The interview subject was the fellow who was publishing a biography of Upton Sinclair. Most Americans (at one time) knew him as the author of The Jungle, his 1906 exposé novel of the Chicago meat-packing industry. Whatever its purely literary merits (and they seem to have been patchy enough), it was enormously effective in getting America stirred up about what was on its plate. Literally. Sinclair was disappointed because as a socialist (he was in fact hired to write the book as a socialist tome, not a public-health pot-boiler) the parts of the book he was least interested in got the most public attention. We’ve all heard how the book was instrumental in prompting introduction of a federally-mandated inspection regime, which generations of high school teachers have solemnly informed us was fought tooth-and-nail by “the industry.” Except it wasn’t, at least not by the large operators. Inspection regimes are fixed costs. Large operators can spread those fixed costs over larger production, so the price-per-final-product is less. Small operators have to recapture that cost over a smaller number of products with a correspondingly larger price increase. The desired result, from the big boys’ perspective, is that their competition will be priced out of the market and new market entrants faced with a large barrier to successful entry. And so it proved to be. Whether meat inspection is a good thing or bad can be debated. But what is interesting in retrospect is the extent to which Sinclair may have gilded the lily on the hygienic conditions in the industry.
So Sinclair, the socialist, had a track record of service to Larger Truths. In 1927 two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, were executed for murder. Ever since we’ve been told by all our well-meaning teachers how they were just two innocents, framed up because they were (i) immigrants; (ii) Italian; and, (iii) avowed anarchists. So obviously the fix was in, wasn’t it? That’s the premise that Sinclair took with him when he went to write his novel, Boston, about the case. Sinclair’s later biographer thinks he was pretty fair in presenting the case and the evidence. Notice how Mr. Biographer words his statement: “I think he was fair in his representation of the evidence and the case.” The evidence and the case are not the whole story. Do remember, please, that trials, especially criminal trials, are highly artificial proceedings. That’s intentionally so; giving effective meaning to the presumption of innocence requires it. Anyone who expects “the truth” necessarily to come out in a trial is a gull who deserves to blow $4,800 on penis-enlargement surgery which goes wrong.
And as it turns out, Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty as hell, and their lawyer presented a fraudulent defense. Let’s hear it from Sinclair himself, as related in a letter from 1929: “Alone in a hotel room with Fred [the defense attorney], I begged him to tell me the full truth. He then told me that the men were guilty and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them.” Did he disclose that? Well no, no he didn’t. At least he had the common decency to admit, privately, where his duty lay: “I face the most difficult ethical problem of my life.” And how did he resolve that “most difficult ethical problem”? Well, being the good lefty, he went out and served that good ol’ Larger Truth.
From his biographer: “I think he felt that the climate of opinion and the representation of their foreignness, they were Italian, and their political beliefs, which were anarchism, had almost condemned them out of hand before they had a chance at a fair trial. . . . Even if the men were guilty, he felt that the larger context of the world in which they were living rendered their guilt perhaps less important than it might have been otherwise.” Ummm. Fair trial? No, they did not have a fair trial. They got to put on a fraudulent defense. Their lawyer lied to the jury. A “fair trial” does not mean “the defense wins.” And somehow their guilt was “less important” because they were anarchists? No, it was even more important precisely because they were anarchists. Recall in the 1920s there was tremendous debate going on about the fundamental nature of all these (later revealed as monstrous) political movements which had welled to the surface of post-Great War Western society and were tearing European societies to pieces. The lefties here assured us that all of us troglodyte Americans were just too hard on those folks. They only wanted Justice for the Common Man; they were for Peace (sort of like our left-extremists nowadays keep proclaiming the Religion of Peace, and refusing to call outfits like Boko Haram what they are: bloodthirsty terrorists, even when pressed to do so by their own colleagues in government). In the Sacco and Vanzetti case America got to see what these thugs were really all about. So it was critically important that the correct verdict be reached precisely because it ripped the mask off. And as it turns out, notwithstanding they were lied to, the jury got it right.
Then come the Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel. Rivers of tears were shed for those poor innocents, done to death by a bunch of red-baiters. Except that Julius definitely was, and Ethel may well have been, guilty as sin.
Fast forward to the Chambers and Hiss ruckus. For decades the left extremists swore up and down that Alger Hiss was simon-pure and no more than the victim of a witch hunt. Except he wasn’t. He was guilty as sin.
And then we come to Tailgunner Joe, a distasteful person by any means, and a drunk, and a mountebank. When Eisenhower, whom General Marshall had made (it was Marshall who promoted Ike directly from Lt. Colonel to Brigadier General; it was Marshall who tapped him to command TORCH; it was Marshall who handed him OVERLORD, even though he dearly wanted it for himself (Marshall had never commanded troops in battle, and he knew this would be his last chance) and even knowing that the commander of the invasion could easily have the presidency, if he wanted it) stood on a podium and listened, in silence, as McCarthy slandered Marshall as a traitor, Truman so lost respect for Eisenhower that he would never thereafter speak his name in public. In Plain Speaking he refers to “that fellow who followed me.”
McCarthy famously brandished his list of however many hundred people who were communist infiltrators. No one ever saw any such list, of course, and it’s undeniable that the 1950s Red Scare tarnished many people, ruined their careers even. On the other hand, since publication of the VENONA files (Wikipedia has a list of American names appearing in the decrypts; some of them are breath-taking, and that’s not even a complete list: more are known), it’s likewise undeniable that McCarthy was dead-on right about the degree to which senior government positions had been infiltrated by the Soviet Union. Alger Hiss was just one of many. Hollywood still moans about its black-listed performers, producers, and others. On the other hand the Soviet Union in fact did make a concerted effort to subvert American popular culture. Their most effective and lasting capture, still loyally defending his blood-soaked master decades after the facts were known, was Pete Seeger (on whom more here, from his former extremely close friend, Ron Radosh).
I could go on. I could trot out the new left-extremist notion of “fake but true” (which fits under the rubric of “dialectics”). I could observe that the closest that Hollywood’s got to the Katyn massacres is a tangential reference in “Enigma.” But why go on?
The common thread in all of those is that to the left, facts just do not matter. What must be served is the Higher Truth, or what today’s left-extremists call the “narrative.” It’s what was at the heart of Journolist, the news-manipulation cabal run from The Washington Post and whose mission was to elect Dear Leader. I cannot and so do not deny that there are those on the Right for whom inconvenient facts get deep-sixed. I am unaware, though, that the air-brushing of history is formally a part of Rightist philosophy and is not only engaged in on an organized basis but is actually an approved method. Where is the right-wing Saul Alinsky, after all?
I suppose I really ought to give up on one of my favorite expressions: You can’t make this stuff up. You most certainly can, and we’ve got an entire chunk of the American political spectrum that regularly does. Because that’s what its doctrine tells it to do. Gentle Reader might study on that.