Demagogic Writers and the People Who Love Them
On any day on the internet you can find many top-ranked writers in serious dispute with each other. Sometimes it's left versus right, but often it's people on the same side in furious disputation over what in the course of things are rather small points.
I never write about these. I believe my readers are smart people with full and rich lives, heavily involved in their occupations, families, and community life. Instead, I see the best use of my efforts is to seek out important but undercovered stories or stories where the reporting, the partisan claims and counterclaims make it impossible to get to the truth easily, or events where the most publicized versions are dead wrong: the Haditha "massacre", the trial of Scooter Libby, the Trayvon Martin case, all are richly documented tales of media malpractice. This work is more or less a natural to me. For most of my professional life, my time was spent poring through transcripts, documents, and pleadings to find in all of this jumble an honest, coherent narrative that comported with the evidence.
This week I'm making an exception in highlighting the imbroglio between Ron Radosh, an historian whose knowledge of the American Communist party and the McCarthy era is unmatched, and Diana West, author of American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on our Nation's Character. I'm doing so, not to attack West whose work I have not read, but to point out the dangers of demagogic writers -- everywhere on the political spectrum and the emotional bonds their fans form with them. These dangers are, I feel, inconsistent with what draws me to conservative and libertarian thinkers -- a respect for rational, not emotional -- analysis and a respect for rational, demonstrable truths.
I concede that there is at least reason why many readers on the right are so ready to accept as true, dramatic tales of conspiracies and wrongdoing on the left. In recent decades, historians aiming for fame and fortune could do far worse that putting a far left twist on American history as does Howard Zinn or gilding the lily when writing about the Kennedys like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or Democrat presidents and candidates as do Michael Beschloss, Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Add to this the high regard folks like these are given in academia and the press, it's perfectly understandable that conservatives would not wish to take on one of their own who strays from the path of careful scholarship. This week, however, a brave crew, led by PJ Media's Ron Radosh, did just that, to the credit of conservatives and in the service of truth.
"Voltaire lives! 'History is a bag of tricks we play on the dead...'" so said Michael Ledeen tongue in cheek, on reading about the controversy. In fact, as Radosh explains, that's what West tried to do, but failed.
The substance of her thesis, as Radosh explains is "The Roosevelt administration [was] penetrated, fooled, subverted, in effect hijacked by Soviet agents... and engaged in a 'sell-out' to Stalin" that "conspirators of silence on the Left... would bury for as long as possible, desperately throwing mud over it and anyone who wanted the sun to shine in." According to West, it was only because Washington was "Communist-occupied" that the United States aligned itself with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and, later, that the President allowed Stalin to gain Eastern Europe."
The stab in the back theory is superficially appealing but entirely too simple and wrong.
Radosh accuses West of having betrayed history in her book:
Conspiratorial theories of history are easy to create once you are prepared to ignore the realities on the ground, or regard those who do take them into account as part of the conspiracy too. This is the path that Diana West has taken in her misconceived and misleading book. Why did the U.S. and Britain not prevent the totalitarian USSR from taking over Eastern Europe after it had defeated the totalitarian Nazis? It had nothing to do with the Rubik's Cube of diplomatic and military considerations, a calculus that had to take into account the willingness of the American and British publics to continue to sacrifice and their soldiers to die. No, it was a conspiracy so immense, as West's hero Joe McCarthy might have said, that it allowed Western policy to be dictated by a shadow army of Soviet agents. It is unfortunate that a number of conservatives who should know better have fallen for West's fictions. It is even more depressing that her book perpetuates the dangerous one dimensional thinking of the Wisconsin Senator and his allies in the John Birch Society which have allowed anti anti-communism to have a field day in our intellectual culture.
What I want to discuss is why I took upon myself the job of writing a lengthy and detailed critique of West's book.
First, as a historian and a conservative, I believe that my responsibility is to the truth. I cannot countenance conspiracy theories, whether they come from those on the Left or those on the Right. On these pages and elsewhere, I have regularly written about the corruption of history by writers such as Howard Zinn, and the team of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. I have also written a great deal about Soviet espionage, the influence of Communism on American life, and the fallacies of anti anti-Communism.
When self-proclaimed conservatives echo the methodology and conspiratorial type thinking of those on the Left, because they consider themselves conservatives means that those of us who want a responsible, sane conservative movement, and a vibrant conservative intellectual culture, have the responsibility to speak out and to criticize, no matter what source it comes from.
Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland adds:
In fact, as Robert Dallek, Warren Kimball and Gerhard Weinberg have all pointed out, American entry into the war in Europe had everything to do with the defense of American national security and, initially preventing the defeat of Britain in 1940. One implication of West's argument is that the United States should not have intervened in World War II in Europe and thus should have stood by passively as Nazi Germany dominated Europe and, as Weinberg and Goda have pointed out and as Admirals of the United States Navy understood by 1939, posed a direct threat to the continental United States. What non-intervention in a war against a regime of such radical evil and huge global ambitions had and has to do with conservatism immersed in the Western moral and political tradition is hard to discern.
We scholars often complain that what we do does not reach a broad enough audience, that much of what we do is misconstrued and that the great simplifiers have an easier time finding a mass echo. West's claims not only fly in the face of the work of historians of Soviet espionage. They also display striking ignorance of the findings of many historians of both World War II, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the Cold War in Europe. Ronald Radosh deserves the congratulations and thanks from many fellow historians who have worked for decades to write accurately and truthfully about these events. He has done the kind of thing that distinguished historians of the first rank need to do when our discipline is attacked because it presents work that unsettles some conventional wisdom or another.
To his credit, David Horowitz, head of Freedom Center which publishes Frontpage Magazine, which had originally given the book a favorable review, withdrew it and published Radosh's critique.
Once I saw that Radosh's concern was methodological -- the dishonesty in West's use of conservative sources, her alleged abuse of evidence, and her construction of conspiracy theories not based on facts, I felt I had to examine the blanket endorsement our review had given her. When I spoke to the author of the review he readily conceded he was not familiar with the sources and could not properly assess such crucial matters as her claim that Soviet agents had gotten the United States to ship fissionable uranium to Stalin via Lend-Lease. Since West's book was getting enthusiastic responses from other conservatives and since the conservative movement had suffered from conspiracy-minded demagogues in the past, I regarded our publication of an uninformed review irresponsible and told Frontpage's editor Jamie Glazov to remove it. I also told him to communicate to Diana that while we were publishing a critical review we would give her as much space as she needed to defend her book.
Let me pause here to consider how she now presents herself as the persecuted victim of a Frontpage "suppression." What persecution and what suppression? We posted an irresponsible review that promoted her book. We intended to publish a second review that would draw more attention to her book. We were going to give her as much space as she needed to defend her book, which would mean even more attention for her book. What author would not be grateful for all this attention? As for "suppression," since the favorable review had already appeared and since no one can really erase something from the Internet, there was no suppression, merely the removal of our endorsement. Apparently, this was enough to set her on the warpath.
Instead of taking us up on our offer to open our pages to a controversy over her book, West launched a public attack on us calling us -- for starters -- hypocrites and totalitarians. At least she didn't call us Soviet agents. [snip]
I wanted the intellectual issues to be the focus of the debate; I wanted a clarity to emerge about the roles the historical actors had played. Radosh's critique of American Betrayal sets a high standard in this regard. Neither West nor her supporters have begun to meet that standard or attempted to answer even one factual claim that Radosh has made about her book. I don't have a lot of hope that this will change because West has already shown herself to be a very angry, very self-centered and very reckless partisan, with a paranoid streak and a disposition to think in extreme terms that have only a tenuous and deceptive relation to the truth.
Blogger and historian Clare Spark notes that West has little background for her research and the unfortunate overconfidence of many Ivy graduates, "I have looked up Diana West's background. She has a B.A. in English from Yale and a prior book that gave her synoptic view of American culture as stuck in adolescent rebellion. That she has the confidence to make grand pronouncements about American culture and then diplomatic history can be attributed both to her Ivy League education and to the rise of the amateur commentator, thanks to far right conspiracy theorists. They are attached to her as to other 'inside dopesters," and the results are frightening for the future of the republic."
I'll give Clare Spark the final word on the vicious, personalized, heated responses to Radosh's criticism of West's work by West and her fans.:
I have little patience with amateurs who take advantage of the internet and cable news to delve into political and diplomatic history willy nilly, taking advantage of the poor educations of their target audience -- an audience that is hurting, confused by conflicting truth-claims, and looking for guidance. It is possible to be moderate without being wishy-washy or wavering. We are all limited by limited access to documents and to our own inner psychodramas. And yet we strive for objectivity and for truthfulness. But the heated political language of our time, playing on our emotions, makes moderation a wish, rarely achieved. Some of our "unmaskers" are self-righteous opportunists, unbalanced and averse to even friendly criticism. True, they seek your financial support, but there must be more to it.
Here is a tentative suggestion: Popular culture is often expressed in a language of melodrama that turns us back into the dependent states of childhood, even infancy. How ironic that a wildly popular book that celebrates sadomasochism is entitled "Fifty Shades of Grey." For the images of S-M are black and white, elevating domination and submission, sometimes simultaneously. In this regressive alternative universe, we are Heroes, Villains, and Victims, switching places at alarming speed. Insofar as we are attuned to these archetypes, we are stuck and dependent on demagogues.
There is no place for true moderation in the S-M universe, or in the language of paranoid populists who hate the more emotionally and intellectually responsible and mature. There is something to be said for the moderate tone and demeanor of the public intellectual/statesman, self-revising, self-critical, and attuned to the worries and fears of the reader.