Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Denial

In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage by historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr is a prolonged examination of some of the more ripe pathologies of contemporary academe. The concern of the authors is with the ignoring, distorting, and denial of clear evidence by scions of American historical academe about the history of the Communist Party of the USA, the Soviet regime and connections between the two.

What they reveal are strong patterns of academics being driven, not by concern for the evidence, but by ideology in defiance of the evidence. Indeed, the attempt to establish an orthodoxy by various means; including using the word ‘scholarship’ to mean ‘politically acceptable’, labelling to delegitimise and marginalise dissent, use of positions as gatekeepers to exclude dissenting views from mainstream journals (pp98ff).

Sometimes, what they expose has a certain wry amusement to it. For example, the way the first wave of revisionists stressed the insignificance of the CPUSA to discredit liberal anti-communism and the next wave then stressed the positive role of the CPUSA to discredit conservative anti-communism, despite the inconsistency of the two ‘party lines’ (pp27ff).
Then there is the way that CIA or other ‘conservative’ funding discredits those it touches, but Soviet funding does not (pp66ff). Or that writing about winning the Cold War is abused as ‘triumphalist’ – as the authors point out, no-one talks about writing about winning World War Two as ‘triumphalist’ (pp62ff). The focus on McCarthyism, to the extent that a federally-funded guide for American history teachers mentioned McCarthy 20 times but Edison and the Wright brothers not at all (p.36) (if McCarthy hadn’t existed, it clearly would have been necessary to invent him). The epitome, though, is the way the opening of the Soviet archives – a vast treasure trove of evidence that one would think historians would be delighted to have access to – has so often been treated with fear and loathing (pp59ff).

That the effect of the archives has been to confirm the, much derided, ‘traditionalist’ view (the Soviet regime was a murderous tyranny, Stalin did give orders for mass executions, the regime did massively subsidise the CPUSA, the CPUSA was subservient to Moscow, it was a conduit for espionage, the Rosenbergs and Hiss, and others, were guilty) both explains the hostility and demonstrates how profoundly hostile to genuine scholarship so many prominent academics in this field are. (It can be surprisingly easy to forget quite how bad such pathologies can get.)

Much of it, however, is far from amusing. Such as the perversion of entries of the American National Biography and The Encyclopedia of the American Left to distort standard references for ideological purposes in ways reminiscent of Soviet academe (pp104ff), what amounts to the Left-equivalent of Holocaust denial over the victims of Leninism (pp11ff), the silence over Stalin’s killing of somewhere between 500 and 1000 American communists and radicals (pp115ff) – Stalin was a far greater threat to American communists than all the anti-communists of the US combined. Then again, Stalinism was simply the extension of Lenin’s modes of political operation to fellow-Leninists.

The authors expose a persistent pattern of distortion, denial of evidence, fabrication, foot-shifting and generally unscholarly conduct by academics – full professors from major universities, not academic bit-players. The purpose is clearly to keep hold a sense of being part of a moral and intellecual elite (if those dreadful anti-communists were right, it blows their sense of status) but also keep hold of a myth of a glorious future that they find a much better buttress to their sense of self than defending a messy reality (even though a much more vile Soviet reality gets any number of free passes).

These are examples of a profoundly corrupt moral and intellectual perspective at the heart of contemporary academe. Equivalent behaviour about Nazi Germany would elicit a storm of denunciation that would drive the perpetrators from academic life. Modern academe tolerates the betrayal of scholarship in the service of apologism for mass murder and tyranny – provided, it is ‘well-intentioned’ mass murder and tyranny.

The problem, in essence, is a simple one. What is the key quality control device in academe? Comment by fellow academics. But what happens if academics are offered markers to establish their status as members of an intellectual and moral elite coupled with penalties (such as abuse, denial of publishing access and jobs) if they do not accord with such markers? The potential for corruption of intellectual activity – either though active or passive connivance – is clearly considerable. Indeed, one will get the academic equivalent of Gresham’s law (bad currency driving out good), which works when people are impelled to accept face value.

In Denial provides a warning example of how that can pervert scholarly endeavour.

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