All in the Mespoche
America may have succumbed to Commentary magazine’s exhortations, but most Jews never did.
By the time Dick Cheney, hardly a graduate of neoconservative circles himself, started installing neoconservatives in the George W. Bush Administration, he could draw on a considerable network of seasoned Washington figures and fresh young blood for whom Commentary was just one among many possible way stations on the path to an influential post. No doubt young conservatives are still grateful for an invitation to review a book for Commentary, but it is no longer the passage to the intellectual big leagues that it was for a young Podhoretz or many other writers in the Fifties and Sixties.
Balint is well aware of this decline. “Once a magazine’s mind is settled, once it brooks fewer challenges to its certainties, its momentum flags,” he writes, although he seems reluctant to admit just how long ago that happened for Commentary. He admires the editorial skills of Podhoretz, and of Cohen, his predecessor, and of Neil Kozodoy, his successor; and no one who knows how demanding editing can be issue after issue will deny the heroic persistence with which these editors toiled for years to realize their vision. But Balint indicates that this editing was not done with a light touch. He reports David Brooks’s remark that he no longer recalled when his first book review ran in Commentary but “he remembered his third, because that was the first time a sentence of his had appeared in the magazine.”
Critics of Podhoretz get their say in Balint’s history; for example, Leon Wieseltier’s observation that Podhoretz “has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation.” Balint keeps a discreet distance from these criticisms, as from the complaint that Bush-era neoconservatives had lost all sense of limits, exhibiting a confidence about remaking other societies that they had warned about in regard to our own. But Balint is clearly pained by the way a party line was enforced not only in political matters but in art and literature as well. He bristles at the way book reviews turned censorious or sweetheart depending on political alliances–Mailer, James Baldwin, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Alice Walker, Grace Paley all had their knuckles rapped, while glowing phrases were bestowed on books by Conrad Black, a Commentary funder, and Susan Hertog, wife of funder Roger Hertog. The magazine’s conservatism, Balint laments, finally curdled into a fear of artistic imagination.
A magazine like Commentary is more than its black-and-white pages and its crew of editors; it is an invisible community of writers and readers. Invisibility is a problem for a historian, and Balint solves it by using the image that Podhoretz employed in Making It, the first of his autobiographies. Podhoretz referred to the mostly Jewish, constantly scrapping New York intellectuals as “the family,” which Balint now capitalizes. The Family is indeed a useful term for a core group of intermarried, intergenerational neoconservatives. The notion that neoconservatism was a family enterprise gained strength when Bill Kristol, son of Irving and Gertrude Himmelfarb (sister of Milton, who worked for the American Jewish Committee) founded The Weekly Standard, and Elliott Abrams, son-in-law of Podhoretz and Midge Decter (and once a student tenant of Nathan Glazer), was appointed to foreign policy posts under Reagan and George W. Bush. It reached a kind of comic culmination in 2008 when John Podhoretz, son of Norman and Midge, was named Commentary’s latest editor. “I was absolutely amazed,” Balint quotes Norman as saying. “It would never have occurred to me in a million years.” I am sure he didn’t mean that the way it sounded.
Apart from those inner circles, however, the device of “the Family” implies a unity, continuity, and significance over time that Balint doesn’t even try to document and that is, if anything, rebutted by his many examples of people who jumped ship. Yet that unity and coherence are what lie behind his subtitle’s fantastic notion that Commentary “transformed the Jewish Left” or had any major impact on a Jewish community that, after all, continues to vote Democratic, root for the underdog, and wax and wane in its Jewish identity for reasons having little to do with Commentary or neoconservatism. Certainly, most American Jews rally to a “muscular” response whenever Israel’s security can be seen at risk, but they do not need Commentary to cue them on this. In fact, by linking Israel’s security to the war in Iraq, neoconservatives have probably unsettled Israel’s supporters by raising questions about where Israeli and American interests diverge.
As long as the anarchy of the international system and capitalism’s quest for profit call for the “muscular defense of one’s own,” neoconservatism in its present form will retain its appeal, to say nothing of the institutional base in which it has implanted itself over four decades. I am not impressed by reports that the movement is badly split between those who continue to advocate a foreign policy built around the spread of democracy and those who advocate a “realist” focus on national interest. Under the pressure of events, it is quite possible to integrate the spread of democracy into national interests and realistic qualifications into the spread of democracy. The more telling issues have to do with confidence in the unalloyed goodness of projecting American power and appreciation of the full costs and unpredictability of waging war. Neoconservatives, however they dither about “realism,” remain high on the former and low on the latter.
So the neoconservative character will remain in demand. But the promise that neoconservatism had as a new current in American politics, chastened about human ambitions for improvement and skeptical about bureaucratic programs–yet accepting of the welfare state–died long ago. It lives on only in the more contrarian moments of The New Republic and in individuals like David Brooks. And it is sorely missed in a season when conservatism is being hijacked by the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.
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