“Great Spirits” versus “Useful Idiots”

by | Dec 20, 2020 | Psychology & Living

How was I to resolve the irreconcilable dilemma between my passionate love for scholarship and my gut-wrenching disappointment with those American intellectuals who condoned communist crimes?

Excerpted from the author’s book, Quarantine Reflections across Two Worlds.

“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech; which is the right of every man, as far as by it, he does not hurt or control the right of another: and this is the only check it ought to suffer, and the only bounds it ought to know.” – Benjamin Franklin, “Silence Dogood, No. 8, 9 July 1722”

 

I got my Ph.D. and then my first job as a classics research associate. It was a golden time: I got married, my son was born, and I had an attractive job writing scholarly books and articles and teaching classical languages. I was even fortunate to co-establish a charitable foundation with my husband and provide a modicum of help to my beloved country of birth.

After the completion of my research appointment, whose bliss had endured for seven years, I started applying for professorial positions. I sent but a handful of applications, only for opportunities that truly interested me. Although classics departments had been somewhat spared from turning into ideological conveyor belts promoting modernized Marxist dogmas and penalizing dissenters, a growing contingent of classicists taught unproven subjective theories at the expense of good old-fashioned training in facts, documents, and languages. I had no passion for disseminating such theories, having published extensively in the field of ancient documents on stone.

Finally, a dream job opened up at Berkeley for a tenure-track professorship of epigraphy—the study of writing on hard surfaces. I was invited for an interview and then to deliver a lecture—a delightful experience in a breathtaking paradise on Earth, which beckoned, sun-kissed, luscious, and laid-back, even in January. I ended up being a runner-up for the job, which in retrospect was a blessing in disguise.

While my academic hosts wined and dined me as a promising job candidate, for which I felt most obliged, they invariably took me to the Freedom of Speech Café, where I received a powerful dose of anti-American sentiment. I love and admire America, and this made my blood boil. I politely underscored that freedom of speech was a privilege this country had continually enjoyed; if socialist intellectuals wanted to experience its real absence, they should relocate to a communist country.

How was I to resolve the irreconcilable dilemma between my passionate love for scholarship and my gut-wrenching disappointment with those American intellectuals who condoned communist crimes? My parents had been academics, and I had dreamed of becoming one myself since the age of six. At that age, I wrote my first “dissertation,” which consisted of a title page; ten pages with educational illustrations

I meticulously drew and redrew, accompanied by detailed captions; and a judicious conclusion. The impetus had come from my beloved mother’s Ph.D. dissertation, which she defended at that time. Her example inspired me to produce a dissertation of my own, a term I childishly assumed derived from the word for dessert, since it served as the crowning achievement, the cherry on top of someone’s doctorate. I grew up with a profound sense of admiration for all those “great spirits,” who, according to Einstein’s prophetic adage, “always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” I felt incredibly blessed, at all academic institutions I attended, to have learned from such great spirits, who regarded facts as sacrosanct, while encouraging free thought and curiosity. To them I owe eternal thanks.

How different these honorable scholars and scientists were from the cookie-cutter proponents of pro-communist dogma and anti-American platitudes, who had replaced objective knowledge with ignorant propaganda. While constructive criticism of one’s government stimulates democracy, the Marxist intellectuals at Western universities engage in a destructive rewriting of history that defies the principles of scholarship.

Were these the same duty-bound Americans in whom millions of Eastern Europeans placed their hope of deliverance— that they will “tear down this wall” one day, gallop in on white horses, and rescue us from Big Brother? In 1986, Ivailo Petrov published Wolf Hunt, a profound and intrepid portrayal of the communist persecution of Bulgarian peasants, who lost their land, livestock, livelihood, and often lives. One of the novel’s main characters utters the wishful prophesy that the Americans will come: “If they don’t come in our time, then they’ll come in our children’s or our grandchildren’s time. This world wasn’t created yesterday, it has its way of doing things. What was again will be.” [1] Among Bulgarian dissidents, these words assumed a life of their own, repeated from mouth to mouth—whispered at first, then timidly voiced, and at last boldly proclaimed. My disillusionment with mainstream intelligentsia continued to intensify. One professor I knew, who earned a six-figure salary, was an unabashed self-proclaimed communist, who enjoyed a luxurious house with acres of majestic pines and an emerald pond. He incessantly directed invectives at the United States and sang “The Internationale” at his bon-vivant soirees, after distributing gaudy pink brochures with this dreadful anthem’s lyrics to his unfortunate guests.

The French have fittingly labeled this phenomenon “left caviar” or “champagne socialism.” Just think of George Bernard Shaw, who shamelessly propagated eugenics and genocide, offered to assist Hitler and Mussolini, and lauded Stalin’s extermination camps as though they were a quaint holiday arrangement of voluntary duration. Even more eloquent is the term “useful idiots,” allegedly coined by Lenin to describe Western intellectuals and journalists who were sympathetic to the communist regime, yet despised by its leadership for their naiveté, while being ruthlessly used by it to manipulate free-world media and impressionable young minds. I kept arguing with useful idiots, to the point of painful exasperation, and finally relinquished a successful academic career, appalled by their hypocrisy and ingratitude.

My education and the noble minds who sought to impart their wisdom to me will always be a part of my soul. I never regretted my decision to bid farewell to academia, or rather, what has become of it, and set sail on uncharted seas that guided me to a new vocational harbor I now treasure every day—but let this be the subject of another book.

Read Quarantine Reflections across Two Worlds by Nora Clinton.

Notes

[1] Ivailo Petrov, Wolf Hunt, trans. Angela Rodel (Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2017), 118.

Copyright © 2020 Nora D. Clinton. Republished by permission of the author.

Nora Dimitrova Clinton has a Ph.D. in Classics from Cornell, and heads the American Research Center Bulgaria.

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