Don't ignore the Tea Party's toxic take on history.

Scrutinizing culture.
April 22 2010 4:50 PM

The Tea Party's Toxic Take on History

Ignore it at your peril.

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Some publisher should bring out a new edition of the "Secret Speech" (perhaps with an introduction by Conquest or Applebaum). It's a totally fascinating document. One aspect of its genius lies in Khrushchev's use of the phrase "the cult of personality" to condemn Stalin. (In this translation it's called "the cult of the individual.") It's brilliant, albeit in a Machiavellian way: While it denounces Stalin' self-hagiography, it does so by transferring the cult of personality to Lenin, who is portrayed as the paragon of all the perfections the deranged Stalin supposedly departed from. Thus blaming Stalin, not the Communist system. All the while offering a pitiless portrait of it.

And there's a novelistic aspect to the way the speech injects the conflict of personality into its opening, when Khrushchev depicts the final clash between Lenin and Stalin as a quarrel over Stalin's alleged rudeness to Lenin's wife on the telephone while Lenin was sick on what turned out to be his death bed. Stalin killed millions, but let's not forget his bad telephone manner.


Then the speech gets into specifics about the mass murders. And the purges of the party. What's particularly interesting about this document in the age of Abu Ghraib is how much it's about torture. It's striking to read some of the personal testimonies Khrushchev includes here. About the unbearable pain, the incessant beatings. The deliberate stomping on broken ribs. And, oh, yes, they had their euphemism for "enhanced interrogation" too: "physical pressure."

Almost as painful is reading the accounts of the tortured consciences of those tortured prisoners who gave evidence against their friends and comrades. Trumped up complaints of "anti-party" activities that got friends (and sometimes their families as well), murdered in the purges. And the Tea Party calls health insurance mandates "tyranny."

It's hard to laugh after this, but Khrushchev has a cruel sense of humor (surprise!) and can't help ridiculing the insane vanity of Stalin's cult of personality. His coup de grace is when he quotes Stalin writing his own "biography," a gushing effusion of self-praise in which Stalin tells us, "The leader of this core and the guiding force of the party and the state was Comrade Stalin. ... Although he performed his task as leader of the party and the people with consummate skill and enjoyed the unreserved support of the entire Soviet people, Stalin never allowed his work to be marred by the slightest hint of vanity, conceit or self adulation." He couldn't have said it better himself.

The pamphlet made me think further about "cult of personality" as a phrase in relation to the Tea Party. It occurred to me that their cult of personality is a kind of perverse cult of Obama. They've made a graven image of alien evil out of him. Obama: communist, Muslim, Kenyan, Manchurian candidate, fascist, socialist, capable of all varieties of political malevolence. A supervillain, with superpowers. Who requires super lies to combat.

It's time to take on these superliars and stop them from spreading their poisonous ignorance.

Correction, April 22, 2010: This piece originally referred to the National Socialist German Workers Party as the National Socialist Democratic Workers Party. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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