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Yankee Doodle Dandy

Celebrating America While Breaking Ranks and Settling Scores

MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH AMERICA The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative by Norman Podhoretz; The Free Press: 256 pp., $25

July 02, 2000|JIM SLEEPER

In another circle of Podhoretzian hell, mass marketing has so shuffled our libidinal as well as racial decks that it's comfortable peddling sexual degradation. The Calvin Klein-cum-kiddie porn ads that showed up a few years ago on New York City buses were put there by private investors in the free market not by liberals. Podhoretz says nothing about any of this. But if it's wrong for the left to demonize as conspiratorial and even fascist the many mindless free-market disruptions of social life, it's wrong for conservatives not even to question corporate priorities.

Podhoretz claims that he left the left for the right because he'd seen "radicalism" through to its ugly bottom. He says he was a "radical" and a "utopian" in the early 1960s, the unwitting bearer of a social "disease" whose flushes of apparent optimism conceal the carrier's ripeness for disillusionment and then complicity in cruelty and oppression. He writes that he naively believed that America could end the Cold War and arms race, abolish poverty and racism, loosen and liberate sexual relations without destructive effects on marriage or the rearing of children (this is the closest the book comes to discussing the feminist movement) "and so on and so on into the blinding visions of the utopian imagination. . . . I was also convinced that all this could be done through reforms 'within the system' and without evolutionary violence."

Never mind that because many intelligent people did believe such things, we've inched closer to realizing some of them. Did Podhoretz himself truly believe them? Not if, as he also writes, he was seduced by utopian siren songs into an "infidelity" to America that has required his "repentance," a "painful self-examination of what it was in the ideas I had held and helped to disseminate that could have given birth to the monsters [of anti-Americanism] I now hated and feared." Had this one-time disciple of Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis never considered Edmund Burke or Thomas Carlyle's accounts of the French Revolution? Did he publish Goodman and Baldwin because he was naive, or because they rode the zeitgeist and he wanted to be "with it" -- "A critic with a good pair of ears once wrote that he could hear in some of Podhoretz's essays 'the tones of a young man who expects others to be just a little too happy with his early eminence,"' he tells us. And, "I discovered that . . . the ideas we had been shaping and disseminating spread faster and further than I had ever dreamed possible" -- even to the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses, he recounts. Nothing utopian there. Was Commentary, by any chance, being mailed to the West Wing from Podhoretz's office?

Fortunately, he now says of such disseminations, "[T]here were protections in America against a seizure of power by utopians" such as himself. This would be comforting if there were no other evils or sicknesses imperiling America. But the most likely peril isn't the left's utopian-totalitarian impulses or the right's fascist vagaries but the bread-and-circus decadence, reminiscent more of the late Roman Empire than of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, coming your way relentlessly via the tube, the Internet, the casino, the sex shop and now the psychiatric clinic, where even irreducibly moral crises are medicated away. It's driven less by the left than by the quarterly bottom line and by the marketing division. Against this, Podhoretz's protests aren't even feeble; they're non-existent. "The economic system [liberals] were denouncing was itself a form of freedom," he writes. Calvin Klein is with him there.

There's yet another cautionary tale in the book, this one for the chattering classes: While there are times for every new group and talent to make its noisy claim to American acceptance, a full love of a country or culture needn't be "glorified with a full throat." The Jews' time to do that came (and went) in the first half of the last century with Mary Antin, Israel Zangwill, Emma Lazarus and Alfred Kazin, or, more uproariously, with Bellow and Norman Mailer. By now, more Jewish writers ought to have joined Lincoln in evoking mystic chords of a larger national memory and aspiration. The best such writing (Philip Roth's "American Pastoral", for example) is a dance of fewer words and more telling silences. Patriotic bombast and ethnocentrism cheapen civic love.

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