The NY Intellectuals' Shabby Legacy; Gore Divides To Conquer

| 11 Nov 2014 | 09:56

    Granted, taking a pass on Laskin's book is not quite like tuning out a genuine grassroots phenomenon like the Harry Potter series. But then the New York Intellectuals (NYIs) were never about mass appeal. On the contrary, they abhorred the common touch. Funny, since most of them were Marxists in their youth and as such were supposed to champion the lower classes. But of course they weren't really Marxists. They just played at it. Their serious mission was landing book contracts and tenured professorships. Lionel Trilling, a dandiacal fellow traveler in the 30s, had become an American-style Oxbridge don by the 50s, complete with faux British accent.

    Forget their vaunted cosmopolitanism. The NYIs were hopelessly provincial, the original self-centered Manhattan snobs?intellectual small-is-gooders, highbrow ghetto-dwellers. They had their own neighborhood (the Upper West Side), their own parties (where they drank too much, got silly and paired off clumsily, just like us, only more importantly because they discussed Ideas). And they were prisoners of claustral obsessions (principally communism and its variants: ex-communism, anticommunism and anti-anticommunism), which they poured into the pages of their clubby magazine, Partisan Review. No wonder people stopped reading it in about 1963.

    For some it remains a matter of loyalty, or maybe just habit, to perpetuate the stale saga of the NYIs. But haven't we heard enough by now? The bibliography is stupefyingly long: the self-serving memoirs, the lionizing biographies, the pompous multigenerational studies. But what exactly did these deities accomplish, with their hairsplitting essays on other people's novels and their absurdly wrongheaded polemics? How many enduring books emerged from this hothouse of self-regard and internecine squabbling? Edmund Wilson wrote masterpieces, but he kept this crowd at arm's length and was far happier writing for The New Yorker, which the NYIs disparaged as middlebrow, than for the tiny quarterly he referred to as "Partisansky Review." Robert Lowell was a major poet but he, too, stood on the fringe; his filial ties were to New England, not to the shtetl of uptown Manhattan. Randall Jarrell, an occasional, mystified tourist among the NYIs, wrote joyous lambent criticism that has far outlived their heavy-handed "dialectics." The group's most agile journalist, Dwight Macdonald, performed best as a solo act in his own magazine, Politics.

    We've heard a great deal about the NYIs' moral and esthetic gravitas. But did any of them write prose that ranks with the fiction of Nathanael West or Daniel Fuchs, let alone Faulkner and Hemingway? Hungover F. Scott Fitzgerald casually injected more insight and wisdom into his trifling Saturday Evening Post stories than you will extract from the collected cerebrations of Philip Rahv. As for the truly creative spirits the group claimed as their own, the smart ones escaped: Saul Bellow sped home to Philistine Chicago, Bernard Malamud transplanted himself to Oregon and then Vermont, Norman Mailer preferred the company of barflies and socialites. True, Delmore Schwartz stayed within the fold?and was devoured.

    So what did the NYIs did give us? One thing alone: their hallowed, self-aggrandizing "cultural politics." Who but a self-involved New York Intellectual would have dreamed up such a concept? After 20 years of diligent study, I'm still not sure what "cultural politics" means, apart from spouting half-baked opinions from the safety of endowed chairs and magazine editorships. Wasn't it cultural politics that gave us Lenin and Trotsky, co-authors of the Soviet nightmare, as heroes of "the imagination"?

    Long ago, George Orwell, that peerless observer of intellectual dabblers, noted: "It was only after the Soviet régime became unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers, began to show an interest in it." Why? Because the "secret wish" of this salon elite was "to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip." British snobs weren't the only culprits. In fact Orwell's observation appears in his cool dissection of an American, James Burnham, a refulgent star in the NYI firmament who traveled the all-too familiar circuit from Trotskyism in the 1930s to McCarthyism in the 1950s, when he wrote a column for National Review in which he fantasized, always in the rhetoric of high logic, about World War III. It was pure NYI bunk. But it was taken very seriously. No one thought to ask Burnham whether he was ready to abandon his comfortable digs in Connecticut for the jungles of Korea or Vietnam.

    Like their brethren in London and Oxbridge the NYIs were trapped in a paradox. They hungered for power but were sentenced to marginality. This tension ran through everything they did and supplied the keynote?of remoteness twinned with self-delusion?that has ruined so much intellectual discussion in America. Remoteness and self-delusion: the lethal formula is still with us, kept alive no longer by "public intellectuals" (another ludicrous phrase) but by their shabby heirs, the pundits, those facile scenarists whose ideas are mercifully detached from consequences. It's a deplorable legacy. May it disappear in the 21st century.

    Sam Tanenhaus, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.

    Gore Divides to Conquer by Michelangelo Signorile It's gone virtually unnoted by the punditocracy, but it is ugly campaigning nonetheless: Throwing cold water on Bill Bradley's pledges to gays and lesbians, and trying to dissuade African-American voters?who in the past have overwhelmingly backed Bill Clinton?from even thinking about supporting Bradley, Al Gore's crowd has been pitting blacks and gays against one another.

    It all began last fall, when Bradley came out forcefully in support of gay rights, establishing the gay vote as one he was willing to fight for. Going further than Gore's pronouncements about gays in the military and hate crimes laws, Bradley said in an interview with The Advocate that he would push to have gays and lesbians included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and thus broadly protected against discrimination.

    Stunned Clinton-Gore loyalists shifted into overdrive. Bradley soon came under attack from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, openly gay Massachusetts Congress-man Barney Frank and others in the Democratic Party establishment. Attempting to amend the Civil Rights Act, they cried in unison, would bring it under the scrutiny of a right-wing Congress that would strip affirmative action from it?or even abolish the 36-year-old law entirely! The media played right into the alarmist rhetoric, floating it virtually unchallenged. And last week Gore himself unleashed the same scare tactics during the Democratic debates in Des Moines.

    "The leaders of most all civil rights groups, and most all gay and lesbian rights groups, believe that it is not wise to open up the '64 civil rights bill in the Republican Congress to a process that could lead to it being seriously damaged and even lost," he said to an audience of predominantly people of color. "Virtually all of them have followed the leadership of Congressman Barney Frank in supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA] as a way to get right to the heart of the problem in eliminating the discrimination that exists against gays and lesbians."

    Gore's comments would lead you to believe that ENDA was created because of fears about the supposed horrific ramifications of attempting to amend the Civil Rights Act. In actuality, ENDA, a bill that narrowly focuses on workplace discrimination only?and exempts quite a few institutions, such as religious organizations and the military?has been pushed in recent years by Washington-based gay lobbyists who pride themselves on pragmatism, incrementalism and compromise. They saw ENDA as a watered-down, easier bit of legislation to pass than one that would encompass broader discrimination in housing, accommodations and elsewhere.

    Gore's remarks?specifically that trying to amend the Civil Rights Act could "lead to it being seriously damaged or even lost"?would also lead you to believe that the Civil Rights Act is a sacrosanct piece of legislation that no Democrat in Congress ever dares to amend. In fact, amendments are proposed to it at the drop of a hat. Last year alone there were at least half a dozen proposals to amend the law, including one from Manhattan Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, aiming to protect mothers who are breastfeeding in the workplace. More interestingly, an amendment was proposed last February by none other than Barney Frank himself, aiming to ban gender discrimination in federal assistance programs. Several years ago Frank even became a cosponsor of a gay rights bill that itself is a proposed amendment to the Civil Rights Act. And even Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. last March introduced his own amendment to further civil rights?and it apparently met with Dad's full approval.

    Maloney, Frank and Jackson Jr. seem to have known what Bradley himself stated at the Des Moines debate: "Where there's discrimination, you address it with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That's where you would add another class." It seems like the logical thing to do, and it's clearly a strategy that the Democrats?including Bradley's detractors?have been pursuing for quite some time. So what's really up with the critics?

    Jesse Jackson Sr. is of course a longtime friend of Bill Clinton who has stuck by the President through his worst troubles. As such he enjoyed enormous access to the White House through most of the 1990s?after being shut out during the long, cold Reagan/Bush era. Certainly he'd have the same access to the Gore White House, particularly if he helped Gore get elected. Barney Frank spent much of 1998 as the Democratic Party pit bull, vigorously defending Bill Clinton during the impeachment trial. He's now owed a lot, and could be paid handsomely with a prominent appointment in the Gore administration if he continues to remain loyal. As for the gay leaders Gore mentions who were also critical of Bradley's pledge, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay lobbying group, has been telegraphing its support for Al Gore since the day Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996, playing the old Beltway game of trading pats on the back for supposed access. True to form, the group came out against Bradley's proposal as well. Word around Washington is that the group's head, Elizabeth Birch, plans to step down soon after the election, seeking an appointment herself to the hoped-for Gore administration.

    But forget about who the Bradley critics are; it's who the critics aren't that is more noteworthy. In New York, Gore has been endorsed by the well-known white gay and lesbian politicians, Democratic Party stalwarts such as State Senator Tom Duane, City Councilwoman Christine Quinn and State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick?who publicly echoed concerns about how Bradley's proposal might affect the rights of people of color.

    But the two most prominent openly gay New York City politicians who are people of color themselves?City Councilman Philip Reed of East Harlem and City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez of the Lower East Side?have endorsed Bradley. Says Reed: "All of these objections about the Civil Rights Act are based on frivolous desires to couch Bill Bradley as being [beholden] to gay rights. They're saying, 'Horrors, horrors! He's trying to take other people's rights away.' It's all smoke?politics, plain and simple."

    Michelangelo Signorile is editor-at-large for The Advocate.