Coming of age with The American Conservative

I must begin by thanking Jordan Bloom for the invitation to become a contributor to The Mitrailleuse. Some readers may know me from my intermittent blogging from about 2009 to 2011 for The American Conservative. Others might even know me for my frequent appearances in roughly the same period at Mondoweiss. And perhaps a few might know me for my first book that was released in 2011, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism. In April, the book I’ve been at work on ever since will be released, The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History.

Introducing myself effectively is in many ways exceptionally timely this month with the demise of The New Republic. As an intellectually curious young person who came of age at virtually the very moment of the September 11 attacks, I learned to have a particular hatred for The New Republic at the tail end of its recently much-ballyhooed heyday. I’m mature enough now to have an appreciation for those who are lamenting the apparent demise of the public intellectual and their forum in political magazines as a matter of principle. But in all candor I remain blind to the greatness and romance surrounding TNR, and in particular Leon Wieseltier’s back-of-the-book.

And the reason for this, frankly, is because my adolescent romance for the life of the mind – from politics to literature to ideas – was with The American Conservative. I still remember well when I was 17, first seeing and reading the first issue in the magazine section of Borders at White Flint Mall; two institutions now joined in meeting their reward by TNR, which memorably blasted the premier of TAC as “Buchanan’s surefire flop” (only in the recent coverage did I realize that this was a tasteless reference to The Producers, in the company of their charming headline on the vindication of Iraq realists in 2004, “Springtime for Realism”).

Some background is in order: I was a Jewish kid from Bethesda, Maryland who got his GED as soon as he turned 16. I was in community college for the next two years at the same time I was actively pursuing a highly unstable brew of radical involvements on both the left and right, fancying myself some kind of journalist-revolutionary (like 12-year old Henry Hill, I was living in a fantasy). The critical point of departure for my intellectual journey was some time just after 9/11, as I was becoming enamored with Justin Raimondo, who proved a formative influence to be sure, and discovering that his seemingly half-crazed notion about the Trotskyist roots of neoconservatism was very much true – it turned out my father knew several of them through the Harvard Young People’s Socialist League (Elliott Abrams, Josh Muravchik, and Daniel Pipes well; Bill Kristol just slightly. Anyone curious as to why he didn’t become a neocon should read his recent book on new urbanism).

In other words, the much-storied New York Jewish intellectual tradition, that Carol Kane assured the young Alvy Singer was a wonderful cultural stereotype to be reduced to, was in many ways a birthright. And yet I fell in love with TAC. In that first year or two as America was being conquered by Iraq, I still had high hopes for the Green Party, and even on the eve of TAC’s premier was startled to see Rod Dreher’s “Crunchy Cons” cover story at National Review and knowing there had to be a much, much, much better forum for this (by the time the book came out in 2006, I was of course well past recognizing that the typical figure covered in the book, if asked why they weren’t involved with the Green Party, would simply answer “because I like a steak every now and then”). When I was 18 and first living on my own, I subscribed to four magazines – The American Conservative, The Progressive, Chronicles, and an intriguingly semi-serious short-lived left-anarchist bi-monthly called Clamor.

I hardly need revisit the intellectual climate that surrounded the launching of the Iraq War, and why it was no contest between TAC and any more mainstream magazine – even the sincerely antiwar and often thoughtful liberals at The American Prospect could never stir the intellectual passions. Nor does a great deal need to be said here about what slowly but surely disillusioned me with the radical left, though to this day a large part of me is mystified as to why Bill Kauffman (or for that matter Jim Webb, at least in his career as a politician) is considered anything but a perfectly kosher man of the left.

What should be said about what made TAC stand out through all of this, and endure in my affections, was that it gave me in my formative, college-age years a way of understanding the world, but more importantly of the history I was living through. Two pieces deserve special mention in this regard – “That 1914 Feeling” by Martin Sieff (April 7, 2003) and “The Fall of Modernity” by Michael Vlahos (February 26, 2007).

Still, why The American Conservative? The answer comes from an unlikely source – the not-terrible but in many ways misleading 1997 documentary Arguing the World, whose subjects Justin Raimondo once memorably described as the biggest narcissists since Narcissus. In one interview snippet, the old Partisan Review hand Lionel Abel speaks to the inherent virtue in the life of the mind of that which is interesting, and that even as an oldster he will still not abandon this principle. Yet another moment in Arguing the World drives home how this was especially salient to TAC’s back-of-the-book, the equal of any rival, giving me my whole education in literature and ideas.

Irving Howe (of whom my father was a friend and admirer) recalls in the film how the review section of Partisan Review gave him the best education one could ask for – Orwell, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald – “while the Communists were reading palookas like Howard Fast.” I may have an awful lot of chutzpah in saying so, but I take every bit the same pride in what I learned from TAC’s back-of-the-book – Waugh, Wodehouse, Oakeshott, Gore Vidal, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Nisbet, Herbert Butterfield – while the Leon Wieseltier fan club was reading palookas like Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick.

I think from the beginning I always came back to the Burkean and Kirkian sensibility where TAC stood, but my evolution was certainly an uneven one. It was in my eclectic youth that I took Austrian economics the most seriously while never totally buying it, but at the same time that I still earnestly believed I was some kind of socialist of the earnest, vintage, trade unionist and anti-totalitarian kind (not yet fully grasping that this species was extinct by the early postwar era). I was completely wound up in enthusiasm for Ron Paul in his first campaign in 2008 (or 2007 really), never once thinking he’d be President but convinced it was turning all of American politics on its head, though time may yet tell. I took a different path than most around TAC in grappling with Obama and his first term if I’ve largely met them back around the bend by now, though I feel vindicated in my view from the outset that the problem has come more from how liberalism has changed than from Obama himself.

More important than any of this, however, was how my mature intellectual pursuits were ultimately shaped by TAC and the intellectual wealth it has given me. Nagging at me from the beginning was the apparent discrepancy between the love of the old America central to the values of TAC, particularly of course as expressed by the incomparable Bill Kauffman; and any kind of Jewish identity, which appeared to be irreconcilable to being unambiguously on the side of peace and non-intervention.

The major revelation came in discovering the subject of my first book: Reform Jewish Anti-Zionism, as ultimately organized in the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), almost totally lost to Orwell’s memory hole and appearing to me as what I had to one degree or another been looking for throughout my intellectual journey – American Jews who resisted the Zionist revolution in American Jewish identity, meaning an identity bound up in the sacred story of American nationalism following the Second World War. To be sure, the ACJ did not fit so very neatly into the prevailing historical narrative of the “old right,” but the ways in which it did and did not were in great measure what so fascinated me and trained me in the rigors of historical scholarship.

Yet of greatest significance was the discovery, completely exhumed from the archives, of the old Jewish Socialist allies of the ACJ. And this in turn led me back to what I had for so long said I wanted to write some day, a complete history of the Socialist Party of America. I referred earlier to my father’s long ago affiliation with the Young People’s Socialist League – well, to this day, being a shade to the right of The American Prospect if only just as slightly more moderate than James Howard Kunstler, my father will still insist he is a socialist (to which I’d reply “Am I? Is anyone?”). A great deal of family background, including of some distinction in the labor movement on my mother’s side, reinforced this interest as it coincided with my earlier radical involvements.

Indeed, very early on I recognized that so many of the stalwarts of the “old right” claimed by the libertarians and paleos (something that at the ripe old age of 29 I’m old enough to remember still mattering) were in fact in the orbit of the Socialist Party as it stood against entering the Second World War. Even earlier, through some of my kinkier adolescent associations, I even came to recognize the common roots of American Socialism and so-called right-wing populism in, well, Populism. All this came rushing back when I was given the opportunity to follow up my first book with a history of the Socialist Party; almost as soon as I began the primary research I had a happy rediscovery and retrieval of the holy sparks I had seen in artifacts of the radical right when I was young and innocent with dreams of a better world. (For how all of the above falls into place in a historically literate framework, by all means, either pre-order or otherwise plan to buy my forthcoming history of the Socialist Party).

Fairly early on in my relationship with TAC and the history and ideas it exposed me to, I was always intrigued by identifying with, or seeing myself as a sort of 21st century reincarnation of, the better half of the haphazard category George Nash identified as “premature Jewish conservatives,” or what my father once pithily named for me “paleoneocons” – sadly I cannot shake that unfortunate label off to this day. (I should acknowledge the appearances in TAC in his final years of the last living link to that milieu, Ralph de Toledano, whose back-of-the-book essay on Jelly Roll Morton sparked my great passion and love for trad jazz).

This instinct was very much confirmed in the research for my history of the Socialist Party. Who was a figure that represented what my own journey through that saga would have been – a right-wing Jewish Socialist who was never really in the tank for the New Deal, was anti-interventionist, and by the 50s was reading American Mercury and a passionate anti-Zionist? The answer, of course, was the quintessential “paleoneocon” Morrie Ryskind, the writer for the Marx Brothers who was the first benefactor of National Review. Who wouldn’t want to find their kindred spirit in the writer of Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera?

Until recently I even carried around with me a certain conscious deliberate identity of the Jewish Abner Beech, transported from early postwar Brooklyn to the Brooklyn of here and now (I’ll poll the audience as to whether this would make me the anti-hipster or the ultimate hipster; I’ve long been reduced to comforting myself on this score by the fact that I hate IPA). I know perfectly well that this is just another version of the usable past nuttiness of Paul Berman, the last neocon who still calls himself a socialist, but I at least know that. Interestingly, what’s largely dissipated this elaborate construct for me is having put to paper copious notes for a novel, about the point of collision between the subjects of my two books, in best Bill Kauffman fashion set on the spot of ground on which I live, Prospect Park South (the storyline is a mashup of Copperhead and Fiddler on the Roof).

Anyhow, suffice it to say that my personal journey from a hearty intellectual education from TAC to writing two books of historical non-fiction – and especially the latter of the two – did not prepare me for the shock of one day suddenly realizing that Lena Dunham and Ta-Nehisi Coates are the alleged voices of my generation and leading voices of what now calls itself American liberalism. Indeed, for quite a while I feared that I was fated to be intellectually frozen in amber in the period of the Iraq War, when I knew who my enemies were in the neocons and it could seem that more united than divided their opponents on both the left and right. But seeing the nightmare that digital age liberalism has become, and the hope of its nominal historic values yet finding a new and better home, has renewed my fighting spirit that I hope to once again give voice here at Mitrailleuse.

I remain an optimist seeing the many flowers that are blooming from the seeds planted by TAC – from The Week, The National Interest, and Daily Caller to Front Porch Republic and The Mitrailleuse. I am more convinced than ever that what Partisan Review was to the 1930s, and Commentary and The New Republic arguably were to the 70s and 80s respectively, The American Conservative shall prove to have been to the post-Cold War era.

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3 comments

  1. Anyhow, suffice it to say that my personal journey from a hearty intellectual education from TAC to writing two books of historical non-fiction – and especially the latter of the two – did not prepare me for the shock of one day suddenly realizing that Lena Dunham and Ta-Nehisi Coates are the alleged voices of my generation and leading voices of what now calls itself American liberalism.

    In sum, we’re doomed; unless there comes a time when no one remembers these two individuals. That would be a sign of recovering cultural health.

    Like

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