Who are the great wits of the Left? It has plenty of thinkers and scholars, but you have to go back in time to find the masters of rhetoric. Dwight Macdonald comes to mind. He gave worthy causes a touch of humour and flair that made reading about them fun as they were instructive. The work of human freedom did not have to be as dour as an NGO press release. But today the Right has better humourists. Websites like Takimag are better written and more spirited than Counterpunch.
William Blum is an exception to the mirthless rule. The historian is a one man campaign against the prejudice that serious matters should be set forth in a funereal tone. The man has style. He had better have because his subject matter is depressing. It is a tale of murder on an industrial scale, a catalogue of human rights abuses so vast and grisly that not H P Lovecraft’s powers of invention could work it up – the history of what is known in polite circles as US foreign policy.
Where he formed the notion of writing about dispiriting things in the high satirical manner is a mystery that will puzzle men of science for longer than questions of origins.
The light touch is all the more impressive when taken in conjunction with another quality of his body of work. It is rigorously footnoted. One scholarly paper after another chases one assertion after the next as a man about town chases pretty legs.
Books like Killing Hope and Rogue State are the informed citizen’s guide to what the cynics in power do in the name of spreading democracy. Blum should know because he worked in the US State Department. These chronicles of empire are what made his name, and what the student of international relations keeps to hand when fishing for those too little known facts and figures that Blum has a knack for unearthing. You think you know what the confidence men in power are up to, but then you read Blum and discover that your knowledge is a fragment of the whole. Facts and figures like these:
Since the end of World War 2, the United States has:
Attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically-elected.
Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.
Attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.
Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
Plus … although not easily quantified … (been) more involved in the practice of torture than any other country in the world … for over a century … not just performing the actual torture, but teaching it, providing the manuals, and furnishing the equipment.
What’s more, Blum documents each and every one of them. He is the encyclopedist of the peace movement, the research fiend burrowed deep inside appalling stacks of reports and documents too wearisome and too obscure for any but the most dogged scholar.
But one’s own favourite work of Blum’s is his under-noticed memoir, West-Bloc Dissident. The book’s uninspiring red and black cover picturing an antiwar rally feels like something you have seen too many times for interest that one suspects the publisher is conspiring to keep it out of the hands of the young and innocent: it is the wildest thing ever to come out of a scholar. Sex, drugs, and FBI honey traps are just hints of the marvels between its covers.
It’s what you might call an eventful life. One of his housemates turns out to be a notorious bomb-throwing terrorist. His circle of friends is infiltrated by the secret services. A relationship blooms with such fugitives from the law as CIA officer Philip Agee who exposed the villainies of the government. And, among other highwire acts that lie in wait for unwary readers expecting to flip through a stodgy biography of a State Department officer, his close associates are implicated in the abduction of Patty Hearst.
In between these hijinks, he personally orchestrates the outing of hundreds of CIA agents. He drops into two revolutions in Chile and Portugal. And he is almost killed for his pains. All told in riotous prose that convicts its author of hawking top flight comedy in the guise of dissident literature.
It is not mere autobiography. It is a work of art. A model of the genre. Blum is prejudiced against the cradle-to-grave format of the confessional. He says the problem with them is that people don’t know what to leave out.
The paradox of his saga is that for someone whose avowed mission is to “wound the US empire”, Blum started life as a submarine warfare expert at Norfolk’s Naval Base where sailors clicked their heels and stood to attention each time he flew in from Washington. The first published work of one of the nation’s premier antiwar writers was a manual on torpedoing Red subs.
It’s one of his many previous lives. But as jobs go, it was not as financially imprudent as the time he ran a one man abortion call centre in 1967 out of his home before the passage of Roe v. Wade, pro bono, fielding calls at all hours of the night from desperate women about where they might procure an illegal termination, whilst the physician to whom he passed them on made a tidy profit from doctor’s fees, and not the least bit minded to divide the spoils. From each according to his ability, to each according to his greed.
Blum’s admirers have not always been to his liking. What happens when your fan is Osama Bin Laden? Not a winning endorsement. Blum, a lifelong atheist not renowned for warm relations with the devout, was amused to find himself adored by Islamic theocrats.
Other well wishers have more to be said for them. Blum was accosted by the Hollywood director Oliver Stone with the idea of making a film together. Stone was enamoured of his work and said he would turn the stories into a motion picture. But differences between Stone and his producer undid the enterprise and it turned out that Hollywood, hotbed of liberalism and stomper-on of moral taboos, was not ready for searching criticism of the political and social order. I fought Hollywood, says the author, and “Hollywood won”.
What makes Blum endearing is his candour about his failures. It is what makes him funny also. Even when the end is defeat, it is, one thinks, a noble defeat. At 83, white haired and nursing the memory of forty years of political and moral struggle, his radical friends have retired from the scene to lead a quiet life, but he is still good for another fight.
His enemies do not forget him in a hurry. David Horowitz could still be found inveighing against him some decades after their paths crossed. One’s sympathies go to the editor of Front Page Magazine. Blum should pick on someone his own size.
Not all enemies are made equal. It could have turned out worse for Blum when a police officer caught him reading an anti-Soviet newspaper on a train carriage in 1970s East Berlin. The Stasi might have taken a closer interest in him than he might have liked were it not for the good fortune that the paper was in English and the cop’s knowledge of the language was not up to scratch. After a few heart stopping moments when it looked like Blum was not long for this world, the officer returned the publication none the wiser for its contents.
Though it was adventure that lured him to the State Department, he’s gotten around a bit since he was shown the door for attending Vietnam War protests. In the 70s he made West Berlin his home and got a front row seat of the Cold War, and his grownup son is part German. There is something recognisably American in Blum’s spirit, which calls up the shade of Mark Twain, that his command of German makes you wonder whether his New York Jewish humour survives translation in his adopted language. Then again, Clemens disported himself in Deutschland too.
Along the way in his globetrotting wanderings he’s lived and worked in Sweden, Denmark, and England. But always the pull of America was too strong. It’s not that he is not a patriot. Just an outlaw one.
And respectable outlaws are those with whom he’s most comfortable. He was made honorary member of the Association of National Security Alumni founded by Daniel Ellsberg, John Stockwell, and Philip Agee for whistleblowers from the CIA, FBI, and Defense Department.
Blum could have led a charmed existence if he pleased. His education, his profession, his ambition were all destined to launch him on a successful career in international diplomacy. Had he kept his head down, had he remained incurious about the world in which he was setting out as an enterprising diplomat, he would have carved out a role for himself in politics. And down the line he might have held a chair at a prestigious university instead of being blacklisted from college campuses as now.
Remarking on the cliche that if a man is not a socialist at twenty he has no heart, and if still a socialist by forty, no brains, Blum comments, “I did it backwards. I had my sober, law-abiding, patriotic, responsible-corporate-government-employee career first, till I was past the age of 30. Only after that did I lose my head. I’ve yet to find it.”
Dwight Macdonald said after the assassination of Gandhi that he cherished his memory because he was a “good man, by which I mean not only ‘good’ but also ‘man'”. It’s an interpretation that appeals to one more than his reputation for saintliness. Blum would make a poor saint, and thank God for it. He is too interesting a man, and too much the mutineer. Saints don’t punch cops anyway. To do strict justice to Blum, the officer of the law was clubbing antiwar protesters, but that’s a story for the memoir to tell.