Norman Podhoretz's My Love Affair with America
by Norman Podhoretz
(The Free Press, 248 pages, $25)
Not that long ago my teenage daughter inadvertently flagged this hot issue. Five times she has organized her classmates to leave school and demonstrate against police brutality at One Police Plaza. "Dad," she said one day, "why don't I ever see you down there?" I responded, gamely, that I earned my protest scars by marching against a war that landed me in jail in Berkeley in 1967. "Jail? You went to jail? Which war?" Oops! I fear I had finally impressed her, in the wrong way. I filled her in on Vietnam but quickly point out I never did an overnighter: with hundreds of others my name was duly recorded on a police blotter, about two hours of incarceration?that's all.
"I protested in a civil, peaceful manner, protected by the Bill of Rights, just as you should. It's called civil disobedience," I said. "Go to the Web and search out the essay with that title. It works, if you follow the legal rules?and don't beat up anybody."
I don't know whether she has yet read "Civil Disobedience," but I'm sure Podhoretz read Thoreau long ago. Alas, you won't find Thoreau's name in the index of his paean to a highly selective view of the American Revolution and democracy itself. Nor will you detect the name of Thomas Paine, who railed like Jesus Christ against "the malefactors of great wealth, to borrow Franklin Roosevelt's phrase." You won't discover a single reference to the most influential recent historical interpretation?among most centrist scholars?of the events launched in 1776: Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991). We found carefully researched evidence that our Founders were secular to the core?lovers of books, wine, travel, the flesh, collegial debate, without a reverent churchgoer among them, least of all George Washington, whose long, happy liaison with a married woman is documented by letters in the Library of Congress. Hey, there must be a reason why these men insisted on a separation of church and state, on the First Amendment, on a whole thicket of libertarian-style laws?one of which, "The Order to Show Cause," will force any harassing corporation or bill collector to cease and desist, deserves book-length study.
No, Podhoretz's love affair is with a highly restricted and crabby America burning with resentment over the leftist liberals who allegedly have taken over our hearts and minds, even during the long Reagan-Bush hegemony. It is an America that hates government laws indexed to tax the rich and protect the poor. That refuses to this day to provide health insurance for all its citizens, virtually alone among postindustrial democracies. An America that in defiance of its glorious ethnic and religious pluralism insists on the codification of the very Judeo-Christian doctrine the Founders wished to keep far from power and the schools (while allowing its churches and synagogues free, unfettered expression). Most of all, it is an America that seeks to at least defame if not punish anybody who disagrees with the main tenets of government policy, particularly when that policy dictates going to war against presumed foes.
For at least 100 of its 235 pages, Love Affair is a delightful memoir of growing up in Brooklyn, of a lapsed but Orthodox Jewish father, parents who fought off the Depression and loved President Roosevelt for helping them, of his inspiring tutelage at a series of magnificent public schools, ending up at Columbia University and, finally, of how he worked his way "up from liberalism" into the rich, lively brand of conservatism he promoted during his editorship of Commentary from 1960 to 1995.
This is a signal and valuable text, and transforming as well, in the sense that it represents for nearly one third of its length a kinder, gentler conservative rhetoric. We can even fantasize this spirit creeping into W's "compassionate" acceptance speech in a few weeks. At times Podhoretz sounds wistful about the loathed FDR, whose boldness and spirit he acknowledges, even though he despises his "make work" measures, at a time when nearly half the nation was unemployed, bankrupt or scraping the barrel. He is gentle if occasionally condescending to leftist-Trotskyite classmates. He admits to something of a youthful attraction to Marxism, if not Uncle Joe Stalin himself. And he is genuinely attracted to what he considers the core value of American society and democracy: its tolerance of divergent races, languages and cultures. He calls Hubert Humphrey, who drove the Civil Rights laws through the Senate, a "great liberal." And though he never says so, Podhoretz is surely not one of those Republicans determined?in the manner of Pete Wilson of California?to cut off immigration or deny Latino workers access to schools and hospitals.
But those who differ with Podhoretz on issues like welfare, progressive taxation and Vietnam do not fare well. When Podhoretz begins to size up Gore Vidal, Sontag ("the Dark Lady"), Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and the revisionist Robert McNamara, the tone changes. You can almost feel that kindly smile freezing into a grimace, his jaw dropping, a la William F. Buckley Jr., the eyes rolling in his head. From here to the end of the book he is tough and mean-spirited, only softening at the very end, when he "thanks" America for a long list of gifts it has laid upon him, most of all a fine public education.
I want to collar Podhoretz on the Vietnam-protest issue. The protests that occurred 1965-'75 are unforgivable, in his mind. Here his generous, open, welcoming Americanism is replaced by a rigidity that sees all those who disagreed?and most of all those who refused to go to the jungles to die?as traitors, more or less. "In that alternative view, the American intervention in Vietnam was not a mistaken extension to Asia of the strategy of containment that had worked so well in holding the Soviet Union back in Europe; it was a criminal act of imperialism aimed at suppressing the legitimate national aspirations of a downtrodden dark-skinned people...it was morally evil...involving atrocities, illegal uses of force, and even a secret campaign of genocide." Most of all, in Norman's view, the protesters believed "any time" was the wrong time for "such a war," which must mean an anticommunist war, since the communists stood in our minds, he believes, for "freedom."
All we former protesters are, virtually down to the last man or woman, vile to Podhoretz?and the like-minded Rollyson and Paddock. (In their anti-Sontagism, they even pounce on their subject because she broke into tears when heckled by leftist Mexican students in 1968 because she wasn't "radical enough.") All this is a breathtaking oversimplification. It takes no account of the sophisticated analyses presented within both the Johnson and Nixon administrations that the war was in a practical sense unwinnable because of the corruption and unpopularity of the South Vietnamese government?an analysis with which Podhoretz himself, in the 70s, agreed. It ignores the widespread proof presented in congressional testimony that American soldiers were often pressed by their superiors into acts of unspeakable brutality. It blithely dismisses the agony of the 58,000 soldiers who died (one of them related to me), not to say the tens of thousands of veterans still suffering from stress, trauma and Agent Orange.
All these horrors were accurately cited and predicted over and again by the millions of citizens who opposed the war, some foolishly, yes, others brilliantly. The latter includes the army of historians and scholars who doubted the "domino effect," mainly because it ignored the ancient feuding between China and Vietnam that waxes to this day. What surely rankles Podhoretz and company is the final verdict of history: the "other" side was right; the self-proclaimed "patriots" were wrong. For example, we've just concluded an extensive series of trade agreements with the ogres in Hanoi, who now form a market we wish eagerly to enter. Police-state communism is as dead as a stepdoor nail, felled by economic and cultural factors, not by military means.
We, meanwhile, can now redefine patriotism as something far more loving and intelligent than blind adherence to orders from above, even when they are idiotic and immoral. And we can do it from the source. The exact words of a skilled naval tactician?who probably would have also seen the Vietnam War as military folly?were these, delivered in a toast in 1815: "To our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right. But right or wrong...Our Country!"
Does this toast permit us to commit insanities and inanities in the name of the USA, a society celebrated for so many other contradictory reasons in our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence, art, poetry, music and even in My Love Affair with America? Far more reasonable?and just?is the opposite reading: no matter what my country does, it is my country, it belongs to me, I belong to it and, in the end, I'm responsible for those actions. Which means I have not only the right to oppose official insanity: It is my duty! (Clink glasses, please.)
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