Friends and Politics, Part 3: Norman Podhoretz. The neoconservative icon and I weren’t personally close, but we shared a more important bond, over the struggle to defend Israel and American Jewry.
I remain enormously grateful for the friendships I enjoyed with my beloved novelist, Saul Bellow, and my literary collaborator, Irving Howe. But for much of my life I was also looking for a certain kind of champion—someone adamant in his defense of America and the values for which it stands, and of the Jewish people and the heritage that had shaped us.
I eventually found him—though he did not, at first, meet my expectations.
From my early teens, discussions around our family table took off from articles in Commentary, the only publication read in common by my father, my brother Ben, and me, five years Ben’s junior. These discussions continued once Ben and I formed our own families and became independent subscribers.
In all that time, few essays ever got us more riled up than “My Negro Problem and Ours,” written in 1963, at the height of the American civil rights movement, and almost certainly intended to provoke the hundreds of letters it generated. In it, Commentary’s legendary editor-in-chief, Norman Podhoretz, pitted his experiences as a poor kid in Brooklyn who was stalked and bullied by bigger black boys against the prevalent notion that Jews were rich and Negroes persecuted. He unearthed in himself emotions like envy and hate and examined them in light of what increasingly militant blacks were saying about their treatment in America. Far from minimizing their grievances, Norman concluded that the tortured relations between blacks and whites should be dissolved. “I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.” Intermarriage was the desired resolution. Were he asked whether he would like one of his daughters to “marry one,” he wrote, he would have to answer, no, he would not like it at all, but he would accept it as the man he had “a duty to be.” There was real import to this statement by a man with three daughters.
“Politically incorrect” hardly suffices to describe the tenor and substance of this article, which retains every iota of its disturbing power to this day. Norman’s mercilessly rational analysis falls like a searchlight on thoughts and feelings that might have benefited from softer illumination. But what troubled us in Montreal was less the treatment of race, which hardly resonated north of the border, than the author’s indifference to whether his daughter’s hypothetical black suitor was Jewish. So the boy was black—big deal. But how could the editor of a Jewish magazine so casually treat his daughter’s marriage to a gentile?
And then, almost as an aside, came this reflection: “In thinking about the Jews I have often wondered whether their survival as a distinct group was worth one hair on the head of a single infant,” Podhoretz wrote. “Did the Jews have to survive so that six million innocent people should one day be burned in the ovens of Auschwitz? It is a terrible question and no one, not God himself, could ever answer it to my satisfaction.”
Was the question terrible or simply off-key? Striving for ultimate honesty, it betrayed moral innocence without registering what Judaism had come to accomplish. Jews had forsworn human sacrifice. The Germans murdered because they were not Jews and did not follow God’s law. The genocide of the Jews was the consequence not of Jewish survival but of Nazism’s perverted search for the “fittest.” Surely the unspeakable crimes by enemies of the Jews ought to have prompted questions about the value of their existence.
It wasn’t until several months later that Norman received redemption in our family, which came as a result of his response to Hannah Arendt’s coverage for The New Yorker of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann had been captured and brought by Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, from his hiding in Argentina to Jerusalem to stand trial for crimes against the Jewish people. This was the first such reckoning, as earlier trials of Nazi war criminals had charged them with crimes against humanity or against other nationals. Israeli leaders felt duty bound to try one of the chief organizers of the Final Solution for the genocide that had inspired the jurist Raphael Lemkin to coin that term. Arendt, by contrast, was bothered by what she considered legal gerrymandering in trying the SS officer in the court of a country that had not existed at the time of the massacres, by the prosecution’s emphasis on the national catastrophe rather than the narrow specifics of the case, and by its inadequate understanding of the Nazi mind. Author of a major study of totalitarianism, Arendt was convinced that the modern technocrat—Nazi or Soviet—was so regimented and brainwashed that he was not intellectually agile enough to try to save himself in a court of law. Eichmann was dull-witted, a pencil pusher: It was ridiculous to cast an efficient bureaucrat as arch-villain in so large a drama.
Of all the prominent European Jews who found refuge in America during the war, Arendt had, before this, been singled out for homage by the New York intellectuals, who were just coming to terms with the Jewish national experience they had until then mostly ignored. They had not realized that she was moving in the opposite direction, distancing herself from her earlier Zionist and Jewish sympathies. Although no one at the time suspected her liaison with her teacher Martin Heidegger, or the resumption of her correspondence with him despite his wartime association with the Nazi regime, the Americans felt betrayed by her account of the trial in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Saul Bellow ascribed his dislike to one of his characters, the Holocaust survivor Arthur Sammler, who protests that the Germans’ idea of making the century’s great crime look dull was not banal but an idea of genius: “Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abandon conscience. Is such a project trivial? Only if human life is trivial. This woman professor’s enemy is modern civilization itself.” The historian Jacob Robinson exposed Arendt’s many factual errors in a study called, after Isaiah, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, and Arendt’s German-Jewish landsman Gershom Scholem called her tone “heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious.” Citing Scholem, Irving Howe recalled that what struck them both—“struck like a blow—was the surging contempt with which she treated almost everyone and everything connected with the trial, the supreme assurance of the intellectual looking down upon those coarse Israelis.”
The debate over Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial affected the American Jewish intelligentsia almost as powerfully as the trial shook Israelis.
Norman’s contribution telegraphed its verdict in the subtitle: “Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance.” As if taking up her challenge to look at the universal aspects of what might otherwise seem merely a Jewish quarrel, he examined the symptomatic qualities of her reportage: Eichmann may or may not be a new type of modern man, but Arendt represented a new style of modern thinker. What she did, he noted incisively, was to “translate this story for the first time into the kind of terms that can appeal to a sophisticated modern sensibility. Thus, in place of the monstrous Nazi, she gives us the ‘banal’ Nazi; in place of the Jew as virtuous martyr, she gives us the Jew as accomplice in evil; and in place of the confrontation between guilt and innocence, she gives us the ‘collaboration’ of criminal and victim. It has all the appearance of ‘ruthless honesty,’ and all the marks of profundity—have we not been instructed that complexity, paradox, and ambiguity are the sign manifest of profundity?”
Norman identified the technique of postmodern inversion that destabilizes the moral order: preferring flawed originality to mere accuracy. Resentful of being a “young fogey,” he was by this point publishing articles as subversive as the work he was dissecting here. But the venerable Arendt was turning frivolous, and so he took on the task of undoing her mischief—a task that required a more patient pen and disciplined mind than the mischief-maker’s own. Distortion is to accuracy as snorting is to sobriety, but unlike the private vices that harm only their practitioner, the intellectual follies—to use Lionel Abel’s term—infect the body politic.
Let me quote Norman again: “The brilliance of Miss Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann could hardly be disputed by any disinterested reader. But at the same time, there could hardly be a more telling example … of the intellectual perversity that can result from the pursuit of brilliance by a mind infatuated with its own agility and bent on generating dazzle.” He was speaking here for almost all the New York Intellectuals, who had painfully outgrown their own misguided enthusiasms. One can hardly exaggerate how genuinely thinkers like Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, and Irving Howe had come to value lucidity and intelligibility over other literary virtues. But attaining that clarity required filtering out pollutants, not once but repeatedly, in a society that embraced Arendt’s “perversity” as eagerly as France sanctified the criminal Jean Genet.
What no one foresaw, of course, was how quickly postmodern frivolity would engulf the elites and flood the humanities. Bellow would soon be savaged by the counterculture, and Howe by the New Left, the latter winning his way back into its good graces only once it had passed its faux-revolutionary phase. As for Norman, he cleaned the stables, earning the Homeric adjective that accompanied these labors.
Friends and Politics, Part 2: Irving Howe. The prominent critic and I worked on Yiddish translations together, but a dispute over Israel and its Arab neighbors ruptured our relationship—until we reconnected over literature.