In a blog post yesterday, New Yorker writer and editor Hendrik Hertzberg, who admits to knowing me for decades, starts by saying that I am “disliked by many on the left,” which is putting it mildly. But it is nice to know that despite all of my numerous heresies, Hertzbgerg still retains a “persistent soft spot” for me. The feeling is mutual.
For his readers’ benefit, he goes through my checkered past, noting my stint as a Communist in my high school and college years (anyone interested can buy my memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left, and read my own account) through my sojourn as a social-democrat and my current stance, which I prefer to say is that of an independent conservative centrist, who calls things as I see them without worrying about labels. I’ll leave that to other people. And yes, Hertzberg writes, “It would not be entirely wrong to call him a neoconservative.” I take that as a compliment.
He continues to praise me for not being “an off-the-shelf right-winger.” That too is accurate; I haven’t been shy about criticizing many on the political right when I think they are wrong. It is also true that I acknowledge the difference between European social democracies and the advocates of totalitarian socialism and believe that the United States can cooperate in foreign affairs with moderate social democracies. But in terms of social policy, I argue that what Hertzberg ignores are the serious shortcomings of these states, whose inflated budgets are collapsing all through Europe and leading their governments into bankruptcy. The promise of social democracy as an alternative has fallen on hard times.
But Hertzberg goes on to say I have “undeniably fallen into bad company,” that being primarily Pajamas Media and also my evident sin of writing for the Weekly Standard and Commentary. Somehow, Hertzberg neglects the flagship conservative magazine, National Review, for which I have written many articles and reviews. I don’t know if he would consider the Wall Street Journal “bad company” since I’ve written for them too. I am proud of all of my articles and reviews, and would not change a word of what I have written for any of these publications.
If I have fallen into this bad company, it is because other outlets in the so-called MSM somehow refuse to publish my articles and reviews. I do not think these articles are so far out that a credible open-minded magazine would not be able to run them, but somehow, that is not how their editors feel. I wish Hertzberg would look over some of these pieces. Even if it turns out he agrees with any of them, would he have let them into the New Yorker? To ask that question is to answer it.
What he leaves out is important. He praises me for knowing that “Joseph McCarthy was a liar and a scoundrel.” Indeed, that is my view. But he does not tell his readers that the most recent article  I wrote reiterating that argument appeared in . . . National Review, the very magazine that at the time of Joe McCarthy’s influence supported him wholeheartedly! Writing soon after in the New York Times Book Review, David Oshinsky called my review of M. Stanton Evans’ recent book on McCarthy “devastating.”
I have a simple question to ask. Would the Nation, or the New Yorker for that matter, print an article by a conservative that sharply criticizes a book by a liberal writer they all revere? Such a review would have to be from a position not shared by any liberals. For example, an article on race and affirmative action by Abigail Thernstrom or Shelby Steele. Articles like the recent one attacking Paul Berman from the left are not evidence for Hertzberg’s argument. Show me one example, if there is any. Yet, National Review, even if some of their editors did not like it, ran my review of Evans and no one asked me to change one word. Could it be that conservative journals and magazines are more open-minded than liberal ones?
Hertzberg goes out of his way to say about The Rosenberg File, which I co-authored with the late Joyce Milton in 1983, “thoroughly and convincingly debunked the ‘progressive’ mythology surrounding the famous Cold War espionage case.” I appreciate Hertzberg’s judgment of the case we made for the Rosenbergs’ guilt. But later he writes that because of the pro-Communist left’s reaction to the book, since then I have exaggerated “the influence of pro-Communists, anti-anti-Communists and lamebrained ‘New Left’ academic Rip Van Winkles on the center-left American liberal mainstream.”
Here, he is dead wrong. Let me take a key example: his colleague Nicholas Lemann’s essay on Soviet espionage which appeared in — you guessed it — the New Yorker. I have already discussed it at length earlier in one of my blogs so I won’t repeat all the arguments I made there. The main point is that in discussing this topic, Lemann repeated the old canard that those of us who write about Soviet espionage support “a conservative view.” I wrote the following in the blog:
Cannot someone who sees himself today as a political liberal acknowledge that his liberal ancestors might have had a blind spot in the late 1940s about the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States ? If they answer in the negative, they are substantiating the claim of Ann Coulter who continually argues that liberals are incapable of understanding that America has real enemies.
I could give Hertzberg chapter and verse about how very mainstream figures continually argue that Alger Hiss is innocent; that the Rosenbergs gave nothing of value to the Soviets even though they may have spied for them, etc. As Hertzberg knows, NYU’s Center for the Cold War ran a major pro-Hiss conference two years ago, and hosts a website pledged to Hiss’s innocence. And The American Scholar ran a lead story by Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird co-authored with Svetlana Chervonnaya which argued that if there was a Soviet spy at Yalta, it was a man named Wilder Foote and not Alger Hiss. Can one get any more mainstream than this publication?
I would also refer Hertzberg to the review of Spies by Amy Knight that appeared in the prestigious Times Literary Supplement (London) in the June 26, 2009, issue. Knight accused co-authors Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes of trying to punish Cold War dissenters by accusing them decades later of having been Soviet spies, and “to silence those who still voice doubts about the guilt of people like Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, I. F. Stone and others.” Ignoring the fact that Klehr and Haynes offer solid evidence, she reverts to the standard Old Left argument meant to close off all discussion — that of accusing her intellectual opponents of McCarthyism. And Knight is a respected author firmly part of the mainstream liberal community. I do not recall Hertzberg or Nicholas Lemann taking her on at all.
So I would like to see Rick Hertzberg be brave and open the pages of the New Yorker to a wider spectrum of views, if only to hold an honest debate on the important issues facing us today.