Dialogue of the deaf

The Los Angeles Times Book Review is controlled by a leftist editor who relentlessly censors other voices.

Published May 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review reveals how the culture war has become a dialogue of the deaf. In a negative review of new books by Norman Podhoretz and Hilton Kramer, the left-wing critic Russell Jacoby writes 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 books, 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." Jacoby 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 was no credible answer to the question.

But it is obvious to readers 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. As Kramer sees him, Chambers was an "archetypal" ex-communist and his treatment in "the court of liberal opinion," which is co-terminus with the literary culture, reflected its own attitude towards the anti-communist cause. Chambers did risk his life and career to expose one of the top Soviet spies in the American government, yet his status in America's literary culture 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 the author of an American classic "Witness" -- was fired from his job as a top editor at Time and brought to the brink of personal ruin. Despised in life, after his death in 1957 Chambers was for 40 years a forgotten man. Indeed, when I had the occasion to ask some senior honors students at the University of California in the early 1990s if they had ever heard of Whittaker Chambers, they confessed they had not. But they did know the name Alger Hiss and that he was a "victim of McCarthyism."

Hiss was, of course, the Soviet spy Chambers exposed. In contrast to Chambers's fate, Hiss emerged through his ordeal as a political martyr to the literati, a hero and a cause cilhbre among leftists who continued to champion his "innocence" long after his guilt became 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 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 surely 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 on 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' guilt.

For anti-communist conservatives, Whittaker Chambers is a political hero. But it took 40 years following his death for the publishing world to produce a biographical tribute. 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 and other large figures of the anti-communist cause have virtually disappeared from cultural memory.

By contrast, to cite but one counter-example, Abbie Hoffman, a political clown though a hero to the left, has been 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 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 prose and influenced the public debate. The very title of his book was an expression of progressive arrogance. 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 perks and privileges to comrades among the politically correct.

Jacoby was well aware that a consequence of this takeover was that almost all contemporary conservative intellectuals were (of necessity) public intellectuals. (Thus the familiar ad hominem trope of leftist discourse which attacks them as "bought" by their sponsors. Jacoby cannot mention Kramer's magazine the New Criterion, without adding that it is "funded by a conservative foundation." Of course the Nation for which Jacoby regularly writes is funded by rich leftists and leftist foundations. So what?)

The reason conservative intellectuals gravitated to think tanks like Heritage, American Enterprise and Hoover, and to magazines like Commentary and the New Criterion was because of their de facto blacklisting from the leftist academy. It was precisely the public influence of these conservative intellectuals that Jacoby was lamenting. Yet the pull of the academy's privilege and security is so great that even Jacoby has succumbed to its lure. Since writing his assault on what he once derided as 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 featured on its cover. Three of these features 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.

This issue of the Times happened to be for May 9, 1999, but it could have been any date. In December 1997, the same book review ran the Times' 100 best books of the year. The list was made up of excerpts from previous Times reviews, and most 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 all of them, however, the only reviewer I could detect with the slightest claim to a conservative profile was Walter Lacquer, an academic who had no obvious association with conservative politics, in the way the aforementioned leftists were connected to radical politics.

I 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 protigi of the Times' contributing editor Bob Scheer who, in the days of the "revolution," was promoting the party line of Kim Il Sung and plotting to overthrow the American empire as a member of the red family. Scheer's politics were still to the left even of the socialist rants of Senator Bullworth in the film he made a cameo appearance in courtesy of friend Warren Beatty. After the 1960s, 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 Times' hierarchy, all of which enabled him to secure Wasserman his job.

At Wasserman's request, I had defended his appointment in a letter to the now-defunct Buzz magazine, when he was attacked in its pages by Salon writer Catherine Seipp. In my letter to Buzz, I praised what I thought were Wasserman's good intentions to be fair, despite our political differences. The lunch we had arranged was an attempt to rekindle the flame of a relationship that had survived the '60s.

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 have sometimes been accused of "lumping" leftists together and missing the spectrum of "progressive" opinions. The reverse would almost be more accurate. To people like Wasserman, I have often given too much benefit of the doubt 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, though there were plenty of feminists and feminist sympathizers on the review's list.

I should have realized at the time this was not going to be a long-lived reunion. It came to an end almost a year later when Wasserman finally asked me to write for the review. He wanted me to join a "symposium" on the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. My contribution was to be 250 words, and I made the mistake of assuming the others would be equally brief. When I opened the issue, however, I saw not only that he had cut my two paragraphs to one, but that the symposium opened with a 3,000-word illustrated spread celebrating Marx's genius and contemporary relevance. It was written by Eric Hobsbawm, a member of the Communist Party for 50 years and recidivist Marxist. Hobsbawm's most recent book had been a 500-page defense of the Marxist left in the Cold War, which I had taken on in a lengthy review in the Weekly Standard. His defense of 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 Hobsbawm on this occasion, 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 the continuing relevance of Mein Kampf on its anniversary, I asked, in an acid note I sent to him.

I could not let the matter rest, and decided eventually to take it up with the top editors at the Times. Both of them were men of the (soft) left who listened politely and ignored my concern. I also wrote a letter to the Times' newly appointed publisher and CEO, Mark Willes, who had previously been an executive at General Mills. I had met Willes at a Times Christmas party at the Hancock Park mansion of its editorial page editor, Janet Clayton, whose living room was tellingly adorned with an iconic portrait of Jesse Jackson. Except for the passage of 30 years, the party in fact could have been organized by Ramparts, the radical magazine Scheer and I edited in the 1960s. Clayton's living room was filled 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 my autobiography "Radical Son," and Tom Hayden made an appearance along with the ACLU's Ramona Ripston, and black extremist (and Times contributor) Earl Ofari Hutchinson. In fact, the only other person not of the left I encountered that whole evening was Paula Jones' spokeswoman Susan Carpenter McMillan.

It occurred to me to appeal to Willes because he had already made a few gestures indicating an 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. 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 conservative perspectives with which I was concerned.

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, Willes was publicly embarrassed by a leaked internal memo in which he demanded that Times reporters include culturally 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 which revealed that our relationship was effectively over.

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, 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 three major universities by leftist gangs this year. These acts of incivility have been abetted by cowardly administrators who do not share the witch-hunting mentality of the demonstrators but are also unwilling to stand up to them.

Every conservative faculty member without tenure at an American university lives in fear of being terminated for his or her politically incorrect views. 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 PC 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 of hostile antagonists.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

MORE FROM David Horowitz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------