The Discerning Texan

All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing.
-- Edmund Burke
Friday, May 30, 2008

Editing, Revisionist History, Thought Control--Scott McClallen and Darkness at Noon

Arguably one of the the most powerful novels of the 20th century is Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon--a dark but powerful commentary on the Stalin Show Trials, Communist thought control methods in general (you will recognize many of them), and the ideological "purges" of the formative years of the Soviet Union. In fact George Orwell himself wrote an essay about Koestler--in effect making the argument that to expect truth about a totalitarian regime written from a disinterested, distant perspective will almost never approach the depth of understanding as a work (even a fictional one) written by someone who has actually lived under such oppressive tyranny:
... Some of these are imaginative writers, some not, but they are all alike in that they are trying to write contemporary history, but UNOFFICIAL history, the kind that is ignored in the text-books and lied about in the newspapers. Also they are all alike in being continental Europeans.

It may be an exaggeration, but it cannot be a very great one, to say that whenever a book dealing with totalitarianism appears in this country, and still seems worth reading six months after publication, it is a book translated from some foreign language. English writers, over the past dozen years, have poured forth an enormous spate of political literature, but they have produced almost nothing of aesthetic value, and very little of historical value either.

The Left Book Club, for instance, has been running ever since 1936. How many of its chosen
volumes can you even remember the names of? Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Spain, Abyssinia, Austria, Czechoslovakia--all that these and kindred subjects have produced, in England, are slick books of reportage, dishonest pamphlets in which propaganda is swallowed whole and then spewed up again, half digested, and a very few reliable guide books and text-books. There has been nothing resembling, for instance, FONTAMARA or DARKNESS AT NOON, because there is almost no English writer to whom it has happened to see totalitarianism from the inside.

In Europe, during the past decade and more, things have been happening to middle-class people which in England do not even happen to the working class. Most of the European writers I mentioned above, and scores of others like them, have been obliged to break the law in order to engage in politics at all; some of them have thrown bombs and fought in street battles, many have been in prison or the concentration camp, or fled across frontiers with false names and forged passports. One cannot imagine, say, Professor Laski indulging in activities of that kind.

England is lacking, therefore, in what one might call concentration-camp literature. The special world created by secret-police forces, censorship of opinion, torture and frame-up trials is, of course, known about and to some extent disapproved of, but it has made very little emotional impact. One result of this is that there exists in England almost no literature of disillusionment about the Soviet Union. There is the attitude of ignorant disapproval, and there is the attitude of
uncritical admiration, but very little in between.

Opinion on the Moscow sabotage trials, for instance, was divided, but divided chiefly on the question of whether the accused were guilty. Few people were able to see that, whether justified or not, the trials were an unspeakable horror.

And English disapproval of the Nazi outrages has also been an unreal thing, turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency. To understand such things one has to be able to imagine oneself as the victim, and for an Englishman to write Darkness at Noon would be as unlikely an accident as for a slave-trader to write UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
Thus one comes, unfortunately, to the recent impact of the George Soros-funded, hard-left editor of Scott McClellan's recent book, for which Scotty Boy received $75,000 up front. The editor's name is Peter Osnoff. In two separate posts in Power Line, Paul Mirengoff examines the Osnoff-McClellan relationship, and the results are eye-opening. From Part I (emphasis mine--and be sure and follow the links):

Scott McClellan [....] claims that he did not set out to write a memoir sharply critical of the administration but that in the process of actually writing the book, the scales dropped from eyes. This would explain, I suppose, why McClellan's book so flatly contradicts many of his public (and to colleagues, private) pronouncements. He never really knew what he thought until he wrote it.

There are a few problems with this defense, however. First. my English professor wasn't making the absurd claim that facts change when you write them. Second, McClellan's book is not the product of a lonely encounter with his keyboard; he had help. The help came from, among others, Peter Osnos, a former Washington Post writer. Osnos is the head of the liberal publishing company that published McClellan's book. It is he who helped transform McClellan's early concept -- a "not very interesting , typical press secretary book" -- into a vitriolic attack on the Bush White House.

Osnos denies that he ghost-wrote or heavily edited McClellan's book. However, he does take credit for making sure that the book "pass[ed] our test for independence, integrity, and candor."

The question then becomes, what would that test look like as applied by Osnos. Here, we encounter the fact that, according to Brett Baker of Newsbusters, Osnos' publishing house is affiliated with the far-left The Nation magazine and is the publisher of books by George Soros. It also published The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. Since that book apparently passed Osnos' test for integrity and candor, one can infer that McClellan's original account of his time in the Bush administration did not, and that a major shift in tone and content was required of him before the book could see the light of day. In this regard, Osnos admits to having worked very closely with McClellan and the book's official editor, Lisa Kaufman.

Which brings us to Part II, and the parallel with Stalinist thought control. Mirengoff brought Darkness at Noon into the discussion, but having recently read it again it really rang true to me that what most likely has happened here was in fact a modern day recreation of the imprisonment, interrogation, and ultimately the "confession" of the unfortunate Rubashov. Mirengoff comments:

One of our readers makes the point that the Scott McClellan-Peter Osnos affair has the earmarks of communist thought control, as in Darkness at Noon. In this process, one offers the prisoner better food, to be sure, but most importantly helps him understand where his thinking was wrong, and then leads him to "right thinking." The process is easier if, as here, the captive's knowledge of fact and his convictions were weak to begin. Apparently, there is a whole literature on this.

In this account, McClellan's editors helped him come to believe that he was doing the right thing, not just making a buck.

UPDATE: It turns out the Osnos has been quite explicit about the way in which his editing process re-shapes the thoughts of public figures who write books for his company. Months ago, Osnos wrote:

In nearly 25 years of editing books by public figures intended to provide historical perspective, I have learned that the full story only really emerges in the final editing. Even people who have lived through an experience in, say, The White House, The Pentagon or the Kremlin, can't completely fathom what they've been through. They need help in explaining "what happened" -- which is why that is McClellan's title. . . .[Scott] is very hard at work on the manuscript. We'll then help him be as clear as he can possibly be about what he has concluded.

This sounds a bit like the kind of help Zinoviev and Kamenev needed.

This is a very astute observation, and even more so when one considers this review of Darkness by Christopher Hitchens in Slate. Especially this (again, emphasis mine):
Koestler's chief character, Nicholas Rubashov, is modeled on those former Bolshevik intellectuals who made full "confessions" of fantastic and abominable crimes at the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. And, because Koestler had by no means forgotten what he had learned about the dialectic, he decided to place Rubashov in a dilemma from which he himself had escaped. What if the opponent of Stalin is still half-convinced that Stalin is morally wrong but may be "historically" right? He may decide to put his name on the confession and hope that history will one day vindicate him. His last duty to the Party may, in other words, be suicide.

We now know that this is not how the confession of Nikolai Bukharin, for example, was in fact obtained. Stalin's men employed less subtle means of inducement and persuasion. But we do not know that this paradox was not alive in Bukharin's own mind, even at the end. If you once accept a certain logic of history, how can you exempt yourself from it? Apart from Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, there is no finer example in fiction of a pitiless interrogator facing a victim with the intention of saving his soul. Indeed, the teamwork of the two questioners, Ivanov and Gletkin, is so logically and artistically represented that it actually had the effect of converting some people to communism! Rubashov has one fatal weakness, which is that of the open-minded intellectual: "the familiar and fatal constraint to put himself in the position of his opponent, and to see the scene through the other's eyes." His dogmatist jailers suffer from no such disadvantage. This is a crux that has relevance well beyond the time and place in which it was set. Orwell's more widely read Nineteen Eighty Four, which has many points of similarity with Darkness at Noon, makes the same terrifying point that the fanatics don't just want you to obey them: They want you to agree with them.

These events--and even the fictional accounts of them--are so incomprehensible to the typical spoiled American watching HBO on their big screens (even our so-called "poor"), that to even try to impart that our present governing elites--PC, and the thought control already in full force at our institutions of "Higher Learning", our hard-left politicians, etc--are collectively steering us into a collision course with a similar future, is analogous to the Christian parable of the seeds which fall on hard, dry soil and never bear fruit. Most Americans today do not have the intellectual understanding of what a gift our freedom really. Meanwhile, the former Soviet satellites in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, etc. cannot run fast enough away from such reprehensible principles as those now being sold by today's Democrats. In fact, as Orwell so eloquently put it, even our so called "educated intellectual elites" (i.e. the "compassionate" and guilt-ridden left) most often choose to look the other way when confronted with the hard facts and end result of such thinking.

And so we seem to slowly be committing "collective" suicide, even as the formally oppressed Eastern Bloc flourishes--freed from the very collectivism that held its people in chains (or Gulags) for so long.

Scott McClellan's acceptance of 30 pieces of silver as compensation for "confessing" a trumped-up "guilt" lately acquired from his leftist handlers ("interrogators" playing editor)--is a sad but instructive episode in the fallibility of humans to corruption and betrayal. Yes, Bob Dole was perfectly justified in reacting angrily to the betrayal aspect--particularly because Dole is not simply a politician but a retired politician with no skin in the game other than an underlying understanding and belief in the underlying principles which make this the greatest experiment in human history.

Sadly, in McClellan's case the whole episode has very little to do with vision, principle, or an astute appreciation of history. Rather the tragic flaw in this modern-day Rubashov is: his ignorance of history, market economics, and especially his ignorance of how quickly and easily the freedoms and comforts that we enjoy today can disappear--tragic victims of despotic dictators, long-disproven bankrupt ideologies, mass-murdering religious zealots with the means to kill millions in an instant, and (last but not least) a sleeping and complacent public which could have acted boldly and decisively to stop the madness before it was too late, but did not.

It sounds like an obit. I hope not. I would like to think that someday the Scott McClellans of the world will be ridiculed and shunned by the masses, rather than held up by the elites wanting to control our minds as some sort of icon. But I think whether or not that actually ever happens is definitely at issue.

Here is to that day coming sooner, rather than later.
DiscerningTexan, 5/30/2008 08:12:00 PM |