An Old Wife’s Tale by Midge Decter
New York: HarperCollins; 256pp., $26.00
An Old Wife’s Tale is one of the least offensive but also one of the least instructive books I’ve ever tried to read. Neither its colloquial style, which resembles nothing so much as the chatter of elderly Jewish women taking the sun in Palm Beach, nor its warnings against excessive feminism and overly accessible abortions, offers anything to which I can possibly take offense.
Nor is there much here that can rivet my attention. If a storyline is to be extracted, it goes perhaps like this: Midge Decter, a proudly Jewish and proudly anti-Communist female publicist, married Norman Podhoretz after a largely uneventful youth in the Twin Cities and after a first, unsuccessful marriage to someone who dragged her into the suburbs but is left nameless. (His name is actually Moshe Decter, and I met him once when a friend introduced me to this unassuming fellow, while I was coming out of my friend’s flat in an apartment building in Northwest Washington.)
Unlike the earlier marriage, the second one has been for Ms. Decter an unadulterated joy, despite the fact that she continues to go by the name of Hubby One. But let us not be fooled by such affectations! Midge and Norman have led, according to her account, stimulating professional and social lives at Commentary and in Midtown Manhattan and, for a spell, when their son-in-law rose to high place in the Reagan administration, in Washington circles as well.
What strikes me after perusing her narrative is how little I can identify with the author, although my life may be said to overlap hers ethnically, geographically, and, despite the ten to fifteen years’ difference in our ages, chronologically. Perhaps my existence has been sufficiently different from hers to blur this apparent overlap. My family was less typically American Jewish than the one she describes for herself. My maternal family came to the US well before the arrival of Decter’s, while my father and his relatives were refugees from Hitler’s world order.
Although I lived only 60 miles from New York City, the cultural and social attractions of this Weltstadt, whither Decter desperately fled from Minnesota, meant little to my family, which lived in a predominantly refugee community it hardly ever left. Trips to the City were undertaken almost exclusively to see cousins who were not fortunate enough to live in Connecticut. Those of us who went on to college were encouraged to study and, except for me, did study technical fields, specifically pharmacy and medicine.
Having read Decter’s rhapsodic evocations of her social and cultural ambience, I do not regret my youthful deprivation. Perhaps clinging to what Nietzsche called "amor fati," I would prefer my youth in Bridgeport and New Haven to Decter’s in New York.
Indeed, I find little about her existence to justify the space she lavishes on it, let alone the expressions of self-importance she hides not at all. Although I applaud her critical views about abortion and feminism, Decter does not shed much light on either by unloading her barrowful of grandmotherly opinions. Better good morals than bad, yet the question must be raised by what authority does Midge Decter tell us how she feels on knotty ethical problems?
By her admission, she was never a diligent scholar but agreed to study Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary to get to live in New York. What happened to her studies afterwards is never quite explained, since her story then segues into her work as a stenographer at Commentary and then, into her life with an uncongenial and unnamed spouse. The limitations of her background, however, do not keep her from going on to become what is called in Yiddish a maven.
The classical Greek term polupragmon carries more or less the same meaning but is less colorful than maven, a self-proclaimed expert who may even attract a considerable following because of his/her bursting self-confidence. Despite her educational limits, by the end of the book Midge is hobnobbing with scholars in foreign relations, patristic theology, and Greek etymologies.
At the Institute on Religion and Public Life, where she goes "to hang out," at the urging of her clerical friend, the Reverend R. J. Neuhaus, Decter "began an ordeal fully compensated for" by her new associations. She was "now living in a community of religious thinkers whose language was as familiar to me as the dialect of an African tribe." "Anyway I found myself well into my sixties, rushing like a schoolgirl to the dictionary and like a schoolgirl again, almost immediately forgetting the definition I found there."
Curiously, none of this hobnobbing causes Decter to wonder about how she got into this pleasant "ordeal." It is simply assumed that by being a quasi-educated Jewish grandmother with a sharp tongue and growing girth one gets asked to discuss New Testament Greek or Old Testament Hebrew with the best of them.
Throughout the second half of the book, Decter is being continuously put on boards, e.g., at Heritage and Radio Marti, or being invited to "hang out" at some institute, but it is never made clear why these honors should befall her.
Without being overly personal, I might note that as an avid reader of classical Greek, I know the words that Decter had to look up. Nonetheless, neither I nor conservative classicists of my acquaintance, even those of them who are intensely committed Christians, would likely be asked by Father Neuhaus to "hang out" at his Christian Institute. Nor would Edwin Feulner of Heritage recruit any of us to sit on his board, the way he did Midge Decter. The reason is not, as we are told, "Ed’s innocence" or his presumed need for a wily Jewish grandmother to compensate for his "highmindedness and innocent generosity."
The explanation, as I point out in the second edition of The Conservative Movement, is exactly the opposite. Beltway foundations that used to be authentically conservative have taken over the neoconservative opinions and neoconservative vassals of the Podhoretz and Kristol families, while driving away members of the unconverted Right, as "extremists" and "nativists."
The crowning achievement of Decter’s life, which is never brought up directly but referred to in a fleeting allusion to how her old friend Pat Buchanan had become "unacceptable" as a "nativist," is having contributed to this monumental process. By running around brokering "philanthropic" exchanges between one group of anxious gentile "conservatives" and another, aka, as donors and recipients, Decter, Irving Kristol, and others of their ilk had been able to redefine American conservative thought and practice. This achievement was made possible by, among other things, the lurching of the political spectrum and cultures of every Western country since the 1960s leftward, not in the direction of Marxist Leninism but toward a reconstructed Left based on state-protected kinky sex and the destruction of the bourgeois Christian family.
Needless to say, such a feat was not carried out by public administration alone but enjoyed the support of those whose lives would be affected. The trick of the neoconservatives, which can be glimpsed from Decter’s moral saws, is to absorb and defend some of the emancipating changes, while at the same time railing at other ones that seem over the top. Whence the advocacy of moderate feminism, instead of the allegedly more extreme kind, and the maternal advice Decter hands out to her nubile readers about not taking good things too far. Even more significantly, among those whom the new politics and culture highlights as victims of white Christian civilization (note the Georgetown University speech given by former president Clinton on November 7) are the Jews.
The most articulate and professionally the most energetic of those designated as victims by our socially contrite Protestant society, Jews have contributed disproportionately on two fronts, grinding out the continuing invectives against the surrounding self-condemned civilization of victimizers, and assisting with the moderate critique of this critique that a neutred Right has allowed itself to express. In her often-rambling commentaries Decter furnishes the critical comments about Jewish liberals that the goyim are too shamed to produce and propagate on their own. Having researched a book now in press that examines the connections between today’s Christian mainstream and political correctness, I am amazed to find that there is anyone left on the Right who will speak bluntly about the Jewish liberal hatred of Christians and Christianity.
To her credit, Decter expresses such blunt criticism, while Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition, goes on frenetically apologizing to the Anti-Defamation League for what may be the American Baptist role in the Holocaust and Spanish Inquisition. If only Christians could overcome their self-inflicted spasms of guilt, they might write lines like these: "It was no secret that some significant part in the emptying of the [moral-religious] public square had been played by Jewish liberals. It was understandable to me why this was so, because their long history had left many Jews with an atavistic fear of Christian authority — so the more public life could be kept strictly secular the safer they felt. But understand it or not, I believed that the religion-free public condition to which they had made such a vital contribution had left American society, and particularly American culture, vulnerable to pernicious influences."
Although much else in the book is easily forgotten, and no more than vaporous chatter, this audacious passage came from someone who obviously feels a deep investment in a Western civilization now under siege mostly from within. It is the kind of statement that might offend Decter had it come from a Christian, whom she would in all probability dismiss, perhaps like Buchanan, as a "nativist" or worse.
Still she deserves praise for having told a bitter truth. It is far more than one usually hears these days from the self-conscious Religious Right or (Heaven knows!) the Republican Party. Unlike such representatives of religious conservatism, Decter does not affect sentimental affection in reaching out to the gay lobby. But she also does not tremble over the possibility of being called a bigoted anti-Semite or over the venom that might be released against her by such liberal heavies as Abe Foxman and Alan Dershowitz. For her expression of politically incorrect opinions that gentile white conservatives might eventually muster the courage to replicate, Decter deserves the "two cheers" that her longtime friend Irving Kristol has offered in a book by that title to capitalism.
This book review first ran in Culture Wars.