The Long View 2003-10-24: The War of Ideas

Walter Duranty: Useful Idiot

Walter Duranty: Useful Idiot

I'm not sure what it was about the Soviet Union that inspired so many bright people to love it, but are no lack of examples. At least Duranty didn't have to live in USSR like Kim Philby did.


The War of Ideas

Donald Rumsfeld has been thinking about the need to deepen the war on terror by giving increasing attention to the ideological dimension. It is interesting to see this point raised while the furor continues over the remarks of General William Boykin. As readers will recall, General Boykin said to a church audience that the war on terror is a war against Satan, which he did not clearly distinguish from a war against Islam. Am I the only person to suspect that maybe the general's take on the subject would be more effective against Islamists than, say, Richard Rorty's?

There is one thing Boykin was quite wrong about. The Islamists did not launch the war against the United States because they think the United States is a Christian nation. They launched the war because they think the United States is a secular and hedonistic nation. That is why they hope for so much from their tactic of terrorist suicide: the utilitarian calculus of modernity has no answer to an opponent with no interest in his own self-preservation. If the Islamists really thought they were up against Crusaders, however, they would think twice.

Here's a puzzle about the reception of General Boykin's remarks: why can't I find anything about them on MEMRI?

* * *

Speaking of applied theology, there is an illuminating piece by James Pierson in the Weekly Standard (October 27) on the origins of the phrase, "Under God." The constitutionality of that phrase, at least in the version of the Pledge of Allegiance recited by school children, is now under review by the Supreme Court.

In the Pledge, the phrase is a bit cryptic: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." By tracing the phrase to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, to Parson Weems's biography of George Washington, and indeed to Washington himself, Pierson shows that "under God" was once a reference to the sovereignty of God. For instance, on July 2, 1776, Washington issued a General Order with this sentence:

The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.

Washington was using "under God" in the way that Muslims use "inshallah," to mean "God willing," or "understanding that God is the final cause of everything." Lincoln used the phrase is much the same sense at Gettysburg, when he expressed the hope that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." Pierson suggests that Lincoln was consciously promoting a civil religion, one that would give the Union a transcendent dimension that is not apparent in the text of the Constitution.

Here's a puzzler for you. Everyone knows that the Constitution forbids the government to establish a religion, but here is what the First Amendment to the Constitution actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Nowhere does the Constitution give the chief executive the authority to establish a church, but is it irrelevant that the drafters of the Bill of Rights specifically forbade power in this area only to Congress? Might there be more leeway for the president to promote religion? As we see with Lincoln, this has in fact been the practice: God is more likely to be alluded to in a presidential proclamation than in a statute. I am not aware that anyone has tried to formulate a principle about this. In any case, however, such a principle would not help the "under God" in the Pledge, which was inserted by an act of Congress.

Here is a distinction that might be more helpful to the defenders of the Pledge: a metaphysics is not a religion. It is entirely possible to have a theory of knowledge, and even of politics, that has theistic implications, and yet be in no way religious. (Indeed, we know this from scripture: James 2:19.) One could make a compelling argument that the Constitution does in fact assume just such a frame of reference. This is particularly true of the First Amendment, whose religion clauses make no sense outside the context of a theistic regard for the private conscience.

Were the Supreme Court to hold otherwise, it would nullify its own metaphysical underpinnings. The clock would strike midnight, and there would be nothing left but a pumpkin and six white mice.

* * *

Walter Duranty is in danger of being postumously stripped of his 1932 Pulitzer prize. Long before Jayson Blair or Steven Glass, Duranty's reporting for the New York Times from the Soviet Union set a standard for journalistic turpitude that has yet to be equaled. He systematically deceived the West about the government-engineered famine, one of the most appalling events in a century notable for appalling events, and about the nature of the Soviet Union in general. And he got a prize for it. It was like something Bertold Brecht might have made up.

One of the most interesting books in this connection is Malcolm Muggeridge's lightly fictionalized memoir, Winter in Moscow, first published in 1934. Readers may be put off by Muggeridge's pukka-sahib muttering about "all these beastly Jews," but the book remains valuable because he does not try to interpret the Soviet Union through an antisemitic lens. In any case, here is what he has to say about an American reporter named "Jefferson":

He'd been asked to write something about the food shortage, and was trying to put together a thousand words which, if the famine got worse and known outside Russia, would suggest that he'd foreseen and foretold it, but which, if it got better and wasn't known outside Russia, would suggest that all along he'd pooh-poohed the possibility of there being a famine. He was a little gymnast, always balancing himself between two extremes -- English gentleman and American newsman; scholar and smart guy. He trod his tightrope daintily and charmingly. At the very core of his nature there was something fresh and uncorrupt and sensitive; an original goodness that kept him innocent despite the trials and tribulations of his circus life.

----

His mind turned back to life in Paris during [World War I]. It was there that he had formed his basic impression of the world -- a place where men, in their unutterable folly, tore each other's hearts and probed cruelly into each other's souls; but where an intelligent minority, standing apart, directing, controlling, orating, buying and selling, writing, was able, not merely to be immune from, but even to profit from, these disasters. He had made up his mind that he must belong to this minority, and so, when the war was over, he had attached himself to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which was composed of big boys with big ideas and a big army. He felt safer attached to the skirts of big boys. The bigger they were the better. If one or the other for any reason got liquidated or bumped off, disappeared, Jefferson skillfully detached himself. The big boy of today was not necessarily the big boy of tomorrow. He kept up-to-date in his allegiances. When Bukharin was in favor he was one of the great intellects of the age; when he fell into disgrace he was an opportunistic humbug. The first sign of the final collapse of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat will be Jefferson's quietly transferring himself to other skirts, browsing in other pastures.

We know that Muggeridge was too cynical. The remarkable thing about the collapse of the Soviet Union was the number of people who never ceased to believe that it was a good idea gone wrong.

* * *

Speaking of pukka sahibs, the invaluable Mark Steyn has some apt things to say about the role of Arnold Schwazenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, in her husband's victory in the California gubernatorial recall election. The Shrivers, of course, married into the Kennedy family: (Robert) Sargent Shriver, Maria's father, was President Kennedy's brother-in-law. Words like "dutiful" were often applied to Sargent Shriver, as the Kennedys repeatedly persuaded him to forego public offices for which he was eminently qualified, so that some hapless Kennedy could have it for himself. But now:

Forty years on, the Shrivers are having the last laugh. The third generation of Kennedys is mostly a disaster.

One wonders, though, whether the Shriver connection might yet serve the Kennedys. Surely some of the younger cousins could have their records expunged and try their luck in Schwarzenegger's California. Perhaps, as with the Roosevelts, we might see a Republican and Democratic wing of the family. Picture them forming a colony, like the British expatriate screenwriters who congregated in Hollywood in the 1930s. I can see the lawn parties now.

* * *

On the subject of writing in search of an outlet, for many years now I have been writing a column called "The Federal Papers," for a magazine called Business Travel Executive. Most of it had to do with the federal regulation of the travel industry, but I did an occasional speculative piece: that January 2001 column I keep linking to is an example.

Anyway, the column is about to be canceled. The problem is not the writing, apparently: it's that no product or service dovetails with the subject matter, so it's hard to sell advertising space on the opposite page. Trade magazines are as driven by their advertisers as are fashion magazines.

So, there's a hole in my time. If you know of anyone who needs a columnist or editor, please let me know. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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