Idiocy of the week

Vanity Fair, the magazine where murderous double agents for Stalin are transformed into "glamorous turncoats."

Published February 21, 2003 11:40PM (EST)

Vanity Fair's editor, Graydon Carter, has spent some time hobnobbing with the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro. And his fathomless Anglophilic snobbery has always led him to idolize the British upper crust. So it's no big surprise that his magazine this month should produce a puff piece about a sympathetic new miniseries, "Cambridge Spies," about Britain's communist double agents from the 1930s onward.

The series -- produced by the BBC, naturally -- recounts the story of how Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt betrayed their own country in order to support the mass murders of Joseph Stalin. Vanity Fair gives us the requisite, sepia-toned, boy-band-like group photograph. Its caption describes these supporters of totalitarianism "glamorous turncoats." The writer of the series is unabashed in his admiration for men who knowingly betrayed secrets that led to the deaths of their fellow countrymen and perpetuated a system that imprisoned thousands and condemned millions to death and terror. The four traitors were "devastatingly effective double agents who knew from the start that they stood or fell together," opines Peter Moffatt. "Burgess is the loudest spy in the history of espionage. Philby is the most successful spy of the lot, becoming head of counterintelligence in M.I.6. Blunt is cool, viciously funny and clever, while Maclean veers between being warm and friendly and drunk and difficult."

Now imagine a series being written and produced by the BBC and puffed by Vanity Fair that featured upper-class fascists who spied for Nazi Germany. Yet there is no relevant moral difference between that and these four treacherous supporters of Stalinist horror. The double standard remains -- buttressed by far too many "see no evil" liberals and leftists. But the last word goes to Vanity Fair itself, editorializing with breathtaking insouciance:

"Double agents are hard to root for -- but 'Cambridge Spies' makes a splendid case. 'It is controversial, portraying these guys as heroes,' says [actor Rupert] Penry-Jones. 'But to stand up for what you believe in the way they did is pretty heroic.'"

"Heroic." What does that make Solzhenitsyn or Havel? Fools?

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

MORE FROM Andrew Sullivan

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