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Cass Sunstein's Unreliable Witness

We have much to learn from Whittaker Chambers, but not for the reason that Cass Sunstein suggests.

10:40 AM, Nov 11, 2013 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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Let’s give Sunstein his due. Yes, Chambers harshly criticized Rand for dealing “wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites,” for allowing her ideological obsessions to replace human beings, with all of their nuances and failings, with abstract shadows of true men and women.

But just as Rand reduced men to a small handful of premises and then filled them out with her own ideology, Sunstein does the same to Chambers: Drawing exclusively from a few snippets of Chambers’s work, Sunstein describes a man who resembles in no way the real Whittaker Chambers, the man who stood up to Communism and who wrote stirring defenses of Western civilization, not because of skepticism, but because of profound belief and certainty.

Indeed, that is the entire point of Witness: Chambers stood, much like Jonah (the biblical prophet who "fascinated" Chambers), against the tide of History, committed to God and to Western Civilization. As Chambers explained unflinchingly, in the book’s prologue:

Freedom is the need of the soul, and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom.

And, he continued, in lines presaging his criticism of Rand:

The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. It exists to the degree in which the Western world actually shares Communism's materialist vision, is so dazzled by the logic of the materialist interpretation of history, politics and economics, that it fails to grasp that, for it, the only possible answer to the Communist challenge: Faith in God or Faith in Man? is the challenge: Faith in God.

Those convictions, not the skepticism of Sunstein’s caricature, were what caused Chambers to rise as a witness against Alger Hiss, and against Communism:

[My] conclusion as that the time for the witness of words was over and the time for the witness of acts had begun--that the force of words alone was not enough against the treason of ideas. Acts were also required of a man if there was something in him that enabled him to act. It was hard because it is always peculiarly hard for a man who has once saved himself from a burning building to force himself to go back for any reason into the flames. But nothing less was required, if a man did not mean smugly to rot in peace and plenty, if, instead, against the dimension of treason in our time, he meant to raise at least a hand to help save what was left of human freedom, and, specifically, that nation on which the fate of all else hinged.

Moreover, what drove him to be a witness was the same "particular quality of my revolutionary character" (as he put it in a letter to William F. Buckley Jr.) that drove him to join Communism in the first place:

But above all, I came [to Communism] under the influence of the Narodniki ... "those who went with bomb or revolver against this or that individual monster." ... In fact, I never threw it off. I never have. It has simply blended with that strain in the Christian tradition to which it is akin. It shaped the particular quality of my revolutionary character . . . And, of course, it was the revolutionary quality that bemused Alger -- mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

This is not to say that Chambers expected success; he was supremely pessimistic. Yet those doubts reflected not a lack of certainty that his cause was just, but a lack of faith in the West's willingness to beat Communism.

That theme pours forth from not just Witness, but also his letters to young Bill Buckley (collected in Odyssey of a Friend), his letters to Ralph de Toledano (Notes from the Underground), and his last book, Cold Friday. As he explained to Buckley in 1954, two years after Witness and six years after he first testified against Hiss:

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