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Jonathan Rowe, 1946-2011

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Jonathan Rowe was, by inclination, an unobtrusive man. He moved through this world quietly, and he left quietly.

He did not promote himself. He was not comfortable seeking recognition. He concentrated instead on substance.

Jon died the other day, abruptly, with no warning of any kind, and left behind a wife, Mary Jean, and an 8-year-old son, Josh.

In part because of his modesty, and in part because celebrity and valor are not the same, you very likely did not know of him. Or, if you did, not nearly enough.

There are so many things that could and should be said about Jon, but I will not attempt to say them all. Jon's friend David Bollier has already beautifully summed up Jon's work, achievements and writing interests on his blog. I encourage you to read what he has to say there. In fact, I'd suggest you read David's piece first, as it will give you the "biography" and so you will have some context for my personal observations.

I'm going to focus here on what it was like to have the pleasure of knowing Jon as friend, mentor, and confidant.

Jon was my "intellectual partner." I ran almost every idea by him. His mind and his hands touched my book, and he was integral to shaping our nonpartisan, nonprofit, news site, WhoWhatWhy. A mutual friend tells me Jon was excited by what we were doing and looked forward to his deepening involvement.

I met Jon more than two decades ago, when we both wrote for the Christian Science Monitor. We were introduced by a colleague, who for some reason thought we would hit it off. Boy, was she right. Jon was reticent around new people, almost profoundly shy. But first tentatively and then with growing comfort, he would engage on a level one rarely finds with more gregarious individuals.

He was, in short, a great friend if you were open to his laconically loving manner. And he always had something surprising to say -- he was always musing in a slightly off-center way, practical but a bit more wide-ranging in his cerebral wanderings than most.

In the following years, Jon and I remained in close touch, though we seldom saw each other in person. In fact, during our long friendship, we were probably together no more than a few dozen times. That was principally because we were usually in different cities. I was in New York most of the time. He lived for years in Washington, where among other things, he had served on Capitol Hill, then settled in the bucolic coastal town of Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. He wrote, he had a radio show, he edited, he consulted, he lived the life of the writer-thinker-advocate.

Although we occasionally spoke by phone, we mostly communicated electronically, exchanging literally thousands of emails.

Soon, he began advising me as a kind of informal editor-at-large, very useful to a freelance writer whose work covered a lot of bases. I would send him story ideas, proposals, drafts. And he would send back thoughtful, succinct advisories. Like this, from 1998:

Russ: There's the seed of a really good idea here. We don't have to legally ban provocative speech to establish a cultural norm that discourages it. And that norm begins with our own politicians and media, who set the tone for the entire country.

I would get to this point much more quickly, and develop it more. Most of what you have now should be compressed into a lead-in for the point that rings the bell.

And this from 2002:

Russ: This is interesting, and I think cutting won't be a problem. The first few pages in particular have a somewhat puffy and -- to use the deadly newsroom expression -- thumb sucking quality. Frame the question and get down to business.

And this from 2007:

Russ: This is a lot closer but not quite there. The frame is not quite right at the end. I think you are calling on the violin section a bit too much...

Jon worked hard to get me to say things in a simpler way. He cut long, meandering sentences. He expunged unnecessary adjectives.

Nothing ever seemed to matter beyond getting the concept exactly right. We'd go back to the drawing board again and again and again. Some stories that could have been out in days took the better part of a year until he would sign off on it. More so with my five-year book project. He was there for the ride, indispensable, both prodding and encouraging.

Unlike so many editors in a hurry to be done with a manuscript, Jon's deepest interest lay in trying to precisely understand the heart of the matter at hand. He wanted to sort out all of the questions -- moral, philosophical, practical, stylistic -- and then make the case.

While I was writing my book and coming upon shocking and profoundly disturbing material, Jon was always there to calmly share the burden. He would digest new information, and often come back with thoughts, hours or days later. These discussions unfolded sometimes long after I had already moved on, as he tried to figure out how he felt about an issue.

I have been thinking about your piece today and something occurred to me that I couldn't quite formulate last night.

There is an internal pull in the piece that gets it just a little bit off track. You are sending signals to the reader that illegality lurks just off stage. But you can't deliver on that, and so it sets the bar too high, and unnecessarily so.

He had the capacity to say what he had to say bluntly and boldly without provoking the person being edited to take offense. We never had a fight, an argument, never exchanged sharp words, not in conversation, not in an email. I literally do not recall any unpleasantry of any kind...

Jon wrote a short essay at the height of the post-9/11 security panic:

I was in Washington this week and Capitol Hill feels like a state of siege. The place is saturated with police - not friendly cops walking the beat, but police cars, often two or three at an intersection, faceless and grim. Fences and concrete barricades are everywhere. You used to be able to walk through the tunnels under the Capital to get from the House to the Senate office buildings. Now a staffer has to escort you.

You feel like an intruder in your own government, and in the buildings you yourself pay for. The lobbyists still are there. They exit from cabs in their tailored gaggles, crowd the couches in reception areas. What's missing is a sense that anyone else belongs.

Yes, security concerns are real. But like the invasion of Iraq, the start of a security state in Washington has happened with an alacrity that suggests a prior wish. There is no hint of regret. When Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968, a fence went up around Lafayette Park across from the White House, which was a frequent venue for protests against the Vietnam War. President Bush, in a meeting with Republican Senators, called the Constitution a "goddam piece of paper." The security lock-down is a proclivity as much as a response to an actual threat.

The sense of enclosure - of space for democracy shrinking--is of a piece with other changes around town. In Dupont Circle and other neighborhoods, the quirky shops and budget restaurants are just about gone. Schwartz's Pharmacy, where once you might have run into a young Ralph Nader at the magazine rack, or I.F. Stone, or Carl Bernstein having Sunday breakfast, his bike locked outside, is now a Starbucks - one of three that monopolize the coffee trade at the Circle. On Capitol Hill, the old places like Sherrill's Bakery are gone as well, replaced by establishments more in line with the tastes of the less democratically inclined.

In this at least the nation's capital really is a mirror of the nation. The same thing is going on from coast to coast. There is a connection, I think, between the police state on the Hill and the corporatizing of the neighborhoods. A retail chain that demands conformity in its thousands of outlets is of a piece with a government that demands conformity from its citizens. A chain that seeks to claim every block in a city (in parts of San Francisco this is no exaggeration) is related to a government that seeks to claim, in one way or another, most of the world.

It has to do with control, and with grabbing everything. They call it "freedom," which I guess it is for those that do it. But for the rest of us it is a vise tightening, and less room to breathe. The House of Representatives moves to sell off National Parks and turn the rest into corporate billboards. State legislatures, at the behest of telecom corporations, ban localities from establishing municipal WiFi networks and thereby claim the air as a democratic commons. Corporations claim school classrooms as advertising venues. Wal-Mart decimates our Main Streets. On and on.

Their space expands, and ours shrinks. It is a syllogism that is larger than any of the people doing it. The crew in the White House is cheerleader and enabler for something it did not invent. We can be grateful in a way. For decades these tendencies have been working quietly and in disguise. Now they are out in the open, with an aggressive bravado. We can name them, and maybe start to deal with them.

What's the form of government that joins authoritarian government with corporate convenience? The word is not awfully useful today, associated as it is with the racial politics of the Nazis. But the thing is upon us. The clock is ticking; and if we don't start building boundaries now - more, if we don't start to construct a shrewd politics of boundaries - there is no telling where it will end...

To read more on the life and works of Jon Rowe including a 2006 essay Jon wrote for the Christian Science Monitor about a small town in Texas that changed its name to DISH after the satellite television network click here.

WhoWhatWhy is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news site founded by Russ Baker. Follow it on Facebook and Twitter or visit WhoWhatWhy.com