The Norman Inversion Breaking Ranks with Reality By Laura Richardson Houston I came to Norman Podhoretz seven years ago, rather late in my career as a pseudo-intellectual of no small ill-repute back home in Austin. It was not a happy meeting, at least partially because his book was forced on me by a well-meaning friend who kept saying, “You’ll love him; he’s so snotty.” My friend, a man who seemed to equate bitchy self-assurance with brains and talent, thought Podhoretz and I would have a lot in common. At least as much as would be possible considering the differences in our religions, creeds, sexes, ages and ethnic origins. So I read Making it, Podhoretz’s autobiography detailing his youthful success as an editor, and hated it. The self-satisfaction and congratulation that smirked up off every page rankled, and I kept wondering how anyone even a native New Yorker could think that “one of the longest journeys in the world is from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” I was biased against Podhoretz anyway, because I knew he was married to Midge Decter and I associated both of them with a peculiar brand of 1950-ish politics called “State Department Socialism” or “Cold War Liberalism.” Cold War liberals in general were unsympathetic with the mood and manners of ’60s youth; but Midge was positively beside herself with petulance. With barely concealed relish, Decter predicted in the pages of Harper’s that Social Darwinism would take care of us: our indulgent middle-class parents would see us elbowed aside by the eager, hardworking scions of the proletariat. We deserved to be winnowed out because we had had every advantage but insisted on marching down the street wearing long hair or no brassieres, or both, wasting our time on pro-civil rights or anti-war demonstrations when we could have been doing something so much better. Making it, I presume. It’s been 20 years since Norman did, and now he has favored us with yet another autobiography with a participial title. This one is a political memoir, Breaking Ranks, which explains how Podhoretz changed from a Cold War liberal to no kind of liberal at all. As he did in Making It, Podhoretz makes his personal experience the standard against which to measure past and present culture. Once again he celebrates his courage, his intelligence, his talent, his . . . you name it, he congratulates himself on it. Breaking Ranks differs from Making It in an important area: tone. In Making It Podhoretz is not only young, age 30, he’s youthful. He exhibits a nose-thumbing bravado that makes the book perversely amusing. I hated it; but I finished it. Twenty years ago, this man was triumphant in his small world and hopeful about the larger one, on the threshold of what he certainly believed would be a great career. Today, he is still just the editor of Commentary, a magazine no longer taken seriously in the broader intellectual community, thanks largely to its editor. Because of his politics, Podhoretz has lost the friendship of many writers and academic intellectuals, and in Breaking Ranks Laura Richardson is an Observer contributing editor. he sounds bitter, hateful and old. Were he not a righteous apologist for some of the most reactionary policies and ideas currently abroad in the land, he would be pitiable. Look at me, Podhoretz whines. I didn’t even get paid for selling out: “Now there were no limousines and very few invitations. Indeed, I found myself shunned by most of my former friends.” He seems surprised, which he shouldn’t be. Few people hate the sin and love the sinner. Podhoretz presents himself as one of the few. Reading Breaking Ranks, I gathered that he would not have “shunned” Norman Mailer, Jason Epstein, Lillian Hellman, Lionel Trilling and a host of other bright literary lights, no matter their multitudes of grievous radical sins. He would have overlooked their left-wing ideas and attended their parties. They, however, didn’t invite him. This hurt his feelings. Deeply. He admits as much. He even tries to make it appear that it pains him to call them cowards, sycophants, intellectually dishonest and worse. Norman Podhoretz, according to Norman Podhoretz, doesn’t revel in the downfalls of others. Ha. I saw him only once when I was in New York, and the interview was rather silly. I kept trying to make him stop quoting himself, and he kept effortlessly evading me. When we got out of his office and onto the street, however, he unbent for a moment that left me breathless. I was turning to walk to the subway when he called me back. “How’s Willie [Morris]?” he asked. “I’ve heard . . . I’ve heard . . . .” “Well, you’ve heard the gossip,” I said, very disconcerted. It was not the first time a New Yorker had assumed I had some connection to Mr. Morris, whom I’ve never met. “Yes,” Podhoretz said dismally. “That a woman’s supporting him.” I was horrified. Of all the things to mourn the destruction of a talent, the seclusion of a useful and benevolent mind Podhoretz had fastened upon the most intimate and the most irrelevant. Slime, I thought as I rattled back to Hoboken. Bad manners. Poor taste, that most objectionable of social sins. Typical Yankee dirt. It was through his relationship with Morris back in the ’70s \(Decter was an editor at Morris’ that Podhoretz gathered the material for the only really “new” idea in Breaking Ranks: that Southerners have invaded and taken over the intellectual establishment previously run by bright Jewish boys like himself. \(The book’s other strand of thought that 1960s’ radicalism was the triumphant resurrection of Stalinism is a heavy-handed red-baiting attack worthy of the most paranoid of of the Southern mind and style is not original, since it’s compounded mainly of stereotypes. Southerners are dumb, rural naifs. Drunks. Anti-Semites. Yet we are a shrewd and wily breed, able to insinuate ourselves into positions of power. Under a veneer of cornponey politesse lurks a ravenously ambitious being that can, when the times are right, out-make the hottest Jewish-Kid-on-the-Make. Once in power, we exert a pernicious influence. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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