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A liberal voice, clear and true

Politics Observations & Arguments 1966-2004 Hendrik Hertzberg Penguin Press: 684 pp., $29.95

August 01, 2004|Nicholas Goldberg | Nicholas Goldberg is the editor of the op-ed page of The Times.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when Hendrik Hertzberg was a boy in New York City and its outlying communities, his home was a swirl of postwar passion and political animation. His father was the son of immigrant garment workers, a former teenage street-corner speaker for the Bronx Socialist Party. His mother, a professor of history, was a not-too-distant cousin of Walt Whitman. Both were part of the small, insular world of New York's non-Communist intellectual left.

Fed from babyhood on the sentiments of Socialist leader Norman Thomas ("who never disappoints," says Hertzberg), George Orwell, Gandhi and the anti-Fascist novelist Ignazio Silone, he grew up in an atmosphere of reasoned dissent and engaged, self-critical discussion. The polemical essays of Dwight Macdonald -- whose short-lived magazine Politics (after which the current volume is named) was conceived in 1943, the year Hertzberg was born -- "electrified" Hertzberg as a young man and confirmed for him the critical lesson that it was the left itself that had most effectively critiqued and fought Stalinism.

That world -- the "dissenting, marginalized, Eurocentric, anti-Stalinist intellectual left," as Hertzberg describes his cultural milieu -- seems distant today, in the era of George W. Bush and John Kerry. But for Hertzberg it is not; it is all part of a "continuing intellectual tradition," a tangle of "cultural roots" that he has carried with him and nurtured through a 40-year career.

He came of age as the '50s gave way to the '60s, amid the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the birth of rock 'n' roll. He interviewed 24-year-old Jerry Garcia in 1966 for Newsweek ("He has frizzy hair, like Nancy of Nancy and Sluggo," Hertzberg reported), back when tickets to the Fillmore West cost $2.50 to $3.50 ("depending on the talent"). He visited John and Yoko for a chat in their West Village studio for the New Yorker. He went to Woodstock (where he slept out in the rain, trekked through the crowd for an hour to reach the Port-O-Sans and described it all as "a Mathew Brady phantasmagoria of tents and mud").

But from the start, what Hertzberg excelled at was short-form political writing. From his early essays on the New Left through his years as editor of the New Republic to the last piece in the book -- a February 2004 dissection of President Bush's latest State of the Union address for the New Yorker -- his cultural debt to Orwell and Macdonald is almost always evident. Like them, Hertzberg traffics in the kind of analytical yet, as he says, "indignant" intellectual discussion that can actually change people's minds, set out in the clear, passionate and clever prose we all wish we could produce ourselves. In the book's introduction, David Remnick, the New Yorker's editor, says that Hertzberg "has tone control the way Billie Holiday had tone control."

A couple of distinguishing characteristics: First, it is striking how consistent Hertzberg has been over a very long period of time, and how little he has to look back on with regret or embarrassment. Though no one's beliefs go completely unchanged for 40 years, Hertzberg did not veer across the political spectrum the way so many of his contemporaries did. He was not a communist in the 1950s, a Weatherman in the 1960s or a Reaganite in the 1980s. He did not engage in the peregrinations of Irving Kristol or David Horowitz or David Brock. Unlike Kathy Boudin, he did not rebel spectacularly against his parents; unlike Christopher Hitchens, he is not at war with his former comrades. His politics have been all along sober and unhysterical, rooted in the values he learned at home. From the start, he says, "I took my antiwar arguments from Theodore Draper, not Noam Chomsky; from Commentary (yes, Commentary) and The New Republic, not the National Guardian and Monthly Review."

Second, like his parents, he always understood that honest criticism begins at home. In the early years, he was sympathetic to the New Left yet lambasted its "intellectual flabbiness and dishonesty," lamenting that terms like "fascism," "racism," "genocide," "police state" and "oppression" had been "stripped of meaning."

In 1970, when he was 27, he took the Weathermen to task. "Unlike the Stalinists, the Weathermen do not take orders from anyone," he wrote. "They do their own unthinking.... To be thus freed from the responsibility of thought is an exhilarating experience. It is pleasant to ride the tide of 'history' without having to worry about the political (let alone the moral) consequences. It is thrilling to give oneself over wholly to mindless action without having to face the travail of doubt."

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