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History in the Making

By Benj DeMott

Witness – Whittaker Chambers’ account of the Hiss case and its back story – is the fount of modern Movement Conservatism. (Ronald Reagan credited it with converting him from New Deal Democrat to conservative Republican.) Ideologues on today’s Right are still playing changes on the persona - “a solitary man in a gregarious land” - Chambers perfected in his great American autobiography cum anti-communist moral tract. But torture-mongers and Tea Partiers on the Right will find it hard to assimilate certain implications in Chambers’ thought. Meanwhile, leftists who instinctively avoid Chambers – ally of Nixon and the man who shaped Reagan’s brain – are missing out on a 20th Century mind whose testimony seems especially pertinent now.

Chambers’ voice speaks across the decades in part because he had an ear. A few pages into Witness he hears out “the daughter of a German diplomat in Moscow who tries to explain…why her father, who, as an enlightened modern man, had been extremely pro-Communist, had become an implacable anti-Communist:”

It was hard for her because as an enlightened modern girl, she shared the Communist vision without being a Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. “He was immensely pro-Soviet,” she said, “and then – you will laugh at me – but you must not laugh at my father – and then one night – in Moscow – he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.”

I came on this passage just as Obama steered the national conversation to the issue of torture and it reminded me of my first encounter with a witness to “enhanced interrogation” techniques at Guantanamo. I had an experience then not entirely unlike that German Diplomat’s when I read the following FBI email:

FROM: Redacted TO: Redacted RE: GTMO

This is a brief summary of what I observed at GTMO. On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18 [to] 24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold…On another occasion, the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.

Please don’t understand too quickly, as they say in Russian novels. It’s likely Whittaker Chambers would’ve resisted quick and dirty comparisons between the Gulag and Guantanamo (and/or the Black Sites). Yet unlike the Bush Administration’s “principals,” I think the author of Witness would have tried to imagine the agony of that detainee who “pulled his own hair out.” (And I doubt he would’ve slept on the fact dozens died in American custody.)

It’s become a commonplace to note the Bush Administrations’ conduct of “The War on Terror” was informed by a radical conception of executive power. While Bush’s approach to his “war presidency” wasn’t all that exceptional – Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, FDR interned Japanese Americans – a passage in Witness hints the Bush team’s legalisms made them relatives (if not brothers under the skin) of past “revolutionists:”

Revolutionists have a respect mounting to awe, for the signed document. They have broken, or are trying to break. the continuity of order in society. By that act they repudiate tradition, and the chaos they thereby unloose also threatens them, for they can on longer count on the inertia or authority of tradition to act as a brake or a bond on chaos. Hence the fussy attention which revolutionists pay to mere legalistic forms that puzzles outsiders both in the case of the Nazis and the Communists – their meticulous regard for protocol and official papers. Hence the tiresome detail and massive fictions of their legal and constitutional procedures…the formal pettifoggery, with all the i’s dotted, of a secret police that works entirely beyond the law…For in breaking the continuity of tradition, the revolutionist, for his own sake, must seek a cementing substitute. All he has left to fall back on, the mark of his blighting touch upon life’s tissues, are those dead papers, interminable procedures, formidable quiddities – and his incongruous regard for them.

Conservative forces within the federal government, the F.B.I. and the armed services in particular, resisted those “formidable quiddities.” But the pettifoggery is still being defended and/or excused by dead-enders on the Right. The following casuistic take on the torture memos by Richard Fernandez, who writes at Belmont Club (a popular blog read chiefly by Movement Conservatives with military backgrounds) is symptomatic on this score.

America as a society has to draw the line somewhere, beyond which it is not licit to go. The lines the Bush administration drew are described in the memos. Some people think the line is in the wrong place and want to put it somewhere else. But wherever they put it, it’s still a line; it still represents a tradeoff between operational necessity and social values. And like any line, you may find that you have drawn it too far one way or the other. What I don’t think is helpful is to draw a line that shifts back and forth without a basis in informed consent.

To recapitulate: I think it is legitimate to voluntarily inhibit oneself with respect to interrogation techniques. But once the challenge comes, once the pain and loss become unendurable, can you hold the line?

Fernandez compacted this judgement-proof response a few days further down the line: “Maybe Bush drew the line in the wrong place; maybe he drew it in the right place.” But his original walk back from America’s recent history on the Dark Side locks on a key-word that opens up the mindset behind his little refusal to choose. I take his repeated use of the term “line” as a sign he’s tacking like an apparatchik. And that’s striking in part because he identifies with the author of one of the Great Refusals of party-line thinking. Before Fernandez moved Belmont Club to Pajamas Media’s group blog, it featured a tagline – “History and History in the Making” – that echoed a phrase in Witness. “History in the making” is Whittaker Chambers’ definition of politics. (And just now I’m realizing when I came on that German diplomat in Witness a few weeks ago, I’d read his story before. If I’m not mistaken, Fernandez once excerpted it in a Club post.)

Fernandez writes as a techie about weapons systems and computer programming, but his prose is a neo-Chambersian mélange of memoir, Christian pieties, foreign policy “expertise,” Spenglerian pessimism and nods to 19th Century lit. Aping Chambers “who loved using the pedigree of great names to boost his points” (as one recent commentator noted), Fernandez has made his Belmont Club a site where the Canon meets the cannoneers. The connection between Chambers and Fernandez is chiefly a matter of tone. But there’s an experiential link as well because both Fernandez and Chambers were underground men for a time. Fernandez is now an Australian citizen but he is a Filipino who was once involved in covert resistance to Marcos. Chambers, of course, was famously a member of a Soviet spy ring in the U.S. during the ‘30s. It’s hard, though, to reconcile Fernandez’s fundamentally romantic stance toward the safe houses in his past with Chambers’ contempt for his own conspiratorial past. Whereas Fernandez revels in his cruel memories of youthful twilight struggle, Chambers aimed to rip up his back pages. And his contrarian side – call it his oppositional self – persisted along with his yearning for orthodoxy even after his break with Communism. Chambers was born anomic. Fernandez is a conformist who plays an independent thinker like so many of his right-wing compadres at Pajamas Media. For Chambers, “courage was the indispensable virtue.” Fernandez celebrates the courage of “rough men” too – that’s why his site is so popular with ex-military men – but he’s not a brave thinker. (Belmont Club has readers and respondents who are much more intellectually curious than their host.) Stuck to the rump of G.O.P., Fenandez never takes on stars in the Fox News/Limbaugh orbit or the right-wing blogosphere. Muy macho he may be, but whenever actual arguments jump off on the Right, Fernandez is M.I.A. He’s an evader not a fighter: “Maybe Bush drew the line in the wrong place; maybe he drew it in the right place.” When it comes to “history in the making,” Richard Fernandez is no Whitaker Chambers.

Fantasts on the Right assume history is being made by anti-Obama demonstrators “going Galt” – i.e. acting like the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. References to Rand and her hero, John Galt, punctuated many Tea Parties and it all would’ve appalled Whittaker Chambers who published a memorable take-down of Atlas Shrugged in William F. Buckley’s National Review back in 1957. His piece, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” scandalized Rand’s acolytes on the right and he left off writing for Buckley’s magazine soon afterwards. Only true believers in Rand will find it possible to shrug off Chambers’ critique. Let this passage from it spur you to read the whole thing (which is available online here

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture… At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.

It’s possible to overestimate Chambers’ distance from white tornadoes whipped up by faux-populists on the right. That he wasn’t “going Galt” in the 1957 didn’t mean he was taking a hard left. Michael Kimmage’s new book, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism underscores Chambers saw himself as a man of the right from the moment he broke with the CP (just as Trilling jealously guarded his sense of himself as a liberal). Chambers once jokingly accused his conservative intellectual allies of over-thinking their politics and vowed to vote the straight Republican ticket in every election. Still, his late conservatism seemed pretty liberal-minded then (and now). He had no interest in rolling back the New Deal and noted “there will be no peace for the islands of relative plenty until the continents of proliferating poverty have been lifted to something like the general material level of the islands.” His Ike-like clarity about bureaucracy and crony capitalism set him apart from anti-Communists who assumed the military industrial complex was the bomb. He insisted Khrushchev “was not a monster in the sense that Stalin was a monster” and challenged basic assumptions of National Review’s hawks: “The West keeps piling up weapon systems, which lead of course to two bad alternatives: 1 to retreat wherever there is any danger of using the weapons 2 the temptation to use them, which is catastrophic…” Chambers’ final comment in National Review seems even more…radical given his surround. It was a defense of Paul Robeson: “The spectacle of an artist like Paul Robeson, denied a passport by his own government makes us traduced of other nations.” Chambers' biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, elaborates: “Was he sounding like a liberal? So be it: ‘I have scarcely any interest in invective tags.’” Chambers’ aim was to “grope for reality” and in a final little fuck-you to narrow-minded Buckleyites he signed out of National Review by quoting “my great contemporary Trotsky:” “Anyone looking for a quiet life has picked the wrong century to be born in.”

William F. Buckley venerated Chambers and they remained close friends even after Chambers’ exit from National Review. But when Buckley claimed nothing Chambers wrote deviated from the Review’s world-view, he was pushing it. In truth there was always daylight between Buckley and Chambers. Buckley embraced McCarthy and hung tight; Chambers came to disdain McCarthy. At the height of the modern Red Scare in the '50s, Buckley dismissed “the superstitions of academic freedom;” Chambers argued (in a Luce publication!) academic freedom was a “reason to fight the cold war.” While Buckley and Chambers became fast friends when Chambers was in “exile” after the Hiss case, his real soul mates were writers with larger minds and talents. Chambers was particularly close to Arthur Koestler (whose advice to learn more about science led Chambers to enroll at a Maryland community college where he studied biology and physics for a few terms before his death in 1962). After reading Witness, Andre Malraux wrote Chambers that its author “had not come back from hell empty-handed.” It’s no wonder Chambers would connect with such figures given their shared disillusionment with Communism. Chambers’ friendship with James Agee may say more about his singularity. (In Witness, Chambers makes a point of invoking “my friend” James Agee and the book’s epistolary opening probably owes something to the “letter” in Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) Chambers and Agee got tight when they worked together in the 40’s at Time where they were widely regarded as “the two best writers in the shop.” Sam Tanenhaus picks up on elements of Chambers' style in Agee's Time essays. He also hears Agee’s Southbound sound in this passage of Chambers’ praise song for Marian Anderson and her people's music, “In Egypt Land.”

…the land in which the slaves found themselves was strange beyond the fact that it was foreign. It was a nocturnal land of vast, shadowy pine woods, vast fields of cotton whose endless rows converged sometimes on a solitary cabin, vast swamps reptilian and furtive – a land alive with all the elements of lonely beauty, except compassion. In this deep night of land and man, the singers saw visions; grief, like a tuning fork, gave the tone, and the Sorrow songs were uttered.

Chambers went on to affirm black Americans had “enriched American culture with incomparable religious poetry and music…and it’s only truly great religious art, the spiritual.” “In Egypt Land” was a cover story and it generated a heavy response from Time’s readership. (The story was unsigned but when the Southern writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote the editors guessing Chambers was the author, they broke Time’s protocols in the next issue and gave up his name.)

Chambers’ time at Time is notable largely due to his short, stormy tenure as editor at the foreign affairs desk where he shaped the magazine’s hard-line approach to Stalin, Mao and the Cold War. But “In Egypt Land” focuses attention on a dimension of his politics of culture that complicates the story told by Kimmage in The Conservative Turn. Once race is in the picture, the differences between the conservative anticommunist Chambers and the liberal anticommunist Trilling seem less black and white. Chambers’ range on this front makes Trilling sound thin (and a little pale). Compare Chambers’ expansive shout-out to African Americans’ “incomparable religious poetry and art” with Trilling’s mockery (in his novel, The Middle of the Journey) of popular fronters’ “admiration of folk art and dislike of trained singing.” While there’s a risk of reading too much into Chambers’ and Trilling’s writing on race matters, it’s interesting to contrast the fictional black servant in Trilling’s influential story, “The Other Margaret,” with the real black servant memorialized by Chambers in Witness. The black woman character in “The Other Margaret” serves as an example of bad behavior by an “Other” that teaches a privileged child the limits of “progressive” sentimentality. But in Witness, actual behavior of Chambers’ black servant, Edith Murray, becomes the occasion for a very different sort of teachable moment. Pages after recalling how he’d treated Mrs. Murray with dignity in a racist town (at the risk of calling attention to himself and his family at a time when he was engaged in espionage), Chambers cites her testimony as the peak of the second Hiss perjury trial:

Throughout those two long trials until then, few voices, except my wife’s had been raised publicly to say even once that Whit Chamber was not an inveterately evil man. Then at the very end of the second Hiss trial, there was put on the stand, that slight, simple and plain-spoken colored woman, who had sometimes sat at table with my wife and me. For the first, she did what the whole world would not do - she gave me back my human dignity – “Oh, no,” she said in answer to some derisive question by Hiss’s lawyer, “Mr. Cantwell (myself) was a good man." It moved me deeply, few things in the Hiss Case moved me more, for Edith Murray is a good woman.

Chambers was often a witness to goodness in everyday people. His instincts here seem to distance him from the more genteel Trilling. Take the moment in Witness when Chambers, having run away from home as a seventeen-year-old, “met the proletariat.” Broke and hungry, he tries to get a construction job, but is turned down because his hands are too soft. When the crowd of waiting workers sees the “crushing defeat in his eyes,” they pull him back into line, mess up his clothes, muddy his hands and slip him past the boss: “In four minutes, they had taught me what others failed to do in a lifetime – They taught me that there is a level of humanity where compassion is a reflex of distress, and, in that sense, they humanized my soul for the rest of my life.”

Chambers stuck it out on that job in Baltimore for months. Then he drifted on down to New Orleans where he had no luck finding work since black folks did the heavy lifting. But he loved the city. Its people taught him more about “what kindness there was in the lower depths.” In Witness he recalls how he discovered Shakespeare in New Orleans, “lying on my filthy bed, stunned by the opulence of violence and of language” in Antony and Cleopatra. Then he tells about going downstairs in his rooming house to see his friend a pimp who “doted on” – and sometime beat on – “One-Eyed Annie” (“as ugly a woman as I have ever seen”). When Chamber visited these lovers, they often “received” him in bed and he could not help observing their “passion was the raw stuff of Antony and Cleopatra.”

Chambers’ sense of life in the raw helped make him one of the most influential writers of “proletarian literature.” Before he went underground in the early '30s, Chambers’ story “Can You Hear Their Voices” became an international sensation. While his fiction was designed to sell the message of the Communist Party, his soulful feeling for underdogs transcended dogma. He got it honest according to Witness. He recalls an early encounter with an “extremely poor” girl who was called “Stewguts” by his classmates.1 Their vicious teasing drove her into rages that made her the town anathema. (Chambers’ own mother told him never to talk to the girl.) Stewguts had a younger sister who was an even sadder case – “a pasty-faced child who looked a little like a sheep” and was “very stupid.” One day at recess, Chambers witnessed Stewguts teaching her little sister the week’s spelling words, never showing impatience even as the younger girl got most of them wrong:

I watched fascinated, listening to the girls’ voices, rising and falling, in question and answer, with the greatest softness...Then there was tramp of feet in the hall outside the room. Stewguts slapped down the pointer…Suddenly she took her sister’s face in both of her hands and, bending, gently kissed the top of her head. As the hall door opened with a burst of voices, Stewguts silently closed the cloakroom door behind her and fled.

Chambers sensed he had “witnessed something wonderful and terrible,” “something more important than anything I had ever seen before…”

It is not strange that I should not have understood what I saw. What is strange, and humbling, is that I knew I had seen something which I never could forget. What I had seen was the point at which from corruption issues incorruption.

Chambers knew corruption (or incorruption) wasn’t class-bound. A killer chapter in Witness titled “The Story of a Middleclass Family” describes how his original family broke down slow. His father was bisexual and left the family to live with a man, before retuning years later to his loveless marriage. His maternal grandmother went mad and was prone to violent fits after Chambers’ mother took her in, Chambers’ younger brother (and only sibling) committed suicide.

But his childhood wasn’t all dark. Chambers was a nature-lover and Witness evokes his wanderings on the south shore of Long Island – “a landscape of unself-conscious, miniature beauty” that was saved from paltriness “by the tremendous presence at its edge of the ocean.”

Chambers went back to the land in the last decades of his life. He worked himself to death financing and operating a family farm in Maryland. Chambers saw the farm as his way “back to America.” The ex-Communist wished to “root” his two children in their nation. Witness sets his family’s practical, organic life against the frippery of the City. His populist vision of happiness down on the farm isn’t too goodie-goodie because it’s often punctuated by scenes of him at the end of his rope. Still the images of Chambers’ children working away at 4H projects and listening to Beethoven or Shakespeare (read aloud) are pretty far gone from the '50s culture of Deliberate Speed that’s still giving many of us a buzz. So it’s a bit of a hoot to learn when Chambers went back to school in the late 50’s, he hit it off with his young lab partner who couldn't get enough of “Itsy-Bitsy Teensy-Weensy Polka Dot Bikini.” More significantly Chambers came out as a fan of Beats, telling a young critic in Buckley’s circle that he liked Kerouac and Ginsberg.

It makes sense Chambers would man up to liking Beats. He not only knew a little about the road, but Ginsberg’s hero Whitman was his poet too. And, as with Ginsberg, the frisson ran deep. Chambers wrote homoerotic poetry in the ‘20s and when he lived as a spy in the ‘30s, he regularly cruised for gay sex in city parks. (He confessed to the FBI about his down low life in the course of the Hiss investigations.) While Chambers repressed his own homosexuality after he broke with the CP and became a Christian, he wasn’t big on moralizing about other people’s sins of the flesh.

Chambers’ groove for Beats may have placed him to the left of Lionel Trilling on this generational issue. Kimmage touches on Trilling’s complicated relationship with Ginsberg who was his student at Columbia in The Conservative Turn. He also brings up notorious attacks on the Beats’ supposed mindlessness by Trilling’s wife Diana (“Last Night at Columbia”) and by another of his students, Norman Podhoretz (“The Know-Nothing Bohemians”). Podhoretz hadn’t made his own conservative turn yet. But it’s, ah, awesome to see Chambers’ religious sensibility and a priori marginality brought him nearer to beatific Beats than to the future founder of neo-conservatism.

Kimmage quotes Trilling lines – “Culture is not flow…not even confluence. The form of its existence is a struggle, or at least a debate.” – that clarify breaks between echt New York Intellectuals and Chambers (and Beats). Politics were always in the equation but sometimes the differences boiled down to dialectic vs. rapture and flow.

Chambers didn’t equate culture with talking heads (or the talking cure of psychoanalysis) and he was much more of an “outside” writer than Trilling. The nature appreciation in Witness is miles away from the city mouse musings in this passage of Trilling’s novel The Middle of Journey:

The picnic mood…is a thing of art and ritual in which we celebrate our conquest of the fears of nature and pay our respects to the old life now that it holds no terror for us.

Chambers stressed in Witness that his pursuit of the old life on his family farm was no picnic. And it wasn’t too terribly sublime either: “we like our beauty to be inherent in our way of life.”

The Middle of the Journey features a character, “Gifford Maxim,” based on Chambers whom Trilling had known since they were undergraduates together at Columbia in the 1920s. Trilling was a minor player in personal dramas that transpired when Chambers broke with the Party in the late 30s and he re-imagines those dramas in Journey (which was published in 1947 before Chambers became famous for testifying against Hiss). The action in Journey is in the set-pieces of intellectual confrontation involving willfully clueless fellow-travelers, the ex-Communist Christian convert Maxim, and a subtle secular liberal, John Lasker, who stands in for Trilling.

Reading Journey side by side with Witness is fascinating because it seems that Chambers learned from Trilling’s trip when he came to write his own version of his break with Communism. Journey climaxes when Maxim comes on like the Grand Inquisitor as he makes the case for anti-communist absolutism. Lasker resists both Maxim’s new reactionary line and the obtuse progressivism of fellow travelers. (“Between is the only honest place to be.” Trilling once said.2) But Maxim keeps getting his goad on:

“You stand there now, thinking that you know us all, and disapprove of us all, and yet you do not hate or despise us. You are being proud of that flexibility of mind. But it won’t last, John, it’s diminishing now. It is too late for that – the Renaissance is dead. You could have kept that kind of mind up to fifty years ago, vestigially even up to ten years ago. But now it’s dead and what you feel is only a ghost. You know as well as I do the day for being human in the way you feel now is over.”

Lasker refuses to fade into history but he almost loses it when Maxim insists it “does not matter” if he fights on:

“It matters,” Laskell said. “Oh, it matters very much. It is the only thing that matters. The world is full of open secrets, Maxim, and one of them is the ferocity–”

Maxim interrupts:

“If you had had said ‘tenacity’ of your kind of mind, that might have made sense. But if you defend yourself with ferocity, John, we have won–”

Chambers seems to have realized Maxim was not the best witness for himself. He aimed to correct the historical record by denying in Witness he ever felt an easy kinship with figures of “ferocity:”

Like the Bishop of Digue, in Les Miserables, I inclined by nature “toward the distressed and the repentant.” The “ferociously virtuous” always made me a little uncomfortable because they raised in the depth of my mind an unwanted question. For while I can grant at once the right of goodness to be ferocious, I suspect always that its ferocity, to ring clear, must be the ferocity of aroused compassion, which is rooted in the understanding of self-fallibility, not of self-righteousness.

Witness is winning in part because Chambers avoided displays of self-righteousness. He faced up to the ugly side of his own moral imperatives, allowing there was a “very deep-rooted instinct” against informing on those with whom one has “shared kindness and affection.” Chambers testified there was once a great deal of affection between his family and Alger Hiss’s. He often expressed compassion for his former friend: “I was swept up by a sense of pity for all trapped men of which the pathos of this man was the center…I felt what any humane man must feel when, pursuing an end that he is convinced is right, he finds himself the reluctant instrument of another man’s disaster.” He refused to pretend Communists who hated him were subhuman. The creepy, jeering meanness that marks so much of today’s right-wing discourse – from blowhards on Talk Radio to high-brows at The New Criterion – wasn’t in him. Witness has zip in common with rants of today’s prophets of rage.

Trilling imaged Chambers/Maxim as a formidable argufier given to Manichean logic (though Maxim is also an emotional and intuitive character). But in Witness Chambers presented himself not as a great debater, but as a true story-teller. That’s one reason why the book was not only a great read but a potent recruiting tool for American conservatives. Chambers’ stories spoke to the unconverted who might have resisted a 24 hour (Grand Old) Party person.

Those stories, though, didn’t move Trilling. While he once allowed Chambers’ college writing held up, he dismissed “the apocalyptic pieties and sodden profundities” of Chambers’ later work. This might be one case when Richard Nixon was a better literary critic than Lionel Trilling. Kimmage quotes Nixon’s blurb for Witness: “I can hear now the epithets that will be directed against Witness in the drawing rooms, around the dinner tables, and during the cocktail hours among ‘the better people’ – ‘too emotional,’ ‘long and repetitive,’ ‘one of those anti-communist things.’”

Aware that Chambers’ Nixon connection had stained his reputation among liberals, Trilling tried to divorce the two in his introduction to the 1975 reprint of The Middle of the Journey.” While there was “much to be faulted” in Chambers, Trilling declared he’d never doubted Chambers’ “magnanimous intention." Trilling invoked slighting references to Nixon in Chambers’ late correspondence as proof that Chambers had “nothing in common morally, or really, politically, with the man he was writing about.”

Trilling’s rehabilitative try didn’t get much traction. Among “the better people,” Chambers remains vaguely disreputable and his work is rarely read.

Which leads me to say how I came to try Witness last spring. I was out with my five-year old in Riverside Park watching him play solitary war games (frowned on by his progressive public school and by his playmates’ parents). He had his tri-corner hat and his wooden musket (which is way too heavy for him – re-enactors have ruined childish things). My boy was fighting the Brits in his head. (What the hey – it was Harlem Heights!) We were on a bushy slope above tennis courts. He was battling hard but noticing purple crocuses, daffodils. The birds were wailing...It all reminded me of my times war gaming when I was a kid. Looking back way après la guerre, what kept me in the fight as a child – more than the prospect of imaginary victories – was the undeclared possibility of being lost in a familiar place. Given my lousy sense of direction, it was easy to get some strange in the no man’s lands beyond the back yards in my hometown. Lacking a compass head, I could get real gone in those woodsy areas before thinking my way back home. (As per Heil Heidegger, who defined thought as “coming into the nearness of distance.”) ...My boy was getting out ahead of me as he stepped off into the tatty half-forest. Not that he could get very far from the path (or from Riverside Drive and the City higher up on the hill). I was just wishing – since it was still early in the season – maybe he wouldn’t run into much litter. Or leftovers from a camp of homeless guys. It occurred to me the place where we were getting back to nature must be close to the spot Hemingway has sad old men searching for hustlers to piss in their mouths in To Have and Have Not. It probably wasn’t too far from where that friend of Kerouac’s murdered a man who had a history of making passes at him...Onward, I kept up with my scout (and kept an eagle eye out). There was a little trash. And, beside it, a book. Looking odd, all by itself. Though we were just 10 blocks or so from Columbia. I checked the book out a little gingerly. It turned out it was Witness. Soiled. Wet through? Nope. The cover was bad but the text was intact. Could it get a witness?...My boy called out to me from behind a stump and I suddenly recalled my own pop’s offhand line on Chambers. We never talked through the Hiss case. It was long before my time. But I remember my pop allowing to his “shame” that he’d identified for a hot second with the grocer’s boy from Whittier who’d gone toe-to-toe with the Harvard man. He also wasn’t entirely sure about Chambers’ probity.3 Yet he was certain of one thing: Chambers could flat-out write. That tore it. I ripped the hanging hard cover off Witness. I‘d be slipping this dirty (literally) book by my neatnik wife...

After a few more skirmishes in the Park, my boy and I headed for the Columbia campus where there’s a spot we like to play soccer. On the way through the gate, by the Columbia Journalism School, I saw a face I knew coming out. It was…Victor Navasky – longtime publisher of The Nation and the last (let’s hope!) fervent apologist for Alger Hiss. A tell-tale sign that pretty much ensured I’d be reading Witness right away.


I’d met Navasky once but I’m glad he didn’t recognize me at the gate because it would have been an awkward encounter. A couple years back we’d had a disputatious (though mannerly) public debate in First of the Month about famous writers in Nation circles who had defamed Kanan Makiya – the foremost witness to State-sanctioned ncruelty in the Arab world and to the obliviousness of its “anti-imperialist” intellectuals (http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2005/07/with_friends_li.html). In the course of our exchanges, Navasky accused me (gently) of red-baiting. A crack that reminded me how 20th C. templates of political abuse live on. The persistence of certain defensive tics on the Left came home to me again when I read Chambers’ account of his questioning on the original radio version of Meet the Press. Chambers quoted one question from the show that summed up a whole “manner and bias:” “Do you find it easier,” a journalist asked him, “to make a living now than when you were in the Communist Party?” The query jumped out at me because it amounted to the same question Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman asked Christopher Hitchens at a debate on the Iraq war sponsored by the Nation Institute (and “moderated” by Goodman): “Christopher Hitchens, as you’ve changed your views over time, do you feel that the media is friendlier to you?”

Hitchens, of course, is another famous defector from Left orthodoxies whose conservative turn is linked to his decision to testify against a former friend (Sidney Blumenthal during the Clinton impeachment fracas). Hitchens feels compelled to throw himself into history in the making. He’s had himself waterboarded and he was recently attacked on the streets of Beirut after he tagged a fascist billboard there. His readiness to act up may place him in the Chambers tradition. But his impulses fit the culture of Vanity Fair (where he writes) as well. Which is not to imply he’s a whore (as Amy Goodman did). Just to say the persona of this self-conscious witness to our time is less than counter-cultural. Hitchens’ smart style is pretty mainline in the Age of Snark. He’s not known for consulting his own contrarieties or ‘fessing up to errors.

Unlike Kanan Makiya who’s allowed (for example) he got important things wrong about the Iraq war (without renouncing his support of it). Makiya’s admission of his own failings isn’t at odds with his idealism. It accords with his “first principle.” “Voltaire put it beautifully,” Makiya once wrote, “Toleration arises as a necessary consequence of our being human. We are all products of frailty, fallible and prone to error. So let us mutually pardon each other’s follies. This is the first principle of all human rights.” (Chambers preferred to come at this principle of forbearance from Peguy’s Christian perspective: “No one is so competent to judge the substance of Christianity as the sinner, no one, except, perhaps, the saint.”)

I’ve been wondering where Makiya would come down on the “torture” memos. It might not be the easiest call for him since he was once an ally of Cheney and Rumsfeld (who had aligned themselves with Iraqi democrats in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq). I also remember his slightly contrary response to standard condemnations of the Abu Ghraib scandal. When it broke, Makiya was devastated because he’d made a human rights case for the Iraq War. But he also tried to keep a certain balance. In a public forum back in that day, he noted his Iraq Memory Foundation had been engaged since the fall of Saddam in documenting Baathist crimes and bringing the evidence to rapt Iraqi tv audiences. He wasn’t aiming to minimize what had been done by American psychos in Abu Ghraib (or by Bush’s hacks at home?), but he pointed out Iraqis tended to be more focused on far greater horrors committed during Saddam’s rule.

I emailed Makiya earlier this month to find out what he thought about the controversy surrounding the release of the Bushites' legal memos on “enhanced interrogation.” Here’s his response:

I am deeply opposed to the use of “enhanced interrogation,” a euphemism for torture. By and large I think Obama has handled the issue well and is right not to prosecute. Incidentally I teach a course here at Brandeis called “Describing Cruelty” which is about the problems of writing/thinking about cruelty and explores different modes of doing so. It stems directly from my book Cruelty and Silence and the 300 or so oral histories we have done at the Iraq Memory Foundation with victims of horrific abuse under Saddam. The evidence is overwhelming in the literature on this subject that in the long run any kind of torture does a society more harm than good. I have been told that Yitzhak Rabin came around to the same view after having authorized the beatings of Palestinians during the first intifada only to see the damage it did to his own Israeli army, hence Oslo. I’m not sure of the story but was told by an Israeli scholar. There is a fascinating issue of the Israel Law Review from about 10 years ago dedicated to the discussion on torture by Israeli scholars and legal minds. Israel is, I think, the only country to frankly and openly discuss the issue in depth.

I’m guessing Makiya's position may be as disconcerting to today’s right-wing ideologues as the later opinions of Whittaker Chambers. Perhaps that’s a sign this contemporary witness to cruelty is one of Chambers’ truest heirs.


1 Chambers’ story of Stewguts reminds me of a problem with Trilling’s essay in praise of Henry James’ attempt to render a working class milieu in The Princess Cassamissima. Isn’t the irreality of Cassamissima all there in the first name, Hyacinth, of its working class hero?

2 Trilling said this to sociologist Richard Sennett according to Louis Menand in his 2008 New Yorker piece on Trilling.

3 Benjamin DeMott’s slight skepticism of Chambers may have been amplified in the 80’s by an attack on Chambers made by Malcolm Cowley in a letter he sent DeMott who had just reviewed one of Cowley’s books. Cowley’s doubts about Chambers’ veracity seemed reality-based, not a matter of ideology. So it was interesting to learn Chambers’ biographer Tanenhaus had confirmed Chambers lied on Cowley in 1942, manipulating facts about Cowley’s CP past to deny him a job. Good man Chambers did a bad deed.

From May, 2009

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