Popular Culture and the Suicide of the West

Joseph Sobran

Joseph SobranJoseph Sobran earned his degree in English literature at Eastern Michigan University before going on to become one of the youngest editors at National Review in 1972. He is currently Senior Editor at the magazine and is a regular contributor to Human Life Review. His articles have appeared in Harper's, the New York Times, Center Journal, The American Spectator, the National Catholic Register, and Commonweal. He recently published Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions. He speaks frequently to college and public audiences on a variety of topics and can be heard weekly on the CBS radio program, Spectrum.

Editor's Preview: This address is the last in a series reprinted from the Shavano Institute's conference, "Moral Equivalence: False Images of U.S. and Soviet Values," held in Washington, D.C. in May of 1985. One of the forty-five participants, Joseph Sobran, presents his charge that fascism, not "moral equivalence" is the straw man that popular culture has attacked for over a decade.

Mr. Sobran notes that although public sentiment is critical of communism and refutes any alleged equivalence between democratic and communist systems, movie-makers and other purveyors of popular culture seldom yield to this, preferring to deplore Nazism and "its heirs in the West." For these individuals and for the liberal community, it is "safe" to deplore Hitler because it helps them to evade condemning communism, acknowledging its victims, and facing its full horror.

Yet, says Mr. Sobran, communism has murdered several times as many people as Nazism. Ironically, Americans are more shocked by the excesses of Joseph McCarthy than Josef Stalin, and it is our popular culture which seeks to convince us that we would be hypocritical if we felt any other way.

A few weeks ago I saw The Killing Fields—the first movie in memory to depict communist atrocities. As you probably know, it’s about Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge victory. It shows re-education camps, mass murders, piles of corpses—characteristic horrors of communism. Only one thing is missing: the word “communism.” The movie studiously avoids it. It seems to blame all this killing on little Asiatic fanatics, with no hint that their leaders were acting out the classic pattern of an ideology they had picked up in the West, in Paris, to be precise.

You can see almost anything in movies these days. The law even tolerates hardcore porn. But there seems to be an unwritten law against hardcore anti-communism. Sometimes I wonder if there’s some sort of ideological Hays Office operating in Hollywood, protecting the viewing public from the indecorous manifestations of the Cold War mentality. Most Hollywood movies with political or heavy social themes have a left-wing slant. This is true even though the great majority of such movies have been box office flops, while the right-wing themes of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson movies have been tremendous successes.

Long after our boys in Europe were demobilized, Hollywood was still fighting fascism. This catch-all category includes anything opposed to the Left. Sometimes the fascist role is played by the CIA, as in Three Days of the Condor. Sometimes it’s the House on Un-American Activities Committee, as in The Front. It can be the military, as in Apocalypse Now. It can be a right-wing government abroad, as in Missing, or the nuclear power industry, as in The China Syndrome. Richard Nixon has been used as a looming quasi-fascist figure in the background of a number of movies. The Killing Fields tries to blame the fate of Cambodia at least partly on him. At times the fascist theme is fantastically literal. In The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man, old Nazis make a comeback. Both these films made me reflect that if a handful of German octogenerians holed up in a South American hideout are really capable of taking over the world, we ought to give them some credit: They really are the master race after all. Hollywood imputes to fascism a kind of evil magic that o’erleaps the normal rules of causality and makes even isolated, superannuated Nazis a clear and present danger. In The Boys from Brazil, Joseph Mengele threatens the world by cloning a number of kids from tissue saved from Der Fuehrer’s body. The movie’s profound grasp of racial science can be inferred from the fact that each and every one of these boys is an insufferable brat.

Movies like these have a profoundly consoling quality. Hollywood movies may seem to have gotten more realistic than in the days of Irving Thalberg and Cecil B. DeMille, but in a deeper sense they are really the same as ever in catering to wishful thinking, in evading reality, in confirming a sentimental worldview. They present sex obsessively, but without the complications of love, jealousy, marriage, birth, loyalty, divorce, abandonment, disease, and neurosis that attend it in serious literature and drama. They represent politics without recognizing the largest political reality in the world today: communism. They finger the eternal enemy as a generic fascism, a force long since discredited and vanquished in the real world. A real movie about communism would be so unsettling that it probably wouldn’t even find a distributor.

Hollywood is rich in fantasies but impoverished in genuine ideals—ideals seriously related to moral standards. Eugene Methvin has recently written that the diabolization of Hitler in the current culture is actually an evasion, an instance of what the psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan called “selective inattention.” It spares us the pain of facing a larger, blacker, and present evil. Hitler is safe. We can all deplore him without risk. Hollywood’s Fondas, Brandos, and Coppolas can safely strike their moral postures against fascism by adopting the current Party line and pretending that fascism’s heirs are now in the West. They know these bold gestures won’t land them in jail: they’re really in perfect accord with the whole culture of evasion.

Yet communism has murdered several times as many people as Nazism. It continues to extinguish every freedom liberalism once stood for—freedom of religion, of the press, of political criticism and opposition. Ironically, liberalism protests infringements of these freedoms only in anti-communist countries.

Thirty years ago, the philosopher Sidney Hook wrote that to be liberal is to be, almost by definition, anti-communist as well as anti-fascist. But today, the phrase “liberal anti-communism” sounds less like a redundancy than a contradiction in terms. To be anti-communist is to be immediately labeled a “right-winger.” What we now call liberalism is less like the old liberalism than like the old fellow-traveling. Contemporary liberalism follows the contours of communism. If this were merely a matter of hypocrisy in the liberal community, it might not be much of a problem. But I am afraid that it goes deeper than that. It is now a problem in our culture: we live with our minds in concrete, and we don’t even notice that we are carrying contradictions in our souls. The infection of our language, our moral habits, our very thoughts, touches even conservative anti-communists. We take for granted things that ought to startle and shame us.

Recently we celebrated our famous victory in Europe with our old allies—the same Soviets who helped Hitler launch the war with an invasion of Poland; the same Soviet Union that remains, after forty years, the proud possessor of Poland. What on earth were we celebrating? The defeat of Hitler. But by whom? And for what purpose? The diabolization of Hitler robs us of our critical faculties. It deprives us of the power to make the kind of comparisons a healthy moral instinct would make almost automatically.

Thus we react with shock if a lone eccentric wears a swastika. We recognize it as an act of obscene perversity even to associate oneself with a mere symbol of Nazism. Imagine how we’d feel if a new regime in Central America were to raise a flag with that hated insignia and to make noises about racial purity and the international Jewish money power. Would we listen seriously to the argument by some Americans that, after all, Nazism wasn’t monolithic? That Hitler was only an aberration whose excesses might be avoided in the future? That the neo-Nazi regime represented the “legitimate aspirations” of the people, or that it was an “indigenous force?”

When an individual or a regime deliberately chooses association with communist symbols, we are not equally shocked. We feel little, if any, horror at the implied link with nearly seventy years of slavery, aggression, and megamurder, still in progress. We simply don’t recognize communism as blasphemy against God and a brutal threat to all humanity. We are not scandalized by the presence of large communist parties in Western democracies, although we wouldn’t tolerate large neo-Nazi parties for a week.

Hitler remains a magnetic symbol of evil. But communism has somehow remained semi-respectable. Good liberals shed no tears for its victims, strike no moral postures before its embassies. Instead, they make excuses for it and ridicule serious concern about it. To denounce South Africa or Chile is to “speak out” and to earn moral credit. To denounce the Soviet Union, however, is to be “strident.” Many of those who talk about the “crime of silence” during the Nazi era practically demand silence about communism. The refugee from Nazism or even the visitor from South Africa is presumed to speak with the moral authority of a first-hand witness and victim; the refugee from communism is treated as a warped personality if he speaks solely of his own narrow experience. Elie Wiesel is a prophet; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is obsessed.

It’s true that in the nuclear age we have to find a way to share the planet with the Soviets, even if they aren’t themselves eager to share; the French scholar Jean-Francois Revel has observed that communism’s property rights command universal respect. If the Nazis had survived the war and gotten the atomic bomb, we might also have had to make practical accommodations with them. But that would not have changed the moral nature of the National Socialist regime any more than the necessity of negotiating with a kidnapper confers moral respectability on kidnapping.

But with communism, the West has shown the hostage’s abject tendency to see the kidnapper’s point of view. What we call liberalism is no longer distinguished by its dedication to freedom everywhere: it is distinguished by its abiding refusal to condemn communism morally, unequivocally, in principle. It virtually worships the Soviet Union as a death-god, a Moloch, always to be propitiated, never to be opposed or provoked. We must never “overreact.”

Even President Reagan has publicly accepted the burden of assuring the Soviets that we don’t mean them any harm. No doubt it was as a slip of the tongue, but it shows the way our tongues now tend to slip. We give communism the benefit of every doubt. Revel has also remarked that whereas we judge other regimes by their records, we judge communism by its promises. Its entire historical record is inadmissible evidence.

Popular sentiment, as the historian John Lukacs reminds us, the frank and spontaneous sentiment we express privately among our friends—differs sharply from the lofty abstractions we maintain before strangers, to the pollsters, and on the editorial page. Popular sentiment is anti-communist, as the success of the rare anti-communist movie like Red Dawn makes clear. Everyone knows what communism is like. But at the level of quasi-official public speech, we ignore the realities and talk of “Soviet leaders,” “the two superpowers,” and the like, as if the two systems were analogous. “Public opinion,” which is really the dialect of the mass communications media, easily equates the two superpowers. But the equation of good and evil serves the interest of evil. (Not that this equation is consistently made: Sometimes we are admonished that we mustn’t act like them by meeting force with force. This too serves the interests of communism. And so we tell ourselves alternately that we’re no better than they are or that we are indeed better than they are, depending on which proposition will be most helpful, at a given moment, to our enemy.)

We even speak of American communists as more sinned against than sinning. They are “dissenters,” “victims of McCarthyism.” This is the message of Daniel and The Front. We watch American-made documentaries about old communists who idealize themselves and recall how cruelly they were persecuted, being jailed or fired from jobs or simply forced to identify themselves as communists at a public hearing. This is considered persecution by those who defended Stalin’s death sentences for whole classes of “class enemies” and who were working to extend his power to this country. They failed to make America red. And their impotence wasn’t innocence. But the very word “McCarthyism” has come to incorporate the assumption that it is a form of persecution to identify a communist as a communist.

The Soviet Union itself has applied for, and received from liberal opinion, accredited victim status. It allegedly lost 20 million people during World War II, therefore, it is afraid of war. By this logic, it should be afraid of communism, since it has lost more than 20 million to communism. We hear a good deal about Soviet paranoia: Unlike anti-communist paranoia, the Soviet brand is to be excused and humored. The Soviets only built up their nuclear arsenal because they wanted parity with us, we were once told. Those who made this argument now know they were wrong, and they do not remind us of their error; they have simply advanced to other absurdities, such as the rationale that Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was “defensive.” Did Hitler defend himself against Czechoslovakia and Poland and Austria? Constant Soviet vilification of the United States is written off as “mere” propaganda, because it is a pack of lies. When President Reagan criticizes the Soviets, however, liberal opinion mugs him and repeats his words endlessly as putative “gaffes,” if not outright provocation. How can a man who talks like that sincerely want peace?

Embarrassing the President has become the standard activity of the news media and the prestige press. Conservatives sense bias in journalism, and they are right; but they talk about it in terms of “accuracy in media.” The problem is not inaccuracy. The information we get is usually accurate enough. The problem is that minions of the media are constantly digging for facts, leaks, “gaffes,” and other trivia that will put conservative and anti-communist forces and indeed the entire American tradition in the worst light. Liberals and communists are spared this kind of gaffe research. Mr. Reagan and Jesse Helms, not Tip O’Neill and Ron Dellums, are the targets of the investigative reporters and expose specialists; the CIA is embarrassed, not the KGB; the sins of our allies, not our enemies, must be brought to light. And how many “corrupt and repressive” pro-American regimes have fallen to communist regimes that, much to our recurrent surprise, turn out to be infinitely more repressive? Once you grasp that contemporary journalism is in the business of embarrassing people, the pattern of bias is fully disclosed. As James Burnham has formulated “the iron law of liberalism,” the preferred enemy is always to the right.

Our popular culture is not a folk culture. It is a mass-marketed culture that combines pandering and propagandizing. It’s directed at the moderately educated who imbibe the fictions of liberal public opinion at college and can hardly imagine another way of looking at or talking about the world. Some of the Contras in Nicaragua aren’t very nice, so we can’t support them, can we? Yet, liberal public opinion had no such scruples about supporting Stalin against Hitler, or about trade credits to the Soviet bloc. We are proud of the number of people who go to college nowadays, but the fact is that most of them emerge from their education with no power of imagining alternatives to the hackneyed policy prescriptions of liberalism. If anything, their critical powers seem to be impaired by their schooling. They learn the respectable noises to make, the fashionable moral poses to strike, the proper subjects of liberal indignation. Of course, a good many of them have the intelligence to resist the conditioning process, but this is the tendency of the process itself.

When Susan Sontag, an avatar of the Left from way back, said that communism is fascism, she shocked the intellectual world. It was a step in the right direction, but despite her good intentions, she was being soft on communism. Communism is worse than fascism by nearly every index. That it should be almost taboo to say so in some quarters is also an index of the state of popular culture today.

Fascism is recognized as a generic evil, and the word serves as a catch-all term for everything the Left hates, from Mussolini to Joe McCarthy to big corporations. These things don’t even have to be related to each other except in the minds of communists and liberals. But while the Left makes these imaginary connections, it plays down real relations among communist regimes. Communism “is not monolithic.” The latest communist insurgency, even if it receives lots of Soviet or Cuban aid, is “essentially indigenous.” The sins of the Stalinist fathers mustn’t be visited on the sons, even if the sons are showing every sign of practicing Stalinism—which is to say, communism. The ease with which the embarrassing and inherent evils of communism are ascribed to the personal eccentricity of Stalin, by the way, is one of the wonders of leftist dialectics. Stalin seems to have been a thirty-year exception to the laws of historical inevitability.

The slightest overstatement in criticizing communism is taken, in this hothouse culture, to invalidate everything else. When it comes to fascism, however, or even the American way of life, no hyperbole of condemnation can go too far, no shortcoming can be overlooked, no icon can pass unassaulted. When the President has made so bold as to attack the Soviet Union, no liberal commentator bothered to confront the question of whether his charges were true. He was guilty of sins of sheer tone—sins for which the Left isn’t held responsible. The media worked overtime to turn the President’s words into embarrassments. When congressmen and senators go to Moscow and Managua and return with the conviction that the communists really want peace, the “adversary press” doesn’t ask critical questions. The communists’ and liberals’ motives aren’t in question; the anti-communists’ are.

I was amused a few months ago to discover that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels use the word “communistic” in The Communist Manifesto. The word “communistic” now has a Birchite ring about it. But it’s a perfectly useful word to describe all those people who aren’t substantively communist but are, so to speak, “adjectivally” communist—the “useful idiots” Lenin spoke of, the “progressive forces” contemporary communists speak of, the sort of people who are always available for peace and civil rights marches and popular fronts and broad coalitions. In a word, the Left as well as the Right recognizes that liberals are part of the communist enterprise. Only the liberals refuse to recognize it. They treat the whole idea strictly as a right-wing delusion. Why it should also be a communist delusion, they never explain.

It is not a delusion; it is simply a fact. By and large, today’s liberalism is communistic. That’s part of the operative meaning of “liberal” now, though it isn’t considered very nice to say so. But my point isn’t to blame liberals. They are only the salient expression of what’s wrong with our whole culture of evasion. It is true that unless liberals condemn communism, America should condemn liberalism, because, in a broad sense, liberalism has become the accomplice of communism.

The people I really want to blame are the conservatives, the anti-communists. We are soft on communism by being soft on liberalism. We haven’t forced the moral issue: the refusal of liberals to condemn communism and all its works and pomps, to acknowledge its victims, to face its full horror. We have been content to call liberals naive and give them credit for good intentions. But it’s too late in the century for naivete. Moral neutrality is not evidence of good intentions, especially when the neutrality is perfunctory and bogus. It’s our duty to expose and morally embarrass the silent accomplices of communism.