On Tuesday we contemplated Anthony Bourdain, whose recent self-slaughter inspired hundreds of heartfelt eulogies by foodies – and others – around the globe. The smart set had lost one of its own, and the mood of the day was one of profound mourning. What torments, everyone wondered, had plagued the culinary genius? There was endless hand-wringing about the psychological anguish he must have suffered. Interestingly, very few of his necrologists so much as mentioned his 11-year-old daughter, Ariane, let alone paused to contemplate the very special and profoundly destructive kind of psychic affliction it is for a child, especially one around 11 years old, to lose a parent to suicide.
But that’s neither here nor there. We were talking about Bourdain’s superior attitude toward fellow celebrity cooks who made money in ways of which he disapproved. Over the course of his lifetime he worked for any number of major corporations – but in his view that was different than the kind of deals that people like Paula Deen made with major corporations.
Of course, Bourdain’s professed contempt for capitalism was the purest hypocrisy. Few practiced capitalism more successfully than he did. If he enjoyed sneering at capitalism, it was because he knew that such B.S. would only enhance his image with his fan base.
Meanwhile, however, as Humberto Fontova reminded us the other day, Bourdain had no such qualms about promoting Communism. He did multiple shows from Cuba for CNN and the Travel Channel (capitalism, anyone?). On the Travel Channel website, he had a page headlined Tony Bourdain’s Guide to Cuba. He led “junkets” to Cuba. All these activities, of course, put hard currency in the pockets of the Castro regime, thus helping it to hang on to life – and to continue to harass, jail, beat, torture, and execute political “enemies,” gays, and others. As Fontova noted, Bourdain concluded one 2011 Cuba program by telling the audience: “Yes, Go to Cuba!”
In his CNN episode on Cuba, he described Havana, whose dilapidated ruins testify to the destructiveness of Communism, as “unspoiled.” He went further than that, saying that it was “one of the more beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.” He claimed to dislike Communism but the most critical thing he would say about Castro was that he had “decidedly mixed emotions” about him. He also regurgitated the usual Cuban propaganda about the country’s supposedly great schools and first-class medical care (yes, for the nomenklatura). “In Cuba the religion is baseball,” he said. No mention of the fact that for decades after the Cuban Revolution, actual religious practice was suppressed.
“If only Bourdain had demonstrated 1/100 of his vaunted ‘spunk’ and ‘feistiness’ against a regime that jailed political prisoners at a higher rate than Stalin during the Great Terror, murdered more Cubans than Hitler murdered Germans during the Night of Long Knives, and craved to nuke his homeland,” commented Fontova. Bingo.
Some of the Hollywood Ten were from humble backgrounds. Not Ring Lardner Jr. (1915–2000), who, himself the son of a famous writer, went to Andover and Princeton. He was also an earlier convert to socialism than several of his fellow traitors. At Princeton he was active in both the Socialist Club and the Anglo-American Institute of the University of Moscow, a Kremlin propaganda organization based both in the U.S. and the U.K. By 1937, he had become a writer in Hollywood and a member of Communist Party. Soon he was also active in various Soviet front groups, among them the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization Against the War. In 1943 he won an Oscar for co-writing the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn hit Woman of the Year. Four years later, 20th Century Fox made him one of Hollywood’s best-paid writers – and HUAC called him to testify. A prison term ensued. His long post-Blacklist rehabilitation climaxed with a 1970 Oscar for writing the film M*A*S*H.
John Howard Lawson (1894–1977), too, came from New York money. After Williams College, he drove an ambulance in Italy during World War I. Later he simultaneous wrote agitprop Broadway plays and Hollywood scripts. Although not as important a screenwriter as some of the other Hollywood Ten members (his major efforts included the Charles Boyer vehicle Algiers, a Bogart drama called Sahara, and a Susan Hayward weepie, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman), he was the central figure in the group, co-founding the Screen Writers Guild, serving as its first president, and acting, according to one source, as “the Communist Party’s de facto cultural commissar in Hollywood, particularly as it affected writers.” Among his duties was the enforcement of Party ideology and discipline among his sometimes recalcitrant fellow scribes. After his appearance before HUAC, he decamped to Mexico, wrote scripts under pseudonyms, and ended up as a university lecturer.
Samuel Ornitz (1890–1957) was also the scion of a wealthy New York family. He was an active socialist by age 12, giving speeches on street corners. Working briefly as a social worker, he soon became a successful Manhattan playwright and novelist. He went to Hollywood in 1928, where he spent the next two decades writing mediocre pictures for RKO and Republic (perhaps the most prominent item on his CV is a shared four-way writing credit on a John Wayne flick, Three Faces West) and telling everyone who would listen just how wonderful Stalin was. The Hollywood Reporter claims that he was “one of the most outspoken political figures in Hollywood”; another source says that his “doctrinaire, party-line communism alienated many of his liberal colleagues and friends, such as his dogged insistence that there was no anti-Semitism in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.” After his encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee, he quit scriptwriting and resumed writing novels, including a now-forgotten 1951 bestseller, Bride of the Sabbath.
So there we have it: three men, born with silver spoons in their mouths, who enjoyed their richesse even as they embraced an ideology dedicated to the coldblooded murder of people with bank accounts just like theirs.
After World War II, the myth spread that Pablo Picasso, while living in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, had stood up valiantly to the Germans and served as a rallying point for the Resistance. In truth, Picasso had had nothing whatsoever to do with the Resistance. On the contrary, he’d frequently welcomed German officers to his studio on the rue des Grand-Augustins, where he hosted them with warmth and hospitality.
But if Picasso was, in a relatively small way, a useful stooge for Adolf Hitler, he went on to become a truly big-time stooge for the other great dictator of the day – Josef Stalin. Soon after the 1944 liberation of Paris, Picasso joined the French Communist Party. He explainedthis move in “Why I Became a Communist,” a 1945 essay for The New Masses. “My joining the Communist Party,” he wrote, “is a logical step in my life, my work and gives them their meaning.” While he had sought to serve man through his art, the Occupation had taught him that he “had to fight now only with painting but with my whole being.” He had joined the Party because it “strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”
None of this bilge satisfied his friend James Lord, the American writer, who in 1947 asked Picasso to explain why he’d joined the Party. Lord recorded Picasso’s curious reply in his 1994 memoir Picasso and Dora: “Everybody has to belong to something, he said, to have some tie, to accept a loyalty. One party being as good as another, he had joined the party of his friends, who were Communists.” Lord was troubled by this reply: “I had heard of Siberian concentration camps and ubiquitous secret police and the reign of terror, had read Darkness at Noon. And if I knew anything, Picasso must have known more, must have known especially of the murderous treacheries perpetrated in the name of the Party during the Civil War in his homeland. Could the painter of Guernica” – Lord’s reference, of course, is to Picasso’s 1937 antiwar painting inspired by the Spanish Civil War – “have failed to learn of all that?”
In the years that followed, Picasso became both the symbol of and primary source of funding for the French Communist Party. Lord wryly describes the painter’s “Communist Party hangers-on who often arrived just at lunchtime with fanatic appetites, ready to rant all afternoon against American perfidy and bourgeois evil, then ask Picasso for a hefty contribution before departing.” During these years, as Alex Danchev has written, “the conscience-wrenching dramas of the cold war seemed to pass him by. When Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and the Prague spring in 1968, he had nothing to say.” In a 1956 open letter, indeed, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz upbraided Picasso for his silence on the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
James Lord, too, addressed an open letter to Picasso that year. Noting that the Spanish artist had often attested to his belief in the “spirit of freedom” and to his “disgust for tyrants and assassins,” Lord asked him how he could possibly continue to identify freedom with the Soviet Union. “Today,” wrote Lord, “the hands of your comrades, those you have so often clasped, are dripping with blood; they have written once and for all in letters of iron and fire what Communism is….Can the painter of Guernica remain indifferent to the martyrdom of Hungary?” Lord urged Picasso to heed “the obligation which weighs upon artists, trustees of civilization” and to “repudiate the errors of your political sympathies.”
Picasso’s reply? First, he had a mutual friend phone Lord and give him hell: “How dare you write that way to Picasso?” Second, Picasso and several other Communists issued a statement in which they reaffirmed their unqualified devotion to the Party.
To sum up: he may have been the greatest artist of the twentieth century. But he was also, at best, a moral fool who befriended the functionaries of one monstrous dictatorship, and then – after only a few weeks of post-Liberation freedom – became a proud vassal and poster boy for another. Artistic genius does not guarantee either political wisdom or moral courage.
Back in December, we discussed a blinkered review by the Hollywood Reporter‘s John DeFore of Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. “If you didn’t know anything about the Panthers,” we wrote, “you’d come away from DeFore’s review…believing that the Panthers were, in essence, an endearing crew of human-rights activists who were devoted to charity work and whose repeated clashes with police reflected not any predilection to violence on their own part but the cops’ ferocity and racism.”
DeFore wasn’t the only reviewer of The Black Panthers to join in Nelson’s baldfaced whitewashing of the twisted, violent Panthers. As we noted, it took Michael Moynihan, writing in the Daily Beast, to point out that “beyond the mindless ‘power to the people’ platitudes, the Panthers were ideological fanatics,” a “murderous and totalitarian cult” that repeatedly expressed devotion to the demonic likes of Mao, Kim Il Sung, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, and above all Joseph Stalin, who was repeatedly quoted and praised in the group’s periodical The Black Panther. Moynihan further noted the Panthers’ “deeply conservative gender politics,” which involved not only anti-feminist rhetoric but systematic physical abuse. In 1974, for instance, Panther founder Huey Newton “was charged with murdering a teenage prostitute who had ‘disrespected’ him.”
Indeed, murder was at the very heart of the Panther agenda. The group was, as David Horowitz once put it, nothing less than “a criminal army at war with society,” “a Murder Incorporated in the heart of the American Left.” Now a prominent conservative, Horowitz was once a radical leftist who during the early days of the Panther movement collaborated very closely with its leaders. “Violence,” he has explained, “was an integral part of the Party’s internal life….this Party of liberators enforced discipline on the black ‘brothers and sisters’ inside the organization with bull-whips, the very symbol of the slave past.”
Those words appeared in Horowitz’s account of A Taste of Power, the 1992 memoir of former Panther leader Elaine Brown, who entered the group via “the Slausons, a forerunner of the Bloods and the Crips.”In her book, she explained “how the Panthers originally grew out of criminal street gangs, and how the gang mentality remained the core of the Party’s sense of itself, even during the heyday of its political glory.” As she recalled, she was
stunned by the magnitude of the party’s weaponry….There were literally thousands of weapons. There were large numbers of AR-18 short automatic rifles,. 308 scoped rifles, 30-30 Winchesters, .375 magnum and other big-game rifles, .30 caliber Garands, M-15s and M-16s and other assorted automatic and semi-automatic rifles, Thompson submachine guns, M-59 Santa Fe Troopers, Boys .55 caliber anti-tank guns, M-60 fully automatic machine guns, innumerable shotguns, and M-79 grenade launchers….There were caches of crossbows and arrows, grenades and miscellaneous explosive materials and devices.
All of which leads us, surreal as it may sound, to Beyoncé. Yes, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, the 34-year-old, Houston-born superstar songstress who’s won 20 Grammys, been named Artist of the Millennium by Billboard, and appeared twice on Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2009 she paid tribute to the new American president, Barack Obama, by tenderly warbling “At Last” at an inaugural ball; four years later, in another thrilling turn, she sang (or, rather, lip-synched) the national anthem at Obama’s second inauguration. These were stirring patriotic moments (lip-synching aside). But then, the other day, on the most-watched program of the year, Beyoncé put a humongous blot on her own splendid, glittering escutcheon. Performing during halftime at the Super Bowl, she paid tribute again – this time not to her country or to its president, but to the Black Panthers.
Yes, the Black Panthers. Her Super Bowl show was an exercise in what one critic called“Black Panther chic.” Her dancers, reported the New York Post, were “dressed in homage to the Black Panther Party, at one point joining her in giving millions of viewers a black-power salute as she belted out her new politically charged power anthem, ‘Formation.’” Suggesting that the show “might be the most radical political statement from the superstar in her 20-year career,” the Guardian reported that her backup dancers, “wearing Black Panther-style berets and clad in black leather were photographed after the performance posing with raised fists evocative of the black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.”
“Much of the halftime show,” observed the Post,“was about love and togetherness…the audience spelled out ‘Believe in Love’ with rainbow-colored placards.” Love? This was all about love? Does Beyoncé sincerely believe that the Black Panther movement has, or ever had, anything whatsoever to do with love? If she does, then she can only be described as a thoroughgoing historical ignoramus, and thus a useful stooge of the first order. For the fact is that the Black Panthers were, quite simply, hate set in system. They were racists, terrorists, homophobes, anti-Semites, proud disciples of the cruelest and most remorseless totalitarian despots of the twentieth century. Nothing could be more Orwellian than the notion that they were ever driven, in any sense of the word, by love.
Of course, Beyoncé is far from alone in her self-delusion. As Nelson’s Black Panther documentary demonstrated quite neatly, a revisionist approach to the history of the Panthers – a determination, that is, to turn these devils into saints, these monsters into martyrs, these ruthless purveyors of mindless violence into heroic victims of government harassment and police brutality – is all the rage these days in PC circles. In many quarters, accordingly, Beyoncé’s halftime salute to Newton’s gang of murderers, drug dealers, pimps, rapists, and extortionists won gushing plaudits.
The Fashionista website, for instance, praised her use of “wardrobe to bring attention to her latest song’s powerful commentary.” The celebrity gossip site TMZ called her performance “a stirring political statement.” Julee Wilson, senior fashion editor of the Huffington Post, cheered what she described as Beyoncé’s “powerful nod to the sleek and serious uniform of the Black Panthers.” Wilson’s piece, as it happens, ran under the following headline: “Beyoncé’s Dancers Slay In Black Panther Outfits During Super Bowl Halftime Show.” We have no way of knowing who was responsible for putting the word “slay” in that headline, or, for that matter, whether the allusion to the violence of the Black Panthers – who did far more than their share of literal slaying – was intentional or inadvertent.
Strikingly, Caroline Framke, writing in Vox, used the same word: “Beyoncé slayed.” Framke, too, celebrated Beyoncé’s act, describing it as “a huge, purposeful statement” that offered “defiant social commentary” and that was “proudly steeped in black American culture” – as if the Black Panthers were anything to be proud of. In sum, wrote Framke, Beyoncé “transformed one of the biggest events in sports, corporate synergy, and entertainment into a distinctly political act.”
Meanwhile the website of Essence, the magazine for black women,secured an interview with Marni Senofonte, Beyoncé’s stylist. Senofonte had this to say about the show’s message:
It was important to her to honor the beauty of strong Black women and celebrate the unity that fuels their power. One of the best examples of that is the image of the female Black Panther. The women of the Black Panther Party created a sisterhood and worked right alongside their men fighting police brutality and creating community social programs. That they started here in the Bay Area, where the SuperBowl is being held this year, was not lost on her. And they made a fashion statement with natural afros, black leather jackets and black pant suits. That image of women in leadership roles; believing they are a vital part of the struggle is undeniably provocative and served as reference and reality.
Senofonte called Beyoncé’s show “a celebration of history.” On the contrary, as reflected in Senofonte’s own staggeringly misinformed account of Black Panther women, it was a celebration – and a supremely ignorant and dangerous one, at that – of the wholesale rewriting of history.
Last week, we examined reviews of the new movie Trumbo, which purports to tell the story of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of films like Spartacus and Roman Holiday. Critic after critic, we noted, failed to challenge Trumbo‘s benign view of what it means to be a Communist.
Perhaps the most egregrious offender was veteran showbiz scribe Rex Reed, who despite having lived through Stalinism apparently believes that Communism is somehow not incompatible with democracy. On Friday we focused on a couple of prominent reviewers who actually got it right – Godfrey Cheshire, for example, who points out that Communists like Trumbo “were hoping for a revolution to overthrow American democracy.”
As it happens, a postscript is in order. Trumbo, which opened in the U.S. on November 25, didn’t open in the U.K. and Ireland until this past Friday. And several of the notices in major publications on the British isles, gratifyingly, have proven to be far better informed than the reviews in places like Time and the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Writing in the Mirror, David Edwards mocked a scene in which Trumbo explains his politics to his young daughter by telling her “that Communism is the same thing as sharing her packed lunch with a classmate who has nothing to eat.” This scene, Edwards charged,
suggests that we, the viewers, are as naive and uncomprehending as a six year old. And in its attempt to make Trumbo a misunderstood hero, any mention of his support for Joseph Stalin and other murderous dictators is deliberately but jarringly avoided. Instead we’re given a portrait of a man of unimpeachable integrity whose biggest fault is boozing in the bathtub and ignoring his family.
Donald Clarke, in the Irish Times, makes the same point. The film, he complains, doesn’t give us “any convincing investigation of Trumbo’s politics,” instead portraying him “as as a democratic socialist in the mode of Bernie Sanders.” All this, says Clarke, reflects a “gutlessness…that suggests the mainstream is still not quite comfortable with the red meat of radical politics.”
The Economist‘s anonymous critic noted that despite the film’s overblown rhetoric “about the blacklist years being ‘a time of fear’ and ‘evil,’” there’s barely a glimpse of any of this in the picture itself:
Even after being blacklisted, the hero’s main complaint is that he is in such great demand that he is too busy to celebrate his daughter’s birthday….At his lowest ebb, he pockets $12,000 for three days’ script-doctoring, most of which he does in the bath while sipping Scotch. Not much of a martyr. Then comes the farcical moment when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger bump into each other on his front porch as they beg him to work on Spartacus and Exodus.Trumbo is less an indictment of Hollywood’s cowardice than a jobbing screenwriter’s wildest fantasy.
Even Peter Bradshaw of the left-wing Guardiancalled the film on its Communist apologetics. While Bradshaw felt that Trumbo‘s story “needed to be told,” he still criticized it for failing “to challenge Trumbo’s unrepentant communism, a culpable naivety in the light of the gulags.” (Bradshaw also suggested, interestingly, that a biopic about actor Edward G. Robinson or director Elia Kazan, both of whom “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, would have been more of a challenging choice.)
The readiness of many stateside reviewers of Trumbo to buy into its whitewashing of Communism remains depressing. But it’s heartening to know that at least some film critics know better.
Directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara, the movie Trumbo came out last November to widespread acclaim – especially for Bryan Cranston‘s performance as blacklisted Hollwood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Cranston is nominated for an Oscar; both he and Helen Mirren, who plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, were nominated for Golden Globes.
When Trumbo first came out, we spent a few days on this site pondering, and questioning, the way it presents its protagonist. As we noted at the time, Trumbo and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten were all Communists. Trumbo, like virtually every other Hollywood movie ever made about the blacklist, tries to pretend that being a Communist was (or is) pretty much the same as being a Democrat or a liberal. Not really. Trumbo and his friends were devotees and disciples of an extremely illiberal fella named Joseph Stalin. They were his devotees and disciples in precisely the same way that Nazis were devotees and disciples of another fella named Adolf Hitler. Stalin, like Hitler, was a totalitarian dictator. The only substantial difference between them was that Stalin reigned much longer and killed a lot more people.
It’s utterly ridiculous to have to make these obvious points. Any middle-school student should know all this stuff, and feel insulted at any suggestion that they don’t. But as the reviews of Trumbo make clear, many people in positions of influence are totally clueless about the reality of Communism. One movie reviewer after another has hailed Trumbo as (to quoteJoe Neumaier in Time)a “vital lesson in democracy,” and its Communist protagonist as nothing less than a hero of democracy. Indeed, many of the reviewers who haven’t praised Trumbo have still praised Trumbo. Or, more specifically, praised his “ideals.”
Here, for example, is Joanna Connors in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Besides being a gifted writer he was an outspoken champion of workers’ rights and socialist ideals.” This about a man who defended the Gulag, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Moscow show trials – in short, every monstrous crime against humanity Stalin ever committed.
In the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mike Scottlaments that Communist is “still a dirty word today.” And in the Toronto Star, Peter Howell actually calls Trumbo “a principled member of the Communist Party.” (Yes, he was devoted to the “principles” of the Communist Party in the same way that Hitler was devoted to the “principles” of Nazism.) Howell also refers to “the rebellious Hollywood Ten,” as if they were a bunch of admirably iconoclastic individuals rather than a group of lockstep ideological fanatics taking orders from a mass-murdering foreign government.
One baffling feature of many of the reviews of Trumbo is that even as they acknowledge that Dalton Trumbo and his fellow Communist screenwriters were Communists, they use the term “Red Scare,” which implies that Trumbo & co.’s Communism existed only in the heated imaginations of Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, and others – whose principled anti-Communism the movie treats with nothing but vicious mockery, even as it treats D.T.’s Communism with respect and admiration.
“Trumbo,” writesTy Burr in the Boston Globe, “brings what Lillian Hellman dubbed ‘scoundrel time’ into sharp relief.” Burr’s reference to Hellman and to ScoundrelTime, one of that horrible old Stalinist’s notoriously mendacious “memoirs,” leads us to wonder whether Burr knows anything whatsoever about Hellman, one of the great moral scoundrels in American literary history, or, more broadly, about American Stalinism. Burr refers to the “writers and directors who came to be demonized as the Hollywood Ten.” No, they weren’t “demonized”: they were identified as Communists – as men who had sworn to help bring down American democracy in the service of murderous totalitarianism – and that was precisely what they were. Yet Burr buys the film’s attempt to sell them as heroes, and buys its presentation of John Wayne and other anti-Communists as “ogre[s].”
Back in April, Buzzfeed ran a useful and perceptive study of the use Vladimir Putin makes of his useful American-showbiz stooges. The focus was on washed-up lowbrow-movie headliner Steven Seagal, whose friendship (Buzzfeed called it a “bromance”) with Putin we’ve already rehearsed here, but the insights were widely applicable.
“Putin’s unlikely bromance with Seagal,” wrote Max Seddon and Rosie Gray, “speaks to a core tenet of his rule: that political power is star power, and the president is the biggest celebrity of all. Under Putin, politics has become a carefully stage-managed TV show where spectacle takes the place of substance.” Seddon and Gray quoted Brookings Institution scholar Fiona Hill as saying that Putin “plays an action hero as president.”
Hence the systematic “ferrying” of “foreign celebrities to Moscow to meet Putin, staging displays of his virility and star pull.” Case in point: a December 2010 event in St. Petersburg that was billed as a benefit concert for children with cancer. That night Putin not only mingled with the likes of Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, and Mickey Rourke, but also (sort of) sang “Blueberry Hill” and (sort of) played a Russian song on a piano.
Did the stars all show up out of the goodness of their hearts? Not according to Shaun Walker of the Independent, who, noting that “Russia is fertile ground for celebrities of all hues to make pots of extra cash,” underscored that the star who’s “been popping up more than any other of late” is Stone:
At anything Russia-related these days, her grinning face seems to put in an appearance, like some kind of recurring nightmare, supporting whatever it is that the particular junket is about. A trusted source told me about the prices to bring different “entertainers” to Russia for events – Stone is one of the more expensive, reportedly coming in at as much as $250,000 a time. But pay that, and, calendar permitting, she’ll likely be there.
It has to be said that Stone gives plenty of bang for the buck: at the purported child-cancer benefit, she actually sang a duet with Putin and cheered his own “performance” lustily. But then again, so did Hawn, Russell, and the rest.
This disgraceful conduct didn’t go entirely unnoticed. In a livid commentary, Russian-born adult-film actor and producer Michael Lucas condemned the Hollywood luminaries who attended the so-called benefit for showing such
adoration for a man who really is a swell guy — when he’s not ordering people to be thrown out of windows or shot in their doorways. When the camera cuts to the audience during his nails-on-chalkboard performance, the stars have enraptured, ecstatic looks — like they were at Frank Sinatra’s final performance…. Don’t they — or their handlers, know how to use Wikipedia? Did Sharon Stone not realize she was flashing a victory sign to an ex-KGB agent, an eternal Communist, and a historical revisionist? (Now he is forcing Russia’s teachers to portray Josef Stalin — who murdered at least 8 million of his own people in Siberian gulags — as a good leader and the savior of Russia.)
We’ve been pondering The Nation, America’s top left-wing weekly, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Founded as a respectable organ of liberal opinion, it became, in the twentieth century, a megaphone for fans of Soviet Communism. A generation ago, on the brink of the fall of the Iron Curtain, The New York Times’s Richard Bernstein summed upwhere The Nation stood during the Cold War:
The Nation often argues…that the United States is at least equal as a menace to the world as the Soviet Union, perhaps worse; that the United States has been the primary culprit in fueling the arms race and that it has fomented much of the atmosphere of the Cold War; that the United States has perpetrated injustice in places like Central America and the Middle East because of blind anti-Communism.
Bernstein was actually being rather kind here: in fact, during the Cold War The Nation was fiercely, brutally “anti-anti-Communist,” smearing every critic of Communism as a hysterical McCarthyite reactionary. Routinely, the magazine’s contributors wrote about the anti-Communist “witch hunt” of the 1940s and 50s as if the presence of Communists in Hollywood, in Washington, and in New York media and intellectual circles were a feverish figment of paranoid far-right imaginations. In fact, more than a few of the Nation writers who pontificated piously about the presumably fascist “witch hunt” were themselves card-carrying Communists. The anniversary issue of The Nation includes a self-righteous piece by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo about the Hollywood blacklist; it was not accompanied on its first printing, and is not accompanied now, by any acknowledgment that Trumbo was a devoted Stalinist, who in the service of his appalling political loyalties was prepared to do far more than simply blacklist his ideological opponents. The anniversary issue also presents a 1956 piece by W.E. B. DuBois complaining about the lack of attractive choices in the current presidential contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson; there is no mention here, either, that DuBois, at the time he wrote that article, was also a convinced Stalinist, who would have been glad to see the U.S. under the thumb of the mass-murdering Soviet dictator rather than in the hands of Eisenhower or Stevenson.
We’ve noted that the back pages of The Nation were ideologically sealed off from the front – but not always. In a theater review from 1964, reprinted in the anniversary issue, Harold Clurmanpraises Fiddler on the Roof –set, of course, in Tsarist Russia – as an admirable representation of the joy of collectivist living. Note that Clurman wrote this review just a decade after the death of Stalin, who’d murdered millions through forced collectivization (which The Nation, by the way, had applauded): “Is it any wonder,” wrote Clurman breathlessly in his review of the musical, “that an audience, living in one of the most heartless cities of the world at a time of conformity to the mechanics of production, an audience without much relation to any tradition beyond that expressed through lip service to epithets divested of living experience, an audience progressively more deprived of the warmth of personal contact and the example of dignified companionship, should weep thankfully and laugh in acclamation at these images of a good life lived by good people?”
Clurman seems to have missed entirely the point that the characters in Fiddler on the Roof were poor, tormented victims of Tsarist tyranny and that, at the end, when they’re forced by that tyranny to flee their beloved village of Anatevka, the good news is that they’re all on their way to America, where – as the audience knows, but they don’t – their descendants will enjoy a degree of freedom and prosperity beyond those villagers’ wildest dreams, will escape the Jew-murdering totalitarians of twentieth-century Europe (including not only Hitler’s minions but also the Communist masters of the Gulag), and will one day be able to attend a Broadway play reminding them of just how lucky they are to be living in 1960s America and not turn-of-the-century Russia.
Not so long ago, we took a sidelong glance at Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the left’s flagship magazine, The Nation. Like her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a longtime Ivy League expert on Russia, vanden Heuvel was a big apologist for the Soviet Union and is, today, a big fan of Vladimir Putin. Not to beat a dead horse – or a cadaverous ideology – but it would be remiss of us not to revisit Katrina, and her storied publication, in commemoration of what is, in more than one sense, a red-letter day in the history of American political journalism: namely, the 150th anniversary of TheNation, which was founded on July 6, 1865.
To celebrate this milestone, The Nation has published an extra-large special issue, a pdf of which is available for free online. It’s well worth perusing. Simply in terms of layout and design, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Among the dozens of articles drawn from the magazine’s immense archives are critiques of George Armstrong Custer’s attack at the Little Big Horn, the annexation of Hawaii, U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, and many other once-burning issues. There are also innumerable essays and reviews by such eminences as John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Clement Greenberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Ray Bradbury, and poems by the likes of William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop – a salutary reminder that, for a long time, the back pages of The Nation were deservedly respected for introducing the public to major literary works and for publishing serious literary and cultural commentary, all of which was more or less effectively sealed off from the ideologically saturated claptrap up front.
But when it comes to the articles in this anniversary number that have been drawn from the front of the book, the two key words are caveat lector – let the reader beware. For this special issue is a masterpiece of cynicism and dishonesty. First, the editors have selected – and silently edited – vintage texts that show off the magazine at its best; second, they’ve supplemented those texts with new material that positions those articles in the magazine’s history –and presents the magazine’s role in the history of the modern world – in a way that takes creative spinning, whitewashing, and airbrushing to new heights, presenting The Nation as a magazine that has always been right, even when everyone else was wrong, and that has always been good, even when everyone else was bad.
To be sure, in its early decades, The Nation was indeed a highly admirable mainstream journal. Its founders were Republican abolitionists who believed in liberty and democratic capitalism, and who argued for the equal rights of women and blacks. In the back of the book – the cultural pages – they published works by such luminaries as Henry James and Willa Cather.
Then…well, something happened. The Gilded Age came along – the era of the “robber barons” – and the capitalist abolitionists were succeeded by reflexively pro-labor, anti-capitalist “progressives.” They were (to put it mildly) soft on socialism, but they had valid points to make about the need for worker protections and safety nets.
From there on, however, it just got worse. In A Better World, a 1982 book about the relationship between Stalinism and the American intellectual left, William Oneill [sic] notes that after The Nation was purchased in 1937 by Freda Kirchwey, an outright Stalinist who’d been working at the magazine since 1918, she installed herself as editor-in-chief and turned the weekly, former “an open forum of the liberal left,” into “an organ of the Popular Front” – meaning, essentially, a propaganda mouthpiece for Stalin.
For Kirchwey and The Nation, solidarity with Stalin necessitated the denunciation and smearing of all critics of the Soviet Union, whether conservative or liberal, and the fierce, unequivocal rejection of any hint that the USSR might, in fact, be – like Hitler’s Germany, and even moreso than Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain – a cruel and evil totalitarian state. Kirchwey’s logic? As she put it herself, Communists, for all their imperfections, had “also fought for decent conditions for workers and the unemployed, for equality of rights for Negroes, for relief and aid to the victims of the civil war in Spain.” Yes, and Mussolini made the trains run on time. The current editors of The Nation – who tastefully omit to mention Kirchwey’s Stalinism in the anniversary issue – offer this outrageously lame explanation for her systematic refusal to so much as hint at the monstrous truth about life in the USSR: “Kirchwey and [her successor as editor-in-chief] Carey McWilliams felt that to couple a critique of McCarthyism with accounts of the situation in the Soviet Union would deflect attention from the threat to freedom at home.” Right. Just as The Nation of 2015 denounces Western “counterjihadists” today while acting as if jihadists themselves are a creature from some bestiary of the imagination, so did The Nation of yore pillory anti-Communists while all but pretending that Western Communism – a very real threat – was a fantasy.
August 1939 brought the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which Stalin fans capable of being honest with themselves recognized as a mammoth betrayal, an alliance of their greatest hero with their most despised enemy. Many of them felt driven, as Oneill puts it, to try “to explain what had gone wrong, and sometimes even where they had gone wrong personally.” Yet some on the American left “resisted this temptation.” Oneill identifies this resistance primarily with The Nation, “whose capacity for introspection,” he states, “was nonexistent.” Quite simply, the magazine “did not apologize for past errors,” and “[e]xcept when nursing grudges it had almost no memory, the world being born anew in its pages every week.”
The Nazi-Soviet Pact, in any event, was soon forgotten; a few weeks later Europe was at war, and the USSR was allied with Britain and France, and Stalin was once again a hero – in, above all, the pages of The Nation. And after the war was won, The Nation reliably provided its readers with (in Oneill’s words) sheer “fantasy” and “naked propaganda” about the victorious Uncle Joe and his workers’ paradise. InThe Nation during these years, Oneill points out, Russia was depicted as “alternately revolutionary and liberal – or sometimes both at once – as the need of the moment required.” Writing in The Nation in 1946, Walter Duranty described a purge by Stalin as “a general cleaning out of the cobwebs and mess.” (As one observerlater put it, “The Nation excused mass murder so long as it was red mass murder.”) When the USSR brutally turned the countries of Eastern Europe into Communist satellites, Kirchwey, far from protesting this savage act, supported it as a “process of revolution.”
As for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic republics, Oneill cites a suggestion by Reuters correspondent Alexander Werth that this, too, was just fine, because, after all, those republics had been run by fascists (or so the Kremlin said) – and besides, they weren’t “really countries” anyway.
Readers of the current incarnation of The Nation will find these two arguments very familiar: they’re precisely the same ones that vanden Heuvel and her husband employ today to justify Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine: (1) it’s (according to them) a fascist state, and (2) Ukraine is (to quote vanden Heuvel) “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.”
Then as now, you see, the countries “on Russia’s border” don’t matter to The Nation; all that matters is Mother Russia itself, which in 1917 became the beacon of hope for utopian ideologues and enemies of individual liberty around the world, and which, even all these years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, continues to serve the America-haters at The Nation as a counterbalance to American power and American values.
We’ve mentioned that The Nation‘s cultural pages were generally free of control by the editors who ran the front of the book. Sometimes this had results that might fairly be described as schizophrenic. Consider James Agee’s 1947 review of the now-classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which is reprinted in the anniversary issue. The review is a total slam – and what’s interesting about it is that what Agee is criticizing in the movie is precisely what’s wrong with the magazine for which he happens to be reviewing it. “I mistrust any work,” he writes, “which tries to persuade me—or rather, which assumes that I assume—that there is so much good in nearly all the worst of us that all it needs is a proper chance and example, to take complete control. I mistrust even more deeply the assumption, so comfortably stylish these days, that whether people turn out well or ill depends overwhelmingly on outside circumstances and scarcely if at all on their own moral intelligence and courage.” One could hardly pen a more stinging indictment of the dangerously credulous view of the world – trusting in the power and virtue of social engineering, and rejecting the importance and value of individual liberty and individual character – that informed the political pages of Kirchwey’s magazine.
What about The Nation during the Cold War? We’ll move on to that next time.
We’ve been talking about NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen, Russia “expert” and Putin apologist extraordinaire. But so far we’ve failed to mention his #1 ally in his pro-Putin crusade – namely, world-class limousine lefty Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor of The Nation, the Bible of America’s far left. In private life, vanden Heuvel is Mrs. Stephen F. Cohen; in public life, she shares her husband’s breathtakingly unequivocal support for Putin.
Famously, vanden Heuvel and her crew at The Nation don’t hesitate to lecture the U.S. and certain foreign countries – notably Israel – about what they’ve done or haven’t done, should or shouldn’t do. But when the subject is Putin’s Russia, vanden Heuvel’s line is the same as her husband’s: what Putin does is none of our business.
Cohen and vanden Heuvel characterize this position as one of “realism” and “common sense.”
It’s all quite fascinating, really. Neither the professor-husband nor his publisher-wife ever saw a U.S. military action that they liked; but when Putin sent tanks rolling into Ukraine, both rushed to his defense. Vanden Heuvel sneered at Americans who were concerned about Ukraine, calling them “armchair interventionists” and “rightwing rodeo warmongers” – as if it were they, not Putin, who’d just mounted an invasion.
Writing in the Washington Post in March 2014, vanden Heuvel dismissed Ukraine as “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.” Her point apparently being that because Ukraine hasn’t been around for very long, and because it’s a pretty vulnerable entity, its well-being and territorial integrity aren’t worth a great deal of consideration.
Could this argument be any more grotesque and odious? The reason why Ukraine didn’t have an “independent existence” before 1991 was that it was part of the Kremlin’s totalitarian empire; the reason why its independence since then has been “fragile” can be spelled in one six-letter word: Russia. Despite Putin’s dearest wishes, Ukraine is now a free and democratic country – a development he’d clearly like to reverse. Which is precisely why Ukraine has looked to the U.S. and NATO to help defend its freedoms.
Freedoms that vanden Heuvel – make no mistake – plainly views as an affront to Mother Russia. She actually complained in her Post article that “the post-Cold War settlement…looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods.” Translation: just as the Versailles Treaty was unfair to Germany in part because it handed over German territory to France, Denmark, and other neighboring countries, the “post-Cold War settlement” was unfair to Russia because it liberated the captive nations of Eastern Europe from the Communist dictatorship that had been imposed on them and gave them freedom.
As we’ve noted earlier in connection with similar statements by Cohen, the only way to make any kind of sense of vanden Heuvel’s obnoxious line of thinking is to consider the source: like her hubby, she’s an old, dyed-in-the-wool leftist admirer of the Soviet Union and, as such, retains an intense affection for the idea of autocratic Kremlin power – and, especially, for the notion of the Kremlin as a crucial counterforce to the hegemonic power of the United States.
“Russia has legitimate security concerns in its near-neighbor,” wrote vanden Heuvel in the Post about Putin’s moves on Ukraine. “The Russian fear is far less about economic relations with the European Union…than about the further extension of NATO to its borders. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases in the Black Sea, harbor the U.S. fleet and provide a home to NATO bases.” Got that? In vanden Heuvel’s view, Putin fears – legitimately – an invasion of Russia from across the Ukrainian border.
Outrageous. Then again, such outrageousness is part and parcel of The Nation‘s heritage. Throughout the Stalin era, The Nation was staunchly pro-Stalin, finding ways to apologize for every monstrous crime against humanity that good old Uncle Joe committed – from the Ukrainian famine to the Moscow show trials, from the Nazi-Soviet Pact to the postwar subjugation of Eastern Europe. Finding excuses for Putin, by comparison, is child’s play.