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Norman Podhoretz in Black and White

Posted on Aug 20, 2010

By Norman Birnbaum

(Page 4)

Balint had a problem of narrative. Commentary began on the periphery of American intellectual life, moved rapidly toward its center (insofar as we had one), and then moved again, to a well-demarcated site on the side. Was it pushed, or did it march resolutely to its present position as the organ of a vociferous congregation, constantly rebuking its former members for their defection, and insisting on its claims to the truth? He solves the problem by constant reference to the changing concerns of those who, increasingly, set Commentary’s agenda by following their own, that large part of the nation’s community of thinkers and writers who now no longer bother to read it, but did—until about 1975. 

In 1945 the idea of a distinctively Jewish contribution to American intellectual life would have struck many, gentiles and Jews alike, as implausible. The interminable debates by community leaders and rabbis on the Americanization of Jewry were deemed unworthy of their attention by many educated American Jews. They were getting on with the process by immersing themselves in American culture. Some had worked for state and federal governments in the New Deal, and the younger ones had been in the armed services. The expanding economy provided places in the professions. Employment in first the universities and later much of business was opening. That in this situation Jewishness was of interest to anyone but Jews was hardly obvious.


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


Commentary’s founding editor, Elliot Cohen, found a way to make it interesting—by concentrating on the process of Americanization. He made the journal into an extended appendix (or better yet, a scorecard) to the Jewish novels that were so widely read after the war. Cohen’s father was an immigrant rabbi in Mobile, Ala., who also had a general store. He went to Yale at a time when it was not especially welcoming to Jewish students, concluded that he could not have an academic career and sought his fortune in literary New York.

Balint gives a great deal of attention to the New York intellectuals, and presents Commentary as an alternative to Partisan Review, self-consciously Jewish where Partisan Review was in his view silent on Jewish issues, including anti-Semitism. Still, its founders, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, were very aware of their Jewishness. I knew Phillips quite well and would say that he was painfully aware of it. And that was true of my friend Clement Greenberg (who later worked at Commentary) as well. Trilling, who was also a major figure at Partisan Review, had an acute Jewish consciousness himself. One could not demand one of Macdonald, Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson—although Wilson at one point concerned himself with the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity—and in eruptive social movements.

Balint is right to expend a good deal of his energy on the New York intellectuals’ turn from Marxism, and on their being so much at home in the realm of homelessness, that generalized alienation that marked the spirituality of the past two centuries. Their turn from Marxism was quite consonant with the self-satisfaction that marked much American postwar social thought, occasioned not least by the social integration of even the most ideologically resistant of the intellectuals.

Partisan Review was the work of an older generation, and Commentary was that of a younger one. The younger editors and writers appropriated, and ruthlessly Americanized, the larger themes they took from their elders. As the union movement achieved prosperity for much of the American working class, as many crossed the boundaries of class, ethnic group, region and religion the ideas of the elder generation were domesticated. They still served to organize thought and sensibility, even when they were most strenuously criticized. Supremely able, when at the height of their powers, to seize the spirits of the times, both Phillips and Podhoretz responded very positively to the movements of the ’60s. (Phillips, increasingly breathless in his run to keep up, finally moved Partisan Review into the ’60s in 1971 when he brought Christopher Lasch, Susan Sontag and myself onto the editorial board.) Meanwhile, the one issue that resisted domestication was race. Balint is very honest in his account of the problems it caused Podhoretz—and everyone else.

Despite the clarity and depth of Balint’s grasp of a very complex historical episode (the entry into American academic life and our national culture generally of the Eastern European Jews), he underemphasizes one facet of it. He concentrates on the attraction of the varieties of Marxism to many, on the socialist legacy brought to the U.S. by those who had been part of the Jewish labor movement in Eastern Europe. However (think of Justice Louis Brandeis), as Jews gradually entered American politics and the public sphere decades before the Great Depression, they were drawn to American progressivism. My father was a City College classmate of Sidney Hook and sat with him in the classes of the legendary Morris Raphael Cohen, the obdurately critical philosopher who thought much of Marxism untenable. The books I found at home were not by Lenin and Bukharin, but by the Beards, Dewey, the Lynds and Parrington. The American Communist Party’s Popular Front slogan in the ’30s, “Communism Is 20th Century Americanism,” was on the face of it grotesque, and yet had a certain logic, exemplified in Hook’s attempt to unite Marxism with pragmatism.

The New York intellectuals had plenty of readers in Washington, but in the years from Franklin Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter sent no one there. They were represented, to some degree, by John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, progressives by birthright. Michael Harrington appears in the text as a voice of social conscience. Like Moynihan, his spiritual roots lie in the Catholic segment of the labor movement, which is a large presence in the background of the book, one that might have had more explicit attention.

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By michael wreszin, July 7, 2011 at 6:55 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 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.

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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

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By jkehoe, August 20, 2010 at 1:30 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 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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