When hero wor­ship is mis­placed

FROM BEN­ITO MUS­SOLINI TO HUGO CHAVEZ: IN­TEL­LEC­TU­ALS AND A CEN­TURY OF PO­LIT­I­CAL HERO WOR­SHIP

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By John R. Coyne Jr. John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speech­writer, is co-au­thor of “Strictly Right: Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr. and the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Move­ment” (Wi­ley).

Paul Hollander, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts, Amherst, and as­so­ci­ate of the Davis Cen­ter for Rus­sian and Eurasian Stud­ies at Har­vard, was born in Bu­dapest and left Hun­gary in 1956, the year the Sovi­ets de­mon­strated con­vinc­ingly that they could be just as bru­tal as the pre­vi­ous oc­cu­piers, the Nazis.

Af­ter earn­ing his B.A. from the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and a Ph.D. from Prince­ton, he pur­sued an aca­demic ca­reer, writ­ing 15 well-re­ceived books, among them “Po­lit­i­cal Pil­grims” (1981), a clas­sic study of fel­low trav­el­ers and their patholo­gies. Much of his work deals with com­mu­nism, ex­trem­ism, vi­o­lence and the po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes of Western aca­demics and in­tel­lec­tu­als — at­ti­tudes that fre­quently con­found es­capees from to­tal­i­tar­ian re­pres­sion.

In “From Ben­ito Mus­solini to Hugo Chavez,” he sets out to ex­pand his dis­cus­sions of why com­mu­nist sys­tems ap­pealed to so many of Lenin’s “use­ful idiots,” fo­cus­ing on “at­ti­tudes to­ward and per­cep­tions of the lead­ers of these sys­tems that … could be char­ac­ter­ized as hero wor­ship.”

This in­cludes fas­cist states, as well as “sev­eral con­tem­po­rary au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes” and their lead­ers, among them Fidel Cas­tro, Hugo Chavez and Pol Pot, each of whom had his western in­tel­lec­tual apol­o­gists — even the mur­der­ous Pol Pot.

Noam Chom­sky “made de­ter­mined at­tempts to deny or min­i­mize the mass mur­ders car­ried out by the Pol Pot regime,” find­ing the root causes of Cam­bo­dia’s prob­lems in “the deep-seated Amer­i­can hos­til­ity to­ward the pro­gres­sive rev­o­lu­tion­ary regimes in the re­gion.” And lest we for­get, al­though not men­tioned by Mr. Hollander, one of Hugo Chavez’s po­lit­i­cal sup­port­ers was Bernie San­ders.

Among the prom­i­nent Amer­i­can ad­mir­ers of Fidel Cas­tro was Nor­man Mailer, who wrote: “It was as if the ghost of Cortez had ap­peared in our cen­tury rid­ing Za­p­ata’s white horse.” Aca­demics like C. Wright Mills fell hard for Cas­tro, as did jour­nal­ists, chief among them New York Times re­porter Her­bert Matthews, whose ro­man­tic view of his re­la­tion­ship with Fidel and Che helped sell the early myth of Cas­tro as war­rior-sav­ior.

Whether in Cuba, China or the Soviet Union, New York Times cor­re­spon­dents seem to have played a cen­tral role in sell­ing to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes. Har­ri­son Sal­is­bury made an idyl­lic trav­el­ogue of Com­mu­nist China, ded­i­cated to Edgar Snow. Ear­lier, dur­ing the most bru­tal days of the Stalin col­lec­tiviza­tion, Wal­ter Du­ranty, Pulitzer winner and Stalin ro­man­ti­cizer, wrote this in a poem: “Rus­sians may be hun­gry and short of clothes and com­fort,/But you can’t make an omelette with­out break­ing eggs.”

The Stal­in­ist dup­ing of western in­tel­lec­tu­als and artists has now be­come a well ex­am­ined part of the his­tor­i­cal record. But per­haps less dis­cussed is the ro­mance of the fas­cist dic­ta­tors — a very brief one, but in­tense while it lasted. And some of the ac­tors and in­sti­tu­tions in­volved may come as a sur­prise.

Un­der Pres­i­dent James Co­nant, “Nazi lead­ers were wel­comed on the Har­vard cam­pus and in­vited to high pro­file so­cial events.” Ties were cul­ti­vated with ma­jor Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties, even af­ter purges of Jewish fac­ulty and stu­dents. One Har­vard pro­fes­sor urged the pub­li­ca­tion of “Mein Kampf,” an­other de­fended the oc­cu­pa­tion of Rhineland “and dis­puted the charge that Hitler was a mil­i­tarist.” The dean of the Law School claimed that “free­dom of speech pre­vailed in the Third Re­ich.” Har­vard also sent a del­e­ga­tion to cel­e­brate the an­niver­sary of Hei­del­berg Univer­sity, al­though its cur­ricu­lum had been thor­oughly Naz­i­fied. Among the other at­ten­dees: Joseph Goebbels and Hein­rich Himm­ler. And at Columbia Univer­sity, “Seven months af­ter the no­to­ri­ous book burn­ing in 1933 the Ger­man am­bas­sador was in­vited to give a lec­ture and ‘warmly wel­comed’ by Pres­i­dent Ni­cholas Mur­ray But­ler.”

Mr. Hollander doesn’t at­tempt to probe in de­tail the in­di­vid­ual mo­ti­va­tions of the nu­mer­ous other use­ful idiots he dis­cusses, among them Beatrice and Sid­ney Webb, H.G. Wells, Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, Emil Lud­wig, Lil­ian Hell­man. But he does con­clude that “in­tel­lec­tu­als, like hu­man be­ings in gen­eral (and per­haps more so), need the kind of il­lu­sions that prom­ise a more mean­ing­ful and sat­is­fy­ing life.”

“Their imag­i­na­tion, ide­al­ism and urge for self-tran­scen­dence make them es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to the allure of the good in­ten­tions that heroic lead­ers in their al­leged pur­suit of so­cial jus­tice per­son­ify.”

Or per­haps, more crudely put: Wine them, dine them, give them un­prece­dented per­sonal ac­cess, praise their tal­ent, high in­tel­li­gence, per­cep­tive­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity, and you’ve got them — at least for as long as the atroc­i­ties don’t be­come too no­tice­able. And in some cases, Lil­ian Hell­man’s, for in­stance, that makes no dif­fer­ence at all.

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