Progressives love Clarence Darrow this time of year, as did communists for reasons of their own.
No, that’s not “Clarence the Angel” of It’s a Wonderful Life fame. The Clarence in this title is much less inspiring, not exactly angelic — a humbug, really. I’m thinking of Clarence Darrow, dogmatic defender of atheists.
As Christians this time of year absorb another spate of snipes at their revered holy day, they might pause to remember Darrow. Darrow’s actions and triumphs stand at the crux of the secular-progressive long march against Christian interests, whether prayer in public schools or the latest ACLU lawsuit against Christmas carols.
Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) was the wise-cracking, aggressive lawyer who tore into William Jennings Bryan in the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trials,” an epic battle over evolution vs. creationism. Bryan, for the record, was a three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee. He was old-school, when Democrats were more conservative and far less secular, more in the mold of Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy than Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Darrow’s courtroom denunciation of Bryan is immortalized in the awful movie, Inherit the Wind, which portrays Bryan as an idiot and Darrow as brilliant defender of civil liberties, “tolerance,” and “reason.”
These are reasons why modern secular liberals uphold Clarence Darrow as conquering hero. These liberals are a sharp departure from religious progressive forebears like Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Dorothy Day, and Jane Addams, among others. Today’s progressive professors love Darrow.
That’s all well-established. What surprised me, however, was the discovery that the farthest extreme of the political left — namely, American communists — likewise loved Darrow. This was a shock, absolutely unexpected, as I encountered Darrow’s name repeatedly in the Soviet Comintern Archives on Communist Party USA (CPUSA).
Why did communists adore Darrow? For one, they greatly appreciated his work against religion in the Scopes Trials. There were no angrier foes of faith than communists, from Moscow to New York. Darrow was the toast of the movement for his yeoman’s work countering God and exposing the silly “superstitions” of Bryan and his slack-jawed fundamentalists.
But there’s more to it. Another reason for the communist reverence of Darrow is a fact not taught in schools: Darrow defended them, and particularly communist leader Ben Gitlow, beginning with a series of dramatic incidents and cases that ran from 1919 into the 1920s, when they were being (properly) pursued for advocating armed revolution and the overthrow of the American system, which they wanted to replace with a “Soviet American republic.” (To view some of these documents from the Comintern Archives, click here.) They were being challenged by President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, for their blatantly subversive, anti-American, pro-Bolshevik activities.
One might figure liberals/progressives more ambivalent on this one. Here were Darrow and American communists pitted against the progressive’s progressive, Woodrow Wilson. However, any liberal sympathies were cleverly reversed when Darrow shrewdly attacked not communists but anti-communists. For liberals, anti-communism has always been a worse sin than pro-communism. Their eternal demon is Joe McCarthy, not Joe Stalin.
Significantly, Darrow was an early member of the ACLU, founded in 1920 by fellow atheist, Roger Baldwin, who also, at that point, was a pro-Soviet communist. The ACLU was founded mere months after the American Communist Party and the Soviet Comintern. As I wrote here last week, a huge component of the group’s initial work was defending American communists. ACLU members and American Communist Party members flocked to one another.
As for Darrow, he unflinchingly adopted the party line of the ACLU and American Communist Party, arguing that America was being consumed by hysterical anti-communism. This, of course, was decades before Joe McCarthy. No surprise. The American left, from the start of the founding of the American Communist Party, has portrayed innumerable anti-communists, Democrat or Republican, as incarnations of McCarthy.
But Clarence Darrow’s courtroom defense of Gitlow and American communists was cruder than that. In fact, his antics were outright deceptive. Not only were American communists not loyal to the USSR, insisted Darrow, in the face of fliers dropped on doorsteps and posted on buildings by the Communist Party (click here), but they were the embodiment of the American Revolution and Founding Fathers. “For a man to be afraid of revolution in America,” argued Darrow to the court, “would be to be ashamed of his own mother!”
“Revolution?” scoffed Darrow. What was more quintessentially American? These American Bolsheviks, who wanted to replace the American Constitution with the Soviet “Constitution,” were modern incarnations of Jefferson and Madison.
As if that were not offensive enough, Darrow, atheist champion, invoked the Almighty on behalf of this exalted revolution: “There is not a drop of honest blood in a single man that does not look back to some revolution for which he would thank his God that those who revolted won.”
The bad guys weren’t the communists, according to this narrative; no, Woodrow Wilson and his vile anti-communist crusaders were the bad guys. Darrow argued that if Abraham Lincoln were alive, Wilson’s Justice Department would send in “night riders to invade his office and the privacy of his home and send him to jail.”
Tellingly, these words from Darrow are cited in the 1940 autobiography of Ben Gitlow. By then, a reformed Gitlow recalled the words with embarrassment, as he had since fled the communist movement. It was quite a conversion. Gitlow twice ran as the Communist Party’s candidate for vice president of the United States, and had even served on the Comintern’s Executive Committee. After a long silence, Gitlow emerged to testify before Congress (1939) and to write two major books, I Confess (1940), and The Whole of Their Lives (1948), where he laid out a litany of disturbing facts on CPUSA’s relationship with Moscow, from its “fanatical zeal” to the Soviet Union, to its continuing pledge of “ultimate victory over the capitalist world,” to its espionage and acceptance of funding from the Stalin regime, including subsidies for the Daily Worker. For blowing the whistle, Gitlow’s erstwhile comrades labeled him a “fascist.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online