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The Uncivil Servant: “Making It” and Escaping It

Mitchell Abidor
April 3, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Making It, by Norman Podhoretz, NYRB Classics edition, 254 pages, 2017; and Confessions of a Heretic, by Roger Scruton, Notting Hill Editions, 196 pages, 2016.

LET US BE CLEAR: Norman Podhoretz is now and has long been one of the least attractive characters on the American political scene. One of the spiritual fathers of neo-conservatism (and biological father of the equally unsavory John Podhoretz, who took over the family business, Commentary magazine, in 2009), he has been one of the loudest voices on the American right since the 1960s. Podhoretz has been a ferocious Cold Warrior -- a defender of the Vietnam War and of our country's constant depradations against Latin American leftists; an advocate of both Iraq Wars who has also ardently wished for war with Iran; and a booster and defender of the likes of Sarah Palin. ("I hereby declare," Podhoretz wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "that I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama.")

It’s hard to imagine that a man so lost could once have been at Cambridge, sitting at the knee of F.R. Leavis, one of the greatest of all English literary critics. Clearly, it is neither intellect nor education that shapes the moral compass of a human being.

Making It, originally published in 1967 and reissued in its fiftieth anniversary year by NYRB Classics, is an intellectual autobiography. It doesn't follow the memoirist's path towards memories of family (Jewish immigrants in Brownsville) -- the family that Podhoretz really tells about is the coterie of Jewish Intellectuals who ruled the roost in New York for decades. They were a family because “these were people who by virtue of their tastes, ideas, and general concerns found themselves stuck with one another against the rest of the world whether they liked it or not.” Podhoretz situates himself in their third generation, following the “founding fathers” born in the early years of the 20th century, many of whom came as infants to the U.S., most born to immigrant parents, and the second generation, born ten to fifteen years later.

THIS INTELLECTUAL family was dominated by anti-Stalinist politics that would, in the 1950s and later, become rabidly anti-communist politics that were tolerant of broad abuses of civil liberties and democracy in the name of rooting out communists. They were men (and the rare woman, Mary McCarthy standing out both as a woman and a non-Jew) who took ideas seriously, thrived on them, fought over them, ended friendships over them. It is not by accident that his later volume of autobiography was called Ex-Friends.

Yet at its core, literary and political ideas are not what Making It is about. The title is carefully chosen. This is a book that is blatantly about “a man who at the precocious age of thirty-five experienced an astonishing revelation: it is better to be a success than a failure. “ It is rumination on this matter, on the lures, pitfalls, and ultimate centrality for Podhoretz of achieving fame and critical and financial success.

The chasing of success is hardly attractive, and reading a man’s life through this lens is, for the most part, unpleasant. Podhoretz at times recognizes this, and asserts that his friends perhaps thought of him as an opportunist, but “at least regarded me as a likeable one: a Julien Sorel or a Rastignac . . . rather than a Sammy Glick or a Flem Snopes.” He can delude himself that putting a patina of Frenchness on his arrivisme makes it any more attractive, but he is, in fact, as shameless and revolting as Sammy Glick of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? A pusherke is a pusherke, and hiding behind Stendhal or Balzac changes nothing in the case. Nor does being honest and open about it make it any more attractive. Few positive literary figures describe themselves as a “young man on the make.” Even fewer would find this to be a point of pride.

Perhaps nothing is more damning as the unfettered joy Podhoretz experiences at a conference in the Caribbean on Huntington Hartford’s Paradise Island, where he hobnobs with the really rich and the really famous. “[T]his was what Success looked like, all its various components brought together in one dazzling display, and the look of it made me drunker than all the gallons of run I consumed that week.” In this, Podhoretz is truly American, in the most vulgar, caricatured sense of the term -- a caricature he revels in and lends a self-serving intellectual patina.

HE NEVER provides an intellectual justification for the superiority of a life lived this way, and though few would dispute that it’s better to have money than not, what makes a life weighed by this sole measure a better one, or even a good one? Is it an intellectually responsible argument to say that Betsy DeVos, worth $580,000,000, has in some way -- in any way -- lived a life that can be held up as exemplary, a moral life, because she has, by Podhoretz’s measure, made it?

If we, for the sake of argument, accept Podhoretz’s political and cultural views as correct, did he not “make it” when his ideas became common currency and swayed politicians and thinkers? Did the appearance of dollar signs hovering over these ideas make him a better person? There is no inherent nobility, of course, in being a struggling artist, in not achieving success. But there is also no inherent ignobility in doing so. That Podhoretz should view success as his leaving Brownsville and its provincial mindset behind can be defended, and he does so; this is a success one bestows on oneself. But defining success as something measurable that is bestowed by the outside world is quite another matter for someone who claims to be an intellectual. Intellectual integrity and the desire for applause seldom make good bedfellows. It places life’s worth at the mercy of the marketplace, and in this Podhoretz is truly American, in the most caricatural sense of the term.

This leads us to what is by far the most important subject addressed in Making It, on which he truly has something of importance to say -- something that makes Making It into a book of real worth, indeed, perhaps the best treatment of the topic outside the pages of Philip Roth. Namely: Growing up in Jewish Brownsville gave Podhoretz a specific vision of America and his place in it. Never had “I thought of myself as an American," he writes. "I came from Brooklyn, and in Brooklyn there were no Americans; there were Jews and Negroes and Italians and Poles and Irishmen. Americans lived in New England, in the South, in the Midwest; alien people in alien places.”

This theme will recur among the members of his intellectual family: “They did not feel that they belonged to America or that America belonged to them.” So extreme was this feeling that Alfred Kazin, the great literary critic also from Brownsville, was teased about using the phrase “our forests” in an article about Francis Parkman’s classic The Oregon Trail: “Our forests, Alfred?"

Interestingly, for all of Podhoretz's striving, the feeling that he and his peers were outsiders never seems to have left him. Even after he’s approached by President Johnson as part of an elite group of thinkers, he still maintains that he felt “alienation’” from the U.S. “By ‘alienation’ in this context I meant simply the feeling that this was not my country; I was not really part of it; I was a citizen . . . of a small community in New York which lived by its own laws and had as little commerce as it could manage with a hostile surrounding environment.” He doesn’t lack the insight to add, “As an intellectual I was as ghettoized as my ancestors in eastern Europe had been as Jews.”

For all this feeling of being an outsider, Podhoretz, describing his discovery of Europe, provides perhaps the best, most succinct definition of what an American is in contradistinction to others:

[W]e spoke English with an American accent, we carried American passports and travelers checks from American Express, we were overawed by cathedrals, we were buoyant and wide-eyed and talkative, we had good teeth and smooth complexions, we complained about the absence of central heating in winter, we were accustomed to modern plumbing, we had a thing about dirt, we preferred showers to baths and took too many of both, we grew impatient of slow service in restaurants, and we drank water more happily than wine.

No American, not even the most alienated among us, can deny the accuracy of this portrait.

But outsiderness was not only a matter of Podhoretz’s position vis-à-vis America; it was equally his position regarding Jewishness, and more specifically, his status as a Jewish kid from the slums of Brownsville.

Podhoretz was taken under the wing of a high school teacher, Mrs. K, a woman with an old-line Brooklyn Dutch background who had no great love for her Jewish charges, “horrible little Jewboys” as he characterizes her perception of them. In after-school trips, she introduces him to the world of high culture, museums, and attire other than his red satin windbreaker with the name of his social and athletic club emblazoned on it.

His new love for high culture comes at a cost, for in entering the world of Western culture -- and Podhoretz is clear and unapologetic that it is Western culture that matters -- there is no choice but to turn one’s back on the transplanted shtetl culture of Brownsville. “How could [Mrs. K.] have explained to me that there was no socially neutral ground to be found in the United States of America, and that a distaste for the surroundings in which I was bred, and ultimately (God forgive me) even for many of the people I loved . . . that all this was inexorably entailed in the logic of a taste for the poetry of Keats and the painting of Cezanne and the music of Mozart?” Podhoretz refers to this process as a “conversion.” One can’t help but wonder if he didn’t also feel it as a betrayal.

His “conversion” occurred both knowingly, in his taste and desire for literature and art, and unconsciously, something he describes in a particularly acute passage about his accent. He describes how “without any conscious effort on my part, my speech had largely lost the characteristic neighborhood accent and was well on its way to becoming as neutrally American as I gather it is now.” He observes that this unconscious cutting loose from Brooklyn pronunciations “bespeaks a very high degree of detachment from the ethos of one’s immediate surroundings.” He concludes that “people who feel that they belong in their familiar surroundings . . . will invariably speak in the accent of those surroundings . . . Conversely, it is safe to assume that a person whose accent has undergone a radical change from childhood is a person who once had fantasies of escaping to some other world.” The will to pronounce the final “r” in words is thus posited as the first step down the road to riches, both cultural and financial.

Making It is exasperating, maddening, and, in its gimlet-eyed vision of the place of the Jew in America, brilliant.

CONFESSIONS of a Heretic, a collection of essays by the ultra-conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton, is quite another matter. If Podhoretz wonders about his relationship as a Jew to America and culture, Scruton sits snugly, or rather, smugly, as the arbiter of all that is good and consonant with Western values. Islam is, it goes without saying, the enemy of these values, and he lists seven key characteristics of the West that prove our superiority over them, among them, social drinking. What is it that allows those in the West to “live with their differences and to remain on peaceful terms without the need for intimacy, brotherhood, or tribal loyalties[?] . . . There is a simple answer, and it is drink.” The hookah, the coffee house, and the traditional bath house of the Arab world are dismissed out of hand, somehow being “forms of withdrawal,” not community. Why is this so? Because Roger Scruton has decreed it.

Modern architecture, it goes without saying, is bad. “Classical forms result from convention and consensus over centuries . . . The modernist forms, by contrast, have been imposed upon is by people in the grip of ideology.” Though he elsewhere praises the fact that churches were the first building put up in the classical town, religion somehow is not an ideology, but Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies are in the grip of anti-human ideas. Who imposed them? How? Was there a memo that went out? In Scruton’s world, frozen in the 18th century, progress and change are anathema and don’t happen on their own, but are the willed choices of an elite. As he would perhaps say: Poppycock!

It comes as no surprise that the internet and Facebook are particular bugaboos, alienating, falsifying the nature of friendship and blah, blah, blah . . . But somehow TV, that villain of the 1950s, is also a cause of current anomie. Speaking of young students, Scruton avers that “those from TV-sodden homes . . . tend to be reticent, inarticulate, given to aggression when under stress, unable to tell a story or express a view, and seriously hampered when it comes to taking responsibility for a task, an activity or a relationship. “ Those who have had no contact with TV,” on the other hand, are mainly “home-schooled or products of the Bible Belt,” and quite another matter. They “are the ones who step forward with ideas, who go out to their fellows, who radiate the kind of freedom and adventurousness that makes learning a pleasure and risk a pleasure.” To which, any sentient reader can only say, “What in God’s name is this man talking about?”

The baby-boomer generation was the first to grow up plopped before the boob tube, and it did quite well, thank you, in the areas of “expressing their views.” Those who fought the Vietnam War can hardly be called “reticent,” yet who among us cannot name every show we watched on Saturday morning from The Big Picture at 4:00 a.m. on? And self-schooled kids from the Bible Belt stepping forward with ideas? Sure, if we consider creationism an idea; if we define “going out to their fellows” as attempts at conversion going out to their fellows. This would all be laughable if it wasn’t so horrific.

Scruton is so reactionary, so tied to some other century and world, that he even (I’m not making this up) attacks… the waltz! In an essay condemning the way young people dance today, he takes a shot at the music of Vienna: “Of course [of course!] the waltz and the foxtrot were already on a slope towards the narcissistic non-dancing that we witness today. The long-term effect of the Viennese waltz…was to fragment the community on the dance floor into an assembly of couples, each haloed by the sexual electricity of their clinging bodies.” Johann Strauss = Tupac Shakur.

All of this atavistic bleating is unfortunate, because the book contains several ideas that are truly worthy of discussion and reflection. Scruton is famously a foxhunter, despite which he shows great concern for animals. Except for cats. In a delicious passage, he says: “The distinctions between fair and unfair game, between vermin and protected species, between friend and foe -- all such distinctions have no significance for a cat, which sets off from the house in search of songbird’s, field mice, shrews and other harmless and necessary creatures with no thought for anything save the taste in his mouth of blood.” Cats, he tells us, are responsible for the deaths of 180,000,000 birds and mammals every year, and he has a final lament about this wanton murder by the felines among us: “The domestic cat is, without exception, the most devastating of all the alien species that have been brought to our island, and the worst of it is that, thanks to the sentimentality of the British animal lover, it is a crime to shoot them.”

He addresses end of life issues in a similarly eccentric way. We are living longer than ever, but not better than ever. One solution is assisted suicide for those in physical pain, but the best way to avoid falling into senility is to not live that long in the first place. Have friendships, relationships, be active, but “the life of benign shabbiness,” he advocates, “is not a life of excess. Of course, you should drink, smoke, eat fatty foods -- but not to the point of gluttony. The purpose is to weaken the body while strengthening the mind.”

Free choice matters: “Each of us must decide for himself what the life of benign shabbiness requires of him.” In the end, Scruton tells us, “the main point . . . is to maintain a life of active risk and affection, while helping along the body on the path of decay, remembering always that the value of life does not consist in its length, but its depth.”

If only the wisdom of this passage informed all of Confessions of a Heretic.

This volume is published by the marvelous Notting Hill Editions, which specializes in essay-writing of varying kinds. Their books are beautiful objects, hardcover, compact, printed beautifully on high quality paper; so beautiful, so delightful to read are these books that it’s almost worth putting up with much of the content of a book like Confessions of a Heretic to own this one.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.