The limits of ideology

Here’s a report from the Washington Times on the FBI’s probe of the charge that Ahmed Chalabi told Iranian intelligence that the U.S. had cracked Iran’s communication codes. Some U.S. officials are claiming that Chalabi was set up by his enemies in Iraq, Iran, and/or the CIA. They note that our government supposedly found out about Chalabi’s treachery when Iranians in Baghdad transmitted to Tehran the word that their code had been cracked through the very channels that they now knew were compromised. As Richard Perle puts it, “I think it’s absurd on its face to think that if the Iranians had learned from Ahmed Chalabi or anybody else that their most senstive communications channels were compromised they would reveal that in those channels.”
Perle may well be right. However, I think agnosticism is the most reasonable position for most of us to take with respect to Chalabi. Indeed, that is almost always the case in these matters, and it amuses me when people adopt ideologically-based positions about how a public figure behaved. The two best examples are Alger Hiss and Clarence Thomas (Bill Clinton is a different case — there was little dispute about how he had behaved and the issue was how important his misconduct was, which is a proper subject for ideological resolution). In the first case, the question was whether Hiss had been a Russian spy. In the second case, the question was whether Thomas had made certain comments to Anita Hill. Little should have hinged on either of these factual disputes. For example, McCarthyism could have been a bad thing and a real problem even though Hiss was a spy (that was my father’s view). And feminism could be valid even if Thomas never talked to Hill about “Long Dong Silver.” Yet most feminists were ready to stake everything on Hill’s veracity, while many conservatives dogmatically insisted that Thomas was wrongly accused. And even now that evidence from Soviet archives has pointed conclusively to Hiss’ guilt, many anti-anti-Communists still go to the mat for the dapper one-time diplomat.
I suppose the reason for this phenomenon is that people take their ideology seriously and expect a great deal in return. They want their ideology to be able to explain all that happens and to answer all controversial questions of the day, even idiosyncratic factual ones. In my case, dedication to ideology cuts the other way. I consider my beliefs too important to stake on the issue of how a stranger behaved. But I guess I’m an exception, like my father was when it came to Hiss.


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