07/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Meaning of Treason

I first read Rebecca West's Meaning of Treason in the 1990s. At the time I was more interested in the looping grace of West's sentences than in her moral observations. Content trumped style after 9/11. My parents knew what it was like to be cowered into silence; they had escaped Castro's Cuba, with its uncompromising slogan of "fatherland or death." But I was naively dismayed when opponents of the Bush administration had their patriotism questioned. So I took another look at West's book, a Cold War-era study of people who had really sold out their country, to see if it had anything relevant to say about the current political climate. What I found was a potent warning against the dangers of commingling dissent and disloyalty in the public imagination.

The Meaning of Treason was originally conceived as a magazine assignment. In 1945 Harold Ross, the New Yorker's founding editor, asked West to report on the trials of William Joyce and John Amery, two British fascists who had fled to Nazi Germany. Dubbed Lord Haw-Haw, Joyce became the most notorious propaganda broadcaster of the European theater; Amery formed the British Free Corps, a ragtag unit of POWs who had been gulled into agreeing to fight the Soviets in the eastern front. As West sat through the proceedings at the blitz-damaged Old Bailey, she realized she had enough material for a book. Two years later it was published to wide acclaim, including a Time cover of the author with the quote/tagline: "In the 20th century, treason is a vocation." In 1964 an updated version was released, with added chapters on the atom spies, the Cambridge Five (only three members of the ring were then known), and the Profumo affair.

In her youth, West had been a fiery socialist whose critiques of the male-dominated status quo drew praise from George Bernard Shaw and Ford Maddox Ford. Born Cicily Fairfield, she took her pen name from the heroine of Rosmersholm, a typically themed Ibsen play on the conflict between desire and tradition. It ends with the heroine and her lover leaping to their deaths. West never went that far, but she did pay a steep emotional price for her involvement with H.G. Wells. Her decade-long affair with "the damaged polygamist," as she called the married novelist, was turbulent and traumatic. Their son would wind up idolizing him and despising her.

Eventually, West gravitated to the right. She defended the monarchy and settled down in a country manor with a banker husband. But unlike Oswald Mosley and his circle, she never flirted with or embraced fascism. Her antipathy toward Hitler was solidified during her experience in the Balkans, which she chronicled in her 1000-plus page travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Black Lamb came out in 1941, the same year as Orwell's essay "The Lion and the Unicorn." Both works argue in favor of the lesser evil of democracy: as Orwell put it, England may be "a family with the wrong members in control," but its snobbery and stodginess are preferable to a corrupt and claustrophobic totalitarianism.

Still, some Englishmen actively sided with Hitler. They did so, West believes, in order to reinvent themselves. In a letter to Leonard Woolf, she describes treason as an act of deracination; it is "the root of all our human misery---the desire to frustrate ourselves, not to be what we are." This is memorably illustrated in The Meaning of Treason. The chapters on Joyce and Amery are psychological tours de force; West reveals the counterintuitive mix of egotism and self-loathing that curdled beneath their ideological pretenses. In Joyce's case, he "sinned that sin which travesties legitimate hatred because it is felt for kindred, as incest is the travesty of legitimate love."

Joyce cuts a pathetic, lost figure in the dock. After all, the Nazis have been vanquished; but when the subject turns to the expanding Communist menace, West shows no mercy, especially to her fellow intellectuals. She portrays them as left-wing stooges and apologists whose efforts to undermine the establishment indirectly furthered Soviet aims. The prefaces of Shaw's plays, for instance, were "battlefields where the values of traditional culture made their last stand and bled and died." In their place arose drift and dissatisfaction, Bloomsbury and Bright Young Things, an infantile generation wallowing in shalowness, a pool of potential traitors for the KGB to tap into.

This is tendentious in the extreme. The First World War destroyed the old order, not Major Barbara and Pygmalion. And those values West mourns applied a civilized gloss to imperialism and oppression. But just when you think you've got your hands on a screed, she regains her equilibrium. She rejects blind conformity: "All men should have a drop of treason in their veins, if the nations are not to go soft like so many sleepy pears." And she understands that the enemy will prevail by making us become what we behold: "The traitor can change the community into a desert haunted by fear, and it is our business to realize what force is at work and change it back again . . . We must reject evil and dispel suspicion without falling into the error of confusing unpopular forms of virtue with evil. . . Since the traitor's offence is that he conspires against the liberty of his fellow countrymen to choose their way of life, we ally ourselves with him if we try to circumvent him by imposing restrictions on the liberty of the individual which interfere with the legitimate business of the soul . . . The story told in these pages shows that we would have been spared a great deal of trouble if we had simply kept our cupboards locked and had removed from our public service officials who were habitually blind drunk. But if we do not keep before us the necessity of uniting care for security with the determination to preserve our liberties, we may lose our cause because we have fought too hard."

The patriopaths (for that is what they are, part-psychopath, part-patriot) who defend "enhanced interrogation techniques," "terrorist surveillance programs," and other euphemistic unconstitutional horrors are not just fighting too hard. Being an American entails at least a nominal respect for human rights and the rule of law. Men like Cheney, Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck see this as quaint and a sign of weakness, and in rejecting this fundamental ideal they are committing a form of treason, at least as Rebecca West defined it: they wish to frustrate themselves, to not be what they are. The Meaning of Treason reminds us that sometimes the worst betrayal is the trading of values for the illusion of safety.