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And It’s Almost The Week End

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Well, okay.  Not really so almost.

I was attacked in the night by a cat.

I have a feeling that cats do not have sleep cycles.  They just get up when they want to, fall asleep when the want to, and don’t see what the fuss is about just because they got you up in the middle of the night to let them out of the closet they closed themselves into in the first place because they just can’t leave well enough alone.

I’m at the very end of the Chambers book–well, as close to the very end as I am to the week end–and a few things have become evident.

The first is that Chambers may have had a conversion, but it was a conversion from one way of expressing a set of principles to another way of expressing those same principles.  It was not a conversion from one set of principles to another.

When Chambers left the Communist Party, he first became a Quaker and then bought a dairy farm, where he strove to bring his children up free from what he felt were the depredations of modern life, which included most of the fruits of capitalism.  He sent them to public schools.  He kept them away from television.  They did a lot of the work by hand to get the advantages of honest toil.  It’s the hand milking that got me. 

The second is that the actual Hiss case is very different from anything I’ve ever heard about it, and most of what I have heard about it comes not from history textbooks or Hollywood movies,  but from Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, where the Hiss character, although he had once been a Communist, had been so only for a short time–and the Chambers character was a mentally ill misfit whom the Hiss character had only known for a few short months, and then not very well.

In the actual Hiss case, Hiss denied ever having known Chambers–actually, he repeatedly said he had “never known anyone by the name of Whittaker Chambers,’ which worked, because he knew Chambers under Chambers’s underground Communist name.

But in the actual Hiss case, this was not a casual relationship.  The two families–not just the men, but the families–had lived in each other’s pocket’s for years.  Hiss had loaned Chambers a house when Chambers was between residences.  Priscilla Hiss had babysat for the Chambers children. 

It’s the kind of thing that would have been unearthed in about thirty seconds by bloggers if it had happened in the days of the Internet, but it’s still rather stupefying to think that Hiss ever expected to get away with it even in the 1950s.  Had the relationship really been casual, that would have been one thing.  But it wasn’t, and there was an absolute ton of material evidence that the two men had known each other well for years.

I wonder how different history would have been if the security services–the FBI especially–had been able to use the evidence they had to prosecute Hiss for espionage, of which he was certainly guilty.  Since they were unwilling to signal to the USSR that they had broken certain codes and had informers in certain networks, they were unable to make a court case that would stick on anything but the perjury, which was certainly egregious enough.

But I do think the lack of prosecution for espionage has a lot to do with why the general impression was given–in dozens of magazines, books and movies–that Hiss had been unfairly charged with spying and that his only crime was the wish to conceal a prior experimentation with radicalism in a time when Red baiting hysteria had gone wild.

Robert says that he and I breathed different air,  growing up, and I’m sure that’s true.  But the air I was breathing was shared by almost all the major media outlets that I remember.  And it’s still the air being breathed by anybody who mentions “McCarthyism” in books or movies.  Just look at Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, where, as far as I can tell, there are no Communists, never mind Communist spies.

I have a faint memory of a television show from my early childhood, that later played in reruns in the afternoons when I first went to school, called I Led Three Lives. 

I just looked it up on Amazon, and they’ve got at least some episodes of it up as part of a big DVD packages on best TV detectives.

I don’t know how long the show ran, or if it was successful, but it’s the one thing I can point to in my memory that says that the country did indeed, to at least some extent, take the accusations about a domestic Communist conspiracy seriously. 

I wish they had episodes of the thing up on their own.  I’m not much interested in episodes of Mannix, but I’d like to see I Led Three Lives again.  The only episode I remember was one about a school teacher, and I don’t remember it very well.

Finally, the thing that has made the biggest impression on me in this book has been Chambers’s assertion that liberals (as defined in HIS time, obviously) got outraged when people were accused of being Communists because they could not distinquish the Communist program from their own.

But the program seems to me to be easily distinguished.  It’s what I mean when I say that as long as we’re in agreement on things like freedom of speech and conscience, or on the idea that Western civilization is actually superior to the non-civilizations that allow honor killings and executions for homosexuals, everything else is policy.

You can certainly be in favor of natural rights and still think health insurance should be a public utility or that there should be a basic safety net for people who get sick or injured or are otherwise disadvantaged through no fault of their own.

But the Communist program was not about these things, and you could have figured that out even if you knew nothing at all about the methods of operation of actual Communist states.

In the end, Drury got one thing absolutely right.  A lot of what went on in the Hiss trials–there were actually two–was not about truth or falsehood, Communism or capitalism.  It was simply about class, something Hiss had and Chambers did not.

An awful lot of it was an instinctive, tribal gut urge to protect one of their own. 

And I don’t mean the Communists.

Written by janeh

September 16th, 2010 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'And It’s Almost The Week End'

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  1. You mean we’re not discussing sex any more?

    OK, I’m waiting for the weekend, and someone who’s supposed to either fix my stove or tell me it’s too dangerous to use, and it’s been quite the week here. I went to a great concert last night – Chopin, not my usual stuff, but fabulous, played by a 15-year-old named Jan Lisiecki. And then we had another thunderstorm, which I thought wasn’t so bad except I got drenched to the skin on the way to work – but then I found out about the pole fires, and the house that burned down. And that’s only the last 24 hours.

    OK, Communists. As long as I can remember I had the vague idea that the McCarthy business (‘unAmerican’ just sounded so silly) was mostly hysteria and witch-hunting, but I also had the idea that there were indeed Communist agents active in Western countries, and that they were making every effort to promote their ideas and steal information to help the USSR. Looking back, these ideas do seem somewhat contradictory – if here really were spies and traitors, why did McCarthy’s efforts seem so discreditable? They might have been the source of my conviction that you shouldn’t try to ruin someone’s ability to get a job because you didn’t like their opinions. Maybe that’s partly the reason.

    I can’t quite decide what I think about the ‘instinctive, tribal gut urge to protect one of their own’. In theory, I think everyone should be equal under the law, and therefore everyone should answer to the law, no exceptions, no excuses. But then sometimes I think, what if it’s someone I know very well, and I’m convinced that it’s in the best interests of everyone if he gets a second chance, and maybe I think the law is really too rigid in some respects…next thing, I don’t report or testify against some young thug because I’ve known him since infancy and he’s a good boy, really, or I’m moving a friend on to a new posting because he’s really going to make a new start this time, and anyway, court cases would simply re-traumatize his victims. Or maybe I just don’t mention the rather extreme political ideas I suspect my good friend, One of Us, went to my school etc, has.


    16 Sep 10 at 11:16 am

  2. One problem was that while Chambers provided plenty of evidence that Hiss was a Soviet spy, it all dated to Chambers’ own time in the Party, and the statute for peacetime espionage had expired before the whole thing blew up. Chambers mentioned several other Soviet agents, who simply shrugged the whole thing off. Only Hiss started the legal ball rolling.

    Of course, only Hiss could troop in Supreme Court justices as character witnesses. And probably only Hiss could mooch money from friends for decades afterward to “prove” he was framed. I’d have refered to Hiss’ superior social status, because one thing Hiss didn’t have was class.

    As for the liberals of the 30’s and 40’s, perhaps if an element of them couldn’t distinguish their program from that of the communists, your program is not theirs?


    16 Sep 10 at 3:52 pm

  3. I was 14 in 1950 and don’t remember much about McCarthy. I do remember a slogan “Who promoted Peress”.

    I put that into google and came up with


    plus a wikepedia article or Joseph McCarthy


    Both seem fairly accurate.

    IIRC, the problem with McCarthy is that he made a lot of accusations but never had any proof. And he tended to argue that A is a communist, B is a feiend of A, therefore B is a communist.


    16 Sep 10 at 6:49 pm

  4. “It’s the hand milking that got me.”

    Hey, it’s not so bad. Particularly if you’re milking a Holstein. Milk flows really well once the flow starts.

    The Guernsey had bigger teats, but you really had to squeeze to get the milk out. But that was my brother’s cow.

    It was always fun squirting the cats. They’d learn to sit up and open their mouths so you could squirt the milk right in. It took kittens awhile to figure it out.


    16 Sep 10 at 7:05 pm

  5. Hey, it’s not so bad. Particularly if you’re milking a Holstein. Milk flows really well once the flow starts.

    Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Hand milking on a frosty morning was always “so bad”.


    16 Sep 10 at 7:21 pm

  6. “Hand milking on a frosty morning was always “so bad”.”

    The milking in the cold never bothered me.

    Trying to wash all the insides of the spinning widget from the cream separator got to be uncomfortable a couple of times. The heat sensing circuitry in my hands would go nuts with the temperature contrast between the warm water and the cold and that water would feel scalding hot, even when it wasn’t even close to that warm.

    And there were a lot of those little disk/cone things.


    16 Sep 10 at 7:27 pm

  7. I have a deep conviction that I am a city woman at heart, and am profoundly thankful that I have never had to live on a farm or do farmwork. However, there is a certain type of person who has beguiling fantasies about the moral purity and overall pleasure of a small town or rural lifestyle in which you get up at dawn to milk cows in order to get milk to drink with your breakfast of cereal made from grains you grow yourself, without pesticides of course. I suspect real farmers are quite different, but I don’t know for sure because I stay away from rural and small town living.

    I shut my cats out of the bedroom at night after I discovered that my expensive new bedroom windows, which had the screens on the inside, didn’t go well with cats. It does make for more peaceful sleeping for me, once they – or rather Sam – gives up whining at the door, and I don’t wake up in the morning very often any more with aching joints from being unable to shift my position all night because some cat has decided to sleep behind my knees.


    16 Sep 10 at 7:46 pm

  8. “And there were a lot of those little disk/cone things.”

    Gee, what a pain they were to clean and, yes, what a chore driving that separator at the right revs. Hard and boring work. At least you could swear at or talk nicely to the cows.


    17 Sep 10 at 12:52 am

  9. “what a chore driving that separator at the right revs”

    What always amazed me was the kick back as the milk hit the spinning disks.


    17 Sep 10 at 7:14 am

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