Nor­man Pod­horetz: Still Rel­e­vant Af­ter All These Years

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Daniel J. Solomon

Nor­man Pod­horetz ad­mit­ted it him­self —the premise of “Mak­ing It” no longer holds. “I think it’s not true any­more, in fact it might be the op­po­site,” he told me in an in­ter­view. The neo­con­ser­va­tive in­tel­lec­tual raged in his 1967 mem­oir about the cul­ture’s du­plic­i­tous at­ti­tude to­ward suc­cess: en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to pur­sue wealth while sham­ing those who achieved it. The ’80s drowned hu­mil­ity in a mar­tini glass, and vot­ers last fall sent a gold-plated con man to the White House.

But dis­miss­ing “Mak­ing It” as an anachro­nism would be a mis­take. Re­leased in a new edi­tion by the New York Re­view of Books to mark its 50th an­niver­sary, the mem­oir throws off in­sights on the na­ture of as­sim­i­la­tion, along with fun asides on writ­ing, ca­reer ad­vance­ment, mil­i­tary ser­vice and a host of other top­ics. Mean­while, the au­thor, among the last of the New York in­tel­lec­tu­als, still at­tracts head­lines at the age of 87.

Pod­horetz’s mem­oir fol­lows his rise from a poor child­hood in the Brownsville sec­tion of Brook­lyn to the height of Man­hat­tan’s lit­er­ary scene. De­spite his mid­dle-aged em­brace of hot dogs and hand­guns pa­tri­o­tism, he’s frank about the ben­e­fits and draw­backs of his evo­lu­tion. His as­cent to the beau monde comes thanks to what he calls “the bru­tal bar­gain”: Ad­mis­sion to high so­ci­ety is given in ex­change for adopt­ing the aes­thetic and in­tel­lec­tual fashions of the coun­try’s rul­ing An­glo-Sax­ons.

Pod­horetz’s “con­ver­sion” be­gins prior to his aware­ness of it, and cer­tainly be­fore he pos­sesses lan­guage to ex­press it. As a stu­dent at Boys High School he catches the at­ten­tion of “Mrs. K.”, who sets about to turn this “filthy lit­tle slum child” into a “fac­sim­ile WASP.” Mak­ing him for a Har­vard man (he later goes to Columbia), Mrs. K. seems to teach him as much about ta­ble man­ners as she does about English.

He at­tempts to avoid his destiny, but there’s no hid­ing from the in­evitable. He steadily picks up a more re­fined ac­cent and starts to find his Brownsville apart­ment “taste­less and tawdry,” and the area women “too elab­o­rately made up.” Pod­horetz casts that same harsh look on the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, where he takes classes to please his fa­ther. Columbia is an­i­mated by “uni-

‘I was happy to be re­ceived into the cul­ture of Western civ­i­liza­tion, and I didn’t think it was at odds with be­ing Jewish.’

ver­sal [cul­ture], ex­ist­ing not in space or time, but in some tran­scen­den­tal realm of the spirit.” Mean­while, JTS in­sists on Jewish par­tic­u­lar­ity, in­fus­ing its teach­ing with “a stri­dent note of apolo­get­ics and de­fen­sive­ness.”

Only as a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Cam­bridge Univer­sity does he re­al­ize that elite in­sti­tu­tions, too, pur­sue nar­row ends. His ac­knowl­edge­ment that there’s no such thing as uni­ver­sal cul­ture but rather a dis­parate col­lec­tion of na­tional cul­tures leaves him in a bind as a “prob­lem­atic Amer­i­can and even more prob­lem­atic Jew.” Ul­ti­mately, it leads him back to the United States and to the of­fices of Com­men­tary, the pol­i­tics-and-cul­ture mag­a­zine owned by the Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee.

He ar­rives at the mag­a­zine at the right time, as the ed­i­tor, El­liot Co­hen, at­tempts in the early ’50s to rec­on­cile Amer­ica, the Jews and the New York in­tel­lec­tu­als. He free­lances for Com­men­tary, and joins the staff af­ter a brief stint in the mil­i­tary. Pod­horetz soon finds his place among those New York Jewish in­tel­lec­tu­als, a group of mostly Jewish polemi­cists and crit­ics in­clud­ing Philip Rahv, Mary

McCarthy, Han­nah Arendt, Lionel Trilling and Saul Bel­low.

Join­ing the crew of anti-Stal­in­ists and mod­ernists, he be­comes part of a sort of Jewish fam­ily, with feuds and re­la­tion­ships sprawl­ing over three gen­er­a­tions. He be­longs to the third gen­er­a­tion, born in the 1920s and ’30s and less in­hib­ited about that gen­er­a­tion’s Jewish iden­tity than the first’s, whose mem­bers were born at the turn of the cen­tury. Even­tu­ally, he’s asked to write for Par­ti­san Re­view, the premier mag­a­zine of the New York in­tel­lec­tu­als, and suc­ceeds Co­hen as the ed­i­tor of Com­men­tary.

Pod­horetz likens his first in­vi­ta­tion to a Par­ti­san Re­view so­cial to a bar mitz­vah, and that’s an apt metaphor. His re­cep­tion into the fam­ily amounts to a home­com­ing to Jewish­ness, as the man gone to Cam­bridge ex­plores the streets of New York and the riches of his own cul­ture. But Man­hat­tan’s Green­wich Vil­lage is no Brownsville. And for Pod­horetz there’s no re­turn­ing to the val­ues of his na­tive mi­lieu, no es­cap­ing the “bru­tal bar­gain” of as­sim­i­la­tion. Com­men­tary may be Jewish, but its Ju­daism is do­mes­ti­cated, not too of­fen­sive for the gen­tile world.

Anxieties about class mo­bil­ity and cul­tural change are fa­mil­iar to Jews. “We need to be con­scious of the fact that we are a cul­tural ad­mix­ture, in a more poignant sense than any other peo­ple,” Martin Bu­ber said in one of his ad­dresses to pre-war Ger­many’s highly as­sim­i­lated Jewish pop­u­la­tion. Ger­man Jews had left the ghetto, won po­lit­i­cal rights and mixed with oth­ers. But those ad­vances had come with a loss of fa­mil­iar­ity with their own her­itage. Bu­ber ex­horted them to af­firm them­selves as Jews and re­con­nect with “the el­e­ment of the prophets, the psalmists and the kings of Ju­dah.”

Bu­ber el­e­vated into a pos­i­tive value the merg­ing of Jews into gen­eral so­ci­ety. Jews were, in his telling, “Asi­atic refugees” dis­persed through­out Europe. Their sit­u­a­tion put them in the right spot to “link Ori­ent and Oc­ci­dent in fruit­ful re­ciproc­ity,” a goal he thought best served by re­set­tling the Holy Land and me­di­at­ing ten­sions from the new perch. Far from an im­ped­i­ment, as­sim­i­la­tion could be sub­sumed into a sec­u­lar mes­sian­ism.

Pod­horetz has no utopian dreams in “Mak­ing It” about his grow­ing alien­ation from Brownsville. “No won­der the choice had to be blind,” he wrote, re­fer­ring to his as­cent. “There was a kind of trea­son in it: trea­son to­ward my fam­ily, trea­son to­ward my friends. In choos­ing the road I chose, I was pro­nounc­ing a judg­ment upon them, and the fact that they them­selves con­curred in the judg­ment makes the whole thing sad­der but no less cruel.” His mother shares these re­grets, telling him she should have en­cour­aged him to be a den­tist, a pro­fes­sion that might not have es­tranged him so com­pletely from her.

“Mak­ing It” was a con­tro­ver­sial book in its day, scan­dalous enough that Pod­horetz’s reg­u­lar pub­lisher re­fused to touch it. The mem­oir’s con­fes­sional qual­ity, and its dish­ing on the New York in­tel­lec­tu­als, trans­formed Pod­horetz into an out­cast among the group. He told me over the phone the mem­oir was so ex­plo­sive be­cause his ar­gu­ments on suc­cess gave off “penum­bras and em­a­na­tions” of his later move to the right. That could be true, but what most in­trigues me about “Mak­ing It” is the ex­tent to which gripes about the “bru­tal bar­gain” an­tic­i­pate the con­tem­po­rary cam­pus left and dis­cus­sions on the right to dif­fer­ence.

At the coun­try’s best uni­ver­si­ties, stu­dents are now clam­or­ing against per­ceived in­sti­tu­tional bi­ases. At Har­vard, the law school has been forced to aban­don its crest af­ter cam­pus ac­tivists pointed out it came from slave-owner donors. The English de­part­ment has de-cen­tered the “Dead White Men” of the Western canon by re­quir­ing stu­dents to take at least one course fea­tur­ing au­thors “marginal­ized for his­tor­i­cal rea­sons.” Some cam­pus lefties have gone fur­ther, de­nounc­ing cer­tain forms of di­a­logue and ped­a­gogy as vi­o­lent “mi­cro-ag­gres­sions.”

Pod­horetz’s con­cerns about pres­sure to con­firm to dom­i­nant cul­tural norms, and the con­se­quent need to am­pu­tate parts of one­self, find an echo in the lan­guage of those cam­pus ac­tivists. “You come to col­lege and walk through brick build­ing af­ter brick build­ing with­out see­ing your face on a wall and you be­gin to think of your­self as The Other,” read an edi­to­rial in Rene­gade, a mag­a­zine run by mi­nor­ity stu­dents at Har­vard. “We bring back our an­ces­tors, peo­ple who were forced to for­get them­selves and their tongues and their his­to­ries, and place them at the cen­ter of the con­ver­sa­tion.”

In an­other Rene­gade piece, a Latina stu­dent de­scribed school as a “bat­tle­field,” given the ten­dency of teach­ers to make in­sult­ing cul­tural as­sump­tions. “When my teach­ers com­pli­mented me, they weren’t com­pli­ment­ing me sim­ply be­cause of my abil­i­ties,” she wrote. “They were com­pli­ment­ing me be­cause to them, it was as if I over­came my Latina her­itage by be­ing in­tel­li­gent.” She added: “School has been the place where I have to con­stantly fight against ev­ery­thing ev­ery­one thinks they know about Lati­nas, im­mi­grants and un­doc­u­mented per­sons.”

Pod­horetz dis­puted this com­par­i­son with the cam­pus left dur­ing our chat. “I was happy to be re­ceived into the cul­ture of Western civ­i­liza­tion, and I didn’t think it was at odds with be­ing Jewish,” he said. “They’re bull­shit­ters to­day, and it’s be­cause they can’t per­form,” he ex­plained, cit­ing Stan­ford scholar Thomas Sow­ell’s stud­ies about “mis­match” be­tween racial mi­nori­ties and pres­ti­gious aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions.

It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Pod­horetz ditch­ing a sem­i­nar be­cause it trig­gered him. He would no doubt chafe at iden­tity pol­i­tics epis­te­mol­ogy, which in­sists that a per­son’s abil­ity to un­der­stand is­sues de­pends on his or her group mark­ers. But we can­not ig­nore the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween some of the ideas ar­tic­u­lated in “Mak­ing It” and those in pub­li­ca­tions like Rene­gade. Pod­horetz ac­knowl­edges that elite in­sti­tu­tions ad­vance preva­lent cul­tural norms and present those in­ter­ests as neu­tral or uni­ver­sal. He dis­cusses how be­com­ing ed­u­cated can en­tail a painful sep­a­ra­tion from one’s orig­i­nal en­vi­ron­ment. He even sug­gests that the con­cept of the Ivy League gen­tle­man might be im­plic­itly anti-Semitic.

Such as­ser­tions are com­mon­place among to­day’s cam­pus left. That is no ex­cuse to tol­er­ate the il­lib­er­al­ism of many ac­tivists. But the affini­ties be­tween them and the ’60s-era Pod­horetz are cause enough not to de­ride the whole bunch as “snowflakes,” the in­sult du jour on Fox News. As it turns 50 “Mak­ing It” has main­tained its rel­e­vance, if not for al­ways ob­vi­ous rea­sons.

MADE IT: Nor­man Pod­horetz re­ceived the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom in 2004.

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