A NEGATIVE ARTICLE in the LA Times Sunday Book Review on neo-conservative authors Norman Podhoretz and Hilton Kramer reveals how the culture war has become a dialogue of the deaf. In his review, the left-wing critic Russell Jacoby concludes that the "problem" with these neo-conservative writers "is less their positions than their delusions about them; they seem to think they represent lonely and beleaguered outposts of anti-Communism."
How could conservatives be beleaguered in an American culture that was itself conservative? Jacoby wanted to know. Referring to Kramer’s Twilight of the Intellectuals, the more theoretical of the two, Jacoby explains: "Kramer refashions reality. . . . [He] writes as if he were a denizen of the former Soviet Union, where the party controls intellectual life and only a few brave souls like himself risk their lives and careers to tell the truth." The critic focuses on Kramer’s lament that "it was not the Western defenders of Communist tyranny who suffered so conspicuously from censure and opprobrium in the Cold War period but those who took up the anti-Communist cause." Incredulous, Jacoby asks "What could he mean?" as though there were no credible answer to the question.
But it is obvious to a reader of Kramer’s book that he had in mind the emblematic figure of Whittaker Chambers, the subject of the first two essays in this powerful volume. Jacoby seems to have given the book an attention as cursory as his evident contempt for its author’s conservative politics. In Kramer’s view, Chambers was an "archetypal" ex-Communist and his treatment in "the court of liberal opinion," which is coterminous with the literary culture, reflected its own attitude towards the anti-Communist cause. Chambers risked his life and career to expose one of the top Soviet spies in the American government, yet his status in America’s literary culture ever after has been that of a renegade and a snitch. As a direct consequence of his patriotic deed, Chambers—who was one of the towering figures of the early Cold War and, in Witness, the author of an American classic—was fired from his job as a top editor at Time and brought to the brink of personal ruin. Despised in life, for forty years after his death in 1957 Chambers was a forgotten man. Indeed, when I had the occasion to ask some senior honors students at the University of California in the early Nineties if they had ever heard of Whittaker Chambers, they said they had not. But they knew the name "Alger Hiss" and that he was a "victim of McCarthyism."
Alger Hiss was, of course, the Soviet spy whom Chambers exposed. In contrast to Chambers’ fate, Hiss emerged through his ordeal as a political martyr to the liberal culture, a hero and a cause celebre among Nation leftists who continued to champion his "innocence" long after his guilt was obvious. The convicted Hiss even had an academic chair named in his honor at a distinguished liberal-arts college. At his death in 1996, he was eulogized in progressive magazines and by liberal TV anchors as an "idealist," and (inevitably) as a long-suffering victim of the anti-Communist "witch-hunt." As Kramer sums up this parable, "Hiss—convicted of crimes that showed him to be a liar, a thief, and a traitor—was judged to be innocent even if guilty, and Chambers—the self-confessed renegade who recanted his treachery—was judged to be guilty even if he was telling the truth. For what mattered to liberal opinion was that Hiss was seen to have remained true to his ideals—never mind what the content of these ‘ideals’ proved to be—whereas Chambers was seen to have betrayed them."
In this passage, Kramer identifies the central cultural paradox of the Cold War epoch in the West: the survival among American intellectuals of the very ideals—socialist and progressive—that led to the catastrophe of Soviet Communism. As Kramer put it: "Liberalism, as it turned out, was not to be so easily dislodged from the whole morass of illiberal doctrines and beliefs in which, under the influence of Marxism, it had become so deeply embedded, and every attempt to effect such a separation raised the question of whether . . . there was still something that could legitimately be called liberalism." Yet, Jacoby’s only response to these seminal chapters and the questions they pose is that they make Kramer’s book seem "musty." This, despite the fact that Chambers’ final vindication is as recent as the release three years ago of the Venona transcripts of Soviet intelligence communications that definitively established Hiss’s guilt.
For anti-Communist conservatives, Whittaker Chambers is a political hero. But it took forty years from the time of his death for the publishing world to produce a biographical tribute in Sam Tannenhaus’s worthy tome. And Chambers stands almost alone among anti-Communist heroes of the Cold War in finally receiving his biographical due. Elizabeth Bentley, Louis Budenz, Bella Dodd, Frank Meyer, Walter Krivitsky, Victor Kravchenko, Jan Valtin, once large figures of the anti-Communist cause, along with countless of less well-known others, are more typical in having been virtually disappeared from cultural memory.
By contrast, to cite only one of many counter-examples, Abbie Hoffman, a political clown of the next radical generation but a hero to the left, was the subject of three biographies within a decade of his death, not to mention a book-length exposition of his political "philosophy." There can be no question that the nostalgic glow around Hoffman’s memory and the interest in his life are integrally connected to the fact that he was a stalwart defender of Communist tyrannies in Cuba and Vietnam, and thus in the shared ideals of progressives who now dominate the literary culture and shape its historical judgments.
Russell Jacoby acquired his own credentials by writing a book called The Last Intellectuals, which bemoaned the vanishing "public intellectual." This was a label he gave to intellectuals who worked outside the academy, wrote lucid (instead of post-modernist) prose, and influenced the public debate. The very title of Jacoby’s book, however, is an expression of progressive arrogance and the unwillingness of leftists like Jacoby to acknowledge their cultural success. What Jacoby really mourned was the disappearance of the left-wing public intellectual, a direct result of the conquest of American liberal-arts faculties by the political left and its distribution of academic privilege to comrades among the politically correct. Jacoby is well aware that an important consequence of this takeover is that almost all contemporary conservative intellectuals are (of necessity) public intellectuals. Indeed, this fact is regularly used by leftists in their ad hominem attacks on conservative intellectuals as "bought" by their institutional sponsors. Jacoby himself cannot even mention Kramer’s magazine The New Criterion, without adding that it is "funded by a conservative foundation." Of course The Nation, for which Jacoby himself writes regularly, is funded by rich leftists and leftist foundations. So what?
The reason conservative intellectuals gravitate to think-tanks like Heritage, American Enterprise, and Hoover, and to magazines like Commentary and The New Criterion is because of their de facto blacklisting from the leftist academy. It is, in fact, the public influence of these conservative intellectuals that is the focus of Jacoby’s lament in The Last Intellectuals. Academic intellectuals, he complains, write for a professional coterie instead of a broad public. Yet the pull of the institutional security it affords is so great that Jacoby, himself, has since succumbed to its lure. Since writing his assault on the "obscurantist" university, Jacoby has given up his own independent existence, swallowed his radical principles, and accepted an appointment from his political comrades in the history department at UCLA.
While lack of self-reflection and self-irony are indispensable characteristics of the left in general, Jacoby’s attack on Podhoretz and Kramer is extraordinary in its abuse of them. Not only was his attack directed at two intellectuals who, for political reasons, were denied a platform in the Times, but they were also denied the very academic patronage that Jacoby himself enjoyed. "What can he mean?" Indeed.
Jacoby’s attack was actually one of four non-fiction reviews the Times chose to feature on its cover. Three were of conservative books—all of which were attacked from the left. The fourth was a review of two books on Clinton, both written by leftists, both praised by reviewers from the left.
The issue of the Times in question happened to be for May 9, 1999, but it could have been any date. In December 1997, the Book Review ran a year-end wrap-up of the Times’ 100 Best Books compiled from previous Times reviews. Because some had written more than one notice, there were 87 reviewers in all. They were a familiar sampling of the literary left, and even of the true believing left (Saul Landau, Martin Duberman, Robert Scheer, and Ellen Willis for example). Among them all, however, the only reviewer I could detect with the slightest claim to a conservative profile was the academic, Walter Lacquer, who had no obvious association with conservative politics comparable to the way the aforementioned leftists were connected to radical politics.
I had learned how the "100 Best Books" were picked shortly after the issue appeared, when I had lunch with Steve Wasserman, the newly appointed editor of the Review. I knew Wasserman as a former Berkeley radical and protégé of Times’ contributing editor Bob Scheer in the Sixties, when Scheer promoting the party line of Kim Il Sung and plotting to overthrow the American empire as a member of the Red Family. Scheer’s present politics were still to the left of "Senator Bulworth," in whose film he had made a cameo appearance courtesy of his friend Warren Beatty. After the Sixties, Scheer had ingratiated himself with Hollywood’s Bolsheviks, married a top editor at the Los Angeles Times, and become a figure of influence in the paper’s hierarchy, which enabled him to secure Wasserman his job.
I had defended Wasserman’s appointment in print, at his own request, when journalist Catherine Seipp attacked him in the now defunct Buzz magazine. In my letter to Buzz, I praised what I thought were Wasserman’s good intentions of fairness, despite our political differences. The lunch we had arranged was an attempt to rekindle the flame of a relationship that had survived the Sixties. The mere fact that he would have civil contact with me, a political "renegade," seemed an auspicious sign—rare as such gestures of civility had been over the years from my former comrades-in-arms. It led me to assume (falsely) that Wasserman had some respect for my own odyssey and quest for the truth. Indeed, he had praised my autobiography, Radical Son, which some reviewers had flatteringly compared to Witness, and even thought the critical portrait I drew of Scheer "charming" and "accurate."
In fact, given the proper circumstances, Wasserman could himself be an artful critic of the left, within the stringent boundaries it normally set for itself. I say this because I have sometimes been accused of "lumping" leftists together and missing the spectrum of "progressive" opinions. The reverse would almost be more accurate. I have often given too much benefit of the doubt to people like Wasserman, in recognition of mild deviations they have been willing to risk, and have failed to see the hard line coming before it smacks me in the face.
When I raised the issue of conservatives’ exclusion from the pages of his magazine, Wasserman dismissed my concern out of hand as "bean counting." He compared it to feminist complaints of under-representation, even though there were plenty of feminists and feminist sympathizers on the Review’s list. I found myself wondering whether a leftist writer of reputation comparable to mine would have been invited to lunch by Wasserman and not asked for a review for his magazine.
I should have known at the time that this was not going to be a long-lived reunion. It came to an end almost a year later when Wasserman finally did ask me to write for the Review. He wanted me to join a "symposium" about the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. My contribution was to be 250 words (which he promptly cut to 125). I made the mistake of assuming others’ would be equally brief. When the issue came, however, I saw that the symposium opened with a 3,000-word illustrated spread celebrating Marx’s genius and continuing relevance. This mash note was written by Eric Hobsbawm, a member of the Communist Party for fifty years and a recidivist Marxist. Hobsbawm’s most recent book had been a 500-page defense of the pro-Soviet left in the Cold War, which I had taken on in a lengthy review in The Weekly Standard. Hobsbawm’s apologia for Marxism was an insult to the historical record and to everything that people like Chambers and I had stood for in our lives. In featuring this travesty, Wasserman had revealed the standard by which he lived (and his real opinion of me). Why not ask David Duke to write a paean to Mein Kampf on its anniversary, I asked, in an acid note I sent him.
But I could not let the matter rest there, and decided to take it up with the top editors at the Times. Both of them were men of the left, as well, who listened politely and ignored my concern. I also wrote a letter to the Times’ newly appointed publisher and CEO, Mark Willes, previously an executive at General Mills. I had met Willes at a Times Christmas Party which was held at the Hancock Park mansion of its editorial-page editor, Janet Clayton, an African American woman whose living room was tellingly adorned with an iconic portrait of Jesse Jackson. Except for the passage of 30 years, the Times party could have been organized by Ramparts, the radical magazine Scheer and I edited in the 1960s. Clayton’s living room soon filled up with the glittering names of the Los Angeles left. Scheer was there, gnashing his teeth at me because of what I had written about him in Radical Son, and Tom Hayden came too along with the ACLU’s Ramona Ripston, and black extremist (and Times contributor) Earl Ofari Hutchinson. In fact, the only person not of the left I encountered that whole evening, was Paula Jones’ spokeswoman Susan Carpenter McMillan.
It occurred to me to make an appeal to Willes because he had already made a few gestures that seemed to indicate his intention to introduce some balance at the Times. He had even demoted several left-wing editors who had climbed the affirmative-action ladder to the top of the paper, among them Scheer’s wife. In my letter, I challenged the rationale behind pitching the book section of a major metropolitan newspaper to what was essentially a Nation audience. I made it clear that I had no problem with the representation of left-wing authors in the paper. It was the exclusion of conservatives that concerned me.
But I had misjudged Willes, whose reason for demoting the editors was related more to the Times poor economic performance than its sometimes extreme political postures. Like many businessmen, Willes showed little political sense when it came to the issues of left and right. Shortly after my appeal, for example, Willes was publicly embarrassed by a leaked internal memo in which he demanded that Times reporters include ethnically diverse sources in all articles, regardless of subject matter or context. This was too much even for the quota-oppressed Times staff and its politically correct editors. Instead of answering my letter, Willes handed it over to its target, Wasserman, whose reply was understandably terse and revealed that our relationship was effectively over.
In my discussions with Wasserman and the Times’ editors, I had raised another issue—the exclusion of conservative writers from the annual LA Times Festival of Books. This was an event normally attended by 100,000 readers and five hundred authors, who were flown in from all over the country, eager to show up because of the opportunities for publicity and validation that an appearance for the Times entailed. At the previous festival, however, the only conservative authors I had been able to identify were Charlton Heston and Arianna Huffington.
I was made aware of the festival as a result of my own exclusion when my autobiography Radical Son was published. Like any author with a new book, I had been looking for venues to promote it. Given the liberal bias in the general media, securing an audience was already problematic for a conservative author. Although I had co-authored best-sellers with Peter Collier, and in Radical Son had a dramatic story of murder and intrigue to tell, I found my book blacked out in the review sections of most of the major metropolitan papers. A chance to have 60 Minutes do a segment on the book’s untold story of Black Panther murders was blocked by its chief investigative producer, Lowell Bergman, a veteran Berkeley radical. I had enough experiences like this to know I needed the book-festival venue. As a well-known author based in Los Angeles, it seemed odd to me that I should not be invited. When I brought this up to Wasserman, however, he just brushed me off. "There are lots of authors," he said. But then, to his credit, he did try to get me invited but was unsuccessful because my request for inclusion had come too late.
That was last year, before the Marx fracas. This spring I answered my phone and to my surprise Wasserman was on the other end inviting me to the Festival. We had not spoken for nearly a year and his voice sounded strained and not particularly friendly as he made the offer. "I want to thank you, Steve," I said, accepting. "I know how hard this must be for you." The conversation was so short I never found out exactly how I had earned the invitation, or exactly who had decided I should get it.
The Festival was held on the UCLA campus and was a capsule demonstration, utilizing a cast of thousands, of why conservatives like Hilton Kramer and Norman Podhoretz could harbor the "delusion" that the culture was controlled by the party of the left, and they were marginalized, beleaguered, and censured outsiders. As in previous years, the Festival headliners were leftists like Alice Walker and Betty Friedan, and even Sister Souljah, who had drawn thousands of their dedicated fans to the event. There was no Tom Clancy, no Tom Wolfe, no Thomas Sowell, and no Robert Bork to draw a parallel conservative crowd. Among the hundreds of authors, in fact, I counted only a handful (actually five) who were conservative, all locals. None were flown in like Walker, Friedan, and Sister Souljah as marquee attractions. As a tribute to his own lack of self-irony, Wasserman had appointed himself chair of a panel on "The Ethics of Book Reviewing."
I amused myself by walking around and bumping into former comrades, who seemed omnipresent. Among them were Nation editor Victor Navasky and Nation writers Todd Gitlin and Bob Scheer. I especially enjoyed the encounter with Scheer, who was in company with Navasky and Gitlin, but made an end run around the other two in order to avoid having to shake my hand. Later I came upon Christopher Hitchens, showing his parents the event. Christopher greeted me cordially and thanked me for defending him in Salon when he had come under attack from the left. When I told him how Scheer had run away, he smiled. "Yeah, he’s not speaking to me."
I had been scheduled for the second of three serial panels on the Sixties, called "Second Thoughts," although in fact I was the only panelist who had had any. The panels were recorded for later showing on C-SPAN and were held in Korn Auditorium on the UCLA campus. When I arrived, the room was packed with 500 graying and scraggly-faced leftists, many in message T-shirts and Nation baseball hats. I counted thirteen panelists in all for the three Sixties discussions, every last one but myself a loyalist to the discredited radical creed. Tom Hayden and Scheer were on a panel together. Russell Jacoby was there too.
The other panelists at my event were Maurice Zeitlin and Sara Davidson. A third leftist had failed to show. Davidson was the author of a Sixties memoir of sexual liaisons called Loose Change and the chief writer for the PC television series Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. Her politics could be gleaned from her latest book, Cowboy, about her affair with a man who was intellectually her inferior and whom she had to support with her ample television earnings, but who gave great sex. The book celebrated this affair as a triumph of feminism.
The panel moderator, Maurice Zeitlin, was a sociologist at UCLA and had written books with titles like America Incorporated and Talking Union. Maurice and I had been friends in Berkeley at the beginning of the 1960s, when the two of us, along with Scheer, were part of a radical circle that produced one of the first magazines of the New Left called Root and Branch. Maurice and Scheer had co-authored one of the first favorable books on Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution, which I had edited. Although we lived in the same city, I had seen Maurice only once, by accident, in the last 35 years.
While waiting for the panel to begin, I thought about the dilemma the whole scenario presented to me. I owed Wasserman a thank-you for being there at all, but at the same time I could not ignore the outrage unfolding before me. A leftist political convention was being held under the auspices of one of the most important press institutions in America, and was being promoted to a national TV audience under the pretense that such select and resentful voices somehow represented American culture.
I resolved my dilemma by thanking Steve and the Times editors "for allowing me to crash this party," and then remarked that it was a national disgrace that a major press institution would stage a "symposium" on the Sixties stacked 13-1 in favor of the radicals. Later in the discussion, I pointed out that the UCLA venue reflected the same unconscionable bias. A politically controlled hiring process at American universities had resulted over time in the systematic exclusion of conservatives from the liberal arts-faculties of UCLA and other prestigious schools. In contrast, even non-academic leftists were regularly appointed to university faculties by their political cronies. Jacoby was one example. Scheer, who had been made a professor of journalism at USC’s Annenberg School by its dean, a former Clinton Administration official, was another.
I focused my speech on the way in which Sixties leftists had betrayed their own ideals by doing an about-face on civil rights and supporting race preferences; by abandoning the Vietnamese when they were being murdered and oppressed by Communists; and by helping to crush the island of Cuba under the heel of the Castroist dictatorship. I also described my experiences with the Black Panther Party, a gang led by murderers and rapists whom the left had anointed as its political vanguard and whose crimes leftists continued to ignore to this day. I thought it interesting that a left that had supported international criminals during the Cold War was now supporting criminals like Mumia Abu Jamal and the inhabitants of what one of their leaders, Angela Davis, called the "prison-industrial complex" at home. These crusades against law enforcement, so characteristic of the left, hurt the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of our cities, particularly blacks, who were the chief victims of the predators the left defended. While the ideas and programs of leftists were seductive, their implementation had been an unmitigated human disaster. Which is why I had become a conservative.
As was common in my experience on similar platforms, the debate turned out to be a non-event. Adopting a standard tactic of the left I had encountered in the past, Sara Davidson simply ignored the challenge in my remarks and opened hers by saying that she saw the Sixties "in a wider, bigger context than just the Black Panthers." Then she commented: "My challenge is not to revise the Sixties, to re-analyze and reinterpret it, but to get back in touch with the essence and the spirit of that time." This was the kind of thoughtless arrogance one could expect from people inhabiting a cultural universe which they effectively controlled, and in which therefore no challenge could threaten their hegemony or required a serious reply.
Stepping in for the no-show panelist, Maurice gave a speech that could easily have been made in 1964 about the "silent generation" and American imperialism in Vietnam. He concluded with a flourish about the Movement and how it was inspired by the idea of social justice. Maurice’s eloquence about this commitment and about Vietnam was not tempered by a single fact that had been revealed since the end of the war, neither the two-and-a-half million Indo-chinese slaughtered by the Communists after America’s forced withdrawal, nor the interviews with North Vietnamese leaders that showed how the support of American radicals for the Communist cause had helped to prolong the war and make the bloodbath possible. Nor did he bother to explain the silence of the crusaders for social justice during the long night of Vietnam’s oppression by its leftist liberators.
As the discussion heated up during the rejoinder period that followed, the audience got into the act. There was lots of heckling, making it difficult for me to complete a sentence. Shouts of "racist" were audible. A member of the audience rubbed his fingers in the air as though holding a wad of bills, while he and several others accused me of selling out for money. It was a moment familiar to me in almost all my university appearances, when the importance of being a "public intellectual," beyond the control of the tenured left, was made eminently clear. For if I were inside an academic institution and dependent on it for my livelihood, my career would certainly be destroyed if I spoke out as I had.
Name-calling and ad hominem assaults, as I had come to appreciate, were indispensable weapons in the arsenal of the left. Fear of them was what kept people in line. "Over the whole of this worthy enterprise," Hilton Kramer writes of modern "liberalism," "there hovered a great fear—the fear of being thought ‘reactionary,’ the fear of being relegated to the Right. . . . The very thought of being accused of collaborating with ‘reaction,’ as it was still called, was a liberal nightmare, and there was no shortage of Stalinist liberals (as I believe they must be called) to bring the charge of ‘reaction’— . . . at every infraction, or suspected infraction, of ‘progressive’ doctrine." That was why at universities like UCLA, while private professional polls showed faculties to be evenly divided over race preferences, only a handful of professors on either campus had dared to publicly voice their opposition.
Maurice was embarrassed by the heckling and to his credit spoke up in my defense. He recalled how as a young teaching assistant at Princeton at the end of the Fifties his own students had signed a petition to get him fired because of his views on the Vietnam War. He told the UCLA audience that they were engaged in the same type of behavior. Referring to me as "one of the most trenchant critics of the left," he advised them that when they were groaning at my remarks they couldn’t hear what I had to say (as though that would bother them!). "It is precisely this," he added "that David turns into a characterization of The Left, as though there really is such a monolith."
Here Maurice had hit the absolute center of the blind spot that kept the left innocent of its effects. If there was no left then how could it do any of the things conservatives accused it of doing? How could it dominate the culture or exclude conservatives even more effectively than McCarthyism had excluded leftists in the past? Obviously it could not. This assumption (that there really was no left) was why Jacoby and so many others could think such an idea incomprehensible.
Of course the left is not a monolith. But then it never has been—not even in the days of Lenin and Stalin. Today, the left includes civilized social democrats like Maurice Zeitlin, but also ideological fascists who will shout down a conservative speaker and threaten opponents with verbal terrorism, and even physical violence. Ward Connerly, a trustee of the University of California who has led the fight against racial preferences, has been prevented from speaking at several major universities by leftist gangs. These acts of incivility have been abetted by cowardly administrators who do not share the witch-hunting mentality of the demonstrators but are unwilling to stand up to them. There is not a conservative faculty member lacking tenure at an American university who does not live in fear of possible termination for politically incorrect views. While Maurice can admirably chastise uncivil passions at a public forum, he nonetheless acquiesces in a political hiring process at his own university that ensures that conservatives will be virtually invisible. Steve Wasserman may be a nuanced radical whose socializing generously includes political pariahs like myself, but he will still enforce their marginality in the pages of his own magazine, or at festivals he organizes. And Russell Jacoby may be capable of composing book-length critiques of his fellow leftists but, writing in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, he will casually dismiss as a paranoid delusion the view of one of America’s leading conservative thinkers that he inhabits a culture that is controlled by hostile forces.