Whittaker Chambers, Potemkin Villages & the Ongoing War
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
—John Keats, from "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
A few days before I wrote these words, I opened for the first time Whittaker Chambers's Witness. It is his account of the Alger Hiss espionage case. And, as Chambers says, "all the props of an espionage case are there—foreign agents, household traitors, stolen documents, microfilm, furtive meetings, secret hideaways, phony names, an informer, investigations, trials, official justice," and, he might have added, assassinations and suicides. But if that were all, he writes to his children, "it would not be worthy my writing about or your reading about." Instead, it is a book that witnesses against one faith and for another.
When stout Cortez with his eagle eyes stared at the Pacific—it was actually Balboa, but Keats's error gives us the mightier line—he saw something wholly new, like the astronomer who glimpses an unknown planet. To read Chambers, though, is not to read something wholly new. It is to climb a promontory from whose lookout a maze of paths and woods and streams, of ravines and hills, of seeming contradictions in the lie of the land, is seen for what it is. The objects can be placed. Their relations become clear. Things make sense.
From that promontory one sees the battlefield of the last hundred years or more laid out, and what had seemed to be unrelated skirmishes now appear as moments in a continuing war, regardless of whether the soldiers in the trenches knew what they were about, or suspected that the fight was for more than one scrap of local land—a law here, a school there. The Hiss-Chambers battle was not, as the press labored to portray it, a grudge match between personal enemies. It was, as Hiss and Chambers knew, a battle of faith.
The Second-Oldest Faith
Chambers insists upon this. He will not allow any complacency. Communists "are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die—to bear witness—for its faith." They are not mad; they are not sociopaths. Communism is not just "the writings of Marx and Lenin, dialectical materialism, the Politburo, the labor theory of value, the theory of the general strike, the Red Army, secret police, labor camps, underground conspiracy, the dictatorship of the proletariat." It is not parades through Moscow and Paris and Rome. What binds Communists "across the frontiers of nations, across barriers of language and differences of class and education, in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weaknesses of the body and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction: It is necessary to change the world."
That is the key. With those words, one stands upon the high rock, ready to raise one's eyes and see. The world is evil; the world sags with the sludge of history and man's inhumanity; the world must be changed. Thence comes what Chambers calls man's "second oldest faith." It is the vision of Man without God: Ye shall be as gods, says the serpent. But because man's soul yearns for the transcendent God, this second-oldest faith must collapse that soul into what Chambers calls "mind," the bare faculty of rational deduction. With it, man must reform "the meaningless chaos of nature, by imposing on it his rational will to order, abundance, security, peace." It is "the vision of materialism."
The first commandment of this faith is accepted by many who do not know what army they fight for. It is to be found, says Chambers, not in the Communist Manifesto, but "in the first sentence of the physics primer: 'All of the progress of mankind to date results from the making of careful measurements.'" Soul, meet slide-rule. Wisdom, beauty, and love are dismissed from the room, and man the toolmaker becomes the product of his tools.
What do these insights explain? I will examine three sets of phenomena.
The Potemkin Village
Walter Duranty, whom Malcolm Muggeridge called the most accomplished liar he'd ever met, won a Pulitzer Prize for writing puff-pieces in the New York Times about Stalin's collectivization of farms in the Ukraine. No uprisings, no dearth, no starvation, no millions dead. Did he not see them? Perhaps he had been visited by the ghost of Lincoln Steffens, who went to Lenin's Russia and returned to advise President Wilson: "I have seen the future, and it works."
The Potemkin Village—the show-village full of brash young men falling in love with their tractors and raising up a great crop of Communist wheat—has become a byword for prettifying propaganda. That won't do. Those who gull require the gullible, those who long to be gulled; and often they are the same people. Deprived of the Christian hope of eternal life, they must place their hope, sickly and desperate, in some vague future. Does the future work? It must work.
So the Potemkin Village is not just a sham. It is, for its directors, the truth, not as things are, but as things can be, as they are damned well going to be. It is the omelet for which Lenin breaks his eggs. Only if we keep that in mind can we explain the doctrinaire secularist's imperviousness to facts.
Chairman Mao slaughtered tens of millions of his people, a decade after Chambers wrote that the man was not the agrarian reformer petted by the liberal press. Regardless of the personal failings of Senator McCarthy, there were Soviet agents in the State Department, as there were Soviet agents in the World Council of Churches, and in the BBC. Why should that cause surprise? Stalin was a butcher, yet Frank Marshall Davis, mentor of the young Barack Obama, shilled for him at the Chicago Star, after the purges and after the war. Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam to encourage a band of ruthless villains, while her countrymen rotted in the Hanoi Hilton. Could she not see?
Gazing Rapt at the Future
Why would journalists like Mary McCarthy say they were not Communists, but "anti-anti-Communists"? For the same reason some people say they are "personally opposed" to abortion, while working to extend its reach, from the Western nations to all their client territories the world over. They share the same vision, the same longing for a world organized by man, without God. They are gazing at the Potemkin Village, rising in the future.
Alfred Kinsey was a liar and a pervert, who hired pedophiles to perform sex acts on small children. Yet Kinsey made his family into a Potemkin Village. It's painful to look back upon magazine articles about this supposedly ordinary Midwestern man, with pictures of him and his wife and sons going on a picnic. Why did people trust the fraud? Why did they want to trust him? He was a trailblazer, marking out the path from old taboos to liberation: not to God, but to man as god.
Gay parents are the villagers now. It used to be thought a tragedy if a child had to grow up without a mother or without a father. But now the suffering of such children must be denied. Nay, more: it is wonderful to grow up in that state. Hear the tractors humming! See the bushels full of corn!
Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, just when a young official in his employ, Daniel Moynihan, was warning that out-of-wedlock births among blacks had crossed into the danger zone and was threatening the very existence of genuine community. For that brief time, Johnson and Moynihan were at cross-purposes. It doesn't matter what the men were aware of doing. Johnson bowed to the materialist vision; he wished to use the power of a technocratic state to fix a problem viewed in technocratic terms. Moynihan was trying to peer into the human heart. The one looked confidently toward the future. The other worried that something essential from the past was being lost.
It is almost fifty years later, and the War on Poverty might aptly be called the Massacre of the Poor, such is the moral degradation to which the beneficiaries of the welfare state have sunk. Our prisons testify to this.
Despising the Past
Still the believers in man without God will not see. Their gaze is fixed on the Potemkin Village. Not on the New Jerusalem, against which all human cities must appear a sorry lot, but inhabitable and worthy of love, just as sinners are worthy of love. Jerusalem, our happy home, allows us to live in this world as it is, and if that sometimes means we're slow to improve things here, at least we cherish our bit of land, our roof and our fig tree. The Potemkin Village is not so forgiving. It demands that we despise what we have inherited, to build the true Potemkin upon the ruins.
Hence, the Potemkin Village is a reproach as well as a promise. Its power, indeed, lies more in the reproach, since it is so chary of delivering on any promise. If we cannot quite be moved to love the hazy future, we can certainly be moved to hate the past. That's easy, because there is much in the past to decry. It cannot be otherwise; we are sinners, and we suffer the infirmities of our mortal nature. Therefore, hatred of the past becomes a tenet of the creed.
Medieval man must have been benighted—and not all the universities, the vigorous trade, the vibrant orders of religious, the spectacular feats in art and poetry, the prominence of countless women like Catherine of Siena and Matilda of Tuscany, the bustling freedom of town life, the bonds forged by local guilds, the colorful celebrations, not all of that can pierce the carapace of hatred.
Until feminism arrived, women must have been miserable, regardless of the testimony of women themselves. Until the Age of Reason, there must have been only superstition and no scientific advancement. The Church, not Stalin, not Mao, not the enlightened nations of the West in the world wars, must have burned her millions. Every time someone says, "You want to bring us back to the Dark Ages," we know we are dealing with someone who cannot see the present for the future.
This vision of the village-to-be helps resolve apparent contradictions among adherents to the faith in Man without God. For things are true or false, or good or bad, instrumentally, as leading or not leading to that consummation devoutly to be wished.
That's why the Communists could turn on a dime. Trotsky was a hero of the revolution. Trotsky was an enemy of the revolution. Bukharin was the intellectual beacon of Communism. Bukharin was a revisionist dog. Hitler is our friend. No, Roosevelt is our friend. These statements are not contradictory. The only absolute truth is that Man must be without God. All other truths, even the scientific, are tactical.
President Clinton was a slobbering cad whom no decent person in past generations would have been proud to call his friend. He was accused of rape. No one doubts that he committed what feminists have, for their tactical purposes, called rape: the seduction of a woman by a powerful man, the chasm in power obliterating the validity of her consent. Yet they did not condemn the president. They defended him; they celebrated him; they were eager to play the underling, to keep abortion safe and legal, and to do whatever else is essential to the construction of Feminist Potemkin.
No Contradiction Involved
Some people viewed their defense of Clinton as hypocrisy. It was not. It was something better and worse. It was the expression of a devout faith. It was the expression of an evil faith. Chambers recalls when he was trying to come to terms with evil, not as bad tactics, but as a violation of the human soul. Why was it just as evil to kill the tsar as it was to kill two million peasants? It could only be so if it was a crime against the soul, "the soul of the murderer as well as the murdered."
But if God is ruled out, why complain about the Stalinist purge? "By the logic of history it was expedient, and in its directness merciful." No contradiction is involved: "How long are you going to keep on killing people?" Lady Astor would ask Stalin brightly. "As long as it is necessary," he answered and asked in turn, "How many people were killed in the First World War? You killed that many people for nothing," he added, "and you blame us for killing a handful for the most promising social experiment in history?" In terms of the modern mind, which excludes from its reasoning the supposedly undemonstrable fact of God, Stalin's question was unanswerable.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early feminist and despiser of Christian marriage, decried abortion as a crime of men against women. Feminists now decry restrictions on abortion as crimes of men against women. They say Mrs. Stanton would agree with them. I fear they are probably right. For Mrs. Stanton's focus was never on the humanity of the child. It was on the power relations between men and women. The feminists, too, do not wish to acknowledge the humanity of the child; it is a casualty in the greater war.
Some, however, will acknowledge that the child is human, and defend killing it anyway. This would seem to be the most egregious exercise of a difference in power imaginable. Yet remember Stalin's words. Why should he balk at the killing of some few human beings, for the greatest social experiment in history? Why should the feminist balk at the killing of some small human beings, for that same experiment—not an economic experiment, but a "theological" experiment, the building up of the city of Man without God?
Someone may ask, "How could Alger Hiss, working for so many years with Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and Secretary of State Acheson, and representing American interests at the founding of the United Nations, be working against America all that time? How could a man endure the contradiction without being torn in two?" But there was no contradiction. "Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia," say the reports from the Party in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Winston Smith must train his mind to think so, in the teeth of the facts.
Truth as Persuasion
When Whittaker Chambers decided to break with Communism, he could not do so without attempting to persuade his friend, Alger Hiss, to come with him. It was a dire chance he was taking. He knew that Communist agents would seek to kill him. To let Hiss in on the decision was also risky. But Chambers felt he owed it to him.
So at dinner at the Hiss house one night he recited the crimes of the Communists, "the Soviet Government's deliberate murder by mass starvation of millions of peasants in the Ukraine and the Kuban; the deliberate betrayal of the German working class to Hitler by the Communist Party's refusal to co-operate with the Social Democrats against the Nazis; the ugly fact that the German Communist Party had voted in the Reichstag with the Nazis against the Social Democrats," and so forth, culminating in the purge wherein Stalin had massacred "thousands of the best men and minds in the Communist Party on lying charges."
What did Hiss reply? He ventured a few objections, then finally cried, "What you have been saying is just mental masturbation!"
Those are the words of a man who has ceased to think of truth as truth. Such a man indeed can be an American patriot, loyal to the America-that-is-to-be, while breaking American law, betraying American interests, and subjecting American soldiers to fire from weapons made according to stolen American designs. In the same way, a Jesuit may be loyal to the pope-that-is-to-be, while ambushing the pope at every pass; or a leftist nun may be loyal to the Church-that-is-to-be while helping to destroy the Church that is; or a progressive Protestant may be devoted to a Christ of his imagination, a man-made Christ for a man-made paradise, while nailing Jesus to the tree. There is no contradiction.
Nor is there any penalty for playing fast and loose with the truth. Russians used to jest that there was no truth (pravda) in the News (Izvestia), and there was no news (izvestia) in the Truth (Pravda). But there was, if we take a cue from the Russian word pravda, whose inner meaning is "that which has been shown," that is, proved. It is the old sophistical turn from truth as naming what is, to truth as persuasion. What is "true" is what one can persuade the masses to believe.
Truth Turned Upside Down
The lie disappears, consumed in the flame of devotion to the truth-that-is-to-be. Consider the Alan Guttmacher Institute, foremost in the fight to liberalize abortion laws in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The statistics given out in the abortion debates during those decades are now widely known to have been fabricated; members of the institute have admitted that. Why, then, does the Guttmacher Institute still exist?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, files were made public that proved that there were Soviet agents everywhere who helped to turn the course of history—consider what the world might be like if China had not been betrayed into the hands of the Maoist "reformers." Why have there been no apologies from the authors of the lie that not Stalin, not Khruschchev, not Molotov, not Mao, but Joseph McCarthy was the great villain of the postwar era?
We know that Alfred Kinsey was a criminal. Why does his institute still exist? Why did Hollywood recently make a movie in his honor?
There is no lie but opposition to the progressive vision. The world is turned upside down. God—for men like Hiss, Duranty, Kinsey, and Stalin—is the father of lies.
Hatred of Man & Nature
When Milton's Satan stands on the verge of the physical universe, he beholds a glorious light, but it does not bring him joy:
O Thou that with surpassing glory crowned
Lookst from thy sole dominions like the god
Of this new world; at whose sight all the stars
Hide their diminished heads; to thee I call,
But with no friendly voice, and add thy name,
O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams,
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious far above thy sphere,
Till pride and worse ambition threw me down,
Warring in heaven against heaven's matchless King.
If man is made in the image of God, then hatred of God implies hatred of man, and hatred of the natural world over which man has been given dominion. Milton understood those implications. Satan enters Eden, a vast tract of land lush with trees and meadows, grottoes and vines hanging heavy with fruit, and he recognizes its beauty, but he hates it all the more for that: he "saw undelighted all delight."
It's no coincidence, I think, that when Chambers broke with the Communists he found a secret haven in a Maryland farm, which he and his family worked for many years. Not as an agrarian technician, but as a man immersed in the goodness of the natural world. They used machines, but only as absolutely needed, seeking "that life that [would] give [them] the greatest simplicity, freedom, fruitful work, closest to the earth and peaceful, slow-moving animals." It was something the reporters in the Hiss case could not understand.
Here we needn't turn to the drab miseries of the Soviet Union and its rape of the land for the great cause. We could look at the drab miseries of life in the urban West—their emblem the N.I.C.E. of Lewis's That Hideous Strength, stocked with animals for vivisection, and aimed at producing the first trans-human being, the next evolutionary step that would leave mere humanity behind like so much mud.
If at times the believers in Man without God invoke the natural world, it is not for its own sake—this must be made clear—but for its opposition to theomorphic man. It's not so much that we love asters and antelopes, but that we hate him; and our contempt justifies our treating him as no different from the sheep we clone; all things are instrumental in building up the longed-for city. Chambers understood the principle, and expresses it in the words of Henri de Lubac, from The Drama of Atheistic Humanism: "Man cannot organize the world for himself without God; without God man can only organize the world against man."
Encouraging the Unnatural
We see this humanistic misanthropy in our treatment of children—those we permit to be born. If we made a list of ten things we know about the nature of children, and then devised an institution to thwart them, it would resemble the modern school—impersonal, factory-like, distant from home, detached from the oversight of parents, an engine of all-pervading indoor ennui. All this is by design.
It is natural for children to learn from their parents. We don't want that; we want parents to learn from their children, that is to say, from their children's teachers—from the controlling institutions that produce and direct those teachers. We don't want boys to behave like boys and girls like girls. We hate football, unless girls want to play it. The public school in my small hometown required that boys take cooking and sewing classes and that girls take shop. They didn't care what the boys or the girls actually wanted to do; again, their nature is something to thwart. It is a gravitational pull to overcome.
We know that homosexual activity among men is unsanitary and dangerous. Yet we encourage it, because it is not natural, even while we attempt to interfere with things perfectly innocent and natural—the lunches that mothers provide for their children, for instance. This isn't just perverse. It makes perfect sense. The natural is a drag on the technocrat, like the softness of pinewood, or the brittleness of tin. The unnatural, by contrast, lays claim to superiority because it is chosen by man, the result of techne;dogs can mate by nature, but a man has to learn how to delve into sodomy. Hence the push to replace human procreation—note the nature-scorning term "breeders," which homosexuals use to belittle ordinary husbands and wives—with the shockingly ugly "reproductive technology," celebrated as an improvement upon nature. Hence, too, the hideous self-mutilations of transsexual people, lopping here, pumping there.
All the natural associations of free people are suspect: families, villages, towns, parishes, guilds, shops, clubs. They must be circumscribed, starved, crushed, or brought under the direction of a technocratic elite. The devotees of the vision of Man without God must control the schools, and thus they must control the villages and towns, and circumscribe the authority of parishes and churches. The political must devour the cultural, because the latter is the more natural and less susceptible to technocratic management. So the American Constitution becomes a decree of martial law against non-political associations, like the Rotary Club or the Boy Scouts. France has banished the natural and human terms "mother" and "father" from legal documents, replacing them with the technocratic terms "parent 1" and "parent 2," in deference to unnatural sexual arrangements.
Hatred of God
And God? What else can explain the hatred of God? The atheist Richard Dawkins, his face red with demonic ardor, cries out in the desert for the arrest of a learned gentleman, Pope Benedict, on charges of Crimes Against Humanity—because the pope loves the Africans whom Dawkins despises; because the pope does not want to inject into their societies the poison of Western licentiousness.
The devil has his ascetics, and Dawkins is one. The devil also has his inebriates, like Christopher Hitchens, who called Mother Teresa "Hell's Angel." This is no delusion, but the predictable expression of a fervent and evil faith. For the soul that hates God, the fiery love of Paradise is unendurable, and hell is a refuge, and our own.
And the devil has his artists. They aren't accomplished, these days, but when an Andres Serrano immerses a crucifix in urine, we see all the hatreds at once: blasphemy, inhumanity, and the unnatural.
The Same War, Extended
It has always been the same war, Chambers says, but now our technology extends it to a vast scale. Let Christians be wary, then.
The squalid sniggering comedy on television is not a part of the culture, which we must enter. It is an assault against culture, and must be vanquished. The next tool for separating sex from children and children from their parents is not a neutral gimcrack whose use might be moral or immoral depending on the circumstances. It is a machine gun pointed at the family. The conforming of church life to the ways of a secular concert—not a band playing on a village green, or a choir of neighbors singing hymns handed down from of old, nothing so natural and human—is not a sign of health, but of capitulation. A cancer is not a prosthesis. It does not replace, but devours.
May God have mercy upon us, as he did upon Whittaker Chambers, and give us strength to bear witness to the simple, sweet truths of human life, those things that lead men, if not to the sanctuary of the Church, at least to the porch.
Anthony Esolen teaches English at Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and is the author of many books, including Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press), Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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