November 12, 2007
What can one say about Norman Podhoretz, and his latest lunatic ravings, that has not already been said? At first glance, silence may appear to be the healthiest response to this mentally unbalanced creature—whose writings are in any case duly condemned by liberal internationalists. Never mind that, for the time being, such a madman has an iron grip on the foreign policy of a serious contender for the presidency, Rudy Giuliani.
What we have in Norman Podhoretz is the logical conclusion of an entire way of looking at the world, so indomitably conceited that its adherents simply dub themselves “intellectuals.” This arrogant pose exists independently of the monstrous ideological origins of neoconservatism, but is inextricably linked to them. How easily our most respectable liberal internationalists can be provoked into Podhoretzian demonic virulence was revealed in the recent canonization of Columbia University president Lee Bollinger for his phony J’Accuse hurled at his invited guest, the President of Iran. Oh, how Bollinger must make other self-important “intellectuals” green with envy, having had the opportunity to make the face-off stand against “Hitler” of which they always dreamed. For there can be no more powerful illustration of the truly epidemic character of the madness of Norman Podhoretz than Bollinger—the man Fox News made ever so much hay denouncing as the ultimate effete liberal America-hater—going on to give a self-righteous, self-indulgent peroration on behalf of “the modern civilized world.”
I have been slogging through Podhoretz’s new manifesto, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. It’s true that each new great eruption by Podhoretz adds nothing new to his canon, but rather marks his ongoing descent into madness. Indeed, the book is disappointing even to avid neocon watchers like myself, an amalgam of tedium and terror. I have been wondering whether it’s healthy to keep on reading such stuff, or if it’s simply a perverse form of escapism. But lately I have concluded it’s worth the work, thanks to another volume on my coffee table, The New York Intellectuals Reader. By “New York Intellectuals” is meant, with all the haughtiness that title implies, a circle which began in the late 1930s, peaked in the 50s, and petered out into irrelevance by the 60s—which was essentially little more than the editorial board and other regulars of the journal Partisan Review. The leading apologetic historians of the group (such as Alan Wald and Morris Dickstein, both of whom are furiously self-identified men of the left) have been notable for their raging polemics against neoconservatism, and for denying its pedigree to the New York Intellectuals coterie. And yet the new Reader, which was published with their blessing, amounts to little more than a powerful apologia for Norman Podhoretz himself.
The Trotskyists—many of whom were, indeed, New York Intellectuals— gave to neoconservatism its totalitarian mind, and a fervent belief in the redemptive power of violence. The Straussians conferred on neoconservatism its faith in the divine right of “intellectuals to rule,” prettified by sonnets rationalizing their inherent superiority to the ruled (that is, the rest of us). This rationale was essential to neoconservatism becoming something other than mere Marxism-Leninism. What the “New York Intellectuals” dropped in the witches’ cauldron was their view of politics and the world—namely, one which pretended that that politics was the world, and that the world was politics. And much of this influence, ironically, was not Trotskyist, but distinctly Stalinist.
The founding of Partisan Review represented the coming together of several important Trotskyists (led by James Burnham), with a group of Stalinists (led by Sidney Hook) opposed to the Popular Front. But as is typically the case with ideologues, they often become what they purport to hate. In the case of the New York Intellectuals, the vice they at once denounced and adopted was the moralism on steroids which characterized Popular Front thinking. As time went by, this moralism grew more pronounced, as the New York group identified their factional position with their whole identity as “intellectuals,” applied a martial sense of “honor” (and dishonor) to political divergences, and cultivated a religious devotion to the cause of the West in the Cold War. (Of course, this arose not out of patriotism but from fanatical devotion to intellectual propositions.) The major turning point was the onset of World War II, at which time Burnham became the guru of Partisan Review, purging dissenters like Dwight MacDonald.
Interestingly, at least one historically curious quasi-qualification can be found in World War IV relating to this history and the willingness of neocons to admit how it formed and shaped them. While the influences of Leo Strauss and of Trotsky by way of Max Shachtman have mostly been danced around—for instance by Josh Muravchik—Burnham is an ancestor they embraced. Self-congratulatory neocon literature of the 90s, most notably by Mark Gerson, heaped lavish praise on Burnham and his legacy. But by the time of the Iraq war, neocons began furiously distancing themselves from Burnham—as they once did Trotsky. But Podhoretz manages to very neatly finesse the issue in World War IV, crediting Burnham for having been the first to name the Cold War “World War III”—which Podhoretz has now come to call it reflexively.
Podhoretz declares that Burnham, along with other conservatives of the early cold war such as Whittaker Chambers, were guilty of pessimism—in other words, of not having faith in America that it could prevail. He has made most of his recent polemical hay in the last year condemning those who believe that the “Bush Doctrine” is dead and/or failed—insisting that there is such a thing when even Joe Lieberman has ceased to believe in it. This goes to perhaps the most frightening aspect of Podhoretz’s latest eruption—his unbowed faith that his narrative (which I call “court history”) will prevail. It is an optimism that puts the president’s to shame, and it continues to provoke virulent denials from the respectable liberal internationalists who take ever such comfort in the fact that… at least they’re not Norman Podhoretz.
So more power to Ahmadinejad for taking them on—by softly speaking such powerful defiance.
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