American Conservative

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. (more…)