First, change the subject. Does the book under review—Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus—focus on the lives of Communist spies in high places and a historic trial that altered the course of American history? In that case, you had better change the subject to sex. Communist spies in high places is old hat, and today’s New Yorker doesn’t traffic in yesterday’s fashions. Sex is always sexier than politics, anyway—even the politics of prominent traitors. Besides, nobody remembers what happened in the Depression era and the Cold War. It was all so long ago, and Stalin doesn’t matter anymore. Stalin lost his chic before you were born. Sex is always chic.
Next, invent a scenario based on a false parallel. Did the discovery of Communist spies in high levels of government induce an atmosphere of political suspicion, anxiety, and distrust? No problem. You need only find a sexual parallel that can be pressed into service as a substitute cause of Cold War suspicion, anxiety, and distrust. In other words, homosexuality. It used to be a forbidden subject at The New Yorker in the bad old days, but today it’s often a priority item, and in the right—which is to say, the Left—hands, it can be called upon to explain more things than ever before.
Finally, think big. Since the actual history of the era under discussion obstinately refuses to conform to the lineaments of The New Yorker’s most treasured Left-liberal sentiments, you had better dream up a new and daring alternative history that can account for the fact that there really was a Cold War even if—and this is the point—it wasn’t the Cold War you have been led to believe it was.
You—silly fool—thought the Cold War was about Communist expansion, totalitarian terror, and things like that. What it was really about, according to The New Yorker, was the need to provide homosexuals in high places with a capacious closet in which to hide. Please understand: we are not making this up. This is not some late- night television comedy skit or one of those gamy scenarios encountered in the nether regions of the Internet. What we are attempting to describe here is Sidney Blumenthal’s mendacious review of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography that was published in the March 17 issue of The New Yorker under the title of “The Cold War and the Closet.”
Or perhaps one should say, Mr. Blumenthal’s non-review, for the political screed that this stalwart apologist for Left-liberal orthodoxy wrote in lieu of a review never for a moment attempted to come to terms with the book that Sam Tanenhaus actually wrote. Instead, this proud heir of the Walter Duranty-Harrison Salisbury tradition in American journalism produced an alternative text for his New Yorker review—a text that bears little resemblance to Sam Tanenhaus’s biography and one that appears to exist only in Mr. Blumenthal’s head—and wrote about that. And in his glowing account of that self-authored, alternative text Mr. Blumenthal triumphantly concluded his crackpot summation of the Cold War with the most remarkable revisionist theory we have yet encountered on the subject: “What endures,” he wrote of the Cold War, “is the fear of the enemy within: the homosexual menace.”
Well, there is this to be said for this novel theory: it certainly succeeds in changing the subject.
Well, there is this to be said for this novel theory: it certainly succeeds in changing the subject. In the course of The New Yorker’s non-review, Alger Hiss’s treachery as a Soviet agent effectively disappears, and so does Whittaker Chambers’s courage in exposing it. So, for that matter, does Sam Tanenhaus’s book, which is effectively reduced to a backdrop for a prurient drama of world-historical homosexual intrigue.
It was, of course, convenient for The New Yorker to avail itself of Sidney Blumenthal’s virtuosic attempt at Soviet-style historical denial. While Alger Hiss lived, The New Yorker’s portfolio on the Hiss case had been left in the hands of his son, Tony Hiss, formerly a staff writer on the magazine, who was accorded the privilege of writing love letters to his father whenever the Hiss case turned up in the news. Given this history of Hiss-friendly coverage, Sam Tanenhaus’s book obviously posed a considerable problem for The New Yorker. Not only does the book mark finis to the question of Hiss’s guilt as the most illustrious traitor of his American generation, but the book itself is so compelling in its account of Chambers’s life that there was no possibility of its being ignored.
The folks at The New Yorker are not dumb about such matters. So they went into action to mount a preemptive assault on the book. Their first initiative was to secure exclusive pre-publication serial rights to the book, which effectively prevented any other magazine from offering readers an advance acquaintance with its revelations. Then, of course, The New Yorker declined to act on its pre-publication rights, but only at a time so close to the publication of the book that no advance publication elsewhere was any longer possible. It was deliberate political sabotage masquerading as publishing inertia. Meanwhile, Tina Brown—the editor of The New Yorker—assigned the task of assassinating the book to Sidney Blumenthal, whose talents for such a task are well-known to her.
In this story of editorial and political perfidy, the real villain isn’t Sidney Blumenthal—a hack radical journalist who does what comes naturally to his species—but Tina Brown, who has done more to debase the profession of serious journalism than any other editor now active on the American scene. It’s worth remembering in this connection that when her predecessor at The New Yorker—Harold Ross—engaged a writer to deal with the momentous subject of spies and traitors, he chose Rebecca West. It says everything we need to know about Tina Brown and The New Yorker in the 1990s that she regards the likes of Sidney Blumenthal as an appropriate successor to the author of The Meaning of Treason.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 8, on page 1
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