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Arts and Culture

Norman Podhoretz in Black and White

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Posted on Aug 20, 2010

By Norman Birnbaum

(Page 2)

Podhoretz went on to graduate study at Cambridge but eschewed the academy’s simultaneous offer of security and imprisonment and became an independent critic. He had been far from welcomed at Cambridge by Leavis, but his decision was not primarily a response to Leavis’ version of Little Englandism. Podhoretz was in a hurry, and the climb up the academic ladder did not appeal to him. 

The Jewish ascent in the United States, in any event, followed that of other groups. Many persons we now think of as exemplars of the cultural and social domination of a white Protestant elite often had to fight their way out of small towns to reach metropolitan heights. What is unique, if anything, is Podhoretz’s insistence, sedulously echoed by his biographer, that his success proved the virtue of American civilization. Suppose the nation actually needed the energies and talents of those it half-welcomed to, half-grudgingly ceded, elite status? Podhoretz for a while was very friendly with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Jews were not alone, in the era of the Kennedys, in surmounting barriers.

 

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

 


After serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, Podhoretz returned to New York and soon exchanged freelance status for a junior editorship at Commentary (in 1955, five years before he became editor). The early decades of the journal were quite instructive. Originally the Contemporary Jewish Record, it was renamed in 1945 by its publisher, the American Jewish Committee, then a group intent on the integration of American Jewry in national American culture and quite skeptical of Zionism. Seeking to discern the new patterns of Jewish life in the United States, the journal ventured into cultural and social description of the postwar nation. While describing for New Yorkers the contours and depths of what had been the hinterland, it convinced a national readership that its monthly editions guaranteed them front row seats at New York’s continuously playing theater of ideas. I have amused recollections of Chandler Brossard’s scintillating essay on the problems of a gentile intellectual in New York. Like the Jewish novel of the period, Commentary converted Jewishness into a (relatively) familiar aspect of American culture.


Podhoretz had the instincts of a gifted editor—an ability to identify emerging ideas, cultural and political problems and writers before others did. He transformed Commentary, in his first few years there, into a vanguard journal. The older generation at Partisan Review was so exhausted by the struggles of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, so anxious lest it lose its self-appointed function as guardian of culture, that it floated uncertainly in historical space. Podhoretz used writers like Dwight Macdonald when it suited him, but brought others forward: James Baldwin, Oscar Gass, Paul Goodman, H. Stuart Hughes, Staughton Lynd, Hans Morgenthau, David Riesman, Barbara Probst Solomon. He had an important role in developing the ideas of the American New Left before the movements that would carry them into the streets were formed. He had allies. Lewis Coser and Irving Howe at Dissent and Willy Morris at Harper’s shared Podhoretz’s intuition that not one but several realignments were proceeding simultaneously. In New York’s Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side, African-American and Jew, Irish Catholic and Southern Baptist, men and women, patrician and social climber, European and American, psychoanalyst and patient, solitary writer and dutiful worker on the cultural assembly line, were discovering to their own astonishment that perhaps they had something in common. What was it?

With the election of John Kennedy in 1960 as our first Catholic president, the offspring of new immigrants who had figured so prominently in Franklin Roosevelt’s and Harry Truman’s governments took command. The educated elites experienced a sense of greatly enlarged possibilities, their allies in the trade unions were determined to profit from their return to power, and American culture struck many of us as more open than we had been prepared to admit. Kennedy himself was—rhetoric apart—a cautious incrementalist in major domestic matters and a determined proponent of American hegemony in foreign policy. By the time he was murdered in 1963, he had more resolve about questions of race, and more reflectiveness about the Cold War. Jeffers hurries past Podhoretz’s editorial mobilization of those who sought just that shift of emphasis in the politics of the nation.

The biographer’s evident discomfort with Podhoretz as political and social critic is surprising. After all, Podhoretz himself has written for five decades of his change of mind. The text provides ample evidence of what bothered him. One event does not quite receive the attention it merits: the mixed reception of “Making It.” I thought the book very good on the New York literary milieu and its honesty about ambition. I recall Podhoretz’s distress at the publisher who having commissioned the book, refused it, at the sententious advice of Trilling not to publish it, at hostile reviews by others. I found Trilling’s fastidiousness absurd: He praised ambition in 19th century English novels, found it distasteful in a student of his from Brooklyn. In the end, the indignation of the critics reinforced Podhoretz’s tendency to think of himself as isolated, his antipathy to other intellectuals. He saw arguments with others as proof of his own virtue.

By 1968, indeed, he had broken decisively with the New Left. He found the tactics and what there was of strategy of the movements for social change mistaken, and aligned himself with the leadership of the AFL-CIO in rejecting them. He abjured the cultural and political separatism, as he saw it, of many of the African-American and feminist leaders. The rejection by much of the student movement of high culture offended him, and he joined with the liberals who dismissed it as adolescent if not infantile self-indulgence. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was no longer a matter of critical distance from imperial power, but became ignoble capitulation to illusions about communism. His criticism changed rapidly from the common sense of an old progressive to the overwrought anxiety of a threatened deacon of the established order. 


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By michael wreszin, July 7, 2011 at 6:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is not just hagiography it is sychophantism

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By kobe8lal, August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

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 3:25 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 8:11 am Link to this comment

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

http://fablog.ehrensteinland.com/2010/08/20/fait-diver-talk-show/

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By balkas, August 21, 2010 at 7:19 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 2:47 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 21, 2010 at 12:18 am 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 3:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Norman Podhoretz in Black and White”? Com’on, there’s very, very little white
here.

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By jkehoe, August 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A brilliant review Mr. Birnbaum. Many thanks.

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By GoyToy, August 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm 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 11:52 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 10:22 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 9:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Norman Podhoretz in Black and White”? Com’on, where’s the white here?

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By Anarcissie, August 20, 2010 at 6:32 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 4:28 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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