Try, if you can, if you dare, to make heads or tails of Cass Sunstein’s latest, “How the Alger Hiss Case Explains the Tea Party”
1. Alger Hiss was a super-elite figure from in New Deal America with an Ivy League background, who was close personal friends with, and had the backing and support of, nearly every other member of elite New Deal America with Ivy League backgrounds. Chambers was just some illiterate dropout nobody from the sticks, you know, like members of the Tea Party.
2. Whittaker Chambers alleged, and demonstrated with personal details and documentation, that Hiss was a Communist, probably a Soviet Spy, and lying publicly about it. Sunstein doesn’t mention that Chambers also implicated a lot of Hiss’ ‘Liberal’ friends.
3. American ‘Liberals’, a lot with elite Ivy League backgrounds, sympathized and sided with Hiss. They defended him and demonized Chambers. Conservatives (and?) anti-communists celebrated Chambers.
4. Chambers publicly noticed this … ahem … affinity between American Liberals and American Communists.
“The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.”
It was a few more than two, Whittaker. And it’s been a few more since.
5. Sunstein says Chambers’ charge, ‘polarized the nation’. Because it wasn’t already polarized by that whole sympathizes-with-communism filter. Or something.
6. Chambers is also responsible for ‘helping to initiate suspicions’ of the Ivy League elite’s patriotism, loyalty, and commitment to the traditional constitutional structure of American society. Because nobody was complaining about exactly this problem decades before Chambers, indeed, while Chambers himself was still a Communist. Or something.
7. Eighty years later, elite Ivy League liberals ‘are no longer interested’ in dredging up the unpleasant and embarrassing Hiss case. As opposed to obsessed crazies who bear grudges for eighty years and can’t seem to get over them and see that things have entirely changed. I mean, Harvard Law Sunstein worked for Harvard Law Obama and helped to implement socialized health care, which they’ve wanted to do forever. But crazy Tea Party types still accuse them of being closet Socialists, which is completely crazy. So there must be some mysterious ‘anti-intellectual’ X-factor that never wears off in American Conservative culture. As opposed to some mysterious ideological Y-factor that is a historically continuous descriptor of liberalism.
8. Therefore Chambers -> Nixon -> Reagan -> Tea Party. Q.E.D.
Sort of Related, David Bernstein on comparative boycotting, anti-communists-in-the-film-business, and anti-anti-gay-marriage-advocates-in-the-film-business. The latter is encouraged by ‘liberals’; the former is despised. The latter is defended by ‘liberals’; the former is demonized. Kind of like Chambers and Hiss.
I would reiterate that midcentury politics revolves around socialism, Communism, and anti-Communism. Both sides have history that they would rather forget. The left would rather forget that many of its leading intellectuals saw Communism as equivalent to, or even superior to, capitalism.
There are some tinfoil hat types out there who think that President Obama and his cohorts are hiding Qu’rans in the White House and looking to introduce both socialism and Sharia as soon as they can.
That’s ridiculous. Tinfoil hat types indeed. Most of Obama’s cohorts are effectively atheists. And anyway, Sharia, while cool with pedophiliac-cousin-polygamy, remains, for the moment, incompatible with homosexual marriage.
We aren’t seeing a right-leaning populist surge today because of Alger Hiss; we are seeing it because … the technocratic suggestions of the Great and the Good have not been helping ordinary Americans much for the last 20 years.
Ya think? But, look, loyalty goes both ways. Have ordinary Americans been helping the Great and Good achieve their utopian dreams? No! They’re just standing in the way, those ingrates! Better replace them. ¡Pronto!
There were those on the right who thought that Franklin Roosevelt was a socialist; there were those on the left who thought Ronald Reagan was a fascist
Roosevelt a Socialist? Lunatic fringe! On the other hand, I remember a lot of the ‘Reagan’s a fascist’ accusations (Giuliani too, naturally) and I don’t recall the rest of the mainstream media calling those people tin-foil-hat-types at the time.
It was, however, a prominent manifestation of the class snobbery and intolerance that so often shapes elite liberal responses to political events and that so frequently fills so many Americans with loathing and disgust.
For a generation after Alger Hiss was convicted on two counts of perjury, American liberals went on to defend him as a plumed knight and a martyr. They slimed his accusers as knuckle dragging know-nothings and McCarthyite enemies of freedom. They never forgave Richard Nixon for helping Whittaker Chambers. As the evidence against Hiss mounted, they fought a long rear-guard defense. Even today, Cass Sunstein doesn’t quite come out with the ugly truth. Instead he gives us a mealy-mouthed formulation.
Notice how even Mead refers to Alger Hiss’ real crime as being the relatively minor ‘perjury’. The fact that someone lied under oath has little importance in itself except as an indicator of character and warning of a deeper secret. It could be on some trivial matter, a white lie, a compassionate lie, etc. The important of the perjury derives what they were lying about. Hiss didn’t deny knowing Chambers because he was ugly, and it’s embarrassing to be known as someone who socializes with ugly people.
Hiss was trying to cover up his Soviet treasonous espionage activities, him sympathies with brutal Stalinist Communism, and, more to the point, he was trying to protect all his Pinko fellow travelers at the upper echelons of the American establishment. A very ugly truth indeed, that ‘even today’ is hard for certain people to say in a straightforward manner. That’s why AIACC is important. Everyone talks about ‘Overton Windows’ these days. Well, on this subject, unless somebody goes for the throat, no one else will even scratch the surface.
Even today it is rare to hear serious liberals asking just what it was that made so many prominent liberals so blind to the possibility that there were spies and traitors in their ranks. [maybe they weren’t all that blind] We haven’t had a good history—by a liberal—about the nastiness of the liberal response in the case and the class prejudice and ideological blindness that it laid so distressingly bare.
Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of that work.
If Professor Sunstein is hoping to launch a broader conversation among liberals about ways their own missteps have contributed to American polarization, then I certainly wish him the best. But it’s important to remember that the kind of behavior so painfully on display in the Hiss era is still with us today;