Witness to George Will’s Flight from Politics

Whittaker Chambers testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1948).

Whittaker Chambers testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1948).

In his latest column, George Will laments that conservatism has been “hijacked” by “scowling primitives” and “vulgarians.” A conservatism that once cheerfully and unapologetically embraced “high culture” has been overtaken by a vulgar populism, which defends main-street values against elite liberal cosmopolitans, but which increasingly embodies not intellectual argument but rather, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “irritable mental gestures” masquerading as ideas.

To rise above this, Will writes, we should draw lessons from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, according to Will, needed to evolve from his early judgments favoring isolationism, among other juvenile statements, and his “ebullience, decency, and enthusiasm for learning propelled him up from sectarianism.”

Chronicling Buckley’s moral, personal, and political growth, the book shows, in Felzenberg’s words, how “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism.” Alas, Will notes, Buckley could not reconcile the dissonant notes they struck. And now, nearly a decade after Buckley’s death, conservatism “soiled by scowling primitives.”

But what was conservatism before “vulgarians hijacked it”? Why was conservatism, in Will’s thinking, “susceptible to hijacking”?

Surprisingly, Will blames Whittaker Chambers:

[Buckley], to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography Witness became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.

Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” — “my people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness” — enduring the “musk of snobbism” emanating from the “socially formidable circles” of the “nicest people” produced by “certain collegiate eyries.”

This is a profoundly unfair characterization of Chambers’s work, thought, and life. Indeed, Will is simply caricaturing Chambers, by taking a few lines of his work without even hinting at the actual context for Chambers’s judgment about those plain Americans he defended in his autobiography.

At the time of Witness, Chambers had been vilified in the press and in elite circles for his testimony against Alger Hiss’s Soviet espionage. Only a few prominent voices had defended him. And, Chambers sensed, the folks in the center of America were always with him.

Hiss and Chambers had conspired together from roughly 1935 to 1938 as members of a Soviet underground cell. As an employee of the State Department, Hiss provided documents to Chambers that he in turn handed off to Soviet handlers. But Chambers left Communism in 1938 and fled his former life as a Soviet agent with his wife and two children.  He illustrates his exitus from the Communist inferno in Witness with magnificent formulations from Lazarus, Isaiah, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, George Fox, Ibsen, Rilke, and Koestler, among others. He also embraced Christianity but stood apart from any particular theological orthodoxy, preferring instead the stillness of the Quaker Meeting. Many leave Communist ideology, Chambers noted, but remain socialists or some type of collectivist sympathizer. In short, they only leave communism because of its violence, but not the ideology itself. Chambers’s conversion was root and branch.

In 1948 Chambers’s former life revisited him, and he was called by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify against those who had served with him in the Soviet Underground. Chambers provided HUAC with 21 names and all have been confirmed in subsequent evidence as noted in John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev’s Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press, 2009). Hiss was convicted in a 1950 federal trial for perjury, ostensibly regarding espionage, with the statute of limitations prohibiting a conviction on that grave charge.

The modern-day legacy of Witness is reduced by Will to little more than a contributor to the “screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infections cheerfulness.” Will does little to connect Chambers’s actual words to the modern-day problems that Will is lamenting. Nor does Will pause to concede that maybe, just maybe, the problems he’s lamenting could much more easily and directly be traced to the more recent media phenomena. Instead, Chambers’s autobiography, usually regarded by friend and foe alike as one of magnificent spiritual and philosophical intensity, is traduced by a conservative essayist regarded by many as a giant in his own right. Why?

Buckley himself knew better. Buckley looked to Chambers to understand communism’s sheer evil. Ironically, one of Chambers’s most important lessons for a young Buckley was in warning WFB against the dangers of unthinking populism. In letters Buckley later collected lovingly in Odyssey of a Friend, Chambers bluntly told Buckley that he was wrong to have defended Senator Joseph McCarthy in McCarthy and His Enemies, a book Buckley co-authored with Brent Bozell. On McCarthy’s tactics, Chambers stated to Buckley “It is repetitious and unartful, and, with time, the repeated dull thud of the low blow may prove to be the real factor in his undoing.” Moreover, McCarthy’s tactics united the Left, divided the Right, and allowed for a popular front faction to form and advance Progressive goals in America, Chambers noted. In other words, the wise course was to steer clear of the senator from Wisconsin. Isn’t McCarthy’s the real kind of populism Will should condemn?

Upon founding National Review, Buckley almost immediately turned to the sage of Westminster, Maryland to be a contributing editor, one who would provide wisdom and grace in helping to chart a course for the young periodical. After serving a brief stint as an editor of National Review (where in one essay—Chambers the populist rowdy­—urged that Hiss be provided with a requested passport and be permitted to travel) he begged off owing to health concerns. Unable to bear idleness, Chambers began taking science courses at a local state college in Maryland. On this interesting pursuit, Buckley remarked:

[S]o the author of Witness, former book reviewer and foreign editor for Time, author of profound essays on history and theology and politics, of exhaustive articles on the Renaissance and the culture of the Middle Ages, writer of what Dwight Macdonald has called the most emotive political prose of our time, whose voice John Strachey had called, along with those of Orwell, Camus, Koestler and Pasternak, the “strangled cry” of the West in crisis, a sixty-year-old man fluent in French, German, at home in Italian, Spanish, and Russian went back to school.

Some foolish populist, that Whittaker Chambers.

Perhaps the change at issue in Will’s column isn’t conservatism’s evolution, so much as Will’s. Quite frankly, Will grew tired of the frustrations inherent in the politics of republican self-government, which is why he has increasingly embraced an anti-political libertarianism. He would be the first to admit this—indeed, he did admit it in his 2013 interview with Reason:

I’ve lived in Washington now for 44 years, and that’s a lot of folly to witness up close. Whatever confidence and optimism I felt toward the central government when I got here January 1, 1970, has dissipated at the hands of the government. . . . I wrote the other day that if we could tax Americans’ cognitive dissonance we could balance the budget. The American people want all kinds of incompatible things, they’re human beings, and they want high services, low taxes, and an omnipresent, omniprominent welfare state.

No doubt, politics is frustrating, because people are frustrating—all the more frustrating for deeply thoughtful and principled men like both Will and Chambers. The answer is neither to reject political self-governance, as Will increasingly does, nor to throw in completely with unthinking populism, as Will caricatures Chambers. Rather, the best approach is Chambers’s actual approach: to pursue principle as prudently as possible in the political arena, in the given moment. As Chambers summed this up, in a letter to Buckley: “To live is to maneuver.”

It is hard to read Witness as a book of “cloying sentimentality” and “crybaby populism,” when the book’s entire message is a warning that America seemed unready to face up to the threat of Communism abroad and at home—a book that begins, famously, with Chambers’s lament, “I know that I am leaving the winning side of the losing side.” Harder still when one reads another letter from Chambers to Buckley, describing the state of America in 1954:

The enemy—he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than to snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

In other words, Chambers wasn’t extolling the virtue of the masses; he was exhorting the public to improve itself, and he knew that he faced long odds. (Which is why one commentator compared Chambers’s Witness, quite rightly, to Jonah’s cry against the people of Ninevah.)

In short, Witness wasn’t the corruption of conservatism; it was the greatest book of the twentieth century. Chambers didn’t corrupt conservatism; he, James Burnham, and others helped to put Buckley’s conservatism on the firm foundation necessary to undergird an intellectual movement that would ultimately give rise to Reagan’s triumphs—a triumph that George Will famously traced to National Review and Buckley, and thus in fact to Buckley’s education from Chambers.

But don’t just take Buckley’s word for it (let alone ours). When Reagan awarded Chambers the Medal of Freedom in 1984, one eloquent writer noted that Chambers’s “extraordinary memoir ‘Witness’ is . . . comparable in depth and power to the memoir of another American alienated from his times, ‘The Education of Henry Adams.’” Witness, this author continued, “is an unrivaled account of the costs of the totalitarian temptation.” So that’s why “To Us, Chambers, a graceless man touched in the end by the blinding grace of painful truthfulness, led a life worth honoring.” George Will, you were right about Chambers the first time.

Richard Reinsch

Richard Reinsch is the editor of Law and Liberty.

About the Author

Adam White

Adam White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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Comments

    • Theresa McAteer says

      Thought the same thing, Mark.

      Also, if Will arrived in DC in 1970 with “confidence . . . in the central government” what kind of conservative thinks that? But as a conservative libertarian (or libertarian conservative, I can never get those straight), I see nothing in Will these days that resembles a libertarian.

  1. N.D. says

    No doubt, the House Un-American Activities Committee was onto something back in 1948.
    How else can one explain our Nation’s sudden Fall from Grace that denied that God Was The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, rendering onto Caesar, the self-evident truths we had proclaimed belonged to God?

    Atheistic materialism exists in many forms and fashions, but it always results in the creation of many gods, or many ceasars, relatively speaking. So sorry to hear of George Will’s flight from God. Prayers for Mr. Will, that soon, he will use his many talents to proclaim The Good News. Hope Springs Eternal!

  2. Airwine says

    Perhaps Mr. Will might choose to remember who won the Amercian Revolution. Sorry, it was not the Harvard or William and Mary crowd. They wrote the documents, fine as they are. Who won the darn thing were those vulgar, dirty, rag-wearing slugs, some without shoes. They did not give up and followed Washington from defeat to defeat until finally, with the intervention of France, won the day. They actually believed all those fine words and also knew the truth of the matter. That’s the beauty of this country. Those people keep showing up. At Gettysburg, Normandy Beach and in New York on 9-11. They keep signing up for tours in Afghanistan. What’s in it for them? No cush job with a NGO or think tank. No two homes, one at the shore and one in Manassas, Virginia that the chosen elite get. Nope. They just know the right thing to do. Time for Mr. Will to leave DC and perhaps live where people don’t wear bow-ties to show how smart they are. Have dinner at the Sizzler. Take in a NASCAR race. Go to a small town 4th of July picnic where all the parked vehicles are not from Germany. Places without six Jaguar dealerships. But perhaps it’s too late for him, now. 44 years in Washington and he has gone native as they used to say, long ago.

    • TPB says

      Every liberal blue city dweller should be required to get out of their blue enclave and visit what they see as “flyover country.” Their ignorance and willful disregard for people and places they are unfamiliar with is astounding.

  3. James says

    Excellent critique. I would take issue with the author’s agreement with Chamber’s dismissal of Joe McCarthy. The passage of time and unsealing of records has pretty much completely vindicated Senator McCarthy. Read “Blacklisted by History” for the well-documented details. He was the victim of a media witch hunt.

  4. Greg says

    Enjoyed the article. One small correction: the school Chambers attended, Western Maryland College, has never been a state school, but was a private college of about 800 students then affiliated with the Methodist church. It took its name from the railroad. Alas, it changed its name to McDaniel College some years ago and shed its church affiliation. When I attended WMC ’68-’72, Chambers’ attendance and the nearby pumpkin patch saga was completely ignored.

  5. TPB says

    Will is a bright guy, but he is an elite. He currently suffers from the same rejection as every other elite. The world has moved on.

  6. martin says

    I am a Trump zealot, and hold the ‘conservo’ #nevertrump in contempt, Will Exhibit A, and we should boycott them.

    There may indeed be principled libertarians and republicins (small ‘r’) among them, but most is snobbery

    and piffle to that, democracy is for the little people, A. Lincoln has dome good words on that
    =
    and if we wish to roll back the franchise to 1789, well, then we get self-governance but rich white male landed gentry

    oops

  7. R Richard Schweitzer says

    In Defense of Thinking – if not of the thinker:

    In a different context (about the formation of ideas) another commenter here and I have more privately discussed an interest in the how and why of the thinking that culminates in ideas.

    In the case of George Will, who IS a thinker, whose processes (how) of thinking merit fair consideration and some respect, the “why” of that thinking (and its development) seems open to various perceptions; which perceptions may disclose more about the observers and commentators than about George Will – or his expressions of his thinking.

    Unlike so many (who are no more than wordsmiths) Will’s thinking gives us at least one clear “view” or description of “Populism” as an idea contra-posed to another idea.

    https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4666255/george-will-speech

    In the very first few minutes of that speech (given on Jefferson’s Birthday) we can find a particular idea about what populism can be perceived to be. Those who don’t care for the presenter of the idea may stop therYou can have populists of the right, like Donald Trump, or of the left, like Bernie Sanders. What brings them together is a determination to do away with the present order of things, and an indifference to what comes after.e; others may carry on if interested in the thinking processes. The “why” may remain open.

    It happens that my perception of what is being categorized as “Populism” in the current political and social contexts is not congruent with that of George Will and finds a closer (but still not fully congruent) fit with that of Martin Gurri.

    https://thefifthwave.wordpress.com/

    Who says: “You can have populists of the right, like Donald Trump, or of the left, like Bernie Sanders. What brings them together is a determination to do away with the present order of things, and an indifference to what comes after.”

    The magic words may be: “. . . the present order of things . . .”

    There IS thinking in the “populace” which is expressed as “Populism.” The questions raised by Will, et al.) as to the nature of the “how” of that (“Populist”) thinking are probably overwhelmed currently by the “why” (stimuli and “causes”) of that thinking. Many wordsmiths prefer to refer to “feelings” and “senses” of the Populace that is generating disruptions in “. . . the present order of things . . .” But, the broadening of access to information (of all sorts and quality) has increased to possibilities for falsifications of previously accepted assertions – and ideas; AND the thinking behind them.

    • gabe says

      Richard:

      Good stuff!

      I would also recommend to our fellow readers, some recent writing by Pierre Manent on the “branding” of populism; on what it is (or may be), what it is both perceived to be and presented (caricatured) as and HOW this all came to be and HOW (a clue to WHY, perhaps) such negative branding advances their cause (both the *center* and the educated “wordsmiths” of the political world.

      Most recent issue of National Affairs (just recv’d) also has an essay by Manent.

    • z9z99 says

      RRS,

      Perhaps the real issue is the processes of populism. Is populism the dissemination of particular ideas that are dipassionately adopted by the people, or the opportunistic use of ideas, or rhetoric pretending to be ideas, to appeal to emotion. Are the bases of populism reason and debate, or emotion and demogoguery? Both? Neither? A little of each?

      Did Hitler persuade otherwise skeptical countrymen of the supposed undesirability of the Jews, or did he appeal to latent prejudices with pseudo-rational argument?

      I suspect that populism has gotten its reputation from the false dilemmas given in the first paragraph of this post. It would seem that “elite” opinion is that populism is at heart a base emotional appeal, the purpose of which is to inflame rather than inspire, to goad rather than inform. This is why fake news is a current meme. This also seems to assume that the masses, i.e. the audience for populist appeals, is a collection of empty vessels who are ultimately led to feel and believe certain things by an anointed few. This overlooks the possibility, that perhaps ideas can originate in the people and gain currency on their own merit. It may be, for example that the people have an inherently superior grasp of when the actions of government have reached the point of diminishing returns, or when fashionable social theories that sound good in theory harm communities in practice.

      Perhaps “populism” seems pejorative because it assumes that the people only respond to certain cultural and political stimuli, rather than being capable of discovering their own wisdom.

      • R Richard Schweitzer says

        99,

        What a temptation to maunder on about applying terminology to broader and more intense “Public” reactions to, and expressions of, dissatisfactions with economic (or social) conditions at a particular juncture in historical (including current) periods.

        Instead, consider reading “Public Opinion” 1922 by Walter Lippman;

        https://wwnorton.com/college/history/america-essential-learning/docs/WLippmann-Public_Opinion-1922.pdf

        Follow that up by reading his “The Public Philosophy” 1955 – if you can find a copy (best) OR:

        https://archive.org/details/essaysinpublicph00inlipp

        We have grown so used to the concept of the “Masses” being “shaped” (led) by “leadership” through demagoguery (and even evangelism), that we may overlook (or avoid) the possibilities of spontaneous formations and the effects of “external” factors (printing, books, standardized languages, cheap distributions, radio, physical & electronic graphics, communication speeds, etc.). This is not 1848; the peoples of these times, though perhaps of the same clay, have been formed on other wheels and by other fires.

        • z9z99 says

          RRichard,

          Thanks for the recommendations. I shall explore them if not detoured by the press of other matters.

          In the meantime, I would like to focus on two words, one in Will’s C-Span speech, and one that appears in your comments: “impulsive,” and “response.” For all of the historical references, and justified criticism of Woodrow Wilson, Will’s references to the drawbacks of populism can be distilled into the claim that it is “impulsive.” He then reasonably sets out how the Constitution is primarily a defense against the caprice of the mob, rather than an absolute negation of discrete majoritarian interests. This recognizes two principles: 1) that as a practical matter the mob has the power to get its way; and 2) that the majority should assumed to be ultimately virtuous, and if dissuaded from impulsive demands and accorded room for deliberation and reflection, it will behave virtuously, protect minority rights, etc.

          Your use of the words “stimulus” and “response” are also useful. What the populist politician wants is not the sober and deliberate reflection of the majority, he wants to be granted power by the impulsive response of the masses to populist appeals. He wants to create emergencies that leave no time for debate (such as Trump’s travel ban, global warming hysteria, appeals to passions in the aftermath of school shootings to enact idiotic gun legislation, etc.) The populist is not interested in the wisdom and deliberation of the people. For a practical reference, see Jonathan Gruber’s comment “[l]ack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter…”

          The populist’s creed was described by Mecken:

          The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

          • gabe says

            Z:

            By Menchen’s definition then:

            a) Perhaps, we are attributing the populist label to the wrong segment of society; it ought to be given to those politicians that engender crisis mentality.

            b) Still the possibility exists that out of the great hordes there may be some reflective / deliberate souls,

            gotta go, grandson is here

      • R Richard Schweitzer says

        Going back and looking again at “Public Opinion” 1922 (which was cited because of memory -not review)

        Perhaps it would be better to read “The Public Philosophy” 1955 first.

        Sorry ’bout dat !!

  8. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Sorry !

    Following the first link I garbled the 4th paragraph with an insert; it should read:

    In the very first few minutes of that speech (given on Jefferson’s Birthday) we can find a particular idea about what populism can be perceived to be. Those who don’t care for the presenter of the idea may stop there; others may carry on if interested in the thinking processes. The “why” may remain open.

  9. Wayne Lusvardi says

    Will is a member of the Knowledge Class not the Productive Class. He deals in words and never had to do any physical work. Will might consider himself Conservative but he is still a member of the Knowledge Class. Whitaker Chambers was a farmer who ended up being a writer who left Communism for Christianity.

  10. Nancy says

    Well then, if George Will is a member of “The Knowledge Class”, at the very least, next time, rather than answer yes, you believe in evolution, why not ask the obvious question in regards to the theory of evolution? Since it is true that speciation occurs at the moment of conception, and not at a moment when one is simply walking around, when was that moment in time when ape became man, was it before the moment of conception, at the moment of conception, or after the moment of conception?

    http://www.rawstory.com/2015/02/george-will-advises-scott-walker-on-evolution-when-asked-if-you-believe-you-answer-yes/?comments=disqus

  11. timothy l. harker says

    George Will, the New England/Harvard/Henry Adams wannabe from the soybean desert and the University of Illinois, has always fought his roots. Ever an aspiring scholar he lacked special knowledge (except that provided him in glib sound bites by research assistants.) Always the nagging critic Will generally scorned his country’s history, maligned its culture and abhorred its politics. Never the gifted writer he offered mostly puffed-up tedium for his readers. A self-proclaimed “conservative” he nevertheless gained his reputation from and maintained a decades-long loyalty to the Washington Post. The man is an intellectual mountebank with crypto-Tory motivations.

    Will says Trump hijacked conservatism, and Will has lost his mind in snobbish contempt for Trump and Trump’s supporters, so much so that in unbridled rhetoric he would rewrite the biography and impugn the character of Whittaker Chambers.

  12. David B Frisk says

    To this excellent essay and this thread, I would only add that it’s outrageous for Will to use as a leading example of vulgar, etc., populism Chambers’s anguished observations about one of the worst failings of the American elite — disdain for domestic anticommunism when it threatened the reputation of one of their own, like Hiss. It amounted to class solidarity in preference to solidarity on behalf of American security and the values of Western civilization. Failing to appreciate how contemptible this was (and how right Chambers was to call it out when he saw it) suggests, on Will’s part, the loss of an ability to distinguish between forgivable and unforgivable elite snobbery. In comparison with the tacky whining, etc., he sees in humbler folk, apparently it’s all good to Will.

    He should be ashamed of this column, and every serious conservative should repudiate it.

    • gabe says

      David:

      Amen to that. Will has apparently cast his lot with the “bow-tie” class of thinker. I am quite simply stunned at Will’s characterization of Chambers as a “whiner” and would dare to say that nothing Mr. will has ever composed possess the elegance and the power of Chambers prose.

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