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Commentaries on Commentary
By David Kelsey
In Commentary in American Life, edited by Murray Friedman and published by Temple University Press, nine authors offer their ideas on the history of the most famous publication of the neoconservative movement. While the magazine’s writers were leftists in their youth, a leftist platform was not the reason it was created by the American Jewish Committee, according to Nathan Abrams, but rather to engage “alienated” Jewish intellectuals in the hopes of bringing them “back into the Jewish community.” Certainly one could consider the intellectual autonomy of Commentary at least partially suspect because of its backing by a Jewish defense group, and Abrams, in his essay Commentary: The Early Years, does give examples of its influence, such as the selection of its editors. But unlike say, many of the Jewish weeklies which are subsidized by the Jewish Federation system, Commentary was “never explicitly intended to function as either a public relations journal for the AJC or as a forum for its philosophies.” Thus, the magazine enjoyed articles of general interest by non-Jewish authors as high profile as Jean-Paul Sartre and Daniel P. Moynihan, but Commentary, unlike the Partisan Review, remained an overtly Jewish periodical, even if it wrote about general matters as well as Jewish ones.
The most fascinating aspect of Commentary’s history, however, is not the relationship between its editors and the AJC, or its attempt to balance interest in the secular world with the Jewish one, but the shift to the right that occurred, most dramatically, under the reign of its second editor, Norman Podhoretz—from a varied and nuanced liberal and anti-Stalinist left, to the flagship periodical of neoconservatism. This was a reluctant shift in terms of identification for members of a (Jewish) community whose secular ideologies were overwhelmingly left or liberal. The realignment itself is given a fine analysis by George Nash in his essay Joining the Ranks. Much of the reasons fueling the shift surrounded the Jewish state, which challenged the very notion of assimilation, as well as concerns over how the lower and middle classes of Jews were faring on some of the more radical policies that affected the cities, particularly New York. Additionally, there was fear of the effects that liberalism would have on the Jewish people and on their ability to demand or achieve continuity. Ruth Wisse, in her essay The Jewishness of Commentary asserts it was “the Jewish component of Commentary [that] promoted neoconservatism before the term came into use and before the rest of the magazine was prepared to conclude that the opposite of Left would have to call itself Right.” But as Commentary felt pushed by the Left, not only over policies and positions, but as a result of name calling by Leftist intellectuals (who derisively gave them their name, neoconservatives), it lurched rightward. Commentary was being courted by William Buckley and his National Review, who patiently and politely suffered Podhoretz’s occasional vitriolic outbursts at conservatives. In 1971, Buckley offered Podhoretz a formal and public invitation to join the ranks in his editorial in 1971 “Come On In, The Water’s Fine”.
Certainly in a book about Commentary by its long-time contributors, one can expect the focus to be on those issues the magazine now presumes itself to have been proven correct. What is not acceptable, however, is to distort an author’s work in order to emphasize the validity of Commentary’s position, which is what Fred Siegel does in his essay “Commentary and the City.” In his discussion of Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker, Siegel declares that “Caro let [Mayor] Lindsay off the hook; Commentary did not.” But Caro’s book, of which he had to cut a third, including Moses’s role in the Verrazano Bridge and the fight for a Lower Manhattan Expressway, was not about Mayor Lindsay, it was about Robert Moses, and the affect his forty-four years of power had contributed to the state of the city and beyond. And when Caro did deal with Lindsay in his entanglements with Moses, and which he rightly restricted himself to examining, he hardly “let Lindsay off the hook.” Rather, he portrays Lindsay as the most dimwitted elected mayor to have faced Moses, with an administration whose ignorance “would have been ludicrous if it had not been the city’s future that that ignorance was jeopardizing.”
Commentary is perhaps not so notable for having been right where most others were wrong, but having gone Right when most others stayed Left. And while the essayists of this book could not be expected to address all influences for this change, there was one critical omission: the effect of the Six-Day War on the movement. The war is referenced throughout the book as a pivotal event, but it is not examined in depth, except to note the divergence of opinion that estranged Commentary from the Left over Israel. In reality, there were internal effects from that war which had nothing to do with the Left turning on the Jewish state. It was the Six Day War, which led these Jews to reconsider their own lip service to universalism and turn to a vigorous nationalism, Jewish nationalism. While it is certainly true the Left’s abandonment of the Jewish state at least hastened this, the Arab antipathy to Israel was nothing new. What was new was for the first time in two-thousand years, Jerusalem and the Temple mount were under Jewish auspices.
Paleoconservatives, who have long denigrated the neocons as merely reformed Trotsyites, frequently miss this point as well. Hillel Halkin states in the March 2005 issue of Commentary that the Lubavitch and settlers’ overt messianism proves that in Judaism “the potential for messianism is always there…that, 50 years ago, no historian or sociologist of religion would have considered possible.” But messianism is only an extreme wing of Jewish fundamentalism, uniquely disturbing because of the past catastrophes it has inflicted on the Jews, sometimes in body, always in sprit, from Bar Kochba to Shabtai Tsvi. But other less deviant fundamentalist movements were energized radicalized by the capture of Jerusalem, of both the activist and quiescent strain. This can be seen in with the quiescent ba’al tsuvah movment which began at that time. So too, perhaps a covert fundamentalism within pockets of the secular was stirred by the recapture of Jerusalem. If so, this would help explain the unlikely alliance between the supposedly secular neocons and the Christian right. Such fundamentalist inclinations among the neocons can be seen in the favorite son (or son-in-law) of the neoconservative movement, Elliot Abrams, who, after emerging from prison with a full pardon, demanded a refutation of secularism by the Jewish community and a return to Orthodoxy, or something close to it. The motives here are far more ancient than Leftist ties and more theologically charged and ambitious than Podhoretz’s claim that he was the champion of “the bourgeois democratic order.”
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5 thoughts on “No Comment

  1. What is a “fundamentalist inclination”? Seems as though you could shoe-horn just about any idea that a religious doctrine has a connection to empirical reality into that (pejorative, in the context of Bar Kochba) category.
    Nice site, btw.

  2. I don’t think so – but I think that is an important question, poikilotherm.
    I would say there are two ways to separate traditional religous doctrine from fundamentalism, and any combination of these two categories: Either to remove oneself from the modern world into an enclave (quiescent fundamentalism) or to attempt push your religious values onto the public secular space (activist fundamentalism). The neocons, like the Christian right, attempts to do the latter, but unlike the Christian right, only justifies it with secular reasons.
    But it appears that their motivations may not in fact be purely secular, but religious.

  3. Well, what’s a religious motivation? I mean, you have to arrive at your values somehow, and if those values are based in religion, so what? The important thing is that they aren’t simply personal values, but have a secular ethical dimension. If they do, great. I don’t see that as a “fundamentalist inclination”. I see that as people drawing necessary distinctions between their private motives (which may have religious dimensions) and the secular goals that those motives can propel us towards. I mean, maybe Podhoretz is a champion of the bourgeois domestic order. I don’t see that as incompatible with a religious mottivation.
    Would a goal of tikkun olam, propelling people into civil rights activism, be called a “fundamentalist inclination”?
    (Full disclosure: I guess you could call me a neocon. I’m not exactly happy with the label: I’m more of a belligerently conservative old fashioned liberal.)

  4. The goal of Tikkun Olam is much different – it is broad, not narrow, and not based on fulfilling a strict, specific policy based on a narrow passage of text.
    Keep in mind – I think we have to change our mindset that all that is fundamentalism is bad, and all not, good. Additionally, there is fundamentalism in the secular world as well, as seen by those who are intent on removing “In God We Trust.”
    Podhoretz’s motivations are not always in conflict – but they are sometimes. For instance – it is a problem when Neocons want what’s good for Israel, but won’t allow for the concept that what might be good for Israel and what might be good for America are not always one and the same.
    Something is at play here – and it isn’t secularism.

  5. I think I see what you are getting at, and we probably agree. But secular motives aren’t always in the cause of secularism, and nor is it reasonable to think that they should be. For instance, the bourgeois domestic order isn’t secularIST: its pluralist, so you can anticipate that motives will be in conflict.
    Furthermore, in a pluralist society, we can anticipate that groups with allied religious backgrounds will make alliances on issues of common importance. If the issues ALSO have secular import, again, great. Nothing in that is necessarily fundamentalist. That’s what I was getting at (incoherently) with Tikkun Olam. I mean, black Christians relate powerfully to the story of the Exodus, far more than white Christians do. There was a natural, religious aliance there, yet civil rights activists put it forward as Tikkun Olam. I’m not sure that it wasn’t more “ancient” and “theologically charged” than that: the story of the Exodus is a visceral thing, as visceral as the name of Yerushalayim, to me, anyways. That could be idiosyncratic, I guess, but I don’t think so.
    I guess what I’m saying is that the author of the comment seems to be saying that fundamentalist inclinations, because they are unvoiced, or not put forward in the public sphere, are somewhat dubious. I think its because they are often inchoate and/or private. But I don’t buy things because a person wants to sell them: I buy them because I want them. The motives of the neoonservative advocates, in that light, are neither disreputable nor particularly interesting, politically, although they are interesting psychologically/histori cally.

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