Posted: April 20, 2007
he story of the neoconservatives conforms to one of the most durable human narrative frameworks: repentance. In their youth, so goes the story, they were all left-wingers. With the passage of time, they realized the error of their ways and migrated to the Right: a dramatic act of political conversion. Among the neocons, Norman Podhoretz may hold the rank of most-distinguished. Yet the funny thing about The Norman Podhoretz Reader, collecting articles and book excerpts from the 1950s to the 1990s, is how little evidence it provides of a genuine repentance and turn from error.
I do not mean that at heart he remains a lefty, a "Trojan horse" in the conservative household, as some critics say of the neocons as a whole. Actually I mean just the opposite.
In the Prologue to his 1979 memoir, Breaking Ranks, Podhoretz wrote in a letter to his son John, "Dear John: The other day, reminded by some passing remark that I used to be a radical—indeed that I visibly and enthusiastically participated in the swing to radicalism in the early 1960s—you asked me with astonishment in your voice whether I had ever really believed 'all that stuff.'" A paragraph later he answers: "Yes, once upon a time I really did believe in all that stuff."
I am not suggesting that, in describing himself to John as an ex-radical, Podhoretz Senior told a lie. But in this collection what's most striking is not any dramatic shift or transformation, but rather the continuities joining the Podhoretz of the 1950s with the same man 50 years later.
Even before contemplating the intellectual substance, the reader notices everywhere a continuity in style—it's the Podhoretz style that he gave to the neocons and that became their characteristic habit of expression. Podhoretz writes with a pugnacious charm, a concreteness, and a clarity that rarely fail. His way of arguing is an interesting mix of masculine and feminine—masculine in the command it exerts, the totally unapologetic self-confidence, but feminine in the emotion he is unafraid to show, sometimes shading to the melodramatic, which is not a bad thing. It is, altogether, a very Jewish style—not surprisingly. Podhoretz throughout his tenure as editor of Commentary was preoccupied by Jewish matters, and has been even more so since his retirement in 1995.
The most attractive thing about his writing may in fact be the most Jewish—the habit of frank self-criticism and self-revelation that has marked Jewish literature since the Hebrew Bible, which spends 20 times more energy (at least) excoriating the Jews than it does any of their enemies. The Reader is merciless in exposing things that, if you were the author, you might have wanted to keep to yourself. Thomas L. Jeffers, who edited the collection and provides helpful introductions to each of the five decades it covers, recalls Podhoretz's admission that when he was a little boy, the child of recent Yiddish-speaking immigrants, his English needed help: "having as a kindergartner told a teacher that he was 'goink op de stez' (going up the stairs), he was put in a remedial English class."
In a warmly amusing excerpt from Making It, his 1967 memoir describing how the boy who went "op de stez" became a big-shot literary and social critic, he writes of being indifferent to social-climbing but not to "celebrity-climbing, which very definitely is one of my vices." In an essay, "My Negro Problem—and Ours," he writes frankly of being beaten up by black kids in his Brooklyn neighborhood: "The hatred I still feel for Negroes is the hardest of all the old feelings to face or admit, and it is the most hidden and the most overlarded by the conscious attitudes into which I have succeeded in willing myself." This was a shocking admission when it was published in 1963, and obviously remains so.
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Being able to convey your personality in writing (or anyway a definite persona that may after all be a put-on) is one of the things that separate a gifted writer from a pedestrian one. If the Podhoretz personality remains vividly evident from start to finish here, so do the man's commitments to ideas, ways of looking at the world that can only be called "conservative."
Mostly, you see this in the setting of his entire countenance and being against any hint of moral relativism. Since this is the thing that, above all, joins what was worst about leftism in the 1950s and 1960s with what is worst about it now, the unchanging conservative thread winding through Podhoretz's thought is hard to ignore.
In a 1959 essay in the New York Times Book Review reflecting on the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he praises Twain's "refutation of the heretical idea that reality can be equated with any given set of historical circumstances. This heresy has become even more powerful today than it was 75 years ago." What Podhoretz has in mind is Huck's decision not to rat out the escaped slave Jim despite the morality of the society around him strongly holding that turning in an escaped slave is the right thing to do. "All right, then," Huck tells himself, "I'll go to hell." In Podhoretz's view, morality isn't relative but absolute. It arises from the "State of Nature," a natural law whose existence the reigning "heresy" of 1959 denied, as it still did in December 1999, the date of the most recent piece collected here. In "God and the Scientists," published in the Wall Street Journal, he eloquently conveys his reasons for trembling at the thought of what the biotechnical revolution will generate once science has been totally freed from the idea that nature is (quoting Francis Fukuyama) "given to us by God or by our evolutionary inheritance" but is instead only a "human artifice." No longer restrained by the idea of a fixed human nature, "we enter into God's own realm with all the frightening powers for good and evil that such an entry implies."
The same "heresy" is the source of the corrosive moral ambiguity that, since the 1950s, has been taken by smart society to be one of the definitive marks of the sophisticated personality. One of the continuities of Podhoretz's life has been a sustained campaign against such moral ambiguity. Even in his radical decade, the 1960s, it is precisely from this perspective that he tears apart Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. As he makes evident, Arendt's whole purpose was to undermine moral clarity, suggesting as she did that the Jews were partly complicit in their own mass murder while Nazis like Eichmann were simply caught up in the machinery of totalitarianism.
Opposition to relativism may be Podhortez's own guiding star, but what of other neocons? As he writes in "Neoconservatism: A Eulogy" (1996), the meaning of neoconservatism can be summarized by the equal loathing of the counterculture and of Communism. If so he already was a neocon in 1958 when he wrote "The Know-Nothing Bohemians" in which he excoriates the counterculture ("hipsterism," the "Beat Generation") of the late '50s:
the spirit of hipsterism and the Beat Generation strikes me as the same spirit which animates the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amok in the last few years with their switchblades and zip guns. What does [Norman] Mailer think of those wretched kids, I wonder? What does he think of the gang that stoned a nine-year-old boy to death in Central Park in broad daylight a few months ago, or the one that set fire to an old man drowsing on a bench near the Brooklyn waterfront one summer's day, or the one that pounced on a crippled child and orgiastically stabbed him over and over and over again even after he was good and dead? Is that what [Mailer] means by the liberation of instinct and mysteries of being? Maybe so.
For all its historical interest, The Norman Podhoretz Reader hardly seems dated at all. True, there's no longer a Communist threat to worry about, but as Paul Johnson suggests in the book's introduction, the place of the anti-Communist struggle has, since 9/11, been taken by the struggle against radical Islam. It is partly for this reason that the ideas articulated here, most composed and published under the specter of the Soviet empire, retain their freshness and relevance.
In "J'Accuse" (1982) Podhoretz accuses the most hyperventilating critics of Israel's Lebanon incursion—of anti-Semitism, yes, but only secondarily. He sees the hatred of Israel, Israel with her unconquerable will to live, as a "cover" for those in the West who no longer believe anything is worth fighting or dying for. Anti-Semitic attacks on Israel, by journalists and other writers and critics, merely disguise "a loss of American nerve…. I accuse all those who have joined in these attacks not merely of anti-Semitism but of the broader sin of faithlessness to the interests of the United States and indeed to the values of Western civilization as a whole." This was true when the dominant form of totalitarianism being appeased by the faithless Left was Soviet, and it's true when the dominant totalitarianism is, as today, Islamic.
Of course I don't mean that Podhoretz has undergone no evolution at all. For example, whereas in the 1950s he was inclined to locate the basis for making clear moral distinctions in the "State of Nature," today he is much more inclined to locate it in God. It's too bad that Thomas Jeffers ended his survey in 1999, otherwise he could have included an excerpt from The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are (2002), in which Podhoretz gives his reading of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah & Co.—a believer's book if ever there was one, and an excellent read as well.
His point in that book is that the Hebrew prophets were concerned above all with fighting idolatry. While this may make them seem bound by time and place—certainly today no one worships Ashera trees or idols of the god Baal—Podhoretz makes clear that idolatry manifests itself in some form in every age. Its essence is setting up spiritual authorities in competition with God. Today, we might identify it with a strain of secularism, which has all the elements of a religion but one, a deity. The other pagan hallmarks are there: nature worship, sexual corruption, a willingness to sacrifice children to the cause, and above all, moral relativism. In that sense Podhoretz is himself a prophet—less and less of the secular "State of Nature" variety, and more and more in the classical Jewish mode.
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Still, the continuities outweigh the discontinuities, which leads to a thought about converts generally, not only neocons. I know a lot of people who consider themselves as having repented, whether their repentance was political, religious, or in some other area of belief and thought in which they turned from error to truth. Very often you find that an unbreakable three-fold cord links their present commitments with instincts and tendencies evident long before their "conversion."
Podhoretz was, in some sense, a conservative even when he was a '60s radical. After all, God alone can create something from nothing. A pearl in an oyster develops from the initial irritation caused by a minute particle of sand. Without the grain of sand, there will be no pearl. Thomas Jeffers deserves our thanks for showing how Norman Podhoretz's thinking as we know it developed from its own sand grain, creating over the years a pearl, lustrous, timeless, invaluable.