You Must Love Whittaker Chambers, But You Must Not Drink Too Deeply Of His Perfumed Pessimism; Or, Be Happy For The Struggle Will Be Dire But The Victory Will Be Sweet

I had a chat with a friend today. He mentioned Whittaker Chambers, and that he sometimes thinks that Chambers was right, that we were on the losing side of history, and the fight itself is the only reward.

I mentioned something I believed Chambers had said, that all we could do was to preserve the “fingers bones of the saints” through the coming Dark Age. I wrote to him after I’d had a few minutes to mull our conversation, and to noodle a little on the Internet. Below, lightly edited, is what I sent.


I recalled the Chambers quote incorrectly.  He did not say “finger bones of the saints” as I have been misquoting him for years now.

Here is the passage which I remembered erroneously:

That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

(From William F. Buckley’s memoir of Chambers, here.)

Damn, that is beautiful.

I yield to no one in my love for Whittaker Chambers.  I literally learned about Witness as a child, from my mother. She read it as a kid, when it came out, and became an ardent, lifelong anticommunist as a result — that plus hearing the last broadcasts from Budapest in 1956 when the Red Army crushed the Hungarian freedom fighters.

Chambers is one of the greats, a Conservative hero, and we should never forget him.

The only problem is that there is something drug-like to Chambers’ pessimism.

I find its opiate qualities appealing, but then I look at my kids, and the future, and I look back at my parents and my grandparents, and at the historical record, and I put the Chambers Brand vial of soothing pessimism back on the shelf.

I simply do not believe we are at the great nightfall.

We beat the Kaiser, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union.

I really do not think the public sector employees present as great a material threat to America as the Soviet Strategic Rocket Force once did.

Nor do I think that Political Correctness and its minions, for all its poison and perniciousness, presents as great a threat as the cadres of Soviet agents and fellow travelers who once sought our destruction.

We stand within reach of a new flowering of Anglo-American freedom and prosperity. We are on the verge of breathtaking and liberating breakthroughs in science and technology and medicine, which will make the world a better place.  I absolutely believe this.  It is not inevitable, but we are preloaded for it. We just have to seize it.

Only the crumbling, ramshackle, Brezhnevite junk heap of the Twentieth Century Blue Model legacy state stands in our way.  Its defenders have nothing to appeal to, no great principle, no worthy cause, only their own comfort and security at the expense of the great mass of people in America, and at the expense of their hopes for the future.  

That is not, as they say these days a “meta-stable” situation.  What can’t go on won’t go on.

The rusting junk heap is going to fall apart before our eyes, with a shocking suddenness reminiscent of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is my prediction.

We need to keep pushing on it, pointing at its bankruptcy, mocking it, and showing people how it could be so much better.

I just need to keep my kids fed through this transition period, which may well have some ugly moments.

Pardon a lengthy email.  I think you needed a little bit of a pep talk, and I needed one too.


And you, my dear ChicagoBoyz readers, should also stay cheerful.

Fear God and Dread Nought.

19 thoughts on “You Must Love Whittaker Chambers, But You Must Not Drink Too Deeply Of His Perfumed Pessimism; Or, Be Happy For The Struggle Will Be Dire But The Victory Will Be Sweet”

  1. A great American. It’s a pity that no ones found a shock-proof fellow traveler/useful idiot/agent of influence filter to purge the writhings of the Leftist sock puppet, yearning for the hand of its departed masters, from this nation’s life.

  2. “The Case for Pessimism” by Mark Steyn — Commentary Magazine, November 2011

    “The Case for Optimism” by John Podhoretz — Commentary Magazine, November 2011

    This article is from our special November issue, which focuses on the future of America. Also in the issue is John Podhoretz’s Case for Optimism and a COMMENTARY symposium featuring 41 American thinkers and writers who answer the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future? We will be posting two symposium contributions daily on our blog. Click to read the most recently posted symposium contribution.

  3. “Only the crumbling, ramshackle, Brezhnevite junk heap of the Twentieth Century Blue Model legacy state stands in our way. Its defenders have nothing to appeal to, no great principle, no worthy cause, only their own comfort and security at the expense of the great mass of people in America, and at the expense of their hopes for the future.”


    Here in Wisconsin we have seen what the death rattles look like up close and personal and that is why I was down there documenting it. There will be a recall effort against Walker and probably others but I have started to take a look at things a bit differently.

    Even if the Walker recall is successful (and I don’t think it will be) this state has come a very very long way in a short period of time. School districts all over the state are seeing enormous savings from not being locked into the union run health insurance plan and being able to put their insurance out to bid. This is a huge step in the right direction.

    Just seeing what is happening up here even if things don’t turn out well in the short run is impressive. These types of changes typically take generations, not months. It was like shooting someone versus seeing them die in a very long and protracted struggle. This might not have been the best strategy, but at least we are doing something, unlike states like Michigan and Illinois, who are doing apparently nothing and are withering on the vine. They will just need to have a do-over as their bonds approach a status nearing the credit worthiness of Bulgaria.

    Watching the campaign of Kim Simac was incredible. A nobody Tea Partier challenges a lifelong politician and through nothing but work and grit almost unseats the incumbent. This is still a loss, but the very fact that things like this can happen is very encouraging.

    I am worried about an massive banking system failure. Outside of that, I think, like the song says, the future is so bright, I gotta wear shades. It will be decades still before a lot of places see change, but it looks like the tsunami has begun.

  4. “Outside of that, I think, like the song says, the future is so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

    That song, written by Timbuk 3, was actually a tonue-in-cheek about nuclear halocaust. But your point is well taken.

  5. Things used to be so bad, people were afraid to take the covers off to actually catalog what was wrong. Imagine a database outlining all the blue model idiocy that has to be replaced with something better. Imagine it as a work list where you can sign up to help replace all of it, piece by piece in practical tasks. The scale of the thing is daunting even if it’s not very complicated.

    For all legislation, regulation, and judicial decisions in every political jurisdiction
    a. Describe it in terms of its effect on liberty
    b. Decide if it can be improved by repeal, spin off, or new paradigm private action
    (1) if no, pop it on the pile marked not yet and go go back to a
    (2) if yes, pop it on the pile marked to work on
    c. Craft a solution
    d. Gather the necessary resources
    e. Execute the solution
    f. Set up monitoring to keep watch so that the good work is not undone

    We’re not even at the phase where you can just get a handy list of all jurisdictions, much less their legislation, executive regulations, and judicial decisions. But if we want to have a truly justified optimism, we’re going to have to get off our backsides and gain the capacity to list it all, judge it all, and fix it all.

  6. I know it’s easy to be pessimistic now, when the world is in such a state of turmoil, and the US having painted itself into a corner from which there are no easy exits.

    My deepest concern is that we have so damaged the educational system over the past several decades of pc multi-culti nonsense, that the generations coming of age are not well equipped to understand the historical context of today’s problems, nor are they acquianted with a broad range of ideas and possibilities upon which to draw in formulating possible solutions.

    Their education has given them 2 dimensional theories to live in a 3 dimensional world in a 4 dimensional universe.

    Culturally, what I see more than anything else are feelings of loneliness and inadequacy in so many, many people. The emotional, inchoate rage expressed by the current “occupy” protests seem to me to reflect these two debilitating feelings very strongly.

    It is almost as if their juvenile cries of “it’s not fair” and their sense of endless entitlement are simply a reflection of their own internal agony over the relentless aloneness of their lives, and their deeply felt belief that they are, in fact, incompetent when it comes to the most basic skils of living in an open society.

    They remind me of some of the bewildered inhabitants of the various soviet societies when their cradle to grave welfare structures collapsed, and they were suddenly required to provide so many things for themselves that had previously been handed to them by state fiat.

    When it comes to being responsible, it is so much easier being 8 than 18.

    We have, in very plain fact, faced much more difficult challenges than those we face today, both internal and external. But I don’t think we have ever felt so inadequate to the task, and that is worrying.

    I am hoping the elections next year, and over the next few cycles, will begin the process of re-establishing the individual and the Constitution as the primary foundational blocks upon which the republic rests, and diminishes the scope and power of state intrusions into the citizens’ lives.

    If those goals begin to come closer, then I will be more optimistic about our nation’s future.

  7. Verytretired, I agree with you. The young people of the occupy movement are not stupid, and not particularly bad, but they are extremely ignorant about the world, and seem to be looking for knowledge, a role in life, and for companionship and friendship. I think they are all from divorced families, and have grown up on television and cynicism and PC platitudes in school. A massive outbreak of some kind of evangelizing religion is not out of the question. It could be Islam. I of course hope to see a revival of Roman Catholicism. But we need another half generation for the dead wood in the leadership to die off. We may not have that much time.

  8. The young are innately curious, and long for knowledge about how things work, and where they fit in to the larger scheme of things.

    Many times, reading about or listening to the young people in this “occupy” movement, I am reminded of the young metallurgist assigned to Reardon Metal by some government agency. There is a fabulous descriptive segment which talks about how his mind was an amorphous plasma, swirling with half-formed ideas, bits and pieces of theory, and unacknowledged assertions masquerading as facts.

    This is what I see in the lost youth living in these tents, somehow able to convince themselves that wanting is the same as needing is the same as having a right to.

    The book says, “Who among you, if your child asked you for bread, would give him a stone? Or for water, hand him a serpent?”

    And yet, several generations have asked for knowledge, only to be given a sludge of gravel and mud instead of the nourishment of rational concepts and logical conclusions freely arrived at in an open setting.

    For every mind we have betrayed in this fashion, we will pay a heavy price, for such is the nature of cosmic justice.

  9. As one of the rare Libertarians teaching at the college level, let me add my pessimism about the blatant, pervasive, Leftist indoctrination. I’d argue that most right-minded people have no idea of how bad it is. There is no fight, this country has been taken over.

  10. “There is no fight, this country has been taken over.”

    True. Except the Leftist ideology is manifestly false and always fails. People will see it. They saw it behind the Iron Curtain, they will see it here.

  11. “They saw it behind the Iron Curtain, they will see it here.”

    But the question is: will things have to get as bad here as they were over there before we pull our heads out?

    I’m optimistic myself, but only moderately. Americans as a whole have somewhat more horse sense than their European (or Canadian) cousins, but that’s hardly high praise.

  12. I had experienced a brief wave of optimism. It is easy to do when reading certain sources like this one, and very old books. But in the last two weeks I’ve had several conversations both in person and online, with people who should know better, and they don’t, they couldn’t even conceive of alternative to their received “wisdom.”

    A few might remember, but for the great mass of people, the indoctrination is too deep, the habits are too entrenched. Even if it goes the way of systemic failure when the pieces are picked up the new folks will start assembling them the old way. It is the only way they know.

    The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

    Yeats: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”


    “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

  13. “… the indoctrination is too deep, the habits are too entrenched.”

    Reality will shout louder than the indoctrination and the habits.

    The current politico-economic order is falling apart.

    The lies will be spread to thin to cover up the reality.

    Kids who have been lied to will want to know why, and by whom, and what the facts are.

    I am optimistic long term, expecting a very rough patch short and medium term.

  14. “I’m a pessimist looking forward, but an optimist looking backward.”-James Buchanan (the economist).

    I find myself often despairing the future, but then I look back and realize that there is really no good reason to not believe the trend will continue in the same direction over the long run.

    Naturally I have to do my part to try and keep my kids from believing in leftist/statist crap.

  15. The bottom of the pit was fall 1979. The Carter economy, the Iranian revolution and the US Embassy attack, and on, and on, and on … I remember sitting in my office overlooking 6th Ave. & 47th St., reading an article in the WSJ about Soviet repression of the nascent workers movement in Poland, and thinking: “this is it, this is the future endlessly repeated. just like Orwell.”

    This was followed shortly by the spike in Gold prices, that has not yet been equaled. I calculated at that time that the Fed could sell its gold, redeem all of the dollars, and liquidate solvent. I could see the lines of people on 47th waiting to sell their jewelry. I sold my class ring. In January 1980, I bought our wedding rings. Gold hit $800 an oz. that week (something like $2600 in 2011 dollars). “I’d call it a bargain, the best I ever had.”

    Things did not work out like that, and within a decade, they had turned around, and were looking up.

    Now vs Then.

    What is worse.

    Lack of Leadership. No, I know that Hussein vs Carter is a tossup. There is no Ronald Reagan on the horizon, No Margaret Thatcher, and No Pope John Paul II.

    The economy is clearly sicker this time. The 1979/1980 episode was dramatic, but it was acute. We are now in the throes of a chronic ailment. 1979 was a heart attack. We now have cancer. We have less headroom in our balance sheet (Debt/GDP in 1979 of 26%, in 2011 about 85%), and our demographics, in 1979 the working age population was soaring, and the number of retirees was declining.

    What is better.

    The Soviet Union is gone. We are still suffering the effects of their efforts at subversion, and their disinformation operations. But, they are gone. I know Putin is sad about that, and the guys back at FSB headquarters cry into their vodka about it. But, Communism was an international religious crusade, and they have no access to that anymore. The Chinese just walked away from it, and they have a Trillion reasons to wish us well.

    We won the ideological war. It is not Conservatives and Libertarians who afraid to tell the voters what they believe. It is Liberals who want to be renamed, or insist that they are “middle of the road”. The can’t even take refuge in pragmatism anymore, their nostums are neither affordable, nor, efficacious.

    As defense analyst Colin Gray Writes in a recent book about the near-term possibilities of major conflict, “Another Bloody Century,”* when considering optimism and pessimism, “optimism is apt to kill with greater certainty.”

    — “Fear of China” by Robert D. Kaplan in The Wall Street Journal, on page A14, on April 21, 2006.

    * ISBN 0297846272

  16. Because America won the war with Nazis and the forty year war with communism, we tend to not see that we lost our own war with the revolutionaries in 1933. As Garrett put it, that world was was surrendered peacefully, without a struggle, almost unawares.

    Read more Chambers, and we see he may as well be speaking of today, when a Marxist is President. “It was the forces of the (communist) revolution that had smothered the Hiss Case for a decade, and fought to smother it in 1948. These were the forces that make the phenomenon of Alger Hiss possible; had made it possible for him to rise steadily in Government and to reach the highest post after he was already under suspicion as a Communist in many quarters, including Congress, and under the scrutiny of the F.B.I. Alger Hiss is only one name that stands for the whole Communist penetration of Government. He could not be exposed without raising the question of the real political temper and purposes of those who had protected and advanced him, and with whom he was so closely identified that they could not tell his breed from their own.”

    “Progressivism” is the true reactionary force. We evolved our instincts in small bands, where a strong leader and uniformity are essential. Socialism is instinctive, civilization is anti-instinctual, the product of accidents and happenstance which were kept around only because they worked well, not because we understood them very well. In the battle of wills between instinct and experience, you see who has an inborn advantage.

  17. Civilization is an artifice, progressivism is what you get when you apply the social instincts that were adequate in a small band of half a dozen males. Civilization requires several inventions and virtues that are counter intuitive, and have to be continually re-learned and reinforced.

    1. Cleanliness. You cannot have cities unless people and places are clean. Without cleanliness, people cannot live close to other people, because they get diseases. Thus, dirty people are bad, need to be treated as bad, repugnant, undesirable people, and similarly dirty places. Civilized people stay out of dirty places, or they get rid of the dirty people and clean those places up. Progressives tend to be dirty. Recall the astonishing piles of filth and trash left behind after the One Nation rally, the Occupy Wall Street encampments drowning in their own slowly accumulating garbage, and the stench and disease characteristic of Britain’s public hospitals.

    2. Respect for private property, freedom of contract, and freedom of trade. Adam Smith explained how this solves the coordination problem. Violating these rights complicates the coordination problem, making it unmanageable and impractical to coordinate large numbers of people. Nuclear families are naturally socialist, and this works well enough provided that Dad is benevolent dictator for life. It tends to fail even within families if Dad is not benevolent, or not dictator. The larger the group, the larger the necessary role for private property, freedom of contract, and freedom of trade. For big groups, every intrusion on property is a disaster.

    3. The scientific method. Progressivism rejects the scientific method for the “scientific” consensus, such as peer review. We continually need to ask “how do you know that”, rather than relying on a suitably prestigious authority – we need to use what Wikipedia deprecatingly calls “original research” – which is to say, replicated research, not original research. Without this, society becomes riddled with superstition, and lives in the demon haunted dark – for example recycling rules, and the dietary rules against animal fat. Science ended around 1942 or thereabouts, as peer review replaced replication. The demon haunted dark closes in upon us, shutting down nuclear power, forbidding fracking for natural gas, superstitiously terrified of dangerous compounds at one thousandth their harmful levels. Science needs to be restored.

    The need for the scientific method is a phenomenon of large groups. In small isolated groups, everyone is close to the original evidence, the testimony of the senses. In large groups we become overly reliant on what other people tell us, which can circulate entirely disconnected from the testimony of the senses The scientific method is a continual demand that such disconnects be watched for, detected, and rejected.

    4. Fatherhood. Males need to raise their children, which requires rules for families that make it attractive for males to stick around, in other words: patriarchy and female chastity. As the rules have been changed to be less and less favorable for males, more and more children have been deprived of their natural fathers, and even when fathers stick around, they are less and less involved in their children’s lives.

    If you have a plan for victory over progressivism, don’t think of making entitlements expand at a one percent slower rate, think of restoration of the basic requirements for civilization.

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