In sitting down to the impossible task of memorializing William Rivers Pitt, Truthout’s illustrious and brilliant lead columnist whose work I edited for 15 years, I’m suppressing the urge to grab my phone and call Will.
“I don’t know how to begin your eulogy,” I would say.
“Easy!” he’d reply. “Lead with a trusty classic. You know the one.”
And I’d know what he meant — the Irish blessing Will often shared with our staff in tough times. This is Will’s slightly adapted version of that old prayer, whose author is unknown:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God (or Whatever) hold you in the palm of their hand.
I love the blessing because it captures something about how Will connected with his readers: He saw the act of writing as an act of care. In his columns, even as he condemned Trump and excoriated complicit Democrats, even as he spoke out against imperial war and corporate greed and racism and the destruction of the environment, he made his audience understand that they deserved the warmth of the sun and the nourishment of the rain, just by virtue of being human.
Even as he raged against evil, Will loved humanity, and the Earth itself, with an even greater fervor.
Will wrote of how that great love hummed at the core of his being: “I came into this world a human tuning fork, humming with the tones surrounding me entirely against my will. I cannot stop it, and would not if given the chance. Mine is wonder, and awe, and I am overtaken by it, as if the air itself is transformed into high waves breaking on the beach. I drown daily, hourly, in minutes and in seconds, I drown in moments, and smile as I sink, because it is beautiful beyond words and space and time.” He contrasted that love with the remorseless darkness that, too, pervades the world. But, Will assured his readers, even in the face of horror and heartbreak, “You are not alone. Reach for the light, always. It is there. I know. I’ve seen.”
Those words are from a eulogy Will wrote for actor Robin Williams. Will wrote many eulogies, because he was not afraid to confront deep pain, and hoped to help ease the pain of others — and also because he wanted to memorialize each person who, as he put it in a tribute to peace activist Jerry Berrigan, “cared an awful lot.”
How do you eulogize a eulogist? A person who wrote such moving, compassionate, exquisitely articulated tributes that you wished the honoree could come back from the dead to read them?
How do you eulogize a proclaimer, a person with a singular gift for characterizing a moment, a feeling, a political climate, a global climate in a way that made you feel just a little bit better — because he found the words that echoed the turmoil burning inside you, too, and called you to action?
How do you eulogize a wordsmith, someone who coined a new expression in every column, often sending me, his editor, frantically searching through the Oxford English Dictionary for clues as to the adage’s origin … only to realize it was actually Will’s spontaneous invention?
All I can do is tell you: Will was all of these things, and he was also more than the sum of them. Will Pitt was a gem at the center of Truthout. At the time of his death, Will had been at Truthout for over 20 years. He left his job as a high school English teacher to tackle the horrors of the Bush era, writing with a pure, raging fire, dutifully cataloguing every injustice the Republicans of that epoch perpetrated. As the Bush regime ended, Will urged us not to lose our memory of those injustices, in an open letter to the former president: “We have tasted the soot and smelled the blood on the wind; we have seen how fragile our way of government is when placed in the hands of low men such as you, and because of that, you will be remembered for all time.”
Will Pitt was a leading voice in exposing the outrages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beyond his Truthout columns that touched millions of people, he was a bestselling author of several books focused on the Iraq war, including War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know (co-authored with Scott Ritter), The Greatest Sedition Is Silence, House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America’s Ravaged Reputation, and The Mass Destruction of Iraq: The Disintegration of a Nation, Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible (co-authored with Dahr Jamail).
Our greatest electoral politics analyst, Will knew the ins and outs of Washington far better than the back of his hand, and blogged through every election for the past 15 years. He also knew the limits of party politics: Will was the Republicans’ most comprehensive denouncer, but he also warned of the enormous dangers of “moderate” Democrats.
Will persistently sounded the alarm on the climate crisis for many years before the mainstream media took real notice. He urged us to recognize that the catastrophe was not simply a phenomenon of the future: “The future is now,” he wrote, “and it is hot, thirsty, windy and dangerous. This truth is baked into tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow again…. How much worse it gets depends upon us.”
He repeatedly reminded us of Trump’s danger, even at times when many on the left wanted to simply laugh. “They laughed at Mussolini, too,” Will wrote, “until it became a crime to do so. After that, the joke was on the world.” And the signs of the January 6 coup attempt were clear to Will nearly two years before that day came to pass.
When pandemic times hit, Will dedicated himself to covering COVID — he wrote nearly a hundred columns about it — even when it became the unpopular topic, the one people wanted to move on from. He emphasized the ways in which the pandemic was entwined with the crisis of corporate power. At each pandemic peak, he reminded us, “[COVID] has not gone away and returned; it never left, and swells every few months whenever we decide to let our guard down because capitalism must be fed.”
Will was not a commentator for comment’s sake: He wanted his words to spur deeds. He urged readers to go beyond simply reading, no matter how small their actions, and he recognized that even seemingly small actions can save lives. “There is much to be done just within reach of your arm,” he was fond of saying, when speaking of the climate crisis. “Do that, and you’ll have one hell of a story, along with, perhaps, people left to hear the telling.”
Will reminded us that when things are hardest, when fascism is ascendant, when war is imminent—that is when we must “dig in,” must “embrace the winter,” must dissent, dissent, dissent.
Will dissented against injustice through his writing, but he also dissented against our culture of individualism and competition through his striking generosity of spirit, which blossomed over time, particularly after he became a father. Anyone who knows Will knows his wholehearted, wholeminded dedication to his daughter. His stubborn hope for our shared future was tied to his determination to help build a world in which his daughter would “get the chance to know what it is to reach, to fly, to rise, to become.”
Will strove to teach his daughter to “do the right thing when nobody is looking,” and within Truthout’s staff, he did just that. He reached out to people regularly when he learned they were going through a rough patch, and was always quick to drop inspiring words into our group chat in times of collective crisis. He evolved a humble and amiable writerly spirit. As an editor, I am not used to hearing the words, “You’re right!” But Will was not afraid to acknowledge that a paragraph should be cut here or there. He also acknowledged his interpersonal mistakes, and became a profuse apologizer (even when he’d done nothing wrong!); he believed in accountability and sought to put this belief into action on the micro level, with both humor and sincerity. Will Pitt saw the point and the power of relationships; he knew that, in these cataclysmic times, we must learn to work together, if life on Earth is to survive.
Will’s understanding of the perilousness of life on Earth pervaded each piece he wrote. Yet so did the reality that we can’t predict the future: We have to do the future. Last year, in a column commemorating his 20th anniversary at Truthout, Will wrote:
If I could make any wish, it would be to get another 20 years to do this, if only for the chance to sit here two decades hence and talk about all the good shit that went down after we cured COVID, kept Trump out of office, vanquished fascism, found a way to turn CO2 and methane into marijuana fertilizer, and shot all that sea-bound plastic into space.
Likely as not, though, I’ll be back here in 20 years talking about the day we lost Boston and New York to the Atlantic Ocean. Or maybe not.
That’s the thing about tomorrow: It’s only a rumor. The rest is up to us.
William Rivers Pitt reminded us that the fate of the world is not decided. We have a choice: Will we speak out even when we’re not sure our words will make a difference? Will we gather the courage to act in the face of injustice? Will we admit when we’ve screwed up, and transform the circumstances to create more beauty and love in the wake of mistakes? Will we commit acts of radical kindness even when no one is looking? Will we put our faith in humanity, even when the odds look grim? For Will, the answers were yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Will often ended his columns with the gentle encouragement, “Stout hearts!” It was a reminder that although we can’t always mentally strategize our way out of turbulent times, we can get through them together using deeper human tools: compassion, vulnerability, real feeling, righteous anger, righteous love.
As we face the impossibility of this larger-than-life man’s death, we must turn to those tools. I’m going to let myself feel Will’s death fully. I’m going to cry angry tears for a long time. I’m going to rededicate myself to the work of transforming this screwed-up world, in community with all of you.
As Will taught us, “All I have, all you have, all we have, is the power to do good and right within our own reach.”
We’ve worked with Will’s family to create this fundraiser in the hopes of raising some money to support his 9-year-old daughter Lola’s needs, including her future education. All funds raised will go directly to a trust for Lola. Please give what you can.