Reviewing a polemical pamphlet of mine on Sovietology published by the Claridge Press in London, Arnold Beichman assured readers of the May issue of Chronicles that I am “a serious man.” The bulk of his review, however, supported the proposition that I am a conspiracy nut, a proposition whose originality the reviewer may well have overestimated, hi mv life it is a familiar presence, as an American tourist’s exclamation to the effect that his little niece can paint better than that is a familiar presence to the guards at the Musée d’Orsay.
It all comes down, then, to the question of what constitutes a platitude, or rather to the relationship, if any, between conformity and truth. This question, asked by John Stuart Mill more than a century ago, has never been more relevant. Precarious as the freethinker’s position was, even in a society as free and steeped in the culture of adversarial debate as Palmerston’s England, in our totalitarian age the exogenous conformity pressing upon him is added to the endogenous conformity of the kind Mill described. In this climate, all forms of intellectual resistance appear Quixotic.
Though threatened with extinction, the freethinker continues to do what every artist is born to do—to tell the whole truth as he sees it. Of necessity, this whole is only a fragment, yet it is invariably different from any of the fragments that comprise the conformist half-truth on offer at any given moment. “Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil,” wrote Mill, as “truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth by being exaggerated into falsehood.”
Using a classic example, back in the headlines of late, it is easy to see that to a nonconformist mind the only thing that makes the Warren Commission’s official theory of the Kennedy assassination fall short of a perfect falsehood is that some 73 percent of Americans disbelieve it. Yet it is not uncommon to see this sizable majority described, in White House press releases as well as in newspaper headlines across the United States, as a bunch of conspiracy nuts. I have no data to indicate how many Americans disbelieve the official half-truth of the August Coup of one year ago in Moscow or grasp intuitively that the notion of a Soviet collapse has been exaggerated into a falsehood by the pressure of exogenous as well as endogenous conformity. But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that this number is as infinitesimal as Mr. Beichman would have us suppose, although my own contact with people in all walks of life suggests otherwise, blow, then, is a lone individual to challenge the dominant orthodoxy that the West tacitly accepts? His only hope of pardon, perhaps, lies with the aesthetic aspect of dissidence as a spectacle, striking as it does a sympathetic chord in the soul of an increasingly totalitarian yet still vestigially Christian bystander. The good scout Sid, in other words, has not altogether displaced Tom Sawyer in Aunt Polly’s affections.
Of the outcome of the August Coup, an English journalist wrote in the New Statesman that
commentators were reduced to marvelling at the “amazing irony” that an obviously impossible coup attempt by hardliners had destroyed the hardline cause. The same people would, I can only suppose, consider it “amazingly ironic” that Lee Oswald died shortly after John Kennedy.
And, moving on to the larger issue of the conspiracy theory in question.
The semi-intellectual who drawls “Personally, I prefer the cock-up theory” belongs in the same category of smug recyclers of received wisdom as the child who shuns sweets because “Daddy says they’ll rot my teeth.” Both are motivated by a juvenile herd instinct, a desire to achieve sophistication through imitating the self-policed banality of one’s betters.
It is difficult for me not to recognize in this Mr. Beichman himself, the “hardline skeptic about events in Russia for a very long time” who concluded his review of my pamphlet as follows:
But with the failure of the August coup I became convinced (or was I taken in?) that there was no going back to communism or to KGB conspiracies against the free world. I still think a wait-and-see attitude about events in the new Commonwealth is fully justified. But that is a far cry from saying that fulfillment of the KGB’s global totalitarian strategy is still the aim of those who are now the country’s political elite. . . .
The aesthetics of dissidence require the Western freethinker, whose existence in “the free world” is made more perilous than ever by that world’s ongoing blind convergence with totalitarian polity, to pass an exam on Mill’s differential calculus of truth and conformity. For habitual dissentients, in whom this calculus is inculcated from the cradle as it was in my Moscow childhood, no such exam is necessary. Thus, while Western “experts” endorse the half-truth of a Soviet collapse in order to facilitate the lucrative technology transfer welcomed by the right or to boost expenditure of the “peace dividend” hailed by the left, mv own freethinking milieu m Moscow is quite without these motivations. As a result, to skeptical eves, the West’s “wait-and-see attitude” is no different from the political platitudes of ten, twenty, or fifty years ago, and the global strategy of their own “political elite” is as real as it ever was.
The “experts” with whom I took issue in my pamphlet are men of the right. This is because the conformist motivation of the left is old news, a platitude, the proverbial mote that, in the twilight of our totalitarian century, only an editor of Commentary or National Review, utterly oblivious to the beam protruding from his own eye socket, can cheerfully discern. By contrast, the intellectual capitulation of the right in the face of a modernized, 21st-century totalitarianism is without precedent, at least since the day when the right first became the oppositionist minority that it in a sense remains. It is the right’s cry of “Victory!” in the face of its cause’s whimpering surrender that drew my disobedient attention to Sovietologists like Walter Laqueur and Robert Conquest.
It is anecdotal that Mr. Beichman, a “research fellow” at the Hoover Institution where Robert Conquest is a “senior research fellow,” doubts that “Messrs. Conquest and Laqueur have been taken in by a KGB conspiracy,” because if they have “what can account for the fact that these tough-minded historians who were not taken in during the Stalinist and post-Stalinist decades seem now to have lost their heads in the Gorbachevshchina?” In his enthusiasm to conform, Mr. Beichman forgets that the venerable Lao-Tze of National Review wrote The Great Terror in 1968, when he was a man of 50, and that even the bland Power and Policy in the U.S.S.R. had not appeared until 1961. As for the equally toughminded neoconservative Confucius, Walter Laqueur had maintained a becoming silence until 1956, when a Soviet oligarch conspired to seize power by discrediting his predecessor and by making disparagement of him socially acceptable on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The sardonic question one ought to be asking, then, is “Why should Messrs. Conquest and Laqueur not now be taken in by a KGB conspiracy, if that is what it is, when they have spent two decades of their rational lives either in blissful ignorance of Stalin’s conspiracy or in active participation in Khrushchev’s?” It may be recalled that the future author of On Liberty was arrested for pamphleteering at 16, a tender age at which Messrs. Conquest and Laqueur may be assumed, for lack of evidence to the contrary, to have been loyal Leninists or loyal Trotskyites, just as their less agile contemporaries in the West were loyal Stalinists or loyal McCarthyists.
Today one need not be a conspiracy nut to realize that these movements represented the dominant conformity of certain times and places and that those who marched along with them or tacitly accepted their leadership of half-truths and falsehoods are permanently disqualified as freethinkers. Yet today a thinker must risk becoming known as a conspiracy nut, or at least as something more substantively controversial than a fellow of the Hoover Institution, to be free enough to realize that the canard of a Soviet collapse is the dominant conformity of these times, even as the systems that once stood for almost cartographic realities. East and West, socialism and capitalism, communism and fascism, are converging into a uniform “New World Order” with distinctly totalitarian features.
Twenty years ago I could read Conquest’s, or for that matter Solzhenitsyn’s, variations on Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinization” theme without a grimace, because the localized conformity they represented was still at odds with another, far more uniform, mendacious, and vast. Two years ago I could hardly read Conquest’s new book on the assassination of Kirov or Solzhenitsyn’s Vermont proclamations without reflecting that their platitudinizing to the tune of Gorbachev’s “openness” belonged in Pravda or Izvestia—or, more shattering, that it also belonged in the New York Times and National Review and Commentary and every other periodical in which only pre-1953 news is noteworthy and to which conspiracy nuts need not apply.
As I write this, I see that an opinion column by my father is carried by Izvestia, circulation four million, every Thursday. I admire this freethinker as I admire Mill, yet I would not conclude, nor would he have me conclude, that this anomaly proves that the spirit of On Liberty has alighted on Yeltsin’s Russia generally or on Izvestia in particular. Nor would seeing his opinions in the New York Times, as I have seen my own, alter the fact that unless there reemerges in the United States a medium for adversarial and equipotent debate at least of the kind that existed in Palmerston’s England, such occurrences will remain anomalies. Unofficial versions of history, born out of the human impulse to know the whole truth, will continue to circulate in the form of single-spaced letters, xeroxed leaflets, Washington rumor, and computer gossip, at least until the impulse itself is extinguished by indifference. Conspiracy nuts will continue to live with the name, given by those whom Mill called “conformers to commonplace, or timeservers for truth” to those whom he saw as “afflicted with the malady of thought.” As Mill warns in On Liberty:
And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.
In a climate like this, which any reader of Chronicles will immediately identify as milder and more temperate to the freethinker than the Establishmentarian atmosphere in the United States today, would a man not be insulting his own intelligence as well as that of his peers by insisting that a “conspiracy theory”—such as the axiom that the Kennedy shooting was an inside job or that Gorbachev organized the August Coup against himself or that the New York Times would rather find dirt on Pat Buchanan than on George Bush—be “proven”? In a court of law where equipotent and adversarial representation of all sides of the argument is against the rules, can a man do more than holler “Cui bono“? In a world without a free press, where individual historians, scholars, and writers with no motivation save their natural stubbornness can ill compete with representatives of powerful intellectual corporations—like Laqueur’s Center for Strategic and International Studies or Conquest’s Hoover Institution—can any man hope that the whole truth will out to save civilization in the 11th hour?
Yes, but only if the man is a courageous freethinker. A conspiracy nut, for short.