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Avoiding the Obvious
March 9, 2002
By Pamela Troy

Hendrik Hertzberg's fascinating article in the upcoming The New Yorker examines the recent book by David Brock, a defector from a successful political movement that has, for the past two decades, used intimidation, hatred, and "the Big Lie" to achieve its ends.

This movement has targeted a specific group of people - liberals - as the embodiment of evil, "vermin" to be destroyed by any means at hand, and not surprisingly, it has operated parallel to a rising climate of violence and even occasional murder against those perceived as its enemies. It has appealed both to masses of desperate, disaffected workers who have good reasons for their anger, and to overt and covert sympathizers among captains of industry, highly placed politicians, religious leaders, the media, the military, and law enforcement.

Hertzberg examines Brock's book describing this movement and, in a burst of insight, compares it to - The American Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s.

Doesn't anyone else see something a little "off" about this?

To be fair, no analogy is going to be perfect, and the first part of the essay, which compares David Brock to ex-Communist and leftist defectors from Arthur Koestler to David Horowitz, makes some interesting observations about such political conversions. Where Hertzberg slides into what can only be deliberate myopia is in the following passage:

"Indeed, the milieu that Brock describes is reminiscent of that of American Communism in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Obviously, organized American conservatism offers no moral equivalent of what the Communist Party U.S.A. and its front groups made it their business to defend or deny: totalitarianism, the Gulag, then tens of millions of murders committed by the Stalin regime. But the social and structural affinities are striking."

When I first read the above passage I was expecting the difference cited in its second sentence to be that American conservatism has endured nothing approaching the Red Scare. Even cases like the destruction of the Koresh Compound in Waco, or the killings at Ruby Ridge simply point up the differences in American response to right-wing and leftist extremists. To attract official attention, right-wing extremists usually have to stockpile weapons or start sending death threats to their neighbors. American leftists throughout much of the 20th century just had to write, demonstrate, organize unions, and open schools.

I hold no brief for the American Communist Party's slavish and morally bankrupt allegiance to Stalin, but the fact is that ACP did not as a rule engage in the kind of fire-bombings and terrorism that right-wing groups have sometimes been allowed to get away with in this country. The ACP could not, after all, count on sympathetic cops or judges or juries to look the other way.

Yet the difference Mr. Hertzberg perceives is not this, but the Communist Party's defense or denial of Stalin's crimes for which, he tells us, "organized American conservatism offers no moral equivalent."

The American epidemic of lynchings in the early 20 century? Hitler's Germany in the 1930s? Chile under Pinochet? Guatemalan and El Salvadorean death squads? All of these horrors were at some point defended and denied by American conservatives, and in some cases still are defended or denied. Even if we leave out Hitler, is there a significant moral difference between defending or denying several thousand murders and defending or denying several million? How high does the body count have to get before a "moral equivalent" is reached?

So Hertzberg ignores one glaring and important difference, and cites a difference that's not really much of a difference at all. In doing so, he makes a comparison that is not especially compelling, while studiously ignoring one that is more obvious - and more disturbing. The rise of the far right in this country over the past twenty years bears a closer resemblance to the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany than it does to the American Communist Party of the '30s and '40s.

Why was the obvious comparison ignored in favor of one that was less apt? Perhaps it will be argued that comparisons with the Nazis are passe, cliched, more likely to alienate readers than engage them. I think it would be closer to the truth to say that the comparison was made because Communism is, to all intents and purposes, dead. Fascism is not. It is not especially alarming to compare the rise of the American right wing, which has expanded its power in the wake of the attacks of September 11, to a political movement that failed. It is less reassuring to compare it to the rise of a political movement that succeeded in drastically expanding its power in the wake of the burning of the Reichstag.

Ever since George W. Bush was appointed President by the Supreme Court, there has been a Great Unspoken in American political commentary. Mainstream pundits carefully avert their eyes, but the fact that they edge so gingerly around it indicates that they know it exists. It's the question of how far the Bush administration is going to be allowed to go in expanding its powers, increasing government secrecy, and curtailing civil rights. In the wake of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, ignoring this question has become increasingly irresponsible, but ignored it remains.

As a result liberals, desperate for hope, sometimes seize on the mildest criticisms of the War on Terror from mainstream Democrats and commentators as if they were signs of the tide being turned. Leftist web sites laud articles which comment on the far right's embrace and exploitation of hatred, forgiving the fact that those same articles leave unexamined the implications of this hate-based movement being ensconced in the White House for the next few years. In the absence of any real willingness on the part of mainstream America to confront what is happening, those of us who dissent are in danger of making too much of commentary that offers too little, too late.

Hertzberg's article is an interesting and entertaining read, but it exemplifies much of mainstream political commentary in that it is most revealing in what it fails to confront. Certainly any valid criticism about what has happened to the political environment in this country is welcome and deserves our support. But until mainstream writers are willing to aim their criticisms dead on instead of a little to the right, they are unlikely to hit their targets and make a real difference.

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