I enjoyed Chandler’s science fiction stories. Sci Fi is not something that I read often, but these stories are beautifully written—especially the one that sounds like an ethnographic field report. I kept trying to read it as an Aesopian commentary on contemporary Western civilization but I’m not good at that sort of thing so I turned to the more political essays.
What really grabbed me was his essay, “Shooting Rats in a Barrel.” It impels me to address the issues that were alive during the period of McCarthyism (which is not a term that Chandler uses, probably because the repression started long before McCarthy’s day).
The main point of Chandler’s essay is to urge us not to shut out the questions that the Left posed during his youth. I quite agree that we should not do so; they are important questions. However, there are ways of shutting out certain questions without engaging in political repression, and without sending anyone to jail. The main way is through politeness. We avoid certain discussions just to keep the peace and keep friendly relationships. I myself have been often avoided topics for that purpose, so let me re-open some of those questions now.
In 1949, a week after my 18th birthday, I moved to Berkeley and into a small coop. There was a boy’s house with about ten guys and a girl’s house with about eight of us; we cooked and ate and slept together. There was no housemother. Chan is the same age as the guy I slept with and married — five years older than myself.
Chan might have been part of that group, which was certainly tilted toward the left. Half or so were black (then properly called “negro”). I was told later that some of the members had been CP members at the time, but had kept it quiet. To this day I don’t know which ones they were.
The same week when I arrived in Berkeley a huge historic controversy arose. It was the year of the Loyalty Oath. Immediately I became involved in committee work to oppose the oath. I was entirely in favor of fraternizing with Communists and having them on the faculty. If Chandler had been part of my coop, we would not have argued. There was a norm of acceptance that involved not questioning each other with hard political questions. A Communist Chandler Davis would have been perfectly acceptable.
Chan’s article makes it sound as if the whole debate was between repressive Right-wingers and Left-wingers such as himself. He leaves out my type — liberal. The argument about the oath was based on the opinion of the Right that we must exclude political groups that themselves refuse to respect civil liberties. The Communist Party was (correctly) believed to be pro-Stalinist, hence willing to use undemocratic methods to pursue its own political goals. Unless a party would agree to the rules of democratic government, they should be excluded, said the Right.
As a liberal, I took the view that if you believe in freedom of speech and of academic freedom, then you have to include anti-democratic organizations too. I did not doubt that Communists would indeed be repressive themselves if they had the chance, but I believed as a liberal that our responsibility would be to counter their arguments from a democratic, civil libertarian perspective.
There are many, many authoritarian regimes in the world that do not respect civil liberties. The US was never the worst one. And today the same debate is going on about how to treat terrorists. I still hold the liberal view that you cannot repress your adversaries, even potential terrorists, without giving away what you prize most: freedom and democracy.
In 1949 I never would have asked Chan how he could belong to the Communist Party, knowing what it was doing to people in other countries. That would have been rude. However, I once did ask Anatol Rapoport that question. He had fled the Soviet Union at about age 10, skating across a frozen river, to escape persecution in Ukraine. During the nighttime, his family could hear what was going on. Yet Anatol stayed a Communist for many years thereafter, despite knowing what was going on in terms of human rights in the Soviet Union. I asked him what he had told himself to justify staying on and he said that he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t explain it anymore.
Now that we are old and have been friends so long, Chan, I am finally going to ask you this: Why were you a Communist so long?
(Chandler gave a credible reply, and his wife Natalie Zemon Davis also stopped me afterward to supply some more information —including the facts that Chan had been a “red diaper baby“; had never been a Stalinist; and had quit the party in 1953. But I won’t try to summarize their comments here. Read his book. Also, I’ll invite him to post his comments here. It’s a discussion we should never have postponed out of a misguided sense of politeness. Engagement in political discussions is a civic duty, in my opinion.)