Monday, November 10, 2008

the treason problem

Klaus Fuchs - a bit naive, a bit arrogant

Rebecca West's collection of essays, The Meaning of Treason, is both reportage and meditation. The edition I've been reading was published in 1952 and it deals with the treason of Nazi collaborators such as William Joyce [Lord Haw-Haw] and John Amery, the more or less incompetent founder of the British Free Corps, an organisation mired in haplessness. The later essays, however, treat of scientists who sold secrets to Soviet Russia, including Allen Nun May and the controversial physicist Klaus Fuchs. It's worth noting that these trials were conducted in, and contributed to, an atmosphere of anti-communist paranoia that came to a head with McCarthyism in the USA. 
In spite of the title, I'm not sure that West has come to terms with the concept of treason. Then again, I'm not sure if it's possible to come to terms with it or wholly capture it - it's a slippery and ever-contested concept. West's book is naturally of its time, a time buffeted by the most damaging war, perhaps, in human history. Considering this, West's judgment and those of her contemporaries seem measured and humane enough. Compare the response to September 11 [not an act of treason but yet somehow seen as a betrayal "of our freedoms''], when the tragic and senseless murder of 3000 people was seen as sufficient reason for invading two nations, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, imprisoning countless numbers of their inhabitants, suspending habeas corpus, dispensing with the Geneva conventions, encouraging the use of torture, creating secret prisons and so much more besides. At times like this, when a nation sinks so low, the line between treason and whistle-blowing becomes hard to draw. 
Rebecca West was faced with no such problems when she wrote her book. The defeat of fascism had laid bare all its murderous and nihilistic horror. Communism under Stalin had revealed itself as equally bereft of value. Still, treason isn't really about different systems of governance, it's about your country versus everyone else's. It's about the meaning of ''my country''. It's about patriotism, the flip side of treason.  
In her epilogue to the essay collection, West returned to the central concept, perhaps feeling she needed to sharpen the focus. She began by anticipating Peter Singer's notion of the expanding circle; the self, the immediate family, the larger community of interests... and then country. 
Born and bred in England, he will find it easier to understand the English than the rest of men, not for any mystical reason, but because their language is his, because he is fully acquainted with their customs, and because he is the product of their common history. So also each continent enjoys a vague unity of self-comprehension, and is divided from the others by a sharp disunity...
We can all sense what is being gotten at here, and it raises interesting questions, because it suggests that treason [and patriotism], isn't necessarily about nationhood, but perhaps more about [the betrayal or upholding of] a shared heritage, which may or may not be tied to a nation state. One can imagine being accused of treason against Athens in ancient times, for example, or even of being a traitor to the Aboriginal cause, but to claim someone as a traitor to the European Union seems way too fraught, the ''unity of self-comprehension'' being altogether too vague and too riven with competing allegiances to carry conviction. 
West goes on to say - but I'm oversimplifying, I know - that this simple pleasure in shared heritage has been 'lately' muddied by rationalism, by which
the ardours of patriotism were to be abandoned, and replaced by a cool resolution to place one's country on a level with all others in one's affections and to hand it over without concern to the dominion of any other power which could offer it greater material benefits
I would suggest though, that at all times there have been characters, and more than we might like to admit, who have switched national allegiences as frequently, and often for much the same reasons, as pro footballers have switched clubs. Think of Alcibiades, who worked just as hard for Sparta against Athens as he ever did for his birth state, and then again for the Persians against the Peloponnesians, or Josephus, the controversial adviser to Rome on all things Jewish. In troubled times, the self, the centre of that circle of affections, often becomes paramount. 

To us now, Nazi or Stalinist sympathisers seem beyond the pale for reasons having little to do with treason, unless we use the term in the sense of betraying the whole species. Still, we are able to make concessions – for the Brits of German background caught between two sides, for the hapless, uneducated POWs who joined the British Free Corps in exchange for kinder treatment from their captors, and even, though to a lesser degree, for those leftists who genuinely believed that communism would provide us all with something somehow better.

In an odd passage [she can certainly be obscure at times] West seems to mock and dismiss the internationalism which many would nowadays claim as a basis for shaking off or transcending the quasi-primitive charms of nationalism: 

So the evil moment of fascism came and was clear: not surpassed in evil since the days of the barbarian invasions. The devil of nationalism had been driven out of man, but he had not become the headquarters of the dove. Instead there had entered into him the seven devils of internationalism, and he was torn by their frenzies.

This is more sensationalist than illuminating, but West seemed to believe that this internationalist spirit was a product of a rationalism more dangerous even than the misguided nationalisms that had so recently damaged Europe, and the sphere of Japanese adventurism. It was defeated, she claimed, by the simple reassertion of ordinary folks' claims to their own heritage in the aftermath of the war. I think the term ideology should replace rationalism here, and her remarks are clearly better suited to socialist/communist 'blank slate' ideology, internationalist in spirit, than to fascism, with its focus on nationalist/cultural bloodlines. West's critique is both eloquent and at times hopelessly muddy. In the end it's about cherishing your own - not too much, for ... All men should have a drop or two of treason in their veins, if the nations are not to go soft like so many pears. Of course she’s right that we have to appreciate the small values, the small virtues, those that Nietszche sneered at in Zarathustra. That we shouldn’t aim so high that we lose sight of our foiblesome neighbours and their strivings. The question is, whether people should be punished for giving their all to an idea or a set of ideas rather than to their neighbours, as a matter of principle. It will depend, of course, on the idea, and on the neighbours. The problem with communism was never its international appeal, it was an appeal to a vague utopian concept of equality and social engineering. To sell your neighbours into danger for something so vague and dubious was both naive and arrogant. Was it treason? Probably, yes, but perhaps not quite as commonly understood. The meaning of treason remains unresolved, indeed never more so in an age of increasing global co-operation. In fact, with treason not having much of a profile in the courts these days, the question, both of treason and of patriotism has clearly become increasingly vexed. May it continue to be so - it might just be a sign of maturity. 

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