Sunday, March 04, 2007

My Brief Encounter with Arthur Schlesinger

Tibor R. Machan

Over the several decades during which I have championed the free society I have rarely been part of discussions that included prominent public intellectuals. One exception was the "Sidney Hook Reconsidered: A Centennial Celebration," held at the Graduate School and University of New York, back on October 25 & 26, 2002. I had known Professor Hook for quite a while, interviewed him for Reason magazine (May 1977), and even made a pilot for a proposed political philosophy TV series with him in 1986. So I was included in the group whose members reminisced about Hook, some of them very notable indeed. Nathan Glazer, Cornell West and Arthur Schlesinger took part and I ended up on the dais with Glazer and Schlesinger.

Of course, Schlesinger, who died on February 28, 2007, was a very famous pop historian, widely known for his several books on John F. Kennedy—a president he idolized so much that quite a few other historians criticized him for it. (Schlesinger reportedly welcomed this!) On this occasion Schlesinger, who had been something of a cohort of Sidney Hook in their earlier mutual efforts to disassociate the American Left from communism, set out to lambaste Hook, not to praise him. His presentation came just before mine.

In my own brief reminiscence, prepared before I had any knowledge of what Schlesinger would say, I praised Professor Hook for his rare early prescience vis-à-vis Soviet Communism, noting that he was one of the few on the American Left who saw through all the hullabaloo about the new promise land the USSR was supposed to be. (Anyone who wishes to encounter such a stance toward the Soviets can witness this in the movie, Reds [1981], starring Warren Beatty, about the journalist John Reed who fell hook line and sinker for the myth of the glorious new world the Soviet Union was building!)

When I got to the rostrum and began my talk, as soon as I got to the part about Hook’s perceptiveness about the Soviets Schlesinger stood up from the dais and walked off the elevated stage and, if I recall correctly, out of the auditorium where the conference was being held.

I cannot swear that the reason Schlesinger walked was that he heard me praise Hook. But given how in his own talk Schlesinger chided him severely for having become obsessed with anti-communism and with helping to bring about the McCarthy era, it's a fair assumption that he meant to protest my contrary view. As Schlesinger put it, Hook allowed “anti-communism consume his life to the point that, like Aaron’s rod, it swallowed up nearly everything else.” Yet, Schlesinger himself was among those on the Left who didn’t approve of the Soviet Union but, I guess, not so much that he favored forthright and vigorous anti-communism.

In any case the remarks I had prepared to say at the conference and that turned out to follow Arthur Schlesinger’s repudiated these anti-Hook sentiments from start to finish. As Professor Ronald Radosh observed about the conference in an article for The New York Post (December 12, 2002), “Schlesinger attack[ed] Hook for one of the proudest and most important events in his long career—his organization of serious intellectual opposition to the communist-sponsored Waldorf Conference in 1949” where Hook, a prominent Leftist in the U.S.A., was very pointedly excluded from participation and then, in turn, organized a counter conference. For this Schlesinger apparently couldn’t forgive the man although he himself was part of that counter conference. And since my own remarks praised Hook for his virtually lone, energetic, and ongoing anti-communism while remaining an intellectual on the Left, it appears they didn’t warrant the sanction of the great man that his continued presence might afford.

The episode is sadly of more widespread significance than simply having been an interesting event in my own history. It highlights just how much the most prominent intellectuals in 20th century America—not to mention other Western Countries—have been misguided about what political system to champion. Not only that—something of which even Professor Hook might be somewhat guilty—but a great many of them tolerated the most massive totalitarianism in human history because it was supposedly marching toward the secular promise land of communism.

Many people today wonder why it is that America’s original ideals have so few champions around the globe. Some of the blame should, of course, fall on America’s political leaders who have betrayed those ideals over the years and still do so in spades. But another reason is that the bulk of intellectual—academic, scholarly—energy in America has been and indeed continues to be misspent on pursuing the reckless dreams of various versions of socialism and communism instead of developing further the magnificent political theory of the American founders.

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