...Norman Podhoretz loves his people and loves his country, and I salute him for it, since I love the same people and the same country. But this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write. The veracity of everything he believes is so overwhelmingly obvious to him that he no longer troubles to argue for it. Instead there is only bewilderment that others do not see it, too. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a document of his bewilderment; and there is a Henry Higgins-like poignancy to his discovery that his brethren are not more like himself. But the refusal of others to assent to his beliefs is portrayed by Podhoretz not as a principled disagreement that is worthy of respect, but as a human failing. Jews are liberals, he concludes, as a consequence of “willful blindness and denial.” He has a philosophy. They have a psychology.
“Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a potted history followed by a re-potted memoir. The first half of the book, which tells the story of “how the Jews became liberals,” is narrated in “the impersonal voice of a historian — an amateur, to be sure, but one who has relied on a variety of professional authorities for help and guidance.” These chapters are mainly anthologies of congenial quotations. There is something a little risible about the solemnity with which Podhoretz presents encyclopedia articles as evidence of his erudition (“I relied most heavily on one of the great works of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, the Encyclopaedia Judaica”); there is even a reference, slightly embarrassed, to Wikipedia. From his footnotes you would think that the most significant Jewish historian of our time is Paul Johnson. And there is a decidedly insular reliance upon the pages of Commentary, the magazine he edited for 35 years. His parochialism can be startling: Samuel ha-Nagid, the astounding poet, warrior, statesman and scholar in Granada in the 11th century, reminds him of Henry Kissinger! Podhoretz seems to be living the Vilna Gaon’s adage — maybe he can find it in some encyclopedia — that the best way for a man to preserve his purity is never to leave his house.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
This review essay by Leon Wieseltier on liberal/conservative politics and Judaism is marvelous (via Sullivan). It also possesses the great merit of containing one of the finest book review put-downs I've seen in a long time: Wieseltier on the giving end, Norman Podhoretz's intellectual pomposity on the receiving end. A thing of beauty. Read the whole thing.