Our Podhoretz Problem at 50

Norman Podhoretz: for the greater good he'll accept swarthy grand-kids but won't be happy about it.
Norman Podhoretz: for the greater good he’ll accept swarthy grand-kids but won’t be happy about it.

Fifty years ago, Norman Podhoretz wrote a profoundly stupid article called “My Negro Problem – and Ours.” The article was published in Commentary magazine, which is marking the anniversary.

I say “profoundly stupid” advisedly because Podhoretz himself, despite his reprehensible politics, is not a dumb guy. In fact, he’s a gifted editor and polemicist. The article itself is sometimes praised for being an honest attempt to describe the seriousness of racism.

Yet, what other phrase than profoundly stupid can apply to an article that argues that the best solution to racism is miscegenation. At the end of the essay Podhoretz writes:  “I cannot see how [the dream of erasing color consciousness] will ever be realized unless color does in fact disappear: and that means not integration, it means assimilation, it means—let the brutal word come out—miscegenation…. in my opinion the Negro problem can be solved in this country in no other way.”

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The Ezra Klein Generation

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Ezra Klein.

Brian Morton, a fine novelist and engaging public intellectual, recently tweeted: “Leftists should stop sneering at @ezraklein. If we’d had liberal policy wonks as solid as Klein in the 1970s neoconservatism would never have attained the stature that it did. It would have been intellectually checkmated.” These tweets elicited some responses from me and a few other interested parties but my thoughts on this are a bit more complex than can easily be fitted into 140 characters, so I’m posting a longer argument here.

I understand the impulse behind Brian’s tweets. One of the most heartening developments in recent American politics is the emergence of a generation of passionate young left and liberal writers who have been very effective in challenging the lazy hegemony of conservatism that has dominated elite opinion since the 1970s. Ezra Klein is a convenient synecdoche for this generation. To see him go after blowhards like David Brooks or Bob Woodward is a rare example of a witnessing a salutary public service that is also bracing and delightful.

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Booker T. Washington: de Gaulle Disguised as Petain?

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In the two decades before his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington was far and away the most admired black man in America. He was almost unique in having many supporters in both black and white America. This was a period when black America reached its post-slavery nadir in virtually every area of life – socially, economically, politically. In the South — where 90% of black Americans lived — the successful counterrevolution against Reconstruction meant that Jim Crow was firmly and ferociously in place. In the north, blacks enjoyed more political rights but socially and economically were at the bottom of the ladder.

To this dire situation, Washington offered a path for progress for improving race relations which was designed to appeal to both blacks and whites. In his famous 1895 speech in Atlanta, Washington advocated a compromise whereby African Americans would give up the demands for equal political rights in exchange for assistance in a mutually beneficial program of education and economic improvement. In words of Washington’s most intellectually rigorous critic W.E.B. Du Bois, this program consisted of “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.”

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The Case for Trollope

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David Frum and I have had an interesting twitter debate about the merits of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (you can read the dialogue here). I have a much higher regard for Trollope than Frum does and I thought it might be useful to spell out at greater than 140 character length why he’s one of my favorite novelists (and also quote some sharp critics on Trollope).

I’ve had a soft spot for Trollope ever since I started reading his novels a teenager. It’s good to start young when delving into Trollope because it takes a lifetime to survey his work. He was one of the most prolific writers of good fiction. He had 47 novels under his belt, many of them hefty tomes weighing in around the length of Bleak House, Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov. As if those novels were somehow insufficient there are also five volumes of (quite excellent) short stories and miscellaneous but still voluminous books of (solid, informative) travel writing and other non-fiction (including an excellent, rewarding memoir). All of which adds not just to an oeuvre but almost a mountain range, a formidable requiring time and perseverance to conquer.

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The D’Souza File

The conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza is in the news lately for a number of reasons. His book Obama’s America , which purports to show the Kenyan anti-colonialist roots of the American president’s worldview, is a bestseller. Accompanying the book is a documentary entitled 2016 which has been been a great popular success, at least as far as polemical political films are concerned.

But aside from his public activities, D’Souza’s private life is now much talked about with the news that he offended his Christian evangelical fans last month when he was spoke at a South Carolina Baptist church. When he arrived at the event, for which he was paid $10,000, D’Souza came not with his wife of two decades but with a much younger woman who was introduced as his fiancé. (This so-called fiancé graduated high school in 2002, when D’souza was 41 years old and the author of nine books).  Further investigation revealed that D’Souza  hadn’t in fact initiated divorce proceedings against his wife when he gave the talk, but did so when he started being questioned about his behavior. (Sarah Posner has an fine rundown of the controversy here).

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National Review and Ethnic Slurs: A Brief History

National Review makes an appeal to Latinos.

Matt Yglesias and others have raised their collective eyebrows at the fact that Jay Nordlinger of National Review Online was willing to very casually deploy the derogatory term “wetback.” As it turns out, Nordlinger is a repeat user of this word. In 2006, Nordlinger wrote that for many on the right, George W. Bush was “big-spending, wetback-lovin’ squish.” And going back away, I discovered that other National Review writers have used the term “wetback”, notably the magazine’s resident light verse writer William H. von Dreele, who wrote in 1979 that his love of Mexican tomatoes could only meant that “I’m a wetback to the core.”

Words, of course, only have meaning in the context in which they are used. On at least one occasion National Review employed “wetback” in a defensible way, in an article from February 14, 1986 by K.E. Grubbs Jr. deploring anti-immigrant sentiment titled “Just Another Wetback.” But the other uses  of “wetback” have all been as an offhand slur, the type of derogatory term you habitually use when talking about an inferior race.

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Hilton Kramer: A Dissenting Obituary

Hilton Kramer: cover photo for The Revenge of the Philistines

Hilton Kramer, the art critic and founding editor of The New Criterion who died at age 84 earlier this week, rather enjoyed his own reputation for being fearsome and formidable. Take a look at the back cover of his essay collection The Revenge of the Philistines (1985) where Kramer presents himself to the world as a very severe killjoy, almost like a caricature of the critic as hanging judge. “Would it kill him to crack a smile?” a friend asked when he saw that photo. (The photo is pasted above).

Yet as off-putting as he could seem from afar, Kramer enjoyed many close collaborators and admirers, who are already bearing witness to his virtues. Since others writers are making the case on behalf of Kramer,  I want to enter a few dissenting notes about his writing and public presence.

Back in his salad days in the early 1950s, Kramer’s big break came from publishing in Partisan Review and he saw himself as heir to that magazine’s stance of being both politically and aesthetically engaged. Unfortunately, his politics were absurd. He started off as a cold war liberal (with perhaps a few social democratic sympathies). In the early 1960s even served as art critic for The Nation, an alliance that both he and the magazine would later regard with bemused puzzlement.  In reaction to the turmoil of the late 1960s Kramer became a very fierce and unbending neo-conservative, of the sort that prefers ideological purity to any acknowledgement of reality.

In a 1987 essay on Sidney Hook, Kramer with his characteristic obtuse overconfidence argued that Mikhail Gorbachev was a far bigger threat to the free world than Joseph Stalin had ever been. “Under Stalin, both the military power of the Soviet Union and its vast espionage apparatus were seen to constitute a danger to every non-Communist society in the world – yet Gorbachev commands a far greater war machine than any Stalin ever had at his disposal, and if recent revelations are any guide, a no less effective espionage network,” Kramer asserted. “By every significant measure, the Soviet Union is a far more formidable adversary today than it was forty years ago, and one of the things that makes it more formidable is its unbroken record of conquest in the intervening years. It already enjoys an unchallenged hegemony in more parts of the world than it did forty years ago, and the momentum of its drive to seek further conquests shows no sign of abatement.” Equally in keeping with his impervious intellectual manner was the fact that when Kramer reprinted this essay in his 1999 collection The Twilight of the Intellectuals he carefully excised this passage, displaying an appropriately Soviet willingness to re-write history.

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Dmitri Nabokov, RIP

Via a facebook friend and the New York Times comes news that Dmitri Nabokov died last week at age 77. He lived, of course, under the shadow of his remarkable father Vladimir — and also in some ways equally formidable mother Vera but there was very little, if any, resentment. the Nabokovs adored their only son and he in turn conscientiously looked after them while they were alive and thoughtfully managed his father’s literary legacy.  As some Nabokov scholars have learned, Dmitri could be a bit cantankerous at times, but he did yeoman’s work in helping to translate the Russian works into English, in bringing collections of the letters to print, and in taking care of the many little devotional editorial tasks that a great writer needs and deserves. Dmitri decision to allow the publication of The Original of Laura was controversial but I think he made the right call in a difficult case.

Aside from his care for his father, Dmitri lived a very active and colorful life (although also a seemingly lonely one). He was an opera singer and a race car driver, a high liver and a world traveler. One interesting biographical tidbit is that during his car racing days someone tried to kill him by sabotaging his vehicle. I believe that the mystery of this attempted murder was never solved. Dmitri Nabokov talked about this and about his father in this 1986 interview with Don Swaim.

Van Gogh and Weimar Democracy

 

Over at the National Post, I have a review of Modris Eksteins’ Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, which makes a provocative but not wholly convincing case linking the Van Gogh cult with the failure of Weimar democrcacy. You can read the review here.

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The Strange Allure of Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich photo by Gage Skidmore (via Creative Commons).

Today’s Globe and Mail contains a column I wrote trying to explain the popularity of Newt Gingrich among GOP voters. Despite its obvious newsworthiness, the column hasn’t been posted online. So I decided to offer a slightly expanded version of the article for Sans Everything readers:

Bewitched by the Eye of Newt by Jeet Heer

For Republican voters, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is like an ex-spouse who provokes a complex mix of longing and remorse. Even after the bitterest divorce, people often hook up with their exes, in ill-advised attempts to relive fonder days.

For many Republicans, as his last-minute surge in South Carolina shows, Mr. Gingrich is an old flame who still has that bad-boy charm. Voters remember all his faults, with the intimate knowledge of a former lover, but he has a way of melting their hearts: No other candidate is so adept at caressing GOP hot spots, such as fears of Mitt Romney being a “Massachusetts moderate” or of Barack Obama’s “socialist-secular machine.” Continue reading