The Evil of Banality

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

This
article first appeared as "The Evil of Banality: Review of
Norman Podhoretz, Breaking
Ranks: A Political Memoir
," Inquiry,
3, 1 (December 10, 1979), pp. 26–28.

Perhaps
the most repellent character in Joseph Heller's hilarious novel,
Good as Gold, is one Maxwell Lieberman, the editor of a
small, pretentious, once liberal now neoconservative monthly,
a man who eats greedily with both hands, a New York Jewish intellectual
whose sole literary output is a series of autobiographies celebrating
his own life and thought. I have no way of knowing what Norman
Podhoretz's eating habits are. But Podhoretz is a New York Jewish
intellectual, the longtime editor of the pretentious, once liberal
now neoconservative monthly Commentary, and a man whose
most visible literary output consists of autobiographical volumes
celebrating his own career.

Podhoretz's
first autobiography was the notorious Making
It
, with its title and content proudly proclaiming its
author the intellectual's Sammy Glick, a man who pushed and elbowed
his way upward from the ranks to what passes for fame and fortune.
In Breaking Ranks, the latest installment of his self-anointment,
Podhoretz hails his own high courage in abandoning liberalism
in the early 1960s for a then fashionable radicalism, and later
swinging back to his current neoconservative stance. Podhoretz
and his publisher have indeed managed to redefine the concept
of "courage," for which the publisher's blurb expects
his readers to be eternally grateful. Yeah. The high courage that
it took our martyr to publish Paul Goodman's Growing
Up Absurd
in 1960, and then by 1970 to join with his neoconservative
friends at the pinnacle of the New York literary and political
establishment: to join with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, with
his associate editor Milton Himmelfarb, with Milton's sister Gertrude
Himmelfarb Kristol, and with Milton's brother-in-law Irving Kristol,
editor of the Public Interest and the man proudly proclaimed
by his friends to be the "godfather" of the neoconservative
movement.

But
Podhoretz has not only redefined the concept of courage. By his
very rise to preeminence in the intellectual world he has managed
to change the meaning of the word "intellectual" as
well. For, let us face it, this is a dumb book, a stupid book.
In nearly four hundred pages of lowbrow blather, of plodding puffery,
of idle humorless chitchat, and petty bickering and backbiting
there is scarcely a single idea or expression of thought. Instead,
we find out what parties Podhoretz went to and what parties he
gave. And amidst the descriptions of the endless social round,
a central purpose shines through: to show how many important people
Podhoretz has known, how he has rubbed elbows with people he,
at least, considers great. And to show, too, in various clumsy
and unsubtle ways, how the greats didn't really measure up to
him and to his standards, and how he personally contributed an
important slice of whatever worthwhile things they managed to
do. Altogether a sleazy, smarmy performance.

When
Podhoretz does attempt to tackle an idea, the self-serving again
takes over. An example is the way he handles the famous controversy
between F. R. Leavis and C. P. Snow on literature as against technology:

F.R.
Leavis, with whom I had studied for three years at Cambridge and
who had influenced my own thinking about literature more than
anyone else, launched the most savage attack… Snow, at the time
a fairly close friend, grew bitter…. Certainly, as a student of
literature at major universities both in America and England,
I had emerged after seven years of intensive reading, largely
under the guidance of those very two men, with an idea about the
literary tradition very close to Snow's…. I remembered him [Leavis]
wince in ostentatious distaste whenever the sound of an airplane
or an automobile penetrated into his garden at Cambridge.

One
wonders if distaste at airplane noise in his garden really implies,
as Podhoretz insists, that Leavis hated all of industrial civilization;
one wonders, even more, what Leavis or Snow thought of his alleged
disciple.

Part
of Podhoretz's self-proclaimed courage was his breaking with the
radicals by the end of the l960s. It was then that Podhoretz stood
brave and tall against what he calls the radical "terror."
But when he gets down to it, what he means by terror is,
for instance, the fact that Norman Mailer – of course a great and
good friend – after telling Podhoretz that he would write a favorable
review of Making It, for Partisan Review, actually
blasted the book. What are we to make of a man whose concept of
"terror" is getting a bad write-up in Partisan Review?
To Podhoretz, this shift in Mailer's attitude conclusively
demonstrates the radical terror at work. Mailer's own explanation
for his change of mind on rereading the book is brusquely dismissed;
not even considered is the even more likely explanation that Mailer
was simply being polite to Podhoretz in the first place.

To
the extent that Podhoretz's ideological goals extend beyond his
own navel, they rest fully and squarely in his own ethnic group.
Explicitly and unabashedly, Podhoretz assumes ideological positions
"on the basis of the old question u2018Is it good for the Jews?'"
Not for Podhoretz the older, broader, but presumably namby-pamby
ideal of the intellectual as citizen of the world. And so, Podhoretz
opposes affirmative action, not on the basis of justice, but because
it would be bad for the (male) Jews. His foreign policy is grounded
on an all-out and unmitigated support for the state of Israel,
which he identifies with the cause of Jewry. A foreign policy
of nonintervention is attacked, not on the basis of moral principle
or even of American security, but because it "represented
a direct threat to the security of Israel." Podhoretz seems
not to have given a thought to the fact that Breaking Ranks
is bad for the Jews. For what if American non-Jews, who are
after all in the vast majority, begin to gauge foreign policy
on the basis of the question: Is it good for the gentiles? By
confirming the worst fears of overriding loyalty to the state
of Israel, Breaking Ranks can hardly fail to harm Podhoretz's
own cause. But we do have the consolation that few people outside
of his circle of back-stabbing friends will bother to read this
book.

In
short, what Podhoretz has plenty of is neither courage nor intellect
but chutzpah. The chutzpah, for example, to talk about his "radical"
phase in the l960s, which consisted mainly of opposing the Vietnam
War, not of course on moral grounds, but because we weren't going
to win – it was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong
time." And the chutzpah to sneer at another of his great
and good friends, the late Hannah Arendt, for being excessively
pro-German and, by implication, just a bit anti-Semitic. It is
characteristic of Podhoretz that in telling his tale of disagreement
with Arendt he should say that the two of them, in a public debate,
"spent most of our time on arcane philosophical questions."
Sure. I personally would have gone a long way to hear this pretentious
nerd instruct Hannah Arendt in the niceties of Husserl's philosophy
of meaning.

One
of the themes of the book is Podhoretz's attack on the narcissism
of the New Left and of the current Me Decade, a "plague"
that "attack[s] the vital organs of the entire species, preventing
men from fathering children and women from mothering them."
Of course it never occurs to him that this very book is an exercise
in narcissism more blatant than anything his opponents have ever
come up with. At one point it does dimly enter Podhoretz's brain
that the politics that he is promoting – the avid pursuit
of narrow self-interest by such groups as labor unions and Jews – may
also be attacked as selfishness and narcissism. A crucial point,
which cuts to the heart of the Podhoretz world outlook.

His
reply is instructive: His credo is not "a politics of selfishness"
because "it is [being] pursued in the context of a pluralistic
society like our own." Not only is this a whopping non sequitur,
since pluralism in this sense is precisely the institutionalization
of selfish greed and grab, but the Me Decade people are of course
also pursuing their goals in the context of the self-same pluralist
society. And so we are left with Podhoretz, when he rises from
mindless chitchat to attempts at lucubration, demolished by his
own hand. Since his final chapter is an attempt to psychoanalyze
his opponents as really being consumed with suicidal self-hatred,
the quick destruction by Podhoretz of his own thesis could be
considered high irony – although the point is of course lost on
the author himself; who is far more a plodding boob than a tragic
hero.

In
fact, there is a still greater irony in the Podhoretz saga. He
jabs at Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil,"
but his very own life demonstrates that Arendt was right. For
Norman Podhoretz has not only fostered evil by his corrosion of
true intellectual standards, his ethnic narcissism, and his promotion
of the statist status quo; he also represents banality through
and through. Were this a just society, Podhoretz would be spending
his years as a writer for some AFL-CIO sheet, trotted out at union
conventions as one of their resident intellectuals. As it is,
we all have to put up with the continuing infliction of this schmendrick
upon our consciousness, and we will have to begin to brace ourselves
for the inevitable next installment of the living legend of Norman
Podhoretz.

Murray
N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
of The
Ethics of Liberty
and For
a New Liberty
and many
other books and articles
. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts