[This review was published in the Summer 2003 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 253-256 (and in the Fall 2004 issue of the same journal, by oversight of the editor, pp. 363-366).]
Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism
Crown Forum, 2003
There is a dilemma that bedevils the scholar. Intellectual discourse most often prefers a less-than-strident, sometimes even equivocal, presentation of arguments, precisely because, at least as ideally conceived, this makes possible the nuanced consideration of ideas. It invites discussion by leaving open the possibility that on a number of things "reasonable people can differ." And it encourages a context in which ideas of all kinds can be put forward without having reason to anticipate that the exchange will turn into an ad hominem slugfest.
Civility among the proponents of differing ideas is also important because the world is so deeply divided, as at most times in history it has been, and because the divisions portend to become vastly deeper in the decades ahead as the economic displacement caused by globalization and ever-advancing technology polarizes the world.
At the same time, there is much to be said for an honest, straight-forward telling of something "as it is." This is what Robert A. Taft had in mind when he said that "tact is dishonesty." A fully honest presentation will often be strident, not because of gratuitous slurs upon an opponent, but because the subject-matter itself is unappealing. In that context, there is merely the finest line between an acceptable stridency and a lack of civility.
In Treason, Ann Coulter never withholds a punch. She gives her readers the "red meat" they long for. She plainly charges American "liberals" with hatred for their country and treachery toward it. One is tempted to think of it as a lack of civility. But most of what she says differs only in tone from what scholars speak of more genteelly when they refer to the "long-standing alienation of the intellectual from bourgeois society." She spells out the alienation's implications bluntly, and only on occasion throws in a gratuitous insult that takes her over the line. Her discourse occurs within the realm of the "rough and tumble" of ideas that is often praised. It isn't phrased as the scholar prefers, but it isn't beyond the pale, either, except occasionally.
This is to say, readers with an intellectual bent should not write off what Coulter says because of her style. It is for those who disagree with her to meet her head-on with facts and arguments that negate what she is saying.
Coulter no doubt draws from an extensive file in which she has documented many facets of the American Left's mindset. A hard-hitting presentation of those facets makes up, in effect, the last two-thirds of her book. Those who agree with her will relish being given chapter-and-verse about ideological double-standards, blacklistings of ideas from outside the Left, demagoguery and opportunism, and the like.
An example: it is commonplace today to decry the 1948 "Hollywood Blacklist" against Communist screenwriters as a hateful abuse of people and their right to express themselves. But Coulter, for her part, points out several instances in which blacklisting runs the other way. The New York Times, she says, barely mentioned the release in 1995 of the Venona cables (the extremely significant Soviet cables decrypted by the
government starting in the 1940s that, now that they are in the public record, show the extensive penetration by Soviet agents into the American government). And "the eminent historian Ronald Radosh is blacklisted from every university in the nation because he wrote the book definitively proving the guilt of executed spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg." Those who disagree with Coulter will have much to think about – and, if they are not persuaded, to refute – U.S.
unless they themselves "blacklist" her book, in effect, by turning a blind eye toward it.
The foremost contribution Coulter makes here is her extended defense of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the first third of the book – and especially her doing so unapologetically. In the prevailing wisdom of the past few years, McCarthy has ranked right beneath Hitler, and certainly well above Stalin and Mao, in the Pantheon of evil eminences. To Coulter, this is "liberal hobgoblinism," the product of a "bellicose campaign of lies to blacken McCarthy's name."
A major difference between her defense of McCarthy and most of the other defenses written in the almost half-century since his death lies in the fact that Coulter is a "brawler" herself, just as McCarthy was, so that she has no propensity to sniff snobbishly at his insistence that the fight against Communism was to be taken in deadly earnest. She doesn't fail to acknowledge that McCarthy was guilty of an occasional inaccuracy, but she puts that into perspective: 600,000,000 people had fallen under the sway of Communism during just the five years immediately before he started his campaign against Communists in government, and that fact looms a great deal larger than whether McCarthy goofed occasionally (something that was magnified out of all proportion by "a rabidly anti-McCarthy press").
What we need to realize is that McCarthy made a moral issue out of Communism, and that that ran afoul of two major presences in American life: First, virtually the entire American Left had for many years waxed ecstatic over the
Soviet Union, and was profoundly defensive toward that fact. The articulate anti-Communists of the day, including McCarthy, felt it absolutely necessary to be meticulous in differentiating between "Communists" and "liberals," but a reading of The New Republic and The Nation during the twenties, thirties and first half of the forties shows that the reality didn't greatly justify that differentiation. McCarthy came perilously close to unveiling that extreme vulnerability. Second, the great portion of "moderates" in American society in the mid-twentieth century considered it awfully bad form to take a "harsh" or unyielding view toward the American Left. McCarthy was a standing rebuke to their comfort and complacency.
No doubt it is time to rethink the demonization of Joseph McCarthy, and there is no better place to start than with this book by Ann Coulter.
It is incongruous that Coulter sees McCarthy so clearly and yet, in common with many writers on the American Right today, repeats on a number of occasions the New Left's mythologized version of how Japanese-Americans were treated in the
during World War II. She takes evident pleasure in pointing out that it was the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that perpetrated so egregious an abuse of civil liberties. The problem with this, of course, is that the myth is itself a gigantic lie, concocted by the very people Coulter herself most detests. This is not the time to examine again the facts of that World War II episode. It is sufficient to refer Ann Coulter and other readers to this reviewer's article "The World War II Relocation of Japanese-Americans" in the Spring 1993 issue of this journal. United States
This, and everything else Coulter discusses, is a subset of the fact that we live in an age of ideology. Almost every issue cries out for a critical reexamination by honest scholars.
Dwight D. Murphey