"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Birthdays Today

Alger Hiss was born today in 1903.   The Harvard-educated diplomat -- the original "elitist" -- was lionized as an innocent wrongly accused by the establishment Left when, in the late 1940s, he was accused by Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine writer, of having been a spy in the 1930s as a young man (along with Chambers).   When the Venona files were released in the 1990s -- decryptions of intercepts of Soviet communications from the 1930s -- it was proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Chambers had been right and Hiss had, in fact, perjured himself.   The essential books about the Hiss-Chambers case are Allen Weinstein's Perjury; Sam Tanenhaus' biography of Chambers; and Chambers' own epic memoir, Witness, one of the truly great books of the century.  

Funny story about Witness.   Back when I was a graduate student and ABD (all-but-dissertation), I applied for a tenure-track job at Indiana University in their English Department, and got an interview at the annual MLA convention (a coup at the time when you had probably a 50-1 or 100-1 chance of scoring an interview).   I remember when I was asked what work of non-fiction from the 20th Century I would teach, I said I would teach Chambers' Witness.   The room of academics went silent, although I thought I heard one woman professor gasp.   It was as if I had taken a shit on the carpet.   There were certain things one just didn't do in polite academic society in the late 1980s -- say anything supportive of Ronald Reagan; admit any sympathy for a pro-life position; go to church.   Another apparently was:  say anything at all positive about Chambers, or at all negative about Hiss.   Needless to say, I didn't get the job. 

Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.   I ended up in Milwaukee, ended up meeting my wife, ended up quitting academia for the law.   Now I drive a Mercedes and read whatever the hell I want.   Now I have a beautiful family, a beautiful wife, three beautiful kids, and a Golden Retriever.  

It's also Stubby Kaye's birthday, the great comic Broadway singer, best known from Guys and Dolls.  Here he is, in his big number:

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