Recently here at The American Spectator, Wlady Pleszczynski and the editors paid fitting tribute to Tom Bethell, a prolific contributor to this venerable publication going way back to 1976.
Longtime readers here know Bethell’s name well. Other than our intrepid founder, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., there may be no other writer in the history of this publication who contributed more pieces than Tom Bethell (other prolific contributors dating back to the 1970s include the splendid Ben Stein, Roger Kaplan, and John Coyne). Bethell’s range was extraordinary, from music to the arts, from stem cells to the theory of evolution, from Eric Hoffer to Einstein, from property and prosperity to, well, you name it. He was always interesting, a truly gifted writer. Summarizing Bethell’s work here is impossible, but I’d like to call attention to one of the more intriguing and (what deserves to be) enduring Bethell concepts coined in this magazine over the decades: his notion of “the Hive.”
The Hive was a concept of Bethell’s and another gifted conservative writer, Joe Sobran, who likewise wrote for The American Spectator but did most of his work for National Review and as a syndicated columnist. Bethell himself credited Sobran with the concept, even as both would go on to develop it together (as Sobran noted) and champion it over the years. Many hoped that Bethell and Sobran would together write a book on the subject, but they never did.
Here’s Bethell’s first reference to the Hive in a February 1981 piece for The American Spectator, titled “The Apiculture of Socialism”:
Left-wing individuals and organizations have disguised their agenda by adopting a new system of communication, one in which the crude old formulas such as “state ownership of the means of production” never appear. Joe Sobran, the National Review editor and columnist, has likened the contemporary system of socialist communication to a beehive. Bees in a hive don’t “talk” to one another, but they do have an effective system of communication, and they all work toward a common goal, different bees performing different functions. “There is no need to posit an overarching conspiracy,” Sobran wrote recently. “The world collectivist movement goes forward. None of its constituent parts — Communist, socialist, liberal — runs the whole thing; they don’t even consciously cooperate, for the most part.” But they manage never to sting one another.
Indeed they do not. You never see the Left stinging the Left. To leftists, extremists are exclusive to the Right. City streets could burn all summer with Antifa mobs, but Jerry Nadler won’t see any riots, Joe Biden will deny that Antifa even exists as an organization, and the entirety of the collective Left will howl instead about QAnon or the Proud Boys — groups that even well-informed conservatives haven’t a clue about, as they utterly pale in influence. The alt-Left has morphed into the mainstream Democratic Party. Democrat stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib are actual members of the Democratic Socialists of America (which bills itself “the largest socialist organization in the United States”), and the party’s runner-up for the presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020 (Bernie Sanders) is a lifetime socialist with a long history of buddying up to the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. And yet CNN obsesses over Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, not caring a whit for a single outrageous transgression by Ilhan Omar.
Why not? How?
Well, as Tom Bethell explained, the Left doesn’t sting its own.
Bethell would make passing references to the Hive in subsequent articles (for instance, an August 1981 piece, “Phrase Mating”), and then pick up with more expansive renderings, such as an August 1982 piece, “Billy Bee,” in which he lampooned the Washington–Beltway–media–liberal “Hive” for buzzing in the ear of the Rev. Billy Graham and pressuring him into being more to their liking:
By the mid 1970s, Billy Graham began to hear the murmuring of innumerable bees. “Be a better Billy,” the Hive would drone in his ear. At that time Watergate weighed heavily on Billy’s mind. Maybe it was true after all, as they had always said of him, that he was too respectful of the powers that be, too close to Nixon … Hmmmmm … This doubt weakened Billy — made him vulnerable to the Hive, and the worker bees knew it. They spent their days endlessly pollinating public opinion, and some of them — scout bees — kept an eye on Billy Graham. With a little concerted effort, the Hive knew that there was a chance it could assimilate Billy into … the cause — the goal on behalf of which the elements of the Hive instinctively labor.
“Billy,” the Hive would hum, “you’ve been too close to Johnson, too close to Nixon. He was discredited, you know — crimes in high places. You may have been a little tainted with the same brush, Billy. Remember the unindicted co-conspirators? But we won’t say another word about it. Just get on the side of history. Grow a little. Open up to new ideas. Help us build a new society, a society of justice and peace. Stop trying to impose your old views, legislate morality, turn the clock back. You can’t fight reality, can you Billy? So don’t fight us … ”
Yes, Billy thought, it was time to grow.
Here we see the Hive not only influencing one another, but working collectively to influence someone outside the Hive.
The Hive became an ongoing thread in Tom Bethell’s articles. Perhaps his best single summary statement was a March 1999 piece, “The Hum of Hate.” I’ll share this long passage because it captures the Hive metaphor from the Cold War to the Culture War, prophetically bringing it to the modern day. Bethell wrote,
Readers who go way back may recall an earlier column (Capitol Ideas, February 1981) in which the bee hive was used as a metaphor for the world socialist enterprise — the community of progressives. The Hive image, first proposed by the writer Joseph Sobran, illustrated the key point that liberals and Communists, seemingly distinct, belong to the same Hive. They share the same goals, even if they perform different tasks. The metaphor allows us to speak of their activities as coordinated without having to invoke a conspiracy. The queen bee was the Kremlin, and the worker bees toiled in coordinated fashion to serve the queen without ever taking orders. Real bees work in that fashion. They communicate. They signal openly. They serve the queen. What goes on in their “minds” we do not know and do not need to know. But a careful study of their signaling patterns allowed researchers to decode them.
In the same way, liberals and socialists and Communists communicate openly. Their claims and arguments fall into a consistent pattern. There was a period (up to and including the 1930’s) when Communists did indeed have to conspire — that is, communicate secretly. Alger Hiss began his career in that period. But by the 1950’s open communication had become possible. H.G. Wells foresaw something like this in his 1928 book The Open Conspiracy.
Then, less than a decade ago, unexpectedly and swiftly, the Kremlin-centered Hive expired. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, this happens with real hives, too. The workers kill the queen. They surround her and pack themselves in close until she suffocates. In analogous fashion, that may be what happened with the progressive Hive.
The workers didn’t particularly like the Moscow queen. She had far too many faults. She was too weak, in a way, too unfashionable, too impoverished, too undemocratic. The workers wanted something more up-to-date, something they could be proud of. The Berlin Wall fell and, in December 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev paid his courtesy call on the Vatican. His steely and revered predecessor, Stalin, had asked, “How many divisions has the Pope?” Now, it seemed, the Pope had won. In effect, the Soviet leader had surrendered. The queen died, and that Hive expired.
The old Hive was finished, but the workers were still alive and well. They began to look for a new leader. It seems now that they have found one. A new Hive is a-swarming. It is not fully in place yet, and its fate is uncertain. There are counter currents, rival formations, divided loyalties, great battles ahead. Some old workers have died and been replaced by novices. But the hum is again heard in the air, the hum of hate. It is heard on behalf of the new queen, who lives in a surprising place: the White House. Its occupant must be protected to the death; her enemies swiftly stung. The old war, the Cold War, was lost. But the new war, the Culture War, can be won.
I’ll break from Bethell’s lengthy piece there, precisely where he rightly and prophetically transitioned from the Cold War to the Culture War, which indeed was where the leftist collective Hive redirected its busy efforts. What Bethell offered as cultural examples then in 1999 — sexual license, feminism, radical secularism, abortion, the Culture of Death — and advocates like Gloria Steinem, Anthony Lewis, Garry Wills, Barney Frank, John Conyers, and Betty Friedan, all opposed by the countervailing forces of the likes of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal John O’Connor, Patrick Buchanan, and others, is mild compared to the cultural insanity in which the West finds itself 20-plus years later. By the end of his life, Bethell must have been speechless at the breathtaking recklessness of today’s cultural revolutionaries. Nonetheless, he was right about the transition from the Cold War to the Culture War and where the Left’s worker-bees were swarming next. They’ve firmly arrived at a form of gender–sexual–cultural chaos that not even the Clintons (analyzed by Bethell in the piece above) could’ve possibly envisioned in the late 1990s.
Tom Bethell was right: a new Hive was a-swarming. In March 1999, it was not fully formed yet, its fate absolutely uncertain. There were countercurrents, rival formations, divided loyalties, and great battles ahead. Old workers died and were replaced by new ones. Today, in 2021, there’s an old one now in the White House, with new life, orchestrating a cultural revolution on behalf of gender redefinition unlike humanity has ever seen. The new bees hum their approval. This new war, they insist, will be won.
And Bethell was prophetic about this, too: Though these busy bees claim to oppose “hate,” theirs is a hum of a hate. If you disagree with them, then they resoundingly call you the hater and they sting you — hard. They keep stinging. Worse, their new cancel culture seeks to eliminate you entirely.
But maybe Tom Bethell did foresee how bad it could get. Witness one of his final pieces for The American Spectator (I believe his final piece for the print edition), a July 2013 missive, in which he dealt with the latest unexpected sharp-left turn by the Culture War bees: same-sex marriage. That piece was titled “Unrestrained,” with the subtitle “The sexual revolution will undo us all.”
So it has. Tom Bethell saw it coming, and he was never afraid to warn us. And this publication was always open to his prophetic warnings and his excellent writing.
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