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Norman Podhoretz in Black and White

Posted on Aug 20, 2010

By Norman Birnbaum

“Norman Podhoretz: A Biography,” a new book on the editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995, by an extremely admiring author, Marquette University professor of English Thomas Jeffers, depicts him as both prophet and martyr. His prophetic status resides in his unequivocal defense of the values expressed in the traditionalism of the conservative minority of American Jewry and its indissoluble attachment to Israel. The U.S., and its Americanized Jewish majority, cannot be counted upon. Eternal vigilance is required if its truly Jewish citizens (and those gentiles insightful and noble enough to rally to their cause) are to keep both Jewry and the U.S. from falling to inner demons. These include, variously, vacuous sentimentalism, multiculturalism, tolerance of homosexuality, pacifism, compulsive egalitarianism, feminism and militant secularism.

Podhoretz is deemed a prophet for having waged this battle, some youthful wavering apart. He is, however, a martyr since he has been constantly damned for it by those who lack his belief in the redemptive qualities of the U.S. Above all, a Jewish majority addicted to “liberalism” persists in a spiritually shallow and morally self-defeating attachment to an American version of Western European social democracy. To make matters worse, that Jewish majority mistakenly believes it is following Jewish teaching. In fact, Podhoretz has insisted for more than 40 years, it is untrue to Judaism, endangering Israel—and undermining the foundations of its prosperity and security in the U.S.   


book cover


Norman Podhoretz: A Biography


By Thomas L. Jeffers


Cambridge University Press, 408 pages


Buy the book


book cover


Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right


By Benjamin Balint


PublicAffairs, 304 pages


Buy the book


The author of this contemporary morality tale is obviously in agreement with his subject on every conflict-laden issue mentioned in the text. (On homosexuality, Jeffers and Podhoretz make Justice Antonin Scalia sound rather nuanced.) Ordinarily, a minimum of critical distance is useful to biographers, but Jeffers’ depiction of Podhoretz’s life and works is unwaveringly loyal. The volume may be understood as a family chronicle, written by a distant acquaintance anxious to be numbered among its friends.

Podhoretz once used the term “family” to describe the New York intellectuals of the ’50s and ’60s, a group he joined as a very young man. Much of the readability of his first memoir (he has been repeating and occasionally adding to it ever since), “Making It” (1968), is in the description of the group. They were the editors and major contributors to Commentary and Partisan Review. Jeffers himself is fascinated by the sheer aggressiveness of the group, collectively and individually, takes it as evidence of the group’s moral authenticity and excuses its excesses as spiritual collateral damage. He praises Podhoretz for his capacity to give as good as he gets.

The biography portrays Podhoretz as indeed struggling with large issues: his Jewish identity and his relationship with the U.S., the substance of American history, the nation’s role in the world. A long series of significant public events comprises the outer narrative: postwar prosperity and the integration of the white ethnic groups in the new American consensus; the serial crises of the Cold War; American social criticism and its consequences in the New Left; problems of class, gender, race; and the development of a new Republicanism with notable Jewish intellectual support.

The Podhoretz of the text is, however, not merely an unusually articulate participant in public argument. He is Superman rather than Everyman, emerging triumphant from the inner and outer travails that have reduced the rest of us to exhaustion if not bewilderment. Professor Jeffers makes it clear that whatever else Podhoretz may have acquired on his long journey from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he has inexorably shed his doubts.

Biographers frequently dwell on ambivalence, ambiguity, complexity, inner turbulence and the reversals of fate. Very little of that marks this text. As chapter succeeds chapter, its protagonist surmounts inner and outer obstacles to his own personal integration and social success with increasing ease, all the while devoting himself to the education of his people and his nation. Podhoretz began his career as a student of Lionel Trilling and then of his University of Cambridge contemporary, F.R. Leavis. Each was much more moralist than aesthetic formalist, and their student took their lessons so seriously that his writings became increasingly one-dimensional, even stentorian. The colors of Commentary under his influence gradually were reduced to two: black and white.

The book is a mirror rather like the distorting type in a funhouse, the very exaggerations of which tell us much. One has to bring to it a minimum of critical distance. My own reading is aided by the fact that at one point I knew Podhoretz quite well. We have had somewhat similar life experiences. I am mentioned only once, and very incidentally, in the text, but I also knew any number of the major and minor protagonists who people it. Briefly, I first met Podhoretz during visits to New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when I was teaching in the United Kingdom. Commentary published articles I wrote, as did Partisan Review. By the time I returned permanently to the U.S., in 1966, he was firmly established as Commentary’s editor, an important figure in the nation’s cultural and political scene. My return to the United States was difficult, inwardly and outwardly. In those years, I had good reason to be grateful for Podhoretz’s friendship and support. I regret that political differences impelled him (not without help from Midge Decter, his wife) to terminate our connection.

Podhoretz was born in Brooklyn in 1930 into the Yiddish-speaking Jewish working class. He grew up in a rough neighborhood marked by ethnic and racial tensions. He was able to take care of himself on the streets, not always true of those who, as he did, excelled at school. His own ambition, the encouragement of a teacher at his public high school, and the hopes of his family enabled him to win a scholarship to Columbia College. Simultaneously, he studied part time at the Jewish Theological Seminary. That was certainly not typical of the Jewish students then profiting from the postwar lowering of the anti-Semitic barriers that had kept many out of elite colleges. The entire postwar generation of Jewish students moved up into business and finance, the cultural industry, the professions and politics. University careers had strong attractions for many of us. We could (or so we thought) continue to live by our wits, enjoy some economic security, and profit from the pronounced influence and prestige of the established private institutions or the surging public ones.

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By michael wreszin, July 7, 2011 at 5:55 am Link to this comment
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This is not just hagiography it is sychophantism

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By kobe8lal, August 23, 2010 at 1:41 pm Link to this comment
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In the 60s I led a double life as an Off-Broadway actor and a nightclub comedian.

In the former I went to a symposium at The Negro Ensemble Company where Norman was on the panel.

In the latter, some weeks later, I saw him in the Atlanta airport. I chatted him up and it turns out we both had gigs in the city. His was in a fancy synagogue, mine in a roadhouse.

As we were waiting for our luggage he asked,“You’re a comedian. Do you get laid a lot on the road?”

“No”, I said.

“Me, neither”, he replied.

Swear it’s true.

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By Druthers, August 22, 2010 at 2:25 am Link to this comment

What you describe is less a thought process than a constant endeavor to come up with ideas to justify the idealogy that was the starting point - mental gymnastics.
Each person is also “different” from the others, most just afraid to admit it, so eager are humans to be part of a “community, so they can then claim “theirs” is the best, the top gun.
I think I prefer the Ghandis of the world - but where are they?

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By David Ehrenstein, August 21, 2010 at 7:11 am Link to this comment

Podhoretz, like the pseudo-state he promulgates is a primary source for Evil in this world.

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By balkas, August 21, 2010 at 6:19 am Link to this comment

In many ways, people of mosheic cult or some connection to it, have a struggling life.

It is often called struggle to understand one’s jewishness or an essence or being being like no other.

Yes, people may also struggle with godishness, catholishness, fetishness, foolishness, etc. We all do!
In case of mother Theresa, she ended her struggle to make sense of the nonsense like godishness and catholishness.

Robert Novak gave up his useless burden of trying to make a sense of what it means to be a jew.
Jewisheness like any other ishness is but a foolishness.

Or trying to be with other fools but not of them. But i say, all fools shld get together and say: let’s stop chasing the snark! tnx

caveat about “godishness”. It is, to me, a fetish as long one preaches it,instead of actually believing in god;leaving it undefined. I say, do not add one word to word “god”!

And would we get along so much better and loose so many fetishes! Otherwise the craze continues!

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By Abbott Gleason, August 21, 2010 at 1:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Immoral and criminal acts—the seizure of other people’s land, for instance—can achieve a certain grandeur when clothed in the ideological mantle of Leo Strauss—or Karl Marx. But we need to look at them more directly. The demolition of houses and the seizure of Palestinian lands are at bottom no more than ordinary crimes. In this region they also defy common sense, as well as common humanity. How can Jews insist (rightly) on recovering property taken from theem by Germans, while putting Palestinians and their furniture out in the streets of Jerusalem and taking their houses? This seems to me like the Judeazation of John Dillinger’s America, not Thomas Jefferson’s.

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By nubeewon, August 20, 2010 at 11:18 pm Link to this comment

Sounds like another change freak who’s left things pretty much as they were.

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By Pmanso, August 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm Link to this comment
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“Norman Podhoretz in Black and White”? Com’on, there’s very, very little white

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By jkehoe, August 20, 2010 at 12:30 pm Link to this comment
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A brilliant review Mr. Birnbaum. Many thanks.

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By GoyToy, August 20, 2010 at 11:40 am Link to this comment

Poddy (as Gore Vidal likes to call him) the Putz. I really like that!

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By Hammond Eggs, August 20, 2010 at 10:52 am Link to this comment

“Vacuous sentimentalism”?  WTF! Podhoretz is the champeen of that.  Someone should tell that paskudnyak that the Sharron Angles, Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the Republican party - his great Heroes - would shove his Jewish backside mach schnell into a gas chamber once they assume power. The Bolshevik and Nazi Revolutions were both full of people like him.  Very quickly, they found themselves standing over a drain in a dungeon somewhere, hearing someone tell them not to turn around.  And then the bullet in the back of the head.

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By miroslav, August 20, 2010 at 9:22 am Link to this comment

Commentary appears to have had an interesting beginning and have a calcified present. Ditto for Mr. Podhoretz who once upon a time knew that he was a clown. The wages of making it, of money.

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By Pmanso, August 20, 2010 at 8:19 am Link to this comment
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“Norman Podhoretz in Black and White”? Com’on, where’s the white here?

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By Anarcissie, August 20, 2010 at 5:32 am Link to this comment

Sounds like the book could be very damaging to Podhoretz by distilling and concentrating his views, making them more explicit.  But it’s probably not very interesting unless one comes from the same particular milieu Podhoretz comes out of.

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By Jaded Prole, August 20, 2010 at 3:28 am Link to this comment

Podhoretz is a putz but though many Jews have become more conservative, the “Jewish right” is a minority within a minority. Most Jews are still relatively liberal and yes, there is still a “Jewish left.”

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