Hey! Randy

They Saw What They Believed

Posted by heyrandy on July 5, 2012

Political Pilgrims, Paul Hollander, 1981

Can intellectuals be naïve? When it cames to evaluating communist countries the leading western intellectuals were quite naïve. This has long been a great mystery. How could such intelligent people be so blind to the horrors and misery of the communist countries? Hollander gives us a very believable answer.

Hollander begins his book with a struggle to define intellectual. It is not easy. There is no test. He defines an intellectual as a person interested in ideas. This is a broad but workable definition. What kind of ideas? Preconceived, it turns out.

Hollander avers that it was dissatisfaction with Western culture, the willingness to believe the Communists were right,  and ignorance about the countries the intellectuals visited. The author makes a strong case for this thesis by quoting from the writings of many intellectuals who made trips, or as the book’s title suggests, pilgrimages, to the communist dominated lands.

Now that the crimes of the Communists are very well-known, it is enlightening to read what visitors wrote. Some of the prose in fawning, some hagiographic, all untrue. Were these people this stupid?

Hollander notes that Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s was a great draw for the intellectuals. The Great Depression lead many  to think that there was a better land behind the Soviet border. The Great Purge was ignored.

Hollander also points to the turmoil of the 1960s. What silliness, what empty vanity, ruled much of the protests. It now seems stupid, but then it was so serious. Life was so empty here that it must be better there. So off went the radicals to tour paradise. They thought that they saw heaven on earth. The really saw only a Potemkin heaven. Those few visitors who escaped their guides managed to see the grimy reality of communist life.

The deluded intellectuals had much evidence to show that what they believed was false. The hordes of refugees, many who risked their lives fleeing their homelands, gave consistent testimonies about the misery they escaped. The intellectuals merely ignored this evidence, or they disparaged it by saying that it was the result of the Western colonial powers. Presuppositions do get in the way.

The intellectuals defended the known problems with blithe dismissals and excuses that the totalitarianism was mere a temporary necessity. The visitors accepted things that would never be tolerated in this country.”Yes, but….” was the usual excuse.

Hollander shows how easy it was to delude the visitors. Just treat them well. First-class accommodations, well-spoken tour guides; model factories, prisons, schools; folk dancing; and showplace farms all were used. The effect was great. Some clerics said they found more Christianity practiced in Stalin Russia than anywhere else they had been. Artist found freer expression than in the West. Writers marveled at the liberty Communist writers had. It was a case of believe-what-you-saw-because-you-saw-what-you-believed.

This problem will always exist. The lesson is not to take the self-appointed too seriously. They do that enough themselves.

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