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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Reagan Versus the Neo-Cons

Mikhail Gorbachev: More dangerious than Stalin, according to Commentary magazine

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the tendency of neo-conservatives such as Norman Podhoretz to celebrate Ronald Reagan as a great president is more than a little disingenuous. Back when Reagan was actually in power, the neo-cons supported the president against his liberal and leftist critics but had their own problems with the Gipper, who they regarded as a weak appeaser all too willing to negotiate with an implacable enemy, Soviet Communism. This neo-conservative critique of Reagan was especially virulent in President’s second term when he came to the conclusion that Gorbachev was a sincere reformer worth doing business with.

In his book The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich acutely sums up this phase of neo-conservatism:

Podhoretz found much to like in Reagan’s rhetoric, but he warned against confusing words with actions. The two differed, often drastically. To take Reagan’s famous condemnation of Moscow’s “evil empire” at face value was “to fall victim to a campaign of disinformation.” In practice, Reagan had proven himself “unwilling to take the political risks and expend the political energy” to break with the Nixon-Ford-Carter policy of détente. Like his immediate predecessors, the president seemed obsessed with making the world safe for Communism, thus implementing “a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire.” Indeed, to Podhoretz, Reagan appeared “ready to embrace the course of détente wholeheartedly as his own.”

For all of his high-sounding talk, the fortieth president of the UnitedStates, Podhoretz reluctantly concluded, lacked backbone. Although he “seems to have a few strong convictions,” wrote Podhoretz in 1985, Reagan “invariably backed away from acting on them” if they threatened to “cost him more political approval than he might gain by tacking and trimming.” As late as 1986—three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall—Podhoretz was still insisting that “‘the present danger’ of 1980 is still present today, and the question of whether ‘we have the will to reverse the decline of American power’ still hangs ominously as it did then in the troubled American air.” As the end of the 1980s approached, the threat posed by Communism was becoming, if anything, greater than ever. That Reagan was apparently falling victim to Mikhail Gorbachev’s charm offensive was almost unbearable. In Podhoretz’s eyes, to parley with the enemy was to appease him.

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Gorbachev: More Dangerous than Stalin?

Gorbachev on Time magazine

Commentary magazine wants us to believe that Iran is the new Nazi Germany, its president Ahmadinejad is Hitler reborn. The questions worth asking are: how realistic is Commentary in assessing threats? What is their track record like?

Let’s take the way-back machine and read Hilton Kramer’s essay “The Importance of Sidney Hook” which ran in the August 1987 issue of Commentary. Near the end of the essay, Kramer compares the Soviet Union under Stalin with Gorbachev’s regime:

The world has changed, but has it really changed for the better as far as the power and influence of democracy are concerned? Are we less endangered now than we were then? Communism was then clearly and correctly perceived to be a worldwide threat to the survival of democratic institutions, but it actually controlled the fate of far fewer inhabitants of the globe than it does today. 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. 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.

Continue reading