In his 1979 memoir Breaking Ranks, Norman Podhoretz, then the editor of Commentary magazine, told the story of his political shift from left-liberalism to neo-conservatism. A key reason for his political rethinking, Podhoretz asserts, was the intemperate attacks on legitimate political leaders by the New Left and its fellow travelers. As an example, we’re told about an argument Podhoretz had with his old friend Jason Epstein, the book publisher and eminence grise behind the New York Review of Books.
“Certainly I was not afraid of Jason,” Podhoretz recalled. “I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I had never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response. He taken aback and so was I…”
Yesterday on the Commentary blog Jennifer Rubin, a regular writer for the magazine, described the worries that many militant Israeli nationalists in America (“the AIPAC crowd”) have about President Obama. Commentary is of course the house journal of the AIPAC crowd so her account was quite sympathetic. She tells the following anecdote:
An elderly couple from Florida were agitated by recent events. The wife explained she that had fled Nazi Germany as a child for Shanghai. “There are parallels,” she said. “This is depressing. It’s scary.” She said that she had argued with her liberal friends during the campaign about Obama’s associations with anti-Israel figures. “My mother always said where there is smoke, there is fire,” she explained, then added wearily, “They didn’t listen.” …That’s just a sampling, but it gives you a sense of the angst. This is not a crowd that is celebrating. They are worried. Very worried.”
There is much that can be said about these two passages. A few thoughts:
1. One problem with defining neo-conservatism is that it is not a fixed, static thing but an ideological formation that is always evolving in response to a changing world. In 1979, the members of the Podhoretz circle were still largely allied to the Democratic Party, supporters of Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Neo-conservatives at that time positioned themselves as centrists, heirs to the tradition of liberal anti-communism and opponents of all forms of extremism whether on the left or right. By 2010, almost all the neo-conservatives are now part of the Republican Party, and indeed closely linked to extreme right wing of the Republican Party (they have more in common with Sarah Palin than with Olympia Snowe).
2. I don’t want to belabor the obvious, but there is something really wrong with people who think it is a horrible libel to compare LBJ to Hitler but are willing to casually repeat the idea that there are “parallels” between the Führer and Obama. The analogy is wrong in both cases but there is a different kind of error at work in the two cases. Whatever his virtues, and they were many, LBJ launched an unnecessary war in Vietnam, a brutal adventure that cost the lives of more than 50,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese. To compare him to Hitler is to engage in gross and obscene hyperbole, but the hyperbole is at least rooted in a genuine revulsion against war and agression. But look at Obama: whatever his faults, he’s trying to wind down in a prudential manner two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq); he’s also trying to extend health care insurance to millions who are not currently covered in the United States; and like every other American president since the late 1960s, he is opposed to the Israeli policy of building settlements in the occupied territories. Like a large chunk of the population of Israel, Obama believes that Israel cannot survive as a Jewish democracy if it keeps building settlements. That’s why some in “the AIPAC crowd” think Obama is comparable to Hitler. In effect, they believe that anyone who works for a political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is in the same ballpark as Hitler. There’s a special kind of craziness at work here…
3. Finally, I want to say something about Commentary magazine itself. I’ve read the magazine for a long time, perhaps too long, going on 30 years now. The magazine has a distinguished history. It’s list of contributors include: Hannah Arendt, Robert Alter, Paul Auster, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Nathan Glazer, Paul Goodman, Clement Greenberg, Michael Harrington, Joseph Heller, Richard Hofstadter, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, F.R. Leavis, John Lukacs, Scott McConnell, Dwight MacDonald, Norman Mailer, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, Philip Roth, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; Leo Strauss, Lionel Trilling, and John Updike, among many others. That’s a very strong list of writers. But of course, many of them are dead and gone. And of the living, many have broken with Commentary. Aside from Robert Alter, is there a single first-rate writer still associated with Commentary? These days the magazine publishes Jonah Goldberg and Jennifer Rubin. The decline and fall of Commentary as a serious magazine is a story that has yet to be told. If I wrote the story, it would be told in a tone more of sorrow than of anger.