A Matter of Opinion
By Victor S. Navasky
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 464 pages, $27
Robert Conquest is right. It really is a "morbid affliction," a mental illness.
I speak of the ability of people on the left to defend communism, and more specifically, declare the innocence of Alger Hiss. The latest example of A Matter of Opinion, a recently published memoir by Victor Navasky, the longtime editor and now publisher of the Nation, America's oldest left-wing magazine.
What makes Navasky's communist sympathies and defense of Hiss so amazing is that in A Matter of Opinion he gives every indication of being a man of strict and -- for a journalist -- surprising candor. Navasky is also a first-rate writer. For all its intellectual and spiritual flaws, A Matter of Opinion is a terrific read. Navasky describes his youth in New York City, his adventures in the army in the 1950s (he was stationed in Anchorage), his founding of Monocle magazine, a stint at the New York Times and finally his stewardship of the Nation with wit and color. Christopher Hitchens, Paul Newman, and other luminaries make memorable appearances. I can also add that Navasky is a very kind and soft-spoken gentleman: in the late 1980s, before I was mugged by reality and became a conservative, I was an intern at the Nation.
And yet, there is that blind spot: Navasky just can't give up on socialism. Looking back on his education at the "progressive" New York grammar school Rudolph Steiner, Navasky recalls that the kids and teachers sang songs in praise of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the International Brigade (communists who fought in the Spanish civil War) and the revolutions in China and Russia. You'd think that from this vantage point in history, with communism discredited in most of the world, Navasky would be reluctant to put his hand back on that burner. Yet he just can't do it:
Over the years, I have learned from George Orwell, from Khrushchev's revelations at the Twentieth Party Congress, from Gorbachev's and other memoirs, from the Venona decrypts and selected Soviet archives, some of the many things wrong with this particular naive internationalist vision of "the new world a-comin." But as the democratic socialist Michael Harrington wrote in 1977 in The Vast Majority, although the popular-front vision was sometimes manipulated to rationalize cruelty rather than promote kindness, "for all its confusions and evasions and contradictions, it was a corruption of something good that always remained in it: of an internationalism that is still the only hope of mankind. My heart still quickens when I hear the songs of the International Brigade." Mine, too.
Getting goose bumps over a communist fight song is like tearing up hearing a Nazi anthem. Do we really need to say it one more time? Socialism doesn't work. It is a perverse, evil, pseudo-messianic delusion based on a false interpretation of human nature. It always ends up in death and concentration camps. Do we really need to revisit this?
What's sad about this is that in A Matter of Opinion Navasky shows genuine character and honesty. He recalls a story he didn't have to -- the time he "set up" presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Navasky desperately wanted Humphrey to call the "New Politics" of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy "just a phrase" because it made "a good punch line." Navasky ignored everything Humphrey said in a speech, followed him to his office, and asked, "Do you think the so-called New Politics has any content, or is just a phrase?" Navasky then reported the answer "just a phrase" in the New York Times Magazine as if it were a central Humphrey idea. Now Navasky comes clean: "At the time I had mild compunctions about what I had done, but I persuaded myself that he deserved it. Now I'm not so sure."
Yet despite this valiant honesty, Navasky still holds out hope for socialism! He actually revisits the Chambers-Hiss case. (In 1948 journalist Whittaker Chambers accused State Department official Alger Hiss of spying for the Russians; Chambers has been proven right.) Despite the mountain of evidence for Hiss's guilt, Navasky just can't help fudging. "Perhaps I am wrong about the Hiss case. But I am certain I am right that the mystifications surrounding the subject of espionage, compounded by the emotional legacy of the Cold War, has interfered with a reasoned assessment of evidence." As for the charge that the Nation "didn't understand the evils of Stalinism." Well, "we can have that argument later." Navasky never gets around to it.
Sadly, Navasky may not be a dying breed. New Republic editor and Navasky wannabe Peter Beinart, the new darling of American liberalism, has come up with a solution to the implosion of the Democratic Party. A few months ago in the Washington Post, Beinart, who has just been given a large advance to write a book about how to salvage liberals from oblivion, proclaims that folks like Howard Dean and the elites who run the major universities need to warm up to the military. According the Beinart,
The biggest problem is cultural. Democrats should acknowledge that at times the Left's understandable anger over Vietnam degenerated into a lack of respect for the military.
Beinart is trying, but he just can't seem to make himself tell the entire truth. I'm referring to the phrase "the Left's understandable anger over Vietnam." If Beinart would investigate that phrase and the assumptions and deceptions behind it, his project to resurrect the DNC might be more successful. Like those he is trying to help -- or like an alcoholic who keeps drinking -- he cannot bring himself to face the painful facts that will speed healing. Peter Beinart cannot bring himself to say that communism, the cause of the Vietnam war, is evil, and that fighting it in Vietnam was noble -- that, in fact, there was no justifiable anger over Vietnam. Just anger.
Beinart is said to be attempting to revive the Cold War liberalism of men like Lionel Trilling and Scoop Jackson. The trouble is, Beinart is keeping the liberalism and leaving behind the unambiguous hatred of totalitarianism. Where did all the protesters and press disappear to once the U.S. fled Saigon and the communists began the mass murder and reeducation? Not being able to admit that basic fact, even in regards to Vietnam, is the sign not only of a morally weak party but of a diseased mind -- two traits that make it difficult to trust the Left with World War III, otherwise known as the War on Terror.
Still, I recommend Navasky's A Matter of Opinion. It's a feast for magazine and newspaper junkies like me, as well as a case study of the affliction of communist denial.
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