These are not good days for the conservative movement. It seems that not a week goes by that I do not come across an article describing the current disarray on the Right. Neo-cons, paleo-cons, traditionalists, the religious right, libertarians, national greatness conservatives sometimes it seems as if these factions on the Right harbor more enmity for each other than for anyone on the Left.
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(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)
These divisions are of greater consequence than the split between the libertarians and traditionalists that was regularly debated in the pages of National Review in the early 1960s. The traditionalists and libertarians of that era were united in their opposition to the New Deal liberals and the academic Left. They voted the same way. Their disagreement was only over why. Their differences were debated in a scholarly, serious manner, centering on matters of principle.
It is not my intention to sugar-coat the current state of affairs. It is hard to see how the conservative movement as I have known it since my teenage years will come together again. Maybe there is no reason it should. It could be that the fall of the Soviet Union brought an end to the common ground that united defenders of the heritage of the Christian West with libertarians and the champions of free-market economics. Time will tell. But in the meantime, we should not forget how much was accomplished by the conservative movement. Things still look bleak in regard to popular culture, of course. It is a struggle to look at the current state of television programming everything from the sleazy Jerry Springer-type shows to the situation comedies with the sleep-around heroines without sinking into despair.
Still, we should not forget the battles that have been won by the right. There is a reason why liberals do not want to be called liberals anymore. Examples abound: Everyone, outside the academic fever swamps now agrees that Mao’s China and the old Soviet Union were dreary and deadly tyrannies. Protectionists and free-market advocates disagree over tariffs and quotas, but agree that it would be a mistake to turn to socialism as a way to solve our economic dislocations. The “society made me do it” excuse for criminal behavior is now a stock joke in situation comedies.
I am sure you have noticed how the leading Democrats in Congress routinely start their discussion of public issues in recent years with paeans to “our brave military” and “courageous first responders.” Not like the old peacenik days when many of them could be found in demonstrations where the term “pig” was the preferred appellation for men in uniform. And everyone makes a bow to “family values” these days. They might do it as a stratagem to push for pro-abortion legislation or same-sex marriage, but the fact that they do it at all indicates the state of public opinion.
One more thing: There is general agreement these days that Joseph McCarthy was right. Now I did not say agreement that he was judicious and punctilious in his presentation of evidence. The man shot from the hip, with scattershot. But we find concessions all over the place these days that McCarthy was correct in his contention that there were Soviet agents and sympathizers in positions of influence in the years after World War II. The release of the Venona papers after the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the flood gates, revealing the extent of the Soviet infiltration of this country. Now we are getting anecdotal evidence from people who were close to the scene, which often registers more with the public than files from the Kremlin archives.
Just the latest: An article in the New York Times Sunday magazine section on September 9th by Michael Kimmelman, the Times’s chief art critic. The title? “Seeing Red: My Communist childhood in Greenwich Village.” It illustrates that, while Communists may not have been under every bed, they were in positions of influence in the 1950s. Kimmelman calls his father, a New York eye surgeon, “a dedicated Communist throughout the McCarthy years,” who “remained a Communist after Krushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalin, after the crackdown in Prague in 1968, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, which began in 1989 and seemed at last to break his sweet and eternally optimistic spirit.”
The younger Kimmelman turned from Communism as he matured, pondering how someone like his father, “devoted to the welfare of others and even willing to risk his neck as Dad did when ministering to the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, a foray that gave my mother ulcers could invest his heart in a political system that was so plainly bad.”
Calling Communism “bad” is a big step for Kimmelman, who recalls being taken by his parents to the Soviet Union for May Day parades in the 1950s. He writes, of “becoming a Young Pioneer in Moscow (I have lost my red kerchief, alas, but still have the medals),” and of “the parade of old leftists marching through the door” of his Greenwich Village apartment during his childhood. “I can still see Gus Hall, the head of the Communist Party.” Also Hortense Allende, the Chilean President’s widow, Angela Davis, and Ricardo Alarcon, then the Cuban ambassador to the UN. And someone else: “Alger Hiss, tall and prim, gently smiling in the waiting room of my father’s office.”
The name Alger Hiss may not ring a bell with younger Americans. But there was time in the 1950s when he was a household name. Technically speaking, Hiss was not a part of the McCarthy story. But that is a distinction without a difference. He was part of the big picture. He hit the front pages a few years earlier than McCarthy, in 1948, during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, where he was accused by Whittaker Chambers of being a Soviet agent and member of the Communist underground in the United States. It was a serious charge. Hiss was a State Department official present at the Yalta Conference and deeply involved in the creation of the United Nations. Chambers testified that he had been a member of the same Communist cell as Hiss.
The American Left in the government, media and the academy went to the barricades in defense of Hiss. Chambers was vilified as a liar and fear-monger. Those who believed Chambers were accused of being on a witch-hunt, beset with right-wing paranoia, part of the McCarthyite syndrome. Hiss and his supporters maintained his innocence until his death. No more. It is difficult for them to hold the line. Michael Kimmelman’s reminisces about Hiss are not the only revelations that have surfaced corroborating Chambers’ testimony. Except for a few diehards on the far Left, it is now conceded that Hiss was what Chambers said he was.
So the conservative movement has been vindicated about McCarthy. It has. But you would never know it. How many apologies have you heard from the liberal establishment? One would think that those in the media and the academy, who spent decades besmirching Chambers and McCarthy and their supporters for suggesting that there were people like Hiss and Michael Kimmelman’s father working to advance the interests of the Soviet Union, would offer conservatives at least an “Oops, sorry about that” for their mistake. Instead, silence. No 60 Minutes or Dateline segments on that theme.
Why not? Because it was not a mistake. The people on the Left who defended Hiss and the Communist sympathizers fingered by McCarthy knew the truth about them. Everyone on the Left with a brain knew that Hiss was a Communist. They knew about the nature and extent of the Communist movement during those years. Some were in sympathy with it. Others were not “card-carrying” Communists, but considered their friends and colleagues in the movement misguided idealists (much the way Michael Kimmelman views his father), who deserved to be protected, even if it required a cover-up and some unfairly ruined reputations to carry it off.