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
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.