Reviewing the Review: September 13 2009

Has the age of the personalized newspaper suddenly arrived? The cover of my copy of today’s New York Times Book Review asks “Why Are Jews Liberals?”, and as a Jewish liberal I’m really not used to being singled out like this. I’ll have to call a Christian conservative friend and see if he got a custom version too.

A book called Why Are Christians Conservative? would be a great idea, but it appears that the book called Why Are Jews Liberals? already exists, the latest work by neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz, who urges his people in the USA to abandon their Democratic party bias and join him on the gung-ho Republican side. Podhoretz’s book is reviewed by his peer intellectual Leon Wieseltier, who commandingly rejects Podhoretz’s logic in one of the liveliest articles I’ve seen in this publication this year.

Podhoretz, Wieseltier claims, has become solipsistic in his assumption of conservative values. Economics and family-values hedging aside, the core argument for a Jewish leap to the right wing remains what it always was: the idea that Israel and USA have a common interest in permanent unilateral military domination of the Middle East — a sad position that Republicans tend to support more than Democrats. I could barely stop nodding my head happily up and down as Wieseltier took this position apart, reminding those who apparently still do not understand this that a difficult peace, not a glorious holy war, is the only hope worth pursuing in the Middle East.

I haven’t always loved Wieseltier’s articles in the Book Review, but this is a strong performance, and his high-pitched prose is a pleasure to read. Today’s cover article begins with a note of Talmudic grandeur:

“There are four types of people,” teaches an ancient rabbinical text. “The one who says: What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours — this is the common type, but there are some who say that this is the type of Sodom. What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine — this is a boor. What is mine is yours — a saint. What is yours is mine — a villain.”

Brothers and Sisters, is this liberal or conservative?

He maintains the pitch, and the article soars. There are well-aimed personal jabs:

In the absence of arguments, Podhoretz offers memories. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is yet another one of his autobiographies; his life is a gift that keeps on giving.

There are even good jokes:

There was a basis in reality for the Jewish hope in a liberalizing society and a secularizing culture. What else should the Jews of modernity have done — chanted the Psalms and waited for Reagan?

My fellow NYTBR critic Jim Sleeper has a less positive opinion of Wiesltier’s performance over at the Talking Points Memo Cafe. Sleeper finds in Wieseltier a carpetbagging liberal, crawling back to the winning side after standing with George W. Bush in support of the Iraq War in 2003. I disagree with Sleeper’s emphasis here: yes, Wieseltier has to take his lumps for eagerly championing the Iraq invasion. But if he was wrong then, he may be right now, and, by god, doesn’t everybody have a right to smarten up?

But then Jim Sleeper’s piece is also lively, and manages to puncture Wieseltier’s balloon once or twice, as when he casts a doubting look on the critic’s rabbinical tone:

Much though I share his disdain for Podhoretz’s tribal reductions of Judaism, Wieseltier’s frequent, weird displays of religiosity make me wonder if Madonna came to sit at his feet while on her way to the Kabbalah.

And really, that’s all I want in a good Book Review article (or a good Talking Points Memo refutation). I just want a little wit, and a strong opinion every now and then. Podhoretz’s book looks like a loser, but it has already stirred up some good conversation.

I love to read about politics and history, but always prefer books filled with the raw stuff — facts, details — over argument and commentary. It’s interesting to note that New York Times Book Review chief Sam Tanenhaus has also just published a book that belongs on the same shelf as Podhoretz’s, though it appears to reach conclusions closer to Wieseltier’s. I’m guessing it won’t be reviewed in these pages, but the book is called The Death of Conservatism, and it’s worth a look if you find this type of argument interesting.

But if, like me, you prefer the raw stuff, you may be drawn to Nicholas Thompson’s The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War, here reviewed by Mark Atwood Lawrence. The book’s author is the grandson of the so-called “hawk”, Paul Nitze, who argued (against the advice of George Kennan) for an aggressive military response to Stalin in the Cold War, and this relationship promises a unique angle on an important period in our recent past. I would like to read this book, though I may never find the time.

There are several highly negative reviews in this NYTBR, but not all are as convincing as Wieseltier’s. B. R. Myers pans The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-Yong, a South Korean writer who, I understand, spent time in a North Korean prison and is currently very popular in his own land. I understand Myers’ objections to the book’s apparently confusing chronological approach and sloppy use of language. But I wish this review gave me a better sense of how this book has been received in Korea, and I also sense insular political overtones to this review, involving sympathies that may or may not stand with the rigid regime of North Korea, that I simply don’t understand. I was already interested in hearing more about this book (which is being serialized online by its publisher) and I think I’ll look a little further before I accept Myers’ rejection of the work’s value.

Then, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians gets rough treatment at the hands of Michael Agger. I’ve always found Lev Grossman’s pop-culture-minded fictional endeavors weak myself, but Agger’s superficial reasons for disliking The Magicians are highly off-putting:

Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?

Well no, actually. As far as I’m concerned, if we’re talking about the possibilities of literature, nobody is ever too old for anything.

2 Responses

  1. Norm Podhoretz is one of the
    Norm Podhoretz is one of the sharper, old school conservatives. But he feels he was excommunicated by the lost generation-Kenyon Review crowd, Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz (later, Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg).

    Many Jews today are conservative, interseted in what’s going on in Israel. One can thank George W. Bush and his team.

  2. What fun to find a review of
    What fun to find a review of the NYTBR I just read. I was googling The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-yong because I had exactly the same reaction as you did to Myers negative review — which I also found disorientingly eccentric in its logic. I will continue on my quest for another review of the Korean book! Thanks for the company.

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