July 6, 2000

Podhoretz's Paradox

It is a safe bet that Norman Podhoretz did not write a book called My Love Affair with America just to tell us that he loves this country. One does not proclaim one's patriotism unless to highlight the lack of such a quality in others. And, sure enough, on almost the first page Podhoretz reveals the purpose of his book: to denounce the Right for having allegedly succumbed to the "anti-Americanism" that was once prevalent on the Left. "In the mid-1990s," he writes, "there unexpectedly came an outburst of anti-Americanism even among some of the very conservatives I thought had been permanently immunized against it…I was already pushing seventy, and it made me a little tired to think of going back into combat over a phenomenon that I had fondly imagined I would never have to deal with again, and certainly not on the Right." However, he adds, "I should have known better than to be surprised, familiar as I was with the traditions on which the conservatives were drawing….These were the traditions that had mostly originated in America itself in the period after the Civil War, but reinforcements had also been imported from Europe (where…anti-Americanism was just now enjoying a resurgence evidently fueled by resentment of the fact that the United States had been left by the fall of the Soviet Union as the only 'superpower' in the world)."

This is all rather baffling. For the subtitle of the book is "The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative." Now, Norman Podhoretz – editor of Commentary for 35 years – has been called many things over the years, but "cheerful conservative" has not been one of them. His articles and columns have invariably been pervaded by a sense of gloom. America never spends enough on defense. American policymakers are always too pusillanimous to stand up to tyrants abroad. On issue after issue – gays, feminism, affirmative action – the values of America's liberals invariably trump the values of decent, commonsense Americans. It is hard to think of a magazine in America that has published more, or more pessimistic, analyses of the contemporary scene than Commentary. Its most famous contributors – Gertrude Himmelfarb, Robert Bork, William Bennett, Hilton Kramer, Richard John Neuhaus – have authored books with titles like The Death of Outrage, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, The De-Moralization of Society, On Looking into the Abyss, The Revenge of the Philistines. Indeed, it was the pernicious influence of just these thinkers that recently sent Lawrence Kaplan into spasms of rage in the pages of the New Republic. Such people were a mortal threat to an to the possibility of a Republican-led interventionist US foreign policy: "In their preoccupation with America's moral corruption, the new declinists extend to foreign policy the cultural despair of Paul Weyrich, Robert Bork, and many other pessimists on the right... For the new declinists, it is inconceivable that the same Americans who have been debasing the home front will continue to reign supreme in the international arena." So are these the people Podhoretz is taking to task? His friends, colleagues and magazine contributors?

At first glance, it would certainly appear so. Writing in the Wall Street Journal (7/3/00) the other day, Podhoretz argued that "Driven by their disgust with certain Supreme Court decisions relating to abortion and other social questions, by the degeneracy of so much of our popular culture, and by their disappointment in the American people for refusing to demand the removal of Bill Clinton from office after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, these conservatives took to sounding like leftist radicals of the 1960s." But can Bennett, Bork and Neuhaus be described as the inheritors of traditions that had "originated in America…in the period after the Civil War," with "reinforcements" thrown in along the way "from Europe"? It would seem very strange. Stranger still, it turns out that they are not such a bad lot after all. In the same article, Podhoretz argues that, "fortunately nearly all the conservatives who fell into this state of mind have been beating a quiet retreat. I believe that most of them will, on further reflection, re-embrace the truth…that the United States of America represents one of the highest points in the history of human civilization." But, if these thinkers are already "beating a quiet retreat," why go to the trouble of writing a book denouncing them?

It is obvious then that Podhoretz is not seriously suggesting that Bill Bennett and Robert Bork are "America-haters." Podhoretz's target is someone else entirely. His animus is reserved for the opponents of US interventionism – Pat Buchanan and the so-called "nativists" of the Right. But here again the "anti-Americanism" charge is a little tricky. How does a man whose slogan is "America First" get to be an "America-hater"? Podhoretz's intellectual contortions are apparent when he writes about the sympathetic treatment accorded to Gore Vidal – Podhoretz's bete noire – in the pages of Chronicles. He sneers that "it was mainly the nativism they shared that made Vidal acceptable to the paleos who, as strident nationalists of the Right, might otherwise have been expected to look upon so egregious a hater of America as an enemy." The name-calling is becoming dizzying here. Are the "paleos" haters of America or not?

The concept "hating America" does not mean anything. And it is not supposed to mean anything. People the world over criticize their country without thereby becoming "unpatriotic." And love of country certainly does not mean love of one's government. No, the term "America-hater" serves the same purpose as the label "anti-Semitic" or "racist." The words are wielded so as to drum people one disagrees with out of serious debate. It is not surprising to find that in his book Podhoretz also charges his opponents with "anti-Semitism" and "racism." Vidal, he writes, had to "disguise his anti-Semitism as 'anti-Zionism'. The same inhibition operated at the other end of the political spectrum in paleos like the commentator Patrick J. Buchanan….Still, the disguise was so thin that the distinction between old-fashioned Jew-hatred and the newfangled anti-Zionism remained mostly invisible to the naked eye. Vidal and Buchanan might vociferously protest (borrowing a tactic from the apologists for the anti-Americans of the Left in the 1960s and adapting it to themselves) that all they were criticizing was the allegedly oppressive policies of the state of Israel toward the Palestinians. But the main takers of this line were people who shared or were inclined toward their particular bigotries in the first place." There is no analysis here, just poisonous insults. Further on, Podhoretz writes, "in their twisted view, dark-skinned peoples were fine so long as they did not live in America, and especially when they were fighting against Jews."

Whoever takes over the White House next January, a renewed Cold War against either Russia or China or both is likely to start up within the next few years. And we can be pretty sure that the term "America-hater" will be deployed with menacing regularity against the critics of military adventurism. The extraordinary thing is that it will be American nationalists who will be dubbed "America-haters." It will be terribly confusing, but it will get the job done. Pat Buchanan, whose slogan is "America First" will be an "America-hater." His concern is the national interests of America, not the interests of Empire. Therefore, he is an "America-hater." This is not as paradoxical as it seems. Imperialism and nationalism are incompatible notions. Podhoretz understands this very well. In his Wall Street Journal piece he wrote that "love of country (which is what the word patriotism signifies) is so common a feeling among peoples in the world that praising or deploring it is rather like praising or deploring human nature itself." Exactly. A genuine patriotism entails respect for the patriotism of others. It is clearly incompatible with invading other countries, humiliating other countries or subordinating them to one's geopolitical needs. An American patriot loves his country, appreciates its system of government but accepts that it works very well only here. It is not for export, any more than Islamic theocracy or the Eastern Orthodox Church is. This is what differentiates the patriot from the imperialist. The empire builder is sure that his country has reached the pinnacle of civilization and therefore is obligated to impose it on the rest of the world.

Most Americans love their country and have little interest in Empire. Not so the corporate, academic and media elites. To them, Empire is a very appealing notion. It enables them to hold sway over the rest of the world. The corporations can invest where they get the highest rate of return on their capital. Their only interest is cheap labor. Hence, the appeal of open borders – yet another feature of empires. To the academic elites, empire is appealing because it enables them to shape the intellectual agenda of other countries. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, America's legal and constitutional scholars poured into the former Communist countries insisting that the US system of government was the only possible way forward. The institutions of other countries can be reshaped wholesale by our elites in the image of our own.

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Wednesday.

Go to George Szamuely's latest column from the New York Press.

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Yet the more our globalist elites sing the praises of American Empire, the more virulent will be the reaction they provoke. Historically, nationalism has always emerged as a powerful ideological movement against imperialism. It is not just the expression of discontent on the part of peoples forced to live under the rule of the imperial master. It is also the expression of discontent on the part of the inhabitants of the imperial metropolis. It is no accident that the most virulent form of German nationalism emerged in pre-1914 Vienna, the stomping ground of the young Adolf Hitler. The Austrian Germans – supposedly the masters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – were also the ones who felt most keenly the loss of their national identity, in having to lord it over the far more numerous non-German inhabitants of a polyglot, multinational, multicultural entity.

In the coming debates then an American "nationalist extremist" will come to mean "America-hater." Both terms serve to insult. Since what the "America-hater" understands by America is not the same as what our elites understand by America, it makes perfect – if tautological – sense to call him an "America-hater." For, chances are, he probably does hate their idea of America. Once burdened with such a label, however, such a person can forget about exercising any influence on debate about US foreign policy. Norman Prodhoretz's book has made a notable contribution to the silencing of debate. That is not something any intellectual should be proud of.

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