Hissy Fits

Alger Hiss (
Even Donald Trump isn't enough to make some on the left abandon their old friends in Moscow.

The Trump administration has, contrary to what one might have expected, been a disaster for left-wing journalism. They’ll take away my Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy decoder ring for writing this, but The Nation and Mother Jones have been, at times, excellent magazines, and may be again someday.

But today is not that day.

Rather than bring out the best in them — the muckraking, the unsentimental view of American life made possible by a politics not excessively burdened by patriotism — President Donald Trump and his merry men have driven the Left deeper into daft identity politics and vague conspiracy-mongering. Where once there was Christopher Hitchens, now there is the “interactive privilege simulator.” That is not progress.

The Nation, in particular, seems to have shed a few dozen IQ points since November 2016; its voice today is a good deal less Victor Navasky and a good deal more Joan Walsh, which is a good deal for no one. (Not even for Joan Walsh, really.) But The Nation is a bit less predictable than the median hysterical lefty in one interesting way: the skepticism of its writers regarding Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election.

In fact, The Nation is broadly defensive of Russia. From Jan. 11, 2019: “Proponents of the Trump–Russia collusion theory wildly overstate their case, again.” From January 9: “What Trump’s Syrian Withdrawal Really Reveals: A wise decision is greeted by denunciations, obstructionism, imperial thinking, and more Russia-bashing.” From Dec. 28, 2018: “New Studies Show Pundits Are Wrong About Russian Social-Media Involvement in U.S. Politics: Far from being a sophisticated propaganda campaign, it was small, amateurish, and mostly unrelated to the 2016 election.”

What’s at work there?

Maybe it’s a perverse kind of Burkean Marxism: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, The Nation hasn’t had much of an ideological reason to wave away Russian malfeasance in the world, but old habits die hard, and even though Russia is a third-rate has-been former world power with a GDP per capita that now lags behind those of Estonia and Slovenia — Russia is on a path of economic and political convergence with Turkey, with which it shares certain imperial delusions — it remains a useful counterpoint to American global power. Perhaps that is why so many American progressives avail themselves of RT, the Russian state propaganda network. And The Nation does not exactly have an unblemished record on Lenin, Stalin, purges, that “a new democracy slowly being born” during the Moscow show trials . . . .

The thing is, The Nation’s Russia apologists seem to be more or less correct this time around: The Russian trolling of the 2016 election was amateurish and probably inconsequential in terms of the outcome of the election. Aaron Maté is not obviously wrong that the Trump-Russia narrative is dominated by hysterics who have got out over their skis. Etc.

Don’t ask them about Alger Hiss, though.

Hiss may seem like ancient history — he is ancient history — but his ghost lingers on as ectoplasmic testimony to William Faulkner’s observation: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (The Hiss case does seem a little closer when you work at National Review, where Whittaker Chambers was an editor; Roy Cohn’s law partner, Thomas Bolan, was still coming in to the office when I started there in 2008.) As recently as March of 2018, a Nation contributor, Jeff Kisseloff (of Portland, Ore., of course), was insisting in the pages of the Washington Post: “Alger Hiss Was Not a Spy.” (How does he know? “Hiss’s former neighbors told me they heard no typing through the thin walls but were driven to distraction when a sportswriter moved in.” Golly!) Who cares? Well, there’s The Nation, and the editors of the Washington Post, and me. . . .

John R. Schindler writes in The Spectator:

Everything the Left loved about Hiss the Right loathed, and the political ruckus surrounding his case bears considerable resemblance to Washington’s current drama over Kremlin espionage — just in reverse.

The accuser, Whitaker [sic] Chambers, a former member of the Communist Party, claimed Hiss was running an underground Soviet cell in Washington back in the mid-1930s. This secret cell was really a spy ring stealing US government secrets for Moscow while attempting to plant spies inside FDR’s administration, according to Chambers.

Although Chambers was not the only person to claim Hiss was a Soviet secret agent — there had been Washington whispers since the late 1930s — he was the first to go public, and he paid a steep price. Vilified by the Left (which in that age was happy to smear Chambers over his bisexuality), Chambers stuck to his story.

Bill Scher writing in Politico in June: “Republicans are now having their own Alger Hiss moment. [Maria] Butina’s alleged efforts to ingratiate herself with conservative movement organizations and the Republican Party shows that Russia’s interest in Donald Trump is not an operation focused on one man.” Sebastian Gorka, writing in The Hill in October, compared Brett Kavanaugh’s ordeal to the Hiss-Chambers hearings: “The left has a philosophy: The end justifies the mean. [sic] In the late ’40s, the end was to protect communist fellow-travelers ensconced inside Washington’s halls of power. Today, it is to prevent a constitutional originalist from becoming an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Not even past.

Hiss still has his apologists, in spite of the Soviet archival evidence of his activities. Hiss is not history because the New Deal is not history: It remains, in its way, the central dispute in American politics. (What does Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez call her fatuous daydream? A “Green New Deal.”) Hiss must be exonerated because the conception of the New Deal must be immaculate. Navasky writes: “The Republican right tried to use Whittaker Chambers’s allegations against Alger Hiss to discredit the entire New Deal.” But the question is larger than that. Navasky continues: “If Alger Hiss, who seemed the model of high-minded idealistic liberalism, was the secret agent of a foreign power, no one was above suspicion.”

But who should be above suspicion? The worldwide Communist enterprise murdered some 100 million people, and the American Left is hip-deep in that blood; there never has been a reckoning for that, no Nuremberg trials for the outrages of Communism. Nor have we even learned the lesson: Tyrants and kleptocrats ranging from Viktor Orbán to the Saudi monarchy to the Putin regime to the junta in Beijing put a great deal of cash on the table, and American political activists of many different political stripes have been happy to pick it up. Twitter trolls are the least of it.

The Soviet agents in the United States and Western Europe believed themselves entitled to indulge the murders, the purge, the gulag, the corruption, the famines, and the rest of it because they were helping to midwife a brave new world — overseeing the birth of a new kind of man living in a new and better world. It turned out to be the old squalor and looting. And what do we say in 2019? “Oh, shut up about your principles. You don’t know how to win!” But it is not clear that anybody is winning anything at the moment.

An apologist for Stalin’s atrocities famously said: “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” In reply, George Orwell asked the obvious question:

“Where’s the omelet?”


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