Norman Podhoretz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Battle over Ideas: Conversation with Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary; 4/6/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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On the Battlefield of Ideas

As the editor of Commentary you published people such as E.F. Schumacher and James Baldwin, among others

Norman O. Brown. Even Herbert Marcuse at one point. Staughton Lynd, who was a Cold War revisionist.

I had pushed the magazine into a position. I had inherited it. It was fifteen years old when I became the editor, but I turned it into one of the intellectual centers for the dissemination of the ideas and attitudes that became known as the New Left, the counter-culture, or collectively, the Movement. Breaking Ranks tells the story of how I became a radical and how I broke with radicalism and why. Again, by using my own experience, I was able to digress, if you like, jump off into the surrounding areas and talk about everybody else and what was going on in the culture around me, how I reacted to it; but that required an analysis of what was moving in the country at large and especially in the political culture. Ex-Friends is a book that covers a lot of that ground and repeats some of the stories in Breaking Ranks but brings the story up to date and does so through the narratives of how I became friends of a number of notable people, why we became friends, and why and how we broke, which was usually for political reasons when I moved away from the left in a rightward direction.

Present in all three of these books is what you call the Family, the intellectual community that defined highbrow culture. In looking back at your last book, you miss that community and you feel that the country as a whole misses it. You say, "The absence today of a community like the Family constitutes a great loss in the culture. The result is a diminution in the serious discussion of serious ideas."

Yes, I believe that the Family -- we ought to be a little more specific: it was a term not invented by me, but I guess I made it famous through Making It. It was invented by the late columnist Murray Kempton, and it referred to what Podhoretz with Irving Kristol at the London *Encounter* office, 1954 or 1955; photo and humorous caption 'Elliot never said that...' are by Daniel Bell. was later called the New York intellectuals. I was the runt of that litter. I was the youngest member.

The pugnacious runt.

They were all pugnacious. In fact, I was mild compared to some of my elders. Actually, there was one younger member than I: Susan Sontag came along later. She is a few years younger than I am, but her relationship to the Family was more tangential than mine.

I was adopted into the Family, adopted meaning that my stuff was published in Partisan Review and Commentary, which were the two main centers -- Commentary before I became its editor -- when I was in my early twenties. I had a precociously early beginning as a published critic, and having been accepted as an intellectual, if not as a peer, at least as an intellectual who was respectable enough to be published, I was then invited to the parties that were always being given. A little later when I got married, I gave them myself. At these parties, people drank a lot -- nobody drinks anymore but everybody drank a lot in the fifties and sixties -- but mostly they argued and they gossiped and there was a lot of fun but also a lot of intellectual excitement associated with that life.

I came to feel that we did a lot of harm, that we were wrong about a lot of things, not everything but many things. The harm we did I have been trying to undo for the last thirty years of my life. That aside. book jacket, Ex-Friends The fact that there was a center in which there was a kind of daily, almost hourly critical examination being applied to the assumptions that govern the conventional wisdom not just of the political culture but of the arts -- the fact that that existed made for a much more passionate engagement with these very important matters. And to the members of the Family, the arts, politics, and the relations between them were matters almost of life and death. I don't see that around me anymore, and I feel its loss in my own life personally. I think that we as a culture, as you said in the quote, have suffered from its loss, because, although we have, as I put it in Ex-Friends, policy wonks by the thousand, we have very few people who subject the assumptions behind the policies the wonks are wonking about to serious critical examination and to try to set them into a broader historical, cultural, philosophical, political context.

I want to pursue this point and then go off into other directions. But your new book, Ex-Friends, is really about your breaking with friends like Lillian Hellmann, Lionel Trilling, Norman Mailer, but at the end of the book Norman Podhoretz gets a little soft, a little teary-eyed. And you say that without your ex-friends, "I might never have been forced into discovering what in the depths of my soul I really believed. I might have been struck forever dumb by the falsity of my own position." As a writer, your friendships and your ex-friendships were very important for delineating, shaping, arguing about, and reaching conclusions about the ideas you would embrace.

Absolutely! And this goes back to our earlier discussion about the tone of voice and the honesty of feeling. I have never knowingly written anything that I did not believe to be true at the time I wrote it. In fact, if I had tried I would have failed. So when I was a radical I believed; my son said to me when he was a kid, "Did you really believe all that stuff?" meaning the radical stuff, and I said, "Yes, I did really believe all that stuff." As the years wore on I became increasingly disillusioned, and events here at Berkeley were among the first episodes to start me rethinking my radical position. I mean, the 1964 Free Speech Movement and the so-called revolution that started here. But the fact is that I grew more and more disillusioned with this Movement that I had helped to create and to disseminate. I should interrupt by saying when we started in the late *Commentary* symposium: Western Values and Total War, 1961; Sidney Hook, Podhoretz, Hans J. Morgenthau, and H. Stuart Hughesfifties -- I exaggerate -- but there were about six people at the meetings one would go to.

This was at Commentary?

Even before Commentary. I got mixed up with what was then called the Peace Movement which was fighting for a nuclear test ban and disarmament in foreign policy, and we believed in the radical reconstruction of American society domestically. So you would go to meetings and there would be very few people present and a late colleague of mine came to a meeting once that I was addressing and she looked around the room -- this was in Union Square in an old Union Hall, a musty place -- and she looked around and said to me, "Every person in this room is a tragedy to some family or other." That was the way it looked in 1958 or 1959. I would never have dreamed that the ideas and the attitudes that I was then promulgating and that those people accepted would in five or six years sweep the campuses and within ten years take over the Democratic Party, which they did under George McGovern. It was a little more than ten years. As the influence of those ideas grew, something happened to them and something happened to me. There is a line by T.S. Eliot: "No, that is not what I meant, that is not what I meant at all." And certainly shouting speakers down, as the misnamed Free Speech Movement did at Berkeley, to take just one of many examples, was not what I meant at all in trying to perfect American society in my utopian, radical fantasies.

As I grew more and more disenchanted with what was going on, I became more and more uneasy and had a lot of arguments in private with my friends that eventually spilled out into the public prints; Leonard Garment, Harry Walker, Pat Moynihan, Maura Moynihan, and Norman Podhoretz; date is probably 1976 that's when I officially broke ranks and had to break with a lot of these people who thought I had gone crazy. And those who didn't think I had gone crazy thought I had joined the enemy. I was an apostate and was excommunicated. But being a Brooklyn boy, I fought back. I didn't sit back and take it. And I let them have it as best I could myself in return. But when I said I would have been struck dumb, I mean exactly that, because there was a point at which either I came out of that particular closet of my disaffection with the radicalism with which I had been associated or I would have had to bite my tongue. And I mean bite it in speech, and certainly I would have been unable to write, and in fact I was not able to write for a number of years because I had not reached a point where I was quite ready to say what it was that was stirring within me. I didn't yet know what it was. It took a while. It took four or five years for me to reach a point where I could say coherently what my objections were to the radicalism of the sixties, and why I thought it was dangerous and had to be fought against. So in that sense I found my true voice saying very different things from what my true voice had said ten years earlier. And if I hadn't, I don't think I could ever have written another word.

That took courage, I presume.

Again I must be immodest. I once said that "Clarity is courage" or "courage is clarity." And I believe that very much in the intellectual sphere. You asked me before about coherence; I actually think it is a failure of courage on the part of some people when they are not being clear or coherent; they are covering themselves, they are looking over their shoulders, either the right shoulder or the left shoulder or both simultaneously. They are afraid to be found out, they are afraid to say things that will get them into trouble. And I think that is especially true, tragically true, on the American campus. It started to be true in the sixties when I actually used the words "reign of terror" -- it certainly wasn't like the French Revolution! But from that date to this, there are things that you are not allowed to say, and in fact, the joke I often use is that on certain campuses, maybe all campuses, and not just campuses, certain corporations -- if you say certain things, federal marshals will materialize out of the air and read you your rights and handcuff you. And so there is a reason that people are afraid to strive for clarity. It does take courage because there are consequences even short of the ones I am talking about. The consequences are that you are going to make enemies. If you take a strong position, you will make enemies. Period. And if you are not prepared to live with that consequence, then you either shut up or you pretend to think things that you don't.

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