Also posted at at Family Security Matters: http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/detail/disagreements-among-conservatives?f=must_reads
Disagreements among Conservatives: The Proper Way to Handle Controversy
by David Solway
The controversy surrounding Diana West’s new book, American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on our Nation’s Character, that erupted over the last week on the Internet vividly illustrates a point I made, and perhaps belabored, in several recent articles; namely, a radical split is occurring within conservative ranks that threatens its long-term cohesion and presents the liberal/left with a pronounced and supplementary advantage in the culture wars. West’s book, as is now becoming common knowledge among a growing readership, documents in painstaking detail the Soviet infiltration of the American administrations during World War II and the Cold War period. According to West, U.S. policy was substantially impacted by an effective Soviet espionage and recruitment network. Moreover, the scandal was afterwards covered up so massively and systematically that very few of us are aware of the extent of the deception.
American Betrayal is crammed with detail: facts, dates, FBI transcripts, Venona cables, recorded and reported high-level conversations, newspapers, letters, memoirs, decrypts, books, archives, all building up a case that cannot—indeed, should not—fail to demand our respectful attention, whether we agree with it or not. Unless, that is, she and her work are attacked ad hominem—“yellow journalism,” “conspiracy thesis,” the author of an “awful” book, an approximate Bircher, Bircher, “virtually screams.” This, on my reading, is what Ron Radosh in his damning review of the book appears to have done.
There is, to be fair, a grey zone involving many of the items that remain undecided or contestable, for example, the true identity of KGB Agent 19—but even a profound discord about methods, evidence and conclusions should not be expressed in the disagreeably personal terms employed by Radosh, which generate far more heat than light and do little to advance our historical understanding. Titling his review McCarthy on Steroids—a deliberately insulting implication—Radosh explains that, although he would not “normally…have agreed to review a book [as “bizarre”] as this one,” he felt the need to challenge it vigorously because of the “reckless endorsements of its unhinged theories by a number of conservative individuals and organizations.” He charges that what is new in West’s argument “is either overheated, or simply false and distorted—the sort of truculent recklessness that gives anti-communism a bad name.” In a follow-up article, he dismisses West as a denizen of “crackpot alley,” (a term he attributes to James Burnham though, so far as I can tell, it’s actually Bill Buckley’s coinage.) The barrage of execrations continues apace, concluding that West’s thinking allows “anti-anti-communism to have a field day in our culture,” a remark that strikes me as rather overheated and truculently reckless in itself.
Radosh attempts to explain his modus operandi in a follow-up article: “When self-proclaimed conservatives echo the methodology and conspiratorial type thinking of those on the Left…those of us who want a responsible, sane conservative movement, and a vibrant conservative intellectual culture, have the responsibility to speak out and to criticize, no matter what source it comes from.” Good enough. But there are two problems here. One is that of secure designation: for mainstream Republicans, for instance, the Tea Party would constitute an irresponsible and not quite sane form of conservatism that needs to be ridiculed and combated, whereas for many other thinkers on the right, the Tea Party represents a true, grassroots conservatism that should be lauded and promoted. Is Diana West a Bircher or a patriotic and authentic American? From where I stand, I’d opt for the latter, without the slightest hesitation. But the point is: one must be super-careful with labels.
The other problem is that of style, tone and rhetorical strategy. Disputes of an in-house nature should be carried out in civilized terms. In a review taking exception to a particular work, vulgar accusations should be avoided, correction, if necessary, should be courteously offered, and a saving humility rather than the assumption of a pontifical mantle of infallible authority should be the order of the day. Otherwise, what should be an urbane debate between reputable and erudite allies will inevitably degrade into an unseemly and perilous slugfest—and the only winners are those against whom one should present a reasonably united front. Such vehemence as Radosh evinces is unbecoming.
Oddly enough, amidst all the rumpus and wrangling, the camel in the room is never mentioned in Radosh’s critical purview. In her concluding chapter, West brings the issue of clandestine subversion and internal betrayal into the present moment to reveal a structural similarity with an Obama administration that is virtually peppered with Muslim Brotherhood operatives. “Islam is the totalitarian threat of today,” she warns; “However, because we continue the ‘deceit and double-speak’ we adopted in response to Communism, we are unable to deal with the new threat—the new Communism of today. We deal with Islam the same way we dealt with Communism: Having been subverted and undermined, we apologize and converge.” What apparently went under the radar in the 40s, 50s, and later on is slipping by us today as authorities and officials in every walk of life strive to minimize and hide the menace that works to demoralize and defeat us.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean, Marx famously said that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” Perhaps more cogently, as we observe Obama and his minions welcoming Islamic agents and Islamic doctrine into the conduct of both domestic and foreign policy, we might rephrase the adage as: History repeats itself, first as Act I of the tragedy, then as Act II. This seems to be Diana West’s gravamen. It is, in my estimation, far more compelling than Radosh’s partially nuanced but nonetheless troubling soft-selling of “moderate Islam” in a 2010 article titled A Message to Conservatives: Is Islam Really our Enemy?
In any event, these “proceedings” among conservatives at loggerheads imply a basic question that needs to be addressed. Why would a respected conservative writer attack a fellow conservative writer with such muscular rectitude that he opens an enormous crack in the façade of a much beleaguered movement, inviting its adversaries to exploit the weakness thus exposed? This is a more serious breach than presumably allowing anti-anti communism to run amok. What is it in the conservative sensibility that so readily turns against itself, creating rifts and fissures where there should be a fundamental unanimity regardless of intrinsic differences? This is not a crack, to quote Leonard Cohen, where “the light gets in.” It’s a crack where the liberal/left gets in, where the darkness gets in, where the opposition can wreak immense damage.
For example, Andrew Sullivan on The Dish, reposted in part on Mother Jones, can barely suppress his glee, encouraging the reader to “get a glimpse of the insanity now dominating what was once a vibrant intellectual culture by reading Ron Radosh’s devastating review of the book.” Radosh, a conservative, has been conscripted by a left/liberal to reinforce the latter’s denunciation. Thanks, Ron, for giving Sullivan (and his cohorts) the key to the city. Indeed, Sullivan doesn’t stop there but cites uber-conservative Conrad Black who, like Radosh, resorted not to reasoned critique in his “review” of West on NRO but to unrestrained aspersion in which not a single one of West’s arguments was addressed. Rather, for Black, Diana West is “a right-wing loopy” whom we might have hoped had “been house-trained.” A gentleman and a scholar does not speak this way. And in any case, all Black got for his labors was another of Sullivan’s sneering put-downs: “Sadly, Conrad Black hardly counts.” There is one thing conservatives are surely better at than liberals: self-destruction.
Admittedly, I am not sufficiently immersed in specific issues pertaining to the period in question that has aroused such parietal fury to pretend to expertise and arrive at a historical judgment. The subject constitutes a legitimate area of discussion between those who have devoted a considerable part of their scholarly lives to its exploration. My point is that the debate should be pursued in a professional and respectful way between equals who give one another the benefit of the doubt—or at least appear to do so. But Radosh has ignited a firestorm by the incendiary manner he has adopted to refute Diana West. Naturally, conservatives will continue to disagree with one another over issues minor and major, and that is as it should be. But it is to be hoped that our dissensions will be expressed cordially and that conservatives will eschew hyperbole and invective, hysteria and melodrama, and behave toward one another with greater restraint and discretion.