and New York, among others.
Ireland should be better known than he is. In his introduction to The Emperor Has No Clothes: Doug Ireland’s Radical Voice,his new self-published collection of Ireland’s writing, Duberman quotes Ireland’s editor at The Nation observing that “there was a time when everyone expected Doug to be the next Jimmy Breslin, but he couldn’t be the next Jimmy Breslin because he was too true to his principles….” Ireland did, in fact, start out in leftist politics but concluded that journalism would allow him to more meaningfully be a part of the national conversation about politics. Ireland was already out of the closet in the late 1970s, far sooner than most of his gay colleagues in journalism, a fact that earned Ireland admiration from Christopher Hitchens, among others.
Duberman took on the job of not only choosing which of Ireland’s articles merited inclusion in The Emperor Has No Clothes, but also hunting them down, not always an easy task. I talked to Duberman recently about Ireland’s career and why he published the book.
How did this book come to be?
Doug and I go way back, to at least the 1980s. We always liked each other: same sense of humor, same leftist politics. I knew that Doug was ill, but I didn’t know how ill he was. I don’t think he had ever saved a cent and was living very badly in the East Village in a cockroach-filled apartment, and he and I started talking on the phone, and I said, “Your work really holds up. It’s a voice that needs to be sustained. The present generation would benefit from hearing it.” He also did his best to discourage me. He was a man of great integrity, and he knew that my digital skills were minimal, to put the best face on it. We hadn’t gotten very far when I got a call from a friend telling me Doug had died, and I was horrified. I had just been sending out a few feelers trying to find a graduate student who could help. Within a very short time, I decided that this project really needed to go forward.
Some writers are polemicists on the page but are quite easy to get along with in person. What was Doug like?
I think he was widely liked. He was very warm, very smart, very witty; he liked people. He was not a curmudgeon, and people liked him back. I don’t think he had rough edges, and I don’t think he set out to hurt people. He was not a nasty critic. He wasn’t trying to destroy a person. He was dealing with the political viewpoints on a given issue. He was saying, “I think you wrote a shitty piece,” not “I think you’re a shitty person.” And that’s a big difference.
What is it about his voice that makes you feel it needs to be preserved?
The particular stances he took on political issues, but also I think Doug’s writing style—which is another way of saying his thinking—represents absolute clarity. There isn’t a fuzzy phrase; you may not agree with what he’s saying, but you know what he’s saying. He doesn’t obfuscate at all. He’s direct, clear, forceful, and radical. That’s why it’s a rare American voice.
Is there an article in the book that’s a favorite of yours?
My favorite section in the book is the one on Iran. I think it’s very intricate, and Doug ran into opposition within the international gay community from highly respected people who felt that Doug was making life harder for people in countries like Iran. He wasn’t outing anybody, but they really wanted to remain undercover. Doug’s reporting on it is very detailed and conscientious and he went over and over again with his contacts both undercover with people living in Iran and contacts in London. And then there are some very smart pieces in the presidential section. Almost the whole section on Obama is negative, and he saw things early on that a lot of people have seen since.
Was there any president, or, for that matter, any politician, that he liked?
Lincoln. (laughs.)Claiborne Smith is the editor-in-chief.