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Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Triumph of the Will (of the Neocons)

This review of The Norman Podhoretz Reader is emblematic of some problems in the political perspective of The New Criterion. The WSJ's William McGurn takes a man's life (the New Left turned neoconservative Podhoretz) in letters and inscribes a narrative of how the "inner conservative" finally emerged from behind the facade of a liberal intellectual figure.

There are many examples of liberals being alienated by the changes that took place in the New Left of the 60s (multiculturalism, feminism, et al.) and joining the neocons of the Reagan years (David Horowitz, for example). However, McGurn's position on why Podhoretz changed is an interesting one, interesting because he decides not to give concrete examples from the Reader to back up his points. He uses examples as a way of telling us that "even in his most leftist phases [Podhoretz] does not come across as a true believer," that Podhoretz is, after all, a conservative in liberal's clothing.

It is here that we get a sense of what McGurn believes: that democrats do not look at reality when they make "comfortable liberal abstractions" and that the refusal to ignore, as the article is called, "the nature of things," is what really led Podhoretz to his political crossover. The implication is that those who grow up "really" looking at things as they stand are conservatives at heart. I think it would be more honest of the writer to tell us what individual issues led to the alienation Podhoretz felt. The inferences that he knew that the "Negro problem" was not as bad as it really was, that blacks in his neighborhood terrorized others and were not terrorized, are reductive, possibly distorting, and suggest that no liberals are capable of complex thought capable of mediating between ideas about a problem and the perceived reality of that problem. It is also reductive to think that Podhoretz was inherently conservative to begin with (though it does assign a certain value of truth to the right); I would have preferred if we were told what he disagreed with about the Left and what he found appealing in the Right.

I don't want to write as an apologist for the New Left either. I am not the liberal McGurn. The problems he cites do exist in many publications -- and from my perspective, particularly The Nation. I've read far worse liberal screeds in literary criticism that install a preplanned argument on top of what a text really says. However, I think it is hypocritical and ironic (and perhaps journalistic) to write a commentary that generalizes about the left's generalizations. It is also self-congratulatory to write about the triumph of one's own particular political views, and the views of certain figures such as Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer. Blowing one's own horn accomplishes nothing. Acknowledging problems on both sides of the political spectrum might just.