Pundits on the right have been less than pleased by what they view as a timid defense of freedom of speech and appeasement of radical Islamists by both Obama Administration officials and public intellectuals on the left in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the accompanying violence in the Mideast. See for example, this piece by Ann Althouse, and this by Victor Davis Hanson. If the wobbly stuff emanating from the L.A. Times, The New Republic, and MSNBC is in any way representative, they have a point. In fact, the Left in the US and Europe has been exchanging admiring glances with the Islamists for some time. It’s not surprising. Following the collapse of Communism, radical Islam is the only game in town if your tastes run to extreme ideologies and you like to imagine yourself as a savior of the world. Unfortunately, it takes a very flexible intellect to abandon the ideological shibboleths embraced by the Left for the last couple of decades in favor of a misogynistic and fundamentalist version of Islam. Hence, the love affair has been carried on from a distance for the most part. If it’s any consolation to Professors Althouse and Hanson, things have been worse. Much worse.
It’s instructive to occasionally step back from the flood of information about current events that constantly pours in over the public media and look at the equivalent sources of information and opinion from times gone by. Consider the first half of the 1930’s, for example. The Great Depression had a strong tendency to adjust the attitudes of the public intellectuals of the day. Many of them were also fascinated by, and strongly supportive of, the totalitarian regimes that had recently appeared on the scene, some leaning to the Communist and some to the fascist variants thereof. I found interesting examples of both while thumbing through an old copy of The Atlantic Monthly.
The issue in question, dated November 1934, began with a piece by Vincent Sheean entitled “Youth and Revolution.” I highly recommend Sheean’s books, such as Not Peace but a Sword and Personal History to interested readers. Sheean was an excellent writer and journalist, and had a knack for turning up at key places just as events that shaped history were happening. He was also a forerunner of what a whole generation of later journalists became; a self-appointed champion of noble causes who saw the world in stark black and white, with few shades of grey in between. He had no illusions about Hitler at all, and witnessed and wrote about Nazi brutality against the Jews at a time when many “experts” who should have known better were dismissing such stories as “atrocity fables.” Hitler was a “bad guy.” Stalin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were “good guys.” When it came to the bloody deeds of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, Sheean didn’t miss a trick, but was strangely blind to the ample evidence of similar mayhem available at the time if the perpetrators happened to be Communists.
In the article he wrote for the Atlantic, Sheean describes a trip to China in 1927. To set the stage historically, he arrived in China during the Northern Expedition, in which Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek triumphed over a coalition of warlords and succeeded in uniting most of the country in 1928. Nanking had fallen to them in March 1927, a couple of weeks before Sheean arrived, and tensions between Chiang and the Communists in the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) were coming to a head. They would soon culminate in Shanghai Massacre and the purge of Communists from the party which, until then had been supplied with arms and money from the Soviet Union. The Soviet envoy, Mikhail Borodin, was allowed to “escape” from the country. Here are a few excerpts from Sheean’s article:
The moment of triumph was inevitably the one in which the two elements among the Cantonese victors would separate. Genuine revolutionaries – those who wished to change the conditions of life in China, and not simply the forms or names of government – found themselves obliged to cling to the Left Wing of the Kuomintang, in which Russian influence was paramount. The others – those who took part in the revolution for their own advantage, or were prevented by the tenacity of middle-class ideas from wishing to disturb the established arrangement of wealth – collected around the treasuries of Shanghai and Nanking, under the patronage of the Chinese bankers of those cities and their new ally, Chiang Kai-shek.
…the difference between an academic acquaintance with Communism and an actual perception of its spirit is very great. The step required to pass from the first state to the second is so easy that it may be accomplished in a moment, and so difficult that it may involve the effort of a lifetime… but when the step has at last been taken, the barrier passed, we enter a world in which all parts of the structure of existence are so related and harmonized, so subjugated to a sovereign system, that its ordered beauty and majesty give us the sensation of a new form of life, as if we had moved off into space and taken up our abode, for a time, on another star… The world of Lenin (which is, in effect, all around us) can be entered in a moment, but only if the disposition of circumstances, persons, influences, can conquer the laziness of a bourgeois mind. The required combinations occurred for me at Hankow, and were given force and form, particularly, by Michael Borodin and Rayna Prohme (Russian editor of the left wing Kuomintangs newspaper).
Borodin, a large, calm man with the natural dignity of a lion or a panther, had that special quality of being in, but above, the battle that seems to me to deserve, in itself and without regard to the judgment of the world, the name of greatness… As I knew him better I perceived – or, rather, he showed me – how his political philosophy made breadth and elevation inevitable in the mind that understood it. He was an Old Bolshevik.
Such were the musings and reminiscences of a “mainstream media” journalist in 1934. As the reader will gather, Sheean was singularly ill-equipped intellectually to give his audience a balanced view of the Stalinist regime in Russia, or an understanding of the real nature of Communism. I encourage anyone who thinks he was the only one writing the sort of stuff cited above in 1934 to look through a few of the intellectual journals of the time. The question among many of the authors who contributed to them was not whether capitalism was dead, but which flavor of socialism would replace it, and whether the “inevitable” transition would occur violently or not. For the record, Borodin disappeared into the Gulag in 1949, and died in captivity in 1951, having escaped that fate much longer than most of the old Bolsheviks. The current state of the “worker’s paradise” in China should be familiar to most readers.
Apologists for the other brand of totalitarianism extant at the time, fascism, were fewer in number, but hardly uncommon. One of them, William Orton, a professor of economics at Smith College, contributed an article to the Atlantic entitled “New Wine in Germany.” It soothed readers’ “irrational” fears about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that had seized power in that country in January 1933. Orton had no more problem with Hitler’s suppression of “bourgeois” freedoms than Sheean had with the suppression of those freedoms by the Communists. He wrote at a time when much of the propaganda about atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in World War I had been debunked, spawning an attitude among intellectuals that all reports of atrocities were to be taken with a grain of salt. This instance of “learning the lessons of history” was particularly unhelpful at a time when the Communists and Nazis were competing for the title of greatest mass murderers of all time. The many eyewitness reports coming out of Germany and the Soviet Union were dismissed with the sage observation that, “It’s necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Orton applied this logic to the violent Nazi persecution of the Jews that Sheean, among others, had already described in great detail. Here are some of the things he had to say about the “New Wine in Germany.”
It is not difficult, after three thousand miles of travel in Germany, to recognize in one’s mind a certain general impression; but it is almost impossible to convey that impression in speech or writing. One has the sense of a tremendous spiritual or psychological fact – overwhelming in its magnitude, urgent in its significance. But since the ingredients of this fact are primarily neither personal nor political, it eludes the scope of both the ordinary news story and the ordinary article. Perhaps the film could do it justice.
A sound film, of course, it would have to be. Drums – no, not the drums first. Silence – the silence that surrounds a great ship coming into harbor; and, somewhere up above, a band playing the new national anthem, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ – a fine music, reserved, steady, powerful in its measure, swinging out in the sunshine over the massed decks, over the narrowing water, over the crowded dock, over thousands of arms held motionless in the splendid gesture of the Fascist salute. Swing the camera along those lines of hands, held tense, not flaccid; close up to the faces; look at the lips, look at the eyes, shining, shining…
Confronted by this transition from party to government, British and American opinion exhibits a reluctance to face the facts that amounts to a positive refusal. Atrocity stories are played up, blunders magnified, oppression emphasized, …until a fair estimate of Hitler and his system is out of the question. There was the same display of stubborn short-sightedness in regard to the Italian and the Russian revolution, but in neither case was the myopia as acute as in this one. The roots of the disease must be exposed, since it renders a realistic attitude to modern Germany impossible.
Evidently Orton considered himself just the man to cure the “myopia,” and convey a “realistic attitude” about Hitler. He continues,
Germany is completely united in the determination to assert her equality of status with other powers; she has the means to do so, and there exists neither the right nor the possibility of preventing her.
Whether we will or no, we must take the risk of believing in the German people.
Germany has no present desire to provoke a war; and she has given certain tangible evidences (as Mussolini did not) of this fact. Hitler said, a few weeks ago, that ‘no colony was worth a single German life.’ His lieutenants have repeatedly said that with the return of the Saar there will remain no further cause of quarrel with France. There is good ground for accepting these assurances. But more weighty evidence is supplied by the ten-year treaty with Poland and the agreement recently concluded by Danzig with that state. To anyone who knows at first hand what conditions are like on the eastern border, those two settlements are an impressive demonstration of the will to peace.
Anti-semitism had been a problem, but Hitler had wisely put a stop to it:
Anti-semitism got altogether out of hand; until, when Streicher’s organ, Der Stürmer, attacked the President of Czechoslovakia, that too had to be temporarily suppressed.
It was with such stories of Hitler’s “will to peace” and his “suppression of anti-Semitism” that Orton reassured and “enlightened” the great democracies on the eve of the greatest existential struggle in their history. It is not recorded that he suffered any ill consequences for this “service.” As far as one can tell, it was forgotten, and he continued as a respected professor at Smith until his death in 1952. Searching the Internet, one learns that, “Russell Kirk praised Orton as a “humane economist,” “at once liberal and conservative,” seeking to “liberalize and humanize the Dismal Science.”
In a word, conservatives frustrated with the Left’s flirtations with radical Islam should take heart. Things have been worse. At the moment, at least, the United States and the European democracies don’t face an immediate threat to their existence. Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe that we will not continue to be “enlightened” about similar threats as we move into the future. Whether such “enlightenment” will be a significant contributor to our eventual downfall only time will tell.