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  • A New York Intellectual’s Unwitting Expose; Human Nature Among the Ideologues

    Posted on February 11th, 2019 Helian No comments

    Norman Podhoretz is one of the New York literati who once belonged to a group of leftist intellectuals he called the Family. He wrote a series of books, including Making It, Breaking Ranks, and Ex-Friends, describing what happened when he underwent an ideological metamorphosis from leftist radical to neoconservative. In the process he created a wonderful anthropological study of human nature in the context of an ingroup defined by ideology. Behavior within that ingroup was similar to behavior within ingroups defined by race, class, religion, ethnicity, or any of the other often subtle differences that enable ingroups to distinguish themselves from the “others.” The only difference was that, in the case of Podhoretz’ Family, the ingroup was defined by loyalty to ideological dogmas. Podhoretz described a typical denizen as follows:

    Such a person takes ideas as seriously as an orthodox religious person takes, or anyway used to take, doctrine or dogma. Though we cluck our enlightened modern tongues at such fanaticism, there is a reason why people have been excommunicated, and sometimes even put to death, by their fellow congregants for heretically disagreeing with the official understanding of a particular text or even of a single word. After all, to the true believer everything important – life in this world as well as life in the next – depends on obedience to these doctrines and dogmas, which in turn depends on an accurate interpretation of their meaning and which therefore makes the spread of heresy a threat of limitless proportions.

    This fear and hatred of the heretic, together with the correlative passion to shut him up one way or the other, is (to say the least, and in doing so I am bending over backward) as much a character trait of so-called liberal intellectuals as it is of conservatives… For we have seen that “liberal” intellectuals who tell us that tolerance and pluralism are the highest values, who profess to believe that no culture is superior to any other, and who are on that account great supporters of “multiculturalism” will treat these very notions as sacred orthodoxies, will enforce agreement with them in every venue in which they have the power to do so (the universities being the prime example at the moment), and will severely punish any deviation that dares to make itself known.

    Podhoretz may not have been aware of the genetic roots responsible for such behavior, but he was certainly good at describing it. His description of status seeking, virtue signaling, hatred of the outgroup, allergic reaction to heretics, etc., within the Family would be familiar to any student of urban street gangs. As anthropological studies go, his books have the added advantage of being unusually entertaining, if only by virtue of the fact that his ingroup included such lions of literature as Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Allen Ginsburg, and Lionel Trilling,

    Podhoretz was editor of the influential cultural and intellectual magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995. When he took over the magazine already represented the anti-Communist Left. However, he originally planned to take a more radically leftist line, based on the philosophy of Paul Goodman, a utopian anarchist. In his Growing Up Absurd, Goodman claimed that American society was stuck with a number of “incomplete revolutions.” To escape this “absurdity” it was necessary to complete the revolutions. Podhoretz seized on Goodman’s ideas as the “radical” solution to our social ills he was seeking, and immediately started a three-part serialization of his book in Commentary. Another major influence on Podhoretz at the time was Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown, a late Freudian tract intended to reveal “the psychoanalytical meaning of history.” It is depressing to read these books today in the knowledge that they were once taken perfectly seriously by people who imagined themselves to be the cream of the intellectual crop. Goodman certainly chose the right adjective for them – “absurd.”

    In any case, as the decade wore on, the Left did become more radicalized, but not in the way foreseen by Podhoretz. What was known then as the New Left emerged, and began its gradual takeover of the cultural institutions of the country, a process that has continued to this day. When he came of age, most leftists had abandoned the Stalinism or Trotskyism they had flirted with in the 30’s and 40’s, and become largely “pro-American” and anti-Communist as the magnitude of the slaughter and misery in the Soviet Union under Stalin became impossible to ignore. However, as the war in Vietnam intensified, the dogs returned to their vomit, so to speak. Leftists increasingly became useful idiots – effectively pro-Communist whether they admitted it or not. As Israel revealed its ability to effectively defend itself, they also became increasingly anti-Semitic as well, a development that also continues to this day. Then, as now, anti-Semitism was fobbed off as “anti-Zionism,” but Podhoretz, a Jew as were many of the other members of the family, was not buying it. He may have been crazy enough to take Goodman and Brown seriously, but he was not crazy enough to believe that it was preferable to live in a totalitarian Communist state than in the “imperialist” United States, nor, in light of the Holocaust, was he crazy enough to believe that the creation of a Jewish state was “unjust.” In the following passage he describes his response when he first began to notice this shift in the Zeitgeist, in this case on the part of an erstwhile “friend”:

    I was not afraid of Jason. I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I had never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

    Today, of course, one no longer roars. One simply concludes that those who habitually resort to Hitler comparisons are imbeciles, and leaves it at that. In any case, Podhoretz began publishing “heretical” articles in Commentary, rejecting these notions, and nibbling away that the shibboleths that defined what had once been his ingroup in the process. In the end, he became a full-blown neoconservative. The behavioral responses to Podhoretz “treason” to his ingroup should be familiar to all students of human behavior. His first book length challenge to his ingroup’s sense of its own purity and righteousness was Making It, published in 1967. As Podhoretz recalls,

    In an article about Making It and its reception that was itself none too friendly to the book, Norman Mailer summed up the critical response as “brutal – coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” But, he added, “the public reception of Making It was nevertheless still on the side of charity if one compared the collective hooligan verdict to the earlier fulminations of the Inner Clan.” By the “Inner Clan,” Mailer meant the community of New York literary intellectuals I myself had called the Family. According to Mailer, what they had been saying in private about Making It even before it was published made the “horrors” of the public reception seem charitable and kind. “Just about everyone in the Establishment” – i.e., the Family – was “scandalized, shocked, livid, revolted, appalled, disheartened, and enraged.” They were “furious to the point of biting their white icy lips… No fate could prove undeserved for Norman, said the Family in thin quivering late-night hisses.”

    Podhoretz notes that academia was the first of the cultural institutions of the country to succumb to the radical Gleichschaltung that has now established such firm control over virtually all the rest, to the point that it has become the new “normalcy.” In his words,

    For by 1968 radicalism was so prevalent among college students that any professor who resisted it at the very least risked unpopularity and at the worst was in danger of outright abuse. Indeed it was in the universities that the “terror” first appeared and where it operated most effectively.

    By the late 60’s the type of behavior that is now ubiquitous on university campuses was hardly a novelty. “De-platforming” was already part of the campus culture:

    By 1968 SDS (the leftist Students for a Democratic Society) had moved from argument and example to shouting down speakers with whom it disagreed on the ground that only the “truth” had a right to be heard. And it also changed its position on violence… and a number of its members had gone beyond advocacy to actual practice in the form of bombings and other varieties of terrorism.

    As Podhoretz documents, the War in Vietnam had originally been supported, and indeed started and continued by intellectuals and politicians on the left of the political spectrum. He noted that Robert Kennedy had been prominent among them:

    Kennedy too then grew more and more radicalized as radicalism looked more and more like the winning side. Having been one of the architects of the war in Vietnam and a great believer in resistance to Communist power in general, he now managed to suggest that he opposed these policies both in the small and in the large.

    However, in one of the rapid changes in party line familiar to those who’ve read the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and memorialized by George Orwell in 1984, the hawks suddenly became doves:

    …a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak. A speaker whose criticisms were insufficiently violent could even expect a hard time, as I myself discovered when a heckler at Wayne State in Detroit accused me, to the clear delight of the audience, of not being “that much” against the war because in expressing my opposition to the American role I had also expressed my usual reservations about the virtues of the Communist side.

    Of course, there was no Internet in the 60’s, so “de-platforming” assumed a form commensurate with the technology available at the time. Podhoretz describes it as follows:

    The word “terror,” like everything else about the sixties, was overheated. No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though there were undoubtedly some who lost out on job opportunities or on assignments or on advances from book publishers they might otherwise have had). The sanctions of this particular reign of “terror” were much milder: one’s reputation was besmirched, with unrestrained viciousness in conversation and, when the occasion arose, by means of innuendo in print. People were written off with the stroke of an epithet – “fink” or “racist” or “fascist” as the case might be – and anyone so written off would have difficulty getting a fair hearing for anything he might have to say. Conversely, anyone who went against the Movement party line soon discovered that the likely penalty was dismissal from the field of discussion.

    Seeing others ruthless dismissed in this way was enough to prevent most people from voicing serious criticisms of the radical line and – such is the nature of intellectual cowardice – it was enough in some instances to prevent them even from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts.

    The “terror” is more powerful and pervasive today than it ever was in the 60’s, and it’s ability to “dismiss from the field of discussion” is far more effective. As a result, denizens of the leftist ingroup or those who depend on them for their livelihood tend to be very cautious about rocking the boat.  That’s why young, pre-tenure professors include ritualistic denunciations of the established heretics in their fields before they dare to even give a slight nudge to the approved dogmas. Indeed, I’ve documented similar behavior by academics approaching retirement on this blog, so much do they fear ostracism by their own “Families.” Podhoretz noticed the same behavior early on by one of his erstwhile friends:

    As the bad boy of American letters – itself an honorific status in the climate of the sixties – he (Normal Mailer) still held a license to provoke and he rarely hesitated to use it, even if it sometimes meant making a fool of himself in the eyes of his own admirers. But there were limits he instinctively knew how to observe; and he observed them. He might excoriate his fellow radicals on a particular point; he might discomfit them with unexpected sympathies (for right-wing politicians, say, or National Guardsmen on the other side of a demonstration) and equally surprising antipathies (homosexuality and masturbation, for example, he insisted on stigmatizing as vices); he might even on occasion describe himself as (dread word) a conservative. But always in the end came the reassuring gesture, the wink of complicity, the subtle signing of the radical loyalty oath.

    So much for Podhoretz description of the behavioral traits of the denizens of an ideologically defined ingroup. I highly recommend all of the three books noted above, not only as an unwitting but wonderfully accurate studies of “human nature,” but as very entertaining descriptions of some of the many famous personalities Podhoretz crossed paths with during his long career. One of them was Jackie Kennedy, who happened to show up at his door one day in the company of his friend, Richard Goodwin, “who had worked in various capacities for President Kennedy.”

    She and I had never met before, but we seemed to strike an instant rapport, and at her initiative I soon began seeing her on a fairly regular basis. We often had tea alone together in her apartment on Fifth Avenue where I would give her the lowdown on the literary world and the New York intellectual community – who was good, who was overrated, who was amusing, who was really brilliant – and she would reciprocate with the dirt about Washington society. She was not in Mary McCarthy‘s league as a bitchy gossip (who was?), but she did very well in her own seemingly soft style. I enjoyed these exchanges, and she (an extremely good listener) seemed to get a kick out of them too.

    Elsewhere Podhoretz describes McCarthy as “our leading bitch intellectual.” Alas, she was an unrepentant radical, too, and even did a Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, but I still consider her one of our most brilliant novelists. I guess there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to ingroups.

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