An American 'Yezhovschina'?

Maxwell Smart: Are you a psychologist, Dr. Stueben?

Dr. Stueben: I’m the president of the psychologist society for mental health and adjustment through fulfillment.

Smart: What kind of an organization is that?

Stueben: We’re a hate group.

Smart (following a double-take): A hate group?

Stueben: Oh, in the sense that we cure hate and fear. We hate hate. Hate it.

From “All in the Mind,” a 1965 episode offering redundant proof that Get Smart was the work of perceptive and prescient satirists.

A September 1996 American Bar Association conference on terrorism and the law in Washington, D.C. presented me with an opportunity I had long coveted.

Among the presenters at that event was former New York Times legal and political affairs columnist Anthony Lewis, long one of the most predictable journalistic voices on the left. One of his favorite tropes was the description of the American Right as “merchants of hate,” an expression that seemed to serve as the title for every second or third column Lewis wrote.

During a break in the proceedings I cornered Lewis. By way of introduction, told him (in all sincerity) that I had enjoyed reading his book Gideon’s Trumpet as a High School student.

“I’ve long wanted to ask you something about a subject you frequently address in your column,” I continued. “You often make reference to `right-wing hate groups.’ Do you acknowledge the existence of left-wing hate groups, as well — and do you consider them to be a potential threat to society?”

Lewis stood in genuinely stunned silence for a good half a minute or so before tentatively saying, “Well, I suppose there could be such a thing as a left-wing hate group” — made with the same grudging, reluctant tone one might use when conceding the possible existence of unicorns, extra-terrestrial intelligence, or cerebral matter inside of Sean Hannity’s skull.

Like many others of his political persuasion, Lewis was hard-wired in such a way that he could clearly discern “hate” only when it manifested itself among his political opponents.

He had internalized the conceit that the left, as the embodiment of progress and tolerance, was utterly devoid of hatred and similar base motivations; those impulses are monopolized by the forces of “reaction.” Since, according to this ideological model, conservatives are hostage to false consciousness, they really aren’t honest about their own motives and indeed cannot be.

Even if they don’t consciously hate anybody, the politics of conservatives and other “right-wingers” are objectively hateful, you see, because they oppose inevitable social progress. What other motive could exist for such behavior, apart from simple, irrational belligerence or even outright hatred?

The only politically acceptable hatred, therefore, is to hate the haters — those whose attitudes and opinions are irreconcilable with progressive prejudices. Where possible, efforts should be made to rehabilitate haters into useful members of the collective — useful, that is, if only as informants and teaching examples. But when dealing with authentically incorrigible haters — particularly those unwilling to confess that hatred is their genuine motivation — sterner measures may be necessary.

This was the logic — if that word applies — behind the political use of psychiatry in the Soviet Union: Only someone clinically deranged could hate socialism, and since such people were a danger to themselves and society, they had to be incarcerated in the psiushka (psychiatric gulag) and forcibly cured of their anti-social(ist) tendencies. The heroic former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky recounts his own experience in the Soviet psycho-gulag in his memoir, To Build a Castle.

The Soviet use of psychiatry was an outgrowth of the Regime’s longstanding policy of pre-emption: Threats to “stability” and “social order” had to be recognized and aborted before they reached maturity.

This concept was embedded in the Soviet Union’s Fundamental Principles of Penal Legislation, which identified the central mission of the state’s law enforcement apparatus (chiefly the Ckeha or secret police, by whatever acronym it was later known) as that of identifying, and removing the threat of, “socially dangerous persons.”

This notion was encapsulated in Article 58 of the penal code, which served as the legal foundation for the Soviet regime’s perpetual war of terror against dissent.

The law dealing with “socially dangerous persons,” observes the authoritative Black Book of Communism, dealt with “any activity that, without directly aiming to overthrow or weaken the Soviet regime, was in itself `an attack on the political or economic achievements of the revolutionary proletariat.’ The law thus not only punished intentional transgressions but also proscribed possible or unintentional acts.”

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And the term “socially dangerous persons” was based on “extremely elastic categories” that permitted the imprisonment of people in the gulag “even in the absence of guilt.” This is because what the Soviet rulers were pleased to call “the law” specified that incarceration, exile, or execution could be employed as means of “social protection” against “anyone classified as a danger to society, either for a specific crime that has been committed or when, even if exonerated of a particular crime, the person is still reckoned to pose a threat to society.”

Note carefully here how Soviet “law” discarded entirely with the idea of punishing overt acts, focusing instead on the supposed motivations of those deemed innately threatening to the regime. Note as well how the system was rigged to nullify exculpatory verdicts.

Of course, the Soviet government punished common criminals, at least those it didn’t recruit into the ranks of its enforcement agencies. But as Paul Gregory points out in his book Lenin’s Brain, most of those imprisoned in the gulag were there not because of what they had done, but because of what the state suspected they could do; they were being isolated from the rest of society “because of actual or suspected opposition to the Soviet state.”

In 1935, an individual best described as five feet of feculent malice added another key element to the Soviet formula for institutionalized terror. A foul, vulgar little creature named Nikolai Yezhov, an intimate associate of Stalin, wrote a pseudo-academic paper contending that any form of political opposition should be treated as incipient terrorism.

The “Poisoned Dwarf”: Nikolai Yezhov, diminutive in stature, crippled in body and morals, was the intellectual architect and, as head of the NKVD, chief enforcer of Stalin’s Great Purge.

Yezhov, who came to be known as “Stalin’s Poison Dwarf,” lusted to be head of the secret police. He secured that post following the assassination of Stalin’s rival Sergei Kirov, an act of terrorism orchestrated by Stalin that inaugurated the campaign of official terrorism known as the Great Purge. Yezhov toppled his predecessor as head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, by accusing the old Bolshevik of being inadequately zealous in finding and eliminating Stalin’s enemies. Yezhov distinguished himself by his murderous zeal until he, too, was denounced, tortured into multiple confessions, and executed.

Viewed in the context of the Soviet regime’s decades-long campaign of repression and terror, Yezhov’s role in building the body count was relatively modest. The same really can’t be said of his distinctive contribution to the art and practice of totalitarianism, namely the reductionist claim that all anti-statist activism will eventually beget terrorism.

Trace elements of the Poisoned Dwarf’s influence — or, at least, a toxin very similar in composition — can be found in the Pentagon’s claim that political protests are a form of “low-level terrorism.”

Echoes of Yezhov’s claim, and the Soviet doctrine of dealing pre-emptively with “socially dangerous persons,” can also be heard in demands for federal action to imprison “haters” even in the absence of overt criminal acts.

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Bonnie Erbe, who has afflicted public television for decades and now scribbles the occasional cyber-screed for CBS News, recently gave full-throated expression to the Soviet perspective on “pre-emption.”

"If yesterday’s Holocaust Museum slaying … is not a clarion call for banning hate speech, I don’t know what is,” shrilled Erbe, insisting that something must be done about ridding the Internet and the public dialogue of hate speech. But she wouldn’t stop there; the purge would mean doing away with the “haters,” as well.

Referring to the accused murderers of security guard Stephen Johns, abortionist George Tiller, and military recruiter William Long (whose alleged murderer was an American convert to Islam), Erbe insists: "It’s not enough to prosecute these murders as murders. They are hate-motivated crimes and each of these men had been under some sort of police surveillance prior to their actions. Isn’t it time we started rounding up promoters of hate before they kill?"

String up the barbed wire, sharpen the guillotine, fire up the crematoria: There are haters in our midst to be dealt with!