To my surprise, “The Committee for the Free World, Midge Decter Executive Secretary,” invited me to attend its conference on “Our Country and Our Culture,” February 12-13, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Admission, $50. I confess that whenever I see a piece of print reading “The Committee for the Free World, Midge Decter Executive Secretary,” I laugh. I’m reminded of a young reporter, who was granted an interview in the Oval Office with President Lyndon Johnson, and so exasperated Johnson by his bumbling questions that the great man, rising to his full 6 feet 3 1/2 inches, sputtered in indignation: “How can you ask a chicken-shit question like that of the Head of the Free World?”
For all the contemptuousness and rigidity of the views I first observed years ago at a Dalton School PTA meeting, Midge Decter’s easy laughter still persuades me that in this “neoconservative” there is a cynic waiting to be let out. Although she surprised me by going public to excoriate homosexuality, liberated women, and protestant clergymen foolish enough to worry over Lebanese children without a roof over their heads, I confess to affection for Midge. I cannot resist her smile of worldly experience. When I called her to accept the invitation, admitting that I was surprised to be asked, she cheerfully said: “It’s not too late to save your soul.”
The Committee for the Free World is not exactly a committee, though I am sure it is run like one by the local presidium, drawn largely from Commentary’s staff and writers, whose struggle against international communism earned the Committee a grant (in 1981) of $100,000 in Mellon money from the Carthage Foundation in Pittsburgh. The Committee is the latest and most aggressive of those bodies of former leftist intellectuals, in the tradition of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which, concentrating on the danger of communism abroad and at home, still consider themselves an avant-garde of sorts. Unlike the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, however, which fell apart in dissension over McCarthyism because many members still considered themselves liberals, radicals, democratic socialists, and would not wish to become fellow travelers of Senator Taft, James Burnham, William F. Buckley, Jr., and tutti quanti, the Committee for the Free World is a straightforward rightist organization—for former liberals and former leftists.
This avant-garde has personal and political ties with the Reagan administration, can always be depended upon to support Begin and to ignore much of what goes on in South Africa. It is part of that astonishingly wide “conservative” network in America represented by Social Democrats USA, Freedom House, the current United States delegation to the United Nations, the magazines Commentary, The National Review, The American Spectator, The New Criterion, Mainstream, The American Scholar, and The Public Interest, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the evangelists behind the Moral Majority, the defense contractors behind the American Security Council, libertarians opposed to gun control, the groups in favor of capital punishment and opposed to abortion, the “Right to Work” lobby—and, of course, Senator Jesse Helms’s Congressional Club. This last was described by The Wall Street Journal as “a unique political conglomerate, the best-known and possibly the largest political fundraiser on the national scale”; it has such offshoots as the American Family Institute, the Institute on Money and Inflation, the Institution on Religion and Democracy.
We live in a time of many reversals; it is undoubtedly true, as Henry Steele Commager suggested long before Reagan became president, that if the Bill of Rights were submitted to Congress today it would not pass. The twentieth century may yet be remembered for uniting, right to left, in hatred of the Enlightenment. As always, political intellectuals and cultural bureaucrats think they are moving history when they are only changing “positions.” You are old, you ex-hopefuls, and your hair has become very white; and yet you incessantly stand on your head—Do you think, at your age, it is right? Still, the “conservative consensus” that so excited William Safire and Norman Podhoretz at Reagan’s election, though its vision of America resembles that of a defense contractor, seems more powerful than it really is partly because of the idiocy of the extreme left, the general disenchantment with radicalism, the weakness of the labor movement.
Some far-right foundations oiled with Texas money will not support organizations in which Jews are prominent, no matter how “anticommunist” they are. Good relations between conservatives and the Reagan administration are not always predictable, in any event. A recent Heritage Foundation report attacking affirmative action was mostly written by government employees. Helping to found the Committee on the Present Danger, a former incarnation of the Committee for the Free World, did not save Eugene V. Rostow from being fired as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Norman Podhoretz, who evidently believed that Commentary had provided the intellectual momentum for Reagan’s victory in 1980, was not made head of the International Communications Agency, a post he had reportedly been given reason to expect.
Still, “neoconservativism” itself is so successful an employment agency for right thinkers that one becomes quickly accustomed to the news that Commentary’s contributors are associated with the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, etc., etc. And it was no surprise that Dr. William Bennett, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was scheduled as the guest speaker for the Committee’s lunch, although the snowstorm that weekend prevented his appearance. Dr. Bennett, a Harvard Law School graduate who prefers academic administration to the law, was assistant to President John Silber of Boston University and assistant director to the late Charles Frankel at the National Humanities Center. Despite his association with such an old-fashioned liberal as Frankel, Dr. Bennett is undoubtedly a genuine conservative and not a convert. But he has appointed to the Advisory Board of the NEH a genuine neoconservative, Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of the favorite theses of this distinguished specialist in nineteenth-century England, so comforting to those who have recently made it in the US, is that poverty, even in Victorian England (and despite the wealth of its documentation), was the delusion of upper-class types who were getting sensitive.
Before Dr. Bennett was finally named to head the endowment, Reagan nominated a Texas university expert on William Faulkner whose decisive contribution to our period was the disclosure that Abraham Lincoln had violated due process when he drew up the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free slaves still in Confederate hands. We must be grateful to Irving Kristol for helping to stop that particular appointment, which would have made for some strange political bedfellows indeed. But how far Irving kristol, the “godfather” of the neoconservatives, as he was acclaimed at the Plaza conference, has traveled from the streets of Williamsburg, a Trotskyist alcove at City College, and a job on Commentary (when its editors and contributors still could contradict one another) that he should know well enough the views of a Confederate zealot to relieve the administration of embarrassment.
Kristol, until very recently Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University, now the university’s professor of social theory in the economics department, is also the editor of The Public Interest, an adviser to conservative congressmen, a recent guest at the White House, and a board member of several American corporations. Unlike novelists, poets, and ordinary scholars, whose work does not easily lend itself to support by an ideological pressure group, the intellectuals who depend on the cold war for their careers find not only safety in numbers but the assurance of worldly progress. The solidarity they display on every question of opinion! The last time I wrote for Commentary an assistant keeper of the flame struggled for an hour on the long-distance line to Notre Dame, where I was then teaching, to persuade me to take out a derisive description of Richard Nixon.
The blizzard made it impossible for me to get to the Plaza in time to hear the main “presentation on Politics and the Arts” by Hilton Kramer. Kramer was also absent, but in the discussion period the meeting heard from Joseph Epstein, the editor of The American Scholar, the organ of the Phi Beta Kappa associations and a journal never known for any political position, until Epstein started publishing views resembling those of Kramer, his old colleague on the New Leader, once the official organ of the American Socialist Party. Indeed, Epstein’s observations at the conference, summarized by The New York Times of February 14, might have been written by Kramer himself:
Something odd has happened to American literary culture in recent years. Suddenly American literature, contemporary American literature, seems rather lackluster, a bit beside the point, less than first rate, even though American political power is still great. Why?
To think the worst of our society—against a superabundance of evidence to the contrary—gives the self-dramatizing American literary imagination a background against which to dramatize itself. And the contemporary literary scene is rife with writers whose chief stock in the trade of ideas is a fairly crude sort of anti-Americanism.
This formula—“writers whose chief stock in the trade of ideas is a fairly crude sort of anti-Americanism”—led, I was told, to discussion of strategy at the Plaza. How are right-thinking people to turn the American novel around? Of course, to raise the question suggests Zhdanovism, agitprop, or what soviet literary orthodoxy constantly demands of the “shock troops of literature”: “Bring our literature into line with Soviet progress!” But there were no novelists, poets, critics, or philosophers at the conference to provide the media communicators present with elementary distinctions between the realms of art and “American political power.” Being at the Plaza, Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite oasis in his favorite city, I remembered an observation in his notebooks. “Art inevitably grows out of a period when, in general, the artist admires his own nation and wants to win its approval. This fact is not altered by the circumstance that his work may take the form of satire….” Satire was a closed subject to the Plaza patriots so aggrieved by what only intellectual thugs used to denounce as “anti-Americanism.” When I mentioned the Plaza scene in The Great Gatsby to one middle-aged “discussant,” he looked at me suspiciously and said, “What’s a Gatsby?”
As art critic of the Times Hilton Kramer was a heavy stylist who seemed to be keeping his opinions under tight restraint, while outside the Times’s art columns he became more interesting as he became politically more shrill, deploring, for example, the sinister connection between homosexuality and radicalism. He made a point of this in reviewing Martin Green’s Children of the Sun. Evidently a new outlet was needed, The New Criterion, and for this Kramer and his publisher managed to obtain half a million dollars (in all) from the John M. Olin Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Scaife Family Charitable Trust, and the Carthage Foundation (also mainly supported by Richard Mellon Scaife).
The New Criterion takes its name, of course, from T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion (1922-1939). Eliot was able to found The Criterion in 1922 because that was the year that The Waste Land established him as the most provocative but influential poet-critic of the modernist movement. It was considered an organ of the most austere and distinguished European opinion—along with the Nouvelle Revue Française, La Revue des Deux Mondes, Die Deutsche Rundschau, and Benedetto Croce’s La Critica. Eliot said that poetry deals with the world as it is, criticism with the world as it should be. He saw the world descending into chaos because of its lack of respect for spiritual truth and religious authority; he was also a marvelous working critic who wrote and inspired unforgettable observations on the practice of art.
Few of Eliot’s contributors went as far as he did when, with his curious political ingenuousness, he wrote in The Criterion supporting the ultraroyalist and anti-Semitic Action Française and wrote that if he had to choose, he would elect fascism over communism. (Eliot voted Labour in 1945 and disavowed the Page-Barbour Lectures of 1933, After Strange Gods, in which he declared that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”) Eliot gave The Criterion its authority, and its modest costs were supplied by Eliot’s employer, the publishing firm of Faber and Faber. Far from being in any way jingoistic or “patriotic” in the hectoring style favored by former leftists who have changed nothing but their opponents, Eliot above all sought to found a “European” consciousness. With the outbreak of war in 1939, Eliot gave up The Criterion.
The New Criterion, supported in part by the John M. Olin Foundation, has its editorial offices at 460 Park Avenue in the office of the Olin Corporation, which in 1982 had revenues of $2.2 billion and is currently number 195 on Fortune’s list of the top 500 companies. More than half of the Olin Corporation’s business is in chemicals. It owns the license for the manufacture of Winchester rifles. Some of its many products are small-caliber ammunition, pool chemicals, skis, carpet padding, copper for the US Mint, brass, cellophane, cigarette paper. A literary and art review whose editorial column preaches the virtue of something called “democratic capitalism” (no further discriminations are made) must be one of the more modest investments of Olin money.
One political passion behind Eliot’s Criterion was resentment of what Henry James, describing his own native’s return in The American Scene, lamented as “the inconceivable alien.” Eliot said that American history came to an end with the accession of Andrew Jackson. Each year, on the anniversary of Richard III’s defeat and death at Bosworth Field, he wore a white rose. Like many of us in America today, Hilton Kramer is descended from “the inconceivable alien.” We are not Anglo-Catholic or royalist, and we have learned that even T.S. Eliot was not as orthodox in literary or political opinion as he wanted to be. History does move. Our tradition is a pluralistic, democratic America, with its constitutional prescription of mixed powers, intellectual freedom, and some ineradicable awareness that this buoyant and exciting society still rides cruelly over millions. There has been no stronger American tradition than the struggle for a just society.
The political passion behind The New Criterion, at least in its first issues, seems mostly to be resentment of intellectuals who think differently from Hilton Kramer. The 1960s may be over for most of its young people but they are not over for Kramer, who views most of our cultural defects as survivals of a defunct radicalism. Introducing The New Criterion in September 1982, Kramer announced that “most of what is written” in American journals pretending to criticism “is either hopelessly ignorant, deliberately obscurantist, commercially compromised, or politically motivated…. Criticism at every level… has almost everywhere degenerated into one or another form of ideology or publicity or some pernicious combination of the two….” Example? The innuendo in Dore Ashton’s American Art Since 1945 that the Philip Morris Company would have censored Hanns Eisler’s parody of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, in a concert the company sponsored to accompany the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition of German Expressionism, had the company “only known” what was going on. Kramer indignantly rejects such thoughts about American corporations, but wants to know why it is wrong and even sinister “for corporate patrons of the arts to evince the least curiosity about the social implications of the artistic programs they are invited to sponsor.” Another example: left-wing criticism by two English art historians of John Rewald’s Post-Impressionism, the present “cult status” of the Marxist critic John Berger, the sad case of Lucy Lippard, who in the Seventies “fell victim to the radical whirlwind.” Hilton Kramer has detected a “radical whirlwind” in Mrs. Thatcher’s England and Mr. Reagan’s America, countries where heavy unemployment has counter-produced a growing fatalism and despair.
I had no idea that the left had retained so much power in the Reagan epoch; and, in fact, when such an independent critic as Ada Louise Huxtable writes in The New Criterion, she attacks the grotesque corporate buildings that are ruining Madison Avenue two blocks away from the Olin Corporation’s offices. It remains to be seen whether anything will be said in The New Criterion about the self-satisfied ignorance that is so much a product of the mechanisms and mechanistic thinking that dominate “communications” in every field.
Perhaps it will. In his own writing, kramer’s “new” criterion for appraising what happens on the American scene is mainly whether it can be linked not to the actualities of American society, but to anti-Americanism. Since “anti-Americanism” can no longer be identified with being soft on communism (no one in his senses now being soft on communism), it consists of being critical of American business. Yet as editor, it must be said, Kramer publishes sober pieces on art, music, and cultural history that go their own way. It is a positive relief to find Frederick Crews writing in the current issue, “There is no need to attach sinister importance to the strange political tenor of [Leslie] Fiedler’s latest criticism.
The Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at Columbia, Robert Nisbet, also missed the first session, where he was to give one of the main talks, on “The University and its Discontents.” This was read to the panel and, according to the Times, Nisbet cited polls among students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism showing that 75 percent of the students believed the United States exploited and impoverished third world countries and that 89 percent felt the primary aim of American foreign policy was to advance private business. “It is in this light,” Nisbet said, “that I expect to see a new mass movement arise during the next few years comparable to the Greens in West Germany.”
Nisbet is an academic Tory whose recent book Prejudices, from which excerpts appeared in Commentary, displays a closed view of a modern world in which actual politics and social forces play no part at all. He sees our chief problem as the bureaucratic omnipresent state, which has eliminated or minimized all those institutions that once intervened between state power and the individual—family, community, religion—in order to inform and protect the citizen, and that provide him with the culture, freedom, and opportunity for responsible opinion and free decision.
It is somehow supposed that this revocation of personal and community rights occurred almost wholly under the baleful influence of the great totalitarian ideologue Rousseau. No one who knows American life outside the university could agree that this “revocation” exists in the summary terms Professor Nisbet asserts. But modern history to Professor Nisbet is a closed circle of ideas, the wrong ideas. Society, the actual spectrum of human difference and people’s mingled lives, with all the strange beliefs and resentments that keep them going, does not come into it. Nisbet is charming, witty, and writes in a style of civilized regret for everything that has taken place since the French Revolution.
Whenever he goes to history itself for actual documentation, his theoretical frame eludes genuine crises and conflicts. In the style of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who not only accommodated herself to “authoritarian” states but came to like them, Professor Nisbet praises Elizabethan England as an example of the superior literature and art that came into being under “authoritarian” regimes as ways of circumventing the censor. Thus to align Shakespeare’s England with South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, etc., should puzzle writers in exile from these “authoritarian” countries. How was Shakespeare able to please the “authorities,” while Nadine Gordimer and other talented writers from South Africa and South America can’t? A poor joke, as Professor Nisbet’s versions of actual history often are.
But his absence left a hole in the conference; he supplies to neoconservative publications the necessary tone of deep thought and cultural pessimism, without ruffling anyone’s political ambitions, although his idea of social history is innocent to the point of farce. In a discussion of “Covetousness” in Prejudices his principal example is academics competing for endowed chairs. Compared with neoconservatives, though, Professor Nisbet is no more than an old-fashioned conservative with a longing for “the traditional community, which alone is the source and sustenance of birth, marriage, and death.” He is, very properly, outraged by what he calls the “shameless culture.” That is just the word for it—“anti-American” as that makes Professor Nisbet. But how odd that under “Effrontery” his principal examples (names not given, but everyone who came of age in the Sixties will be able to identify them) should be the university president who, having insisted on a yacht and a private jet, fled from bandoliered blacks, a former secretary of defense “who…helped to instigate the longest, costliest, and most unsuccessful war in United States history, winning renown for his computerized bodycounts,” and “the astronomer-impresario” who on television is “in constant incantation of the great god science and in equally constant anathema of all religious impulse.”
Professor Nisbet might have found examples of “effrontery” and “the shameless culture” closer to home. Example: Professor Irving Kristol’s paper on “The Responsibility of the Press,” the main event of the conference’s closing session. His thesis: the media are in the hands of an “educated minority,” who do not reflect the sane views of the populace. Plato had it wrong when he said that “democratic man” is guided by passion and antinomianism. Kristol: “The debasements of democracy appear only among the educated. They are dedicated to the destruction of the civilization they have inherited.”
Yet this “educated minority,” according to Kristol, is recruited mostly from journalism schools, which represent the fourth level of mind in American education. (The fifth is schools of education.) I doubt myself that much can be said for the journalism schools, but I had forgotten how much of an Anglophile Kristol became when he was co-editor of Encounter. “The only journal in the English-speaking world worthy of respect,” he said, “is The Economist.” The Economist alone interprets events from “the point of view of those who take responsibility for governing, those destined to govern.” In America, by contrast, journalism’s only goal is one adversary to the established order, its aim (again I quote him word for word) “to destroy all authority.”
Such reflections from the point of view of those responsible “for governing” may have been to the point when Kristol dined at the White House on January 19, although one doubts he mentioned Plato to the president. According to the Times story, the guests were summoned because “the President is reaching out for advice.” On leaving, Professor Kristol told the press:
The President certainly did not look besieged. He was the same as he’s always been the few times I’ve seen him—very relaxed, very pleasant and amiable. The evening was informal. The President did not take the lead. There was really no effort in any systematic way to canvass anything.
There was the same relaxed and cheerful tone in Professor Kristol’s scorn at the Plaza for those who object to the “squeal rule,” which until it was blocked on February 14 by a federal district judge, required federally supported family-planning clinics to notify parents when minors received prescriptions for contraceptives. This is known as “getting government off our backs.” The judge stressed that the “squeal rule” “contradicts and subverts the intent of Congress,” which provided funds to combat “the problems of teenage pregnancy.” With the contempt of a nineteenth-century Tory backbencher deriding Irish rebels, Professor Kristol strongly defended the “squeal rule.” As evidence of the imbecility of television and the debasement of moral standards in our society, he cited the thirteen-year-old who (back turned) was presented on television as someone “sexually active” and therefore in need of contraceptive devices. Thirteen years old and already a tramp! Kristol could not contain his laughter as he dismissed this thirteen-year-old degenerate as the sort of person liberals worry about. Television had called her “sexually active.” Warming to his topic, Kristol called her a “sexual activist.”
The audience roared. It roared again when John O’Sullivan, an Irish journalist who writes in the British press, reported such unanimity in Britain for the Falkland war that misguided grumblers in Fleet Street were denounced as “traitors.” The Plaza neoconservatives, united by the Red Menace, also seemed united behind the Ten Commandments. O’Sullivan solemnly advocated them to the assembled, along with a special warning against abortion and adultery. He denounced “those elite groups favorable to adultery” and explained that “antiwar attitudes now current spring from the hedonism rampant in our society.”
I was delighted to see so much enthusiasm for the Seventh Commandment, but was less delighted by Mr. O’Sullivan when he defended the New York Post on the ground that it features “transsexual murders” because Rupert Murdoch is outraged by vile sexual practices, and that the real reason such features are disliked is that the paper keeps to a right-wing editorial line. None of the neoconservatives present, many of whom must see the Post’s display of gore and sexual crimes every day, raised a doubt or put in a word for “our culture.”
Michael A. Ledeen is senior fellow in international affairs at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was formerly editor of the Washington Quarterly and for a year and a half a member of the State Department. Eliot in The Waste Land described
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
But that millionaire was a wallflower compared with Mr. Ledeen, “an expert on terrorism,” an intellectual who obviously feels responsibility for governing and on whom assurance sits like a halo. He sputtered, he glowed with self-assurance when he denounced the stupidity and worse of The Washington Post in exaggerating the Watergate scandal. But principally he explained, in Jeane Kirkpatrick fashion, that “liberals present Central America in terms of a nineteenth-century Marxist model.”
Clearly the Nicaragua that was once owned by President Somoza and his family presents not the slightest resemblance to the outdated Marxist scheme of things—even when Somoza, irritated by subversion, had his own people bombed. Nor is there any resemblance to nineteenth-century fables of social oppression in the activity of Roberto D’Aubuisson. As Mr. Ledeen Pronounced his scorn for the wrongheadedness with which so many Americans view authority in Central and South America, I thought of what Gabríel Garcia Márquez said in Stockholm last December on receiving the Nobel Prize about “the unearthly tidings of Latin America, that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend”:
There have been five wars and seventeen military coups; there emerged a diabolic dictator who is carrying out, in God’s name, the first Latin American ethnocide of our time. In the meantime, 20 million Latin American children died before the age of one—more than have been born in Europe since 1970. Those missing because of repression number nearly 120,000, which is as if no one could account for all the inhabitants of Upsala. Numerous women arrested while pregnant have given birth in Argentine prisons, yet nobody knows the whereabouts and identity of their children, who were furtively adopted or sent to an orphanage by order of the military authorities. Because they tried to change this state of things, nearly 200,000 men and women have died throughout the continent, and over 100,000 have lost their lives in three small and ill-fated countries of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. If this had happened in the United States, the corresponding figure would be that of 1,600,000 violent deaths in four years.
For Ledeen, I suppose, all these figures can be put aside because García Márquez is pro-Castro and neglects to mention his repressions—as he should.
The panel on the press and the twoday conference on “Our Country and Our Culture” were summed up by Norman Podhoretz, who expressed his surprise that previous speakers—on the arts, the universities, the press—had generally sounded so “gloomy.” For himself, Podhoretz radiated confidence in the success of the neoconservative cause. “We are surrounded by lynch mobs just barely restrained,” but “our work has not been in vain. We are a political community now. The resonance of what we do is greater than ever…. There are more of us around than there were ten years ago…. We are the dominant faction within the world of ideas—the most influential—the most powerful…. By now the liberal culture has to appease us…. People like us made Reagan’s victory, which had been considered unthinkable.”
Few intellectuals still uphold the power of ideas, Podhoretz explained. He quoted Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb’s derisive comment: the liberal culture just supinely believes that “history is something that happens to us.” He, Podhoretz, believes “in nothing but ideas.” And because of this faith in ideas and “our ability to persuade people by fearless advocacy and concentrated argument, we were able to establish our power by doing things in a certain way.”
Just “how right we were” in warning the United States of the Soviet menace was demonstrated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—as if the dangers of Soviet expansionism have not been evident since the Baltic countries were swallowed up by 1940 and have not been the great preoccupation of American politics since the end of World War II. Another example: Time’s cover story of February 14 on the KGB, which would not have been possible without the steady warnings by Commentary on the subject. Henry Anatole Grunwald, the editor in chief of Time, mildly objected to this and was heard suggesting that Time was not without resources of its own.
Podhoretz counseled his congregation not to be dismayed. “Events have come to our rescue, which is why we were able to prevail….” Still, “…We have a very long way to go in the shaping of a national consensus….”
As Podhoretz wound up the conference in a tone of voice that brooked no disagreement, no hint of an alternative, I thought back to that less militant time when Podhoretz, though still a “liberal” and a fervent opponent of the war in Asia (he quoted Eisenhower on how such a war could never be won), said to me about his accession to the editorship of Commentary: “I never knew power could be so pleasant.” But mostly I wondered what had led this ambitious man to such delusion about his importance, to so much paranoia about the “liberal enemy,” to so much heartlessness in a world where the evidence of wretchedness on the streets of New York north and west of the Plaza would once have been enough to jar someone who had grown up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
Scott Fitzgerald said that the mark of a first-class mind is the ability to hold opposing ideas in the mind at the same time. Norman Podhoretz’s “success” lies in his inability to hold not opposing but varying ideas in his mind at the same time. In summing up the conference, Podhoretz assured his audience that “partisanship is the only way to establish a cause,” that neutrality in intellectual opinion is as absurd and dangerous as neutralism between America and Russia. He more than suggested, as he has in his recent publications, that those who are not with Norman Podhoretz are acting like dupes—if not worse—of the KGB.
In a cover story in Harper’s magazine for January, Podhoretz stated without any fear of contradiction that if George Orwell were alive today he would be a neoconservative. Emphasizing the obvious parallels in 1984 between “Oceania” and Stalin’s Russia, and Orwell’s attested hatred of totalitarianism, Orwell’s contempt for the literary and intellectual left—Orwell’s deriding of the “pansy left” was as vociferous as Midge Decter’s in her Commentary article “The Boys on the Beach”—Podhoretz assured Harper’s readers that Orwell would easily have given up his old concern for the English working class and, like Podhoretz and the Committee for the Free World, have concentrated his political energies entirely on the present danger from communism.
Podhoretz omitted one of Orwell’s main concerns about totalitarianism: it despises neutrality and objective truth. 1984, with its vision of Newspeak, of the destruction of the past and the incessant rewriting of history, represents Orwell’s most anguished feeling that objective truth is the prime condition of our existence. But he saw truth as an ideal, truth even as our most deeply personal claim on life, as dying out of our world.
Orwell was certainly right. At a meeting last month of Jewish establishment figures troubled about Begin, Sharon, and Lebanon, I heard two distinguished lawyers say, in defense of their own qualified protest against the practices of the Begin regime, that in the political world “the” truth is untenable, that we must be resigned to something like a lawyer’s advocacy. And as the Plaza conference was breaking up, a Commentary writer on Jewish matters to whom I mentioned my horror of the behavior of Begin and Sharon told me that she did not even accept the Israeli commission of inquiry’s condemnation of Sharon, that she could not feel indignation about the grenade thrown into the crowd supporting the commission of inquiry, which killed one person and wounded several more. Jews have always “disagreed with each other.” She ended by expressing high scorn for those who still think that there is a “center” from which to discuss anything about Israel. From such reflections am I to find salvation for my soul.
March 31, 1983