- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

DISCONTENTS: POSTMODERN & POSTCOMMUNIST
By Paul Hollander
Transaction, $26.95, 430 pages
REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE

No one writing today describes with greater insight the misdeeds and mendacities of intellectuals than Paul Hollander. A professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mr. Hollander is author of two classic studies of the maladies to which the chattering classes are all too prone to succumb, lemming-like, in great numbers and with stunning mindlessness.
In "Political Pilgrims" (1990), he took up the rich topic of the travels of Western intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba during the 50-year period between 1928 and 1978, when so many of them (but by no means all) returned from their visits assuring their readers that these tyrannies were on the road to establishing true human justice. In "Anti-Americanism" (1994), Mr. Hollander turned his attention to the related subject of how and why hatred of America manifests itself so loudly and relentlessly among academics and intellectuals.
His new book, "Discontents: Postmodern & Postcommunist," a collection of 25 essays plus an introduction, continues Mr. Hollander's cogent analysis of intellectual folks and the damage they do in their pursuit of a perfect society and absolute social justice. Gleaned from such learned journals as Academic Questions and Modern Age and from magazines such as National Review, the essays in "Discontents" look mostly at intellectuals and what they've been doing and saying over the past 20 years.
Mr. Hollander's themes are twofold. First he looks at postmodernism, the politically correct, and their spinoffs and the role they've played in American cultural life. He then looks at our intellectuals and their responses to the fall of communism in he Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and how (for the most part) they've failed to come to terms with the great moral wrongs of communism or even to regard those wrongs as worthy of serious and sustained discussion.
Mr. Hollander's conclusions are direct and unvarnished. After his discussion of affirmative action a policy many intellectuals insist will lead to racial and social justice Mr. Hollander writes: "Affirmative action as currently defined and institutionalized does not serve well either social justice, genuine diversity or the cause of improved race relations."
At the end of a devastating look at political correctness on American college campuses, Mr. Hollander observes that "while PC began as an effort to institutionalize the right not to be offended and to realize a wide variety of social ideas," those are not likely to be the efforts for which it is remembered. It is likely to be remembered, he insists, "as yet another failed attempt to make the world a better place by intolerance, rationalized as liberation and social justice."
When he turns his attention to the now three-decade old fashion among professional historians for "history from below," Mr. Hollander accurately observes that the desire on the part of its practitioners isn't driven by a concern that previously "suppressed" stories of women, minorities and the lower classes, from being be told.
Rather history from below in most cases seeks "to show that American history is far fuller of disgraceful episodes than had been thought earlier." History from below, in Mr. Hollander's opinion, "is a form of retroactive social criticism [that] avoids and ignores the conventional elite groups who used to get the lion's share of historical attention." What the historians who write history from below endeavor to do, he concludes, is "highlight aspects of American or Western history that further justify the critics' aversion to the society to which they so ambiguously belong."
But it is the failure of many intellectuals to come to grips with the evils of communism or with the dangers involved in utopian pursuits of any kind that elicits Mr. Hollander's greatest contempt. He recalls that Franklin Delano Roosevelt once commented that he found in Joseph Stalin the makings of a Christian gentleman. He also quotes the American novelist, social critic, and one-time candidate for governor of California Upton Sinclair's willingness to see blood spilt in the cause of making the Soviet Union a great and just society: "May be it cost a million lives may be it cost five million … there has never been in human history a great social change without killing."
For Mr. Hollander, who escaped from his native Hungary as a young man following the Revolution of 1956, FDR's and Sinclair's statements are moral opacity of the most heinous kind. He points out how time and again Western intellectuals have "shunned, ignored, or treated with suspicion as too subjective or biased" the firsthand recollections of writers and others who escaped from communist tyranny and told the truth about their experiences.
After the collapse of communism, writes Mr. Hollander, the moral opacity of intellectuals was evident in their failure to comprehend that "the moral repulsion of ordinary people [who lived under these governments] … was a significant factor in the fall of these systems." And that moral blindness peculiar to intellectuals was present in the way the American media ignored the discovery of mass graves in the former Soviet Union, proof of the horrors of Soviet society, according to Mr. Hollander.
One of those mass graves, "Kuropati (near Minsk) was estimated by Russian sources to contain over a quarter million remains; Bykovnia (near Kiev), a similar number, killed in the 1930s," Mr. Hollander writes. Yet "No Russian reporters or officials appeared on our television screens to comment on these discoveries and no American television correspondents reported breathlessly from the scene."
Why not? Mr. Hollander thinks it is because of the notion, developed by Western intellectuals in the late 1960s and still believed by many today, of the "moral equivalency" between the United States and the Soviet Union. Moral equivalency meant that the West and the communist world were both corrupt and tyrannical and that there was really no choice worth making between the two systems.
This belief stands in the way of a true evaluation of Soviet evil, Mr. Hollander argues. As long as "the sentiment that the evils of American society outweigh all others and disqualify its members from passing judgement over the moral outrages committed by communist governments … there will be little incentive to confront and reassess the moral implications of the Soviet mass murders."
This is an unhappy situation, according to Mr. Hollander, because the fall of communism provides an excellent opportunity to come to an understanding of how communism worked and how it failed.
He urges the study of three areas of Soviet history. First, Mr. Hollander thinks that an investigation of the change in attitude that occcurred in the Soviet leadership in the last decades of the Soviet Union is important because he sees that change in attitude as playing an important role in the USSR's collapse. From being true believers, the Soviet elite lost faith in its own founding and goals.
Second, Mr. Hollander wants scholars to look closely at political violence under communism and at "those most intimately involved with ordering and inflicting" that violence, which played so central a part in Soviet society. And third, he thinks the time now opportune to study the Soviet cult of personality particularly the cult around Joseph Stalin and how it came into being.
In one of his best essays, "Growing Up In Communist Hungary," Mr. Hollander describes coming of age as a scion of a middle-class Hungarian Jewish family at a time the era of Hungary's Stalin-like dictator Matyas Rakosi when being middle-class was a punishable crime.
And in a very funny piece, "Acknowledgements," he writes about the tendency of academics to place at the opening of the books they write pages of lavish praise to those they claim have given them invaluable help in putting the book together.
In one instance cited by Mr. Hollander, an author listed 103 persons without whom the book could not have been written. In another, 124. But what strikes Mr. Hollander as truly odd is that the picture these acknowledgements usually give of university life is of "a profusion of brilliant, generous, and inspiring human beings who inhabit [academic life] in various capacities and [who are always] ready to be at the disposal of their intellectually challenged colleagues."
As a longtime inhabitant of the academy, Mr. Hollander knows better.
He suspects the extraordinarily kind acknowledgements derive from sources other than generosity and that they come primarily from an attempt to whitewash the fact that professors "and especially those among them who write and publish books, are highly competitive, often abrasively individualistic" folks.
Mr. Hollander's jargonless prose is a pleasure to read and always informative. Unfortunately, the book is marred by a large number of typographical errors that could surely have been corrected by a minimum of editing.
Stephen Goode is a senior writer at Insight magazine.


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