Whittaker Chambers’ life was a witness to the horrors and reality of communism. Witness remains one of the most (if not the most) erudite, philosophical, and powerful repudiation of communism ever printed. The story itself is as gripping as any espionage novel or legal drama and it stayed on top of the bestseller list for over a year and continues to be reprinted.
From the experiences of his life and the copious amount of books he devoured, Chambers became a deeply thoughtful and complex man—a man who understood the flaws in both communism and the West’s weakness against it. Chambers brought the struggle to the forefront of the American consciousness, and became one of the key figures in the intellectuals’ battle for hearts and minds. He stood as a witness of the horrors of communism in both ideology and practice.
In the Foreword to his masterpiece Witness, Chambers writes a letter to his children about the book he is going to publish. With a soul-searching candor, he anticipates his children—and indeed every reader—asking him: “Why, then, do men become Communists? How did it happen that you, our gentle and loved father, were once a Communist?” His answer is short but powerful: “Communism makes some profound appeal to the human mind.” Chambers’ life was proof that his assertion was correct.
“Chambers, after a gradual and sober consideration of what communism really was, broke with the underground, the Party, and the whole notion of Marxism, and fled. His wife and children in tow, he moved to a small cottage in Florida, where he stayed up all night, writing and keeping watch for the agents he knew would try and find him.”
He was born in 1901 and grew up in Long Island in a lower-middle class family. By his own account, his family had their share of problems, and his childhood was anything but idyllic. His father would spend long absences from home, eventually leaving altogether, and his mentally ill grandmother tried several times to murder the family in their sleep.
“Shorn of traditional morality, Chambers noted a devious nature in the way the communist faithful conducted themselves. Publicly, they advocated “peace” and “social justice” but privately believed modern man couldn’t be reached through the mind or soul – only through bombs and submission.”
In his autobiography Witness, he recalls that he didn’t have any friends in school, and that from a young age he was enamored with books and languages. His grades were always higher than those around him, and eventually they earned him matriculation into Columbia University where he studied under such luminaries as Professor Mark Van Doren. In Cold Friday, a collection of letters and a second autobiographical manuscript posthumously published, he wrote, “Politically, I was a conservative when I entered Columbia…I was inclined to believe that Calvin Coolidge might be another Abraham Lincoln.” He was also religious, believing “the source of all authority is God” and that “From Him, the line of authority passes to the authority of the State.”
During his time at Columbia, he began to soak in the fashionable intellectual thought that the world was in a crisis and World War I was a symptom of the crisis that would compel humanity to either work together or destroy each other. Van Doren and his colleagues would postulate that industrialization had brought the world to the final crisis and Chambers recalls that by the end of his sophomore year his brain was a “hodgepodge…a spiral nebula which caught up the whirling dust and fragments of literary and philosophical ideas….” He found mockery to be the weapon of choice used by his professors to tear down everything in the way of their perceived world crisis, and suddenly the traditions and beliefs Chambers once held were steadily eroded away.
“Even the difference between communism and socialism was ‘so slight it would be difficult to slip a razor blade between them.’ When Chambers brought this up after his break with communism to a group of communist sympathizers and fellow travelers, they reacted violently and refused to believe it.”
Even more destructive to him, however, was the realization that nothing was offered as a replacement to the sudden vacuum. He was introduced to, and eventually persuaded that, communism was the only solution to the world crisis. As he wrote, “I became convinced that the intelligence and power of the West were no longer able to solve the continuing crisis.” He left Columbia, believing it could no longer teach him anything, and began to be more active in the Communist Party.
“Gone were the traditions and rules of the old morality and politics, and in their place was the simpler idea that God does not exist and therefore man was free to build the world as he saw fit. Communism loudly proclaimed to be the new destiny of humanity unencumbered by the false traditions of the past.”
When his younger brother committed suicide not long after, he resolutely declared that he would live to change the world and stop the crisis that caused so much pain and death. He became a committed Communist Party member and began to write for the Daily Worker and The New Masses.
Chambers’ seduction by Marxism and eventual embrace of communism is instructive. He recognized the world was in turmoil (not knowing the cause of it— instead, he found a solution in the misguided Marxist theory of history) and tried to do something about it. He wrote in Witness, “The Communist vision is the vision of man without God.” Gone were the traditions and rules of the old morality and politics, and in their place was the simpler idea that God does not exist and therefore man was free to build the world as he saw fit.
Communism loudly proclaimed to be the new destiny of humanity unencumbered by the false traditions of the past. Marx, and more especially Lenin, taught Chambers that the world was dying and that mankind had reached its historical limit. Only by fighting the world and everything it stood for until “his dying breath” could mankind finally do something to fix the world. This is how he interpreted Leninism, and this is why, as Sam Tanenhaus put it in his book Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, “he had rededicated himself with a soldier’s faith” to serving the Soviet Union which embodied the triumphant communist struggle.
While working as a writer for The New Masses, Chambers was approached by the Communist Party, who asked him to go underground and become a handler for several spy rings already established in Washington, DC. He accepted the position and began to work with other high-powered communists, including up-and-coming State Department star Alger Hiss. He grew especially close to Hiss, which set the stage for one of the most tragic and divisive trials in American history. While he worked closely with them, he began to understand what animated communists and how they would stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Read the rest of this entry »
The list includes an archive of radical right wing books, history books, humor texts, and conservative philosophy belonging to the former al-Qaeda chief, some of which are still being withheld by the U.S. government, but leaked online this afternoon.
Among the volumes of books on law and military strategy that were publicly released this week, are a not-yet-declassified list of books by popular conservative authors such as Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, and Andrew Breitbart, as well as scholarly texts by Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich von Hayek. The collection includes:
I came across this delightful interview with William F. Buckley Jr. the other night when searching and browsing Firing Line video archives (see the 1990 Christopher Hitchens Firing Line episode, from earlier today, here) started reading it, and ended up reading it multiple times. What a pleasure to discover this. It’s captured from the pre-digital era, so it’s stored as a PDF of a photocopy directly from the print magazine, you can access the whole thing here. Below is just one image file, which links to Reason. The March 1983 interview reveals Buckley’s characteristic thoughtfulness, charm, rich vocabulary, humor, and well-mannered social persona, his Roman Catholicism, the founding of the National Review, decades of work on Firing Line, his friction with figures like Ayn Rand, his literary and scholarly alliances, and opponents, his spy novels, his views on libertarianism, contemporary conservatism, and much, much more. The Reason interviewer’s questions are good, too, informed, and engaging.
I was particularly interested in Buckley’s use of the word “schematic”, to describe what he doesn’t have an appetite for, favoring instead an eclectic and evolving world view. This interview barely scratches the surface. To get a sense of the fresh appeal (and timelessness) of Buckley’s thinking, refer to National Review’s “Our Mission Statement“, which Buckley wrote in 1955. As one NR reader notes, “the edits on this for 2014 would be minimal.” Though 1980s references appear in the discussion, I’d say the same could be said about this interview.
Our friends at the National Review Institute put together this tremendous video about WFB, and happily unleashed it last week upon the 350 folks attending NRI’s first annual Buckley Prize Dinner in New York. It was a great event. Go ahead and share this with your Buckley-loving friends.
“But in our age of studious political correctness, where the inmates write the asylum’s curriculum, these studentsare happy to insulate themselves against any opinions from beyond the Old Campus Quad.”
They are concerned that “Ms. Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so.” They accuse Hirsi Ali of “hate speech” and express outrage that she should “have such a platform in our home.” “We cannot overlook,” they write, “how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies.”
I’ve had discussion about this with our Hong Kong Bureau Chief, a polymath with an interest in self-sustaining, grid-failure-proof home remodeling (not crazy if you live in a hurricane zone) and who predicted that there are fortunes to be made for those who can market effectively to this notion of personal control in a disorderly world.
On a personal note, I’ve met a hard-core, full-scale, exquisitely-armed, hyper-informed prepper. Instead of thinking he was nuts, I found him to be realistic, self-deprecating, and engaging. Light-hearted about his obsession, disciplined, trained in survivalism (from a previous career in the military) a hobbyist in gourmet food storage, an expert in lethal and non-lethal self-defense, a vintage wine collector, and an informed conversationalist. I came away thinking my own pampered, clueless urban sensibilities were irrational, and unrealistic, not the other way around.
Similarly, being mindful of food labels, or seeking organic and fresh over processed or unhealthy foods is not necessarily irrational or fear-driven behavior. But Baily’s on to something.
Though new strains appear, in various forms (progressives seek them out and artificially elevate their perceived influence, in a political effort to make them appear emblematic). In mainstream conservatism, vigilant resistance and steady inoculation against the influence (or annoyance) of anti-democratic or apocalyptic extremist strains is an ongoing project that mostly succeeds.
Why do people recycle and buy organic foods? According to Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens, a couple of social scientists at the University of Amsterdam, they do it to realize a sense of personal control stemming from their fear that disorder is increasing in the world. Technological optimists, meanwhile, are more likely to eschew the comfort of such rituals.
To be fair, that’s not exactly how the two researchers interpret their study, which was published in the August European Journal of Social Psychology. But as we shall see, it is not unreasonable to construe their results that way.
A popular new psychological model, compensatory control theory, argues that people are highly motivated to perceive the world as meaningful, orderly, and structured. When people perceive the world as being less orderly, Meijers and Rutjens explain, they strive to compensate for the anxiety and stress this produces. Read the rest of this entry »
The Left’s New Narrative: “Nobody is Hurt by Obamcare”
For NRO, Alec Torres writes: In what is rapidly becoming the latest liberal trope, left-wing news outlets and commentators have begun telling the world that there actually are no victims of Obamacare.
“Conservatives are groping toward a new strategy, one that relies on highlighting examples of the terrible harm Obamacare does. There’s only one problem: they haven’t managed to come up with any real examples.”
Daring to do the impossible (again), the Left is telling America that all the stories of cancellations, lost plans, premium hikes, and other troubles are all just made up by vicious and deceitful right-wingers in order to defame their beautiful Obamacare.
“I’m beginning to think there’s not actually a single person in America who’s been harmed by Obamacare.”
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman uses his perch at the New York Times to argue that Obamacare is doing just fine, and conservative doomsday predictions won’t come true.
“Conservative detractors have spent the last several months in a desperate search for ‘Obamacare victims.’ . . . The problem, of course, is that all of these examples, once they’re subjected to even minor scrutiny, have fallen apart — the ‘horror stories’ really aren’t so horrible.”
Conservatives, knowing this, Krugman writes, are “groping toward a new strategy, one that relies on highlighting examples of the terrible harm Obamacare does. There’s only one problem: they haven’t managed to come up with any real examples.”
From Firing Line, William F Buckley Jr hosts a discussion on social justice with George Roche III (Hillsdale College) and Noble Laureate economist F. A. Hayek. http://www.LibertyPen
Note host William F. Buckley arguing the casefor social justice and redistributionism, to drive the discussion. Not because Buckley personally embraces and defends collectivism, obviously, he’s merely conducting a revealing interview, drawing out contrasting views. Artfully performing his role as moderator, Buckley’s does a surprisingly fair job of making the opposition (socialism) case, in order to probe Hayek’s and Roche’s positions. It’s a pleasure to watch. Hayek is brilliant.
The growth of central planning, and the concentration of power in the last several years makes the Johnson-era “Great Society” catastrophe of federal overreach and corruption look quaint by comparison. There’s no lucid counterpoint being made. The public debate is muddled by smaller minds. It makes me wish we had a respected public figure like Hayek in national media, in our time. This discussion is more relevant now than when it was recorded. Popular intellectuals of this caliber are sorely missing. The ideas expressed here are as fresh and vibrant–and consequential–today as they were then. And the stakes are just as high.
George Will writes: When William F. Buckley, running as the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor of New York in 1965, was asked what he would do if he won, he replied: “Demand a recount.” Robert Sarvis, Libertarian Party candidate for governor of Virginia, will not need to do this.
The Intellectual Elite’s Doomed Romance with Barack Obama
Wesley Pruden writes:This is the question that confounds everyone; some intellectuals most of all. The late William F. Buckley Jr., a certified egghead, once said he would rather be governed by the first 50 names in the Boston telephone book than by the professors at Harvard.
Another wit observes that an intellectual is someone who so prefers theory over experience that he would sit down on a red-hot stove, twice. You can be too smart for your own good, and have the blisters on your bottom to prove it.
The intellectual romance with the clever Barack Obama continues. Having invested so much in candy and flowers, they must ignore all the evidence of being dumped.
His cultivated demeanor and carefully applied patina of synthetic sophistication, fraudulent as it may be, is what attracted the adoration of intellectuals from across the political spectrum in 2008, says Charles Murray, the social scientist and an intellectual with impressive books, studies and learned papers. He admits that he’s a dumpee.
“It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it,” he tells an interviewer for the website Daily Caller, “but I responded in part to his rhetoric because he talks just like me.”
“It’s his whole way of presentation of self … of a little self-deprecation in the argument and picking out a nuance here, which is all the ways that we overeducated people have been socialized in the same way. It’s the way we carry on discourse. Along with [seeing] what was a very engaging personality, I kind of ignored things which … a lot of working-class people glommed onto right away.”
“It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it, but I responded in part to his rhetoric because he talks just like me.”
Working-class stiffs, the people an earlier generation of political scientists called “Joe Sixpack,” having earned their blisters and calluses by heavy lifting, are too smart to take a seat on the red-hot stove even once.
Having been to some big towns and heard some big talk, they were too smart by miles to be taken in by a smooth-talking butter and egg man from Chicago.
(Stop the presses: Butter and egg man? What? I had to look this up. “Big Butter and Egg Man” is “a free spender or wealthy investor , a naive prosperous businessman”. Okay. But the source is a 1926 jazz song written by Percy Venable. Venable was a record producer at the Sunset Cafe and wrote the song for Louis Armstrong and singer May Alix. The song is often played by Dixieland bands, and is considered a jazz standard. Why Wesley Pruden chose this obscure reference, who knows. Either I’m not as culturally hip as I’d like to think I am–and this phrase is commonly known–or Wesley Pruden is intentionally screwing with us. I am inclined to believe the latter. It prompted me to visit the song on YouTube, listen here. It swings, baby, I recommend it! “Butter and egg man“? Go figure. Okay, back to Pruden‘s rant…)
“It’s not that I think he is not a patriot,” says Mr. Murray, “but remember the line, he said, ‘You didn’t build that.’ No American is going to think you can say that, no matter what your political views are, because it’s just disastrous to say that. He is clueless about this country in some profoundly disturbing ways.”
When the Republican House leadership decided to start the 112th Congress with a reading of the U.S. Constitution, the decision raised complaints in some quarters that it was little more than a political stunt. The New York Times even called it a “presumptuous and self-righteous act.”
That might be true, if you could be sure that elected officials actually know something about the Constitution. But it turns out that many don’t.
In fact, elected officials tend to know even less about key provisions of the Constitution than the general public.
For five years now, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been conducting a national survey to gauge the quality of civic education in the country. We’ve surveyed more than 30,000 Americans, most of them college students, but also a random sample of adults from all educational and demographic backgrounds.
Included in the adult sample was a small subset of Americans (165 in all) who, when asked, identified themselves as having been “successfully elected to government office at least once in their life” — which can include federal, state or local offices.
The survey asks 33 basic civics questions, many taken from other nationally recognized instruments like the U.S. Citizenship Exam. It also asks 10 questions related to the U.S. Constitution.
So what did we find? Well, to put it simply, the results are not pretty.
Elected officials at many levels of government, not just the federal government, swear an oath to “uphold and protect” the U.S. Constitution.
But those elected officials who took the test scored an average 5 percentage points lower than the national average (49 percent vs. 54 percent), with ordinary citizens outscoring these elected officials on each constitutional question…