Lies and Truth
To the Editor:
I should like to reply to Samuel McCracken’s review of my book, Nine Lies about America [Books in Review, August], not only because he has, in several crucial ways, misunderstood my book but also because he taxes me with not having written a different book:
1) Mr. McCracken says that I rest my case on the accusation of genocide against America “almost entirely on a refutation of the charge that the police of America have conspired to wipe out the Black Panthers. But the charge of genocide against America goes well beyond the Black Panther question.” I was not using the Black Panther “genocide” falsehood simply to refute the charge of genocide against America. I was asking why such a significant sector of the most prestigious media believed that there was such a police plot without first checking it out. Why did this “genocide” lie circulate so successfully for so long? I didn’t answer these questions, largely because it would take another book to explain the problem of advocacy journalism in the American press today, but I allowed A. M. Rosenthal, managing editor of the New York Times, to answer them in part.
I didn’t deal with American treatment of Indians, blacks, and Vietnamese, which Mr. McCracken would have had me do, because genocide means something quite precise. What I was arguing against was the trivialization of the concept of genocide and its transformation into a cheap political epithet; as, for example, a statement by the New York City Urban Fellows (in a 1971 American Assembly document) that, “We recognize that everyday government is a party to genocide by its inaction and the active intent of some of its agents.” I didn’t go into too many details about black genocide, largely because it doesn’t exist, any more than “genocide” exists against North Vietnam. A government which, after all, fires rockets, downs jet planes, holds several thousand Americans prisoner, owns tanks and howitzers, inflicts vast casualties against the soldiers of Japan, France, America, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and the Philippines, a government which has the strength to refuse to negotiate except on its own terms, is hardly a government whose people are victims of genocide. It is a cruel war and, by now, an absurd war, with all kinds of atrocities on both sides, but when someone calls the war in Vietnam genocide, I ask how many tanks did European Jewry operate and how many rifles did the Katyn forest victims own?
Mr. McCracken says that the cry of genocide against Vietnamese and blacks (allegations with which he does not agree) “present a more substantial problem than that of the Panthers, and are a good deal less easy to dispose of.” Among whom? The whole point of the accusation of genocide against America is to make it appear that it is Americans who are genocidal, not merely their government, and that Americans therefore are unredeemable. That is why James Baldwin in his recent No Name in the Street can write that Americans are “the most dishonorable and violent people in the world” and why he can play his own little “genocidal” game: “[I]t is not necessary for a black man to hate a white man, or to have any particular feelings about him at all, in order to realize that he must kill him.”
Mr. McCracken says the one allegation he does agree with is that genocide was visited on the Indians. Assuming that this was the case, what has it to do with America and Americans today? My ancestors were dodging pogroms in the Ukraine when this was going on. The millions and millions of Americans whose ancestors came from other parts of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries are no more responsible for the massacre of the Indians than Mexicans today are responsible for the Aztecs who made a hecatomb of human hearts to appease the rain gods. Why is all this nonsense brought up now? Why does Earl Ubell, the radio and television commentator, write that “we are a nation with the blood of genocide on our hands”? Why does he ask: “Will white Americans somehow find their way back to the rationale of destroying whole peoples in the name of God, capitalism, and law and order?” Why does he publish such rot? Yet supposing I haven’t “disposed” of the problem of genocide against blacks, Indians, and the North Vietnamese? What then? I do not understand the point.
2) My second lie—“the Bomber Left is a moral force”—leads me into difficulties, Mr. McCracken says, because all I do is prove that leftists “countenance from other leftists behavior they will not tolerate from rightists, but what else is new?” Shouldn’t this kind of double-standardism, in its latest, post-Stalinist phase, be exposed? If Mr. McCracken’s “but-what-else-is-new” judgment is valid criticism, then what point was there in exposing the fellow-traveling Left in the 1930’s? After all, this kind of double-standardism goes back to the French Revolution at least, so what else is new? It may be old-hat but it is worth pointing out that a New-Left spokesman a few months ago was defending, after all we’ve learned, murder with a political purpose. Recently, Professor Staughton Lynd—I am quoting an AP dispatch from Toronto, June 21, 1972—defended the “bombing of a United States Army research building at the University of Wisconsin [as] a political act, no matter how misguided.” He (and others unnamed in the story) so testified at the extradition hearing in Canada of a young revolutionary who was charged with “murder, sabotage, destruction of government property, conspiracy, and arson in connection with the bombing in August 1970 which resulted in the death of a physicist.” Lynd said, according to the AP dispatch, “the bombing was similar to other such incidents designed to rid universities of complicity with the American government in the Vietnam war. He urged that Canada refuse to send Armstrong back to Wisconsin to stand trial.” So what else is new? When a leading historian, a charter member of the critical intelligentsia, defines as a political act the bombing of a building which resulted in the death of an innocent man, it’s worth putting it on the record, name, date, and place. That it’s been said before and will be said again (do we exculpate COMMENTARY from the charge of “what else is new?”)—well, somebody has to supply the raw material for others to purify into theory and motivation.
Far more troubling is Mr. McCracken’s argument that while the Bomber Left’s belief that they “are rebelling against an illegitimate government . . . does not say much for their intelligence . . . it does not of itself discredit their moral purpose.” Without intelligence, there is no rationality and without rationality can there be a “moral purpose”? Moral purpose—for what? Human conduct without intelligence is a defense of the acte gratuit, a defense of thinking with the blood. Intelligence and moral purpose are inseparable, otherwise every political assassin and those, like Eldridge Cleaver, who promote assassination, have a moral case. “The scientists involved in espionage,” said a lady writer during the 1950’s, “have been very few, indeed, and misguided as they may have been, they have acted on principle and not for personal gain.” What was their moral purpose and what was the moral purpose of the young man whose bomb—unintentionally—killed an innocent physicist (“no physicists are innocent”—the defense rests)? Lynd could easily make a case—and did—for the moral purpose of the young bomber but, surely, Mr. McCracken would not accept that kind of argument.
3) My critic says that in treating the third lie—“the American worker is a honky”—I do not deal with “the more plausible charge that the working classes tend to be racist.” Here is just what I was arguing against, the creation of an abstraction called “the working classes” and then imputing to this vast number of people an ethos called “racism.” It is the sin of the working classes, just as their other sin is a lust for money and possessions since they should be liberators not spenders. And why shouldn’t the “working classes” be racist just like any other “class”? What about their moral purpose, even though it might not say much for their intelligence?
In America there is no one “class” more racist than any other. The whole “class” concept in American society, particularly, is so full of pitfalls that the concept itself borders on a kind of “racism.” Stanley Ossowski in his Class Structure in the Social Consciousness has argued that our society is characterized by “nonegalitarian classlessness,” something which Professor Earl Latham has defined as “a form of social inequality without social stratification, with much overlapping, without clearly differentiated social and economic functions, unlike the concept of class with which Marx worked.” Why does fashionable advanced liberal opinion still talk about “the working classes”? To document the charge of “honkyism”?
4) Mr. McCracken’s final point is that “Beichman’s reliance on the idea of the lie is itself the source of the book’s major weakness. For often he is exposing not willful misstatements of fact—which is what I take a lie to be—but rather inadequate or irrational interpretations, and sometimes these interpretations are not so much even irrational as based on values with which he disagrees.”
Here I feel Mr. McCracken and I differ profoundly because of our different concepts about the word lie. A lie in culture—and that is what my book is really about—is not only, nor can it ever be, a mere misstatement of fact. A lie in culture is easy to accept and hard to refute because you’re dealing with “meta-facts,” and there are no empirical data. Take, for example, this phrase from Book World (January 16, 1972): “This nation is perilously close to collapse.” What does this mean? That America is more perilously close to collapse than, say, Ghana, Bulgaria, Ceylon, China, Albania? What does the word “collapse” mean in this context? When the writer says “collapse” does he mean revolution, anarchy? Collapse into what? When a distinguished writer says that “the great virtue of economic depression is that it combines a very low degree of opportunity with a very high degree of motivation,” it is not something refutable; it is a rather ghastly perversion of human values. When President Kingman Brewster of Yale said two years ago that a “black revolutionary” could not receive a fair trial in America, that was not only a misstatement of fact but also a lie in culture. When another university president says the American people have “embrace[d] Hitlerism” and a New York Post columnist says America and South Africa are about the same, are these just misstatements of fact or a disagreement over values? These are some examples from my book of not merely willful misstatements of fact but willful distortions of reality. I am sure a case could have been made out for Hitler’s allegations of Jewish control of the German economy; the allegations were of course irrational and based on values with which we might disagree, but were they any less a lie because they contained a bit of “truth”? The devilish thing about lies in culture is that they are designed not to be refuted. . . . A man who says a country is “perilously close to collapse” is using a marvelous symbol whose content is nil because, as has been stated again and again (most recently by Irving Howe in his review of George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle in the February COMMENTARY), a theory that cannot be refuted cannot be demonstrated.
My last argument with Mr. McCracken, as I said at the outset, concerns the fact that I have not written another or a different book: “Having, moreover, charged the intellectuals of the radical Left with lying, Beichman seems more or less content to leave their motivations unexplored.” I am not more content nor am I less content. I just did what I did, feeling a certain inadequacy in dealing with the motivations of thousands upon thousands of individual Americans.
University of Massachusetts
Samuel McCracken writes:
Although I have long cherished the fantasy that some day an offended author will send these columns so devastating a rejoinder that the offending critic will fall upon his knees and beg forgiveness, in reality authorial response tends most often only to confirm critical stricture. Such I fear is the case on this occasion.
1) Part of the disagreement between me and Mr. Beichman depends upon the fact that I appear to take his chapter headings more seriously than he does. His first chapter, to judge from its heading, deals with the lie which says that the United States is a genocidal country. Now this lie, far from being an invention of Mr. Beichman, is very widely told indeed, generally in the form of a charge that the country has behaved genocidally toward a very large number of groups, most prominent among them Indians, blacks, and Vietnamese. I wished—and still wish—that Mr. Beichman had dealt with the charge as it is generally made, rather than with one of its special cases, one at that which has already been definitively refuted. Citing my judgment that the common allegation of American genocide against blacks and Vietnamese is a more substantial charge than the one about the Panthers, Mr. Beichman asks, “Among whom?” Among, of course, the sort of people who go about believing that America is a genocidal country, in short among those he is writing about and against. Among these people, the story of the plot against the Panthers is by no means the gravamen of the indictment for genocide. It would seem only reasonable to expect Mr. Beichman to deal with the gravamen rather than with its second cousin.
2) As to the Bomber Left, I still suspect that Mr. Beichman devotes more time and space than is strictly necessary to demonstrating left-wing tolerance of left-wing violence. Not, as he appears to say, that I don’t think such tolerance depraved in the extreme, but rather because I think behavior which is no more than what one expects from political extremists of all sects can probably be dealt with rather less ponderously. To respond to his second objection, it seems to me that there is a profitable distinction between A, who tries to overthrow the government because he disagrees with it, and B, who does so because he thinks it illegitimate. Unless one denies the right of revolution at any time or in any place (as I presume Mr. Beichman does not), one needs some way to oppose those who would bring down the government in a welter of blood over an increase in subway fares without telling others that they must not try to get rid of Stalin. Naturally, to approve of efforts to get rid of Stalin is not to approve of all those who believe that they rebel against illegitimate authority, but it is to shift one’s disagreements with some of those who would bring down the present government from the domain of democratic theory to that of fact.
3) Here, Mr. Beichman loses me altogether. He says, if I read him correctly, that he does not deal with the lie that the working classes tend to be racist because he does not believe it to be true, Now, I had thought that his whole book was about a series of statements which Mr. Beichman does not believe to be true, and that his reason for selecting these in particular from all the vast realm of the false was that they are being widely retailed by certain sorts of people who ought to know better. If one were to exempt from discussion all those lies which one believes to be false, it would seem that one would have to seek some subject matter quite other than lies.
4) Mr. Beichman may misquote Kingman Brewster less violently than some others have, but misquote him he still does. Brewster did not declare that a black revolutionary could not get a fair trial in America, but expressed his skepticism as to whether he could. Hindsight may tell us that Brewster’s skepticism was ill-taken—as most certainly it was if by “fair trial” he meant acquittal—but there remains a considerable difference between a declaration that such will not at some time in the future be the case and expression of uncertainty as to whether it will be. Mr. Beichman’s targets are constantly guilty of blurring just such distinctions, and it behooves him to avoid what he deplores in others.
Apparently we do disagree as to what makes a lie: it seems to me that there is again a crucial distinction between saying that which one believes or knows to be false, and believing and saying that which others believe or know to be false. That American academics can believe the sort of balderdash they have been saying is as alarming to me as the idea that they may say it though not believe it; but the two phenomena are distinct in nature, and require distinctive analysis and remedy.
5) I presume that any unfavorable criticism, however mild, can be seen as a demand for a different book, and thus disposed of as not quite cricket. The hard fact is that any critic’s wish that a book had been better is of course a wish that it had been different: the two desires are quite inseparable.
I am finally surprised that Mr. Beichman should feel inadequate to the task that I would set him: he has, in the book he has written, judged that thousands and thousands of individual Americans do not believe within themselves what they say they do; to do what I would have him do, to consider further why they should so behave, may require different powers, but hardly ones of a much greater magnitude.