The label "anti-American" is not a particularly useful term.
Loaded with the baggage of the McCarthy era, using it evokes a political confrontation that most Americans would like to forget. It is a pejorative that clouds rather than clarifies policy debates.
But as the United States goes to war in the face of opposition from most of the chattering classes, it is hard to escape the fact that behind much of the opposition is the notion that America, and not its foes, is the focus of evil in the world.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Listen to the voice of many of the anti-war demonstrators and "enlightened" opinion coming from abroad, and it isn't hard to evoke the memories of the Vietnam era and its protests.
While many people of a certain age look back to those protests with nostalgia, for the editor of Commentary magazine, the flood tide of an anti-American mindset caused him to break ranks with fellow liberals.
The editor's name was Norman Podhoretz, and his decision to change the political orientation of the monthly published by the American Jewish Committee is still being felt in the Jewish community, as well as in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. It was to be one of the most momentous switches in American Jewish intellectual history, as well as that of American political discourse.
Podhoretz through his monthly would become godfather to a new movement of political thought: neoconservatism. Based in a bedrock belief that opposition to communism was the first duty of the intellectual, neoconservatives represented American Jews who understood that liberalism had lost touch with this essential truth.
It was no coincidence that the rise of neoconservatism coincided with the increasing attacks upon the State of Israel. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, it became apparent that the left was abandoning Israel just as it had abandoned the anti-communist cause that it had once led. The realization that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism were now more at home on the left than on the right was also a powerful force in molding the neoconservatives.
Thus a serious study of the influence of the magazine is particularly timely. Filling that void was a conference on "Commentary, the American Jewish Community and American Culture," held in New York last year, that was co-sponsored by the Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History of Temple University and the City University of New York's Graduate Center.
As many of those at the conference said, Commentary was more than a place where leading Jewish literary lights found a home. It was, for more than one generation of Jewish students and writers, a sort of correspondence graduate school where they were introduced to an exciting world of thoughtful political analysis, history, literary, music and art criticism; and new fiction;
Commentary was founded in 1945 under the leadership of Podhoretz's predecessor Elliot Cohen as a liberal anti-Communist journal. In the 1960s, Podhoretz and Commentary had drifted to the left. But under his leadership, Commentary, and the growing coterie of intellectual voices such as writer Irving Kristol, soon began the long march to the right in defense of the freedoms that their fellow liberals had forsaken.
FOUNDING A MOVEMENT
This was a difficult transition for a group that had grown up speaking the language of the left. But, by the time Podhoretz and Commentary found themselves backing Ronald Reagan, something had changed in the culture.
They, and many other Jews, were no longer dissident liberals, but a new and important branch of American conservatism.
Unlike other literary civil wars which generally have little impact on the real world of politics, the neoconservative revolution was a force to be reckoned with. An article in Commentary on the dangers of appeasing totalitarians and dictators led to the appointment of author Daniel Patrick Moynihan as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations by President Gerald Ford. Less than a decade later, a similar piece in Commentary propelled Jeane Kirkpatrick from academia into the same post.
More than that, the ideas that percolated in its pages found expression in some of the Reagan administration's foreign and domestic policies. Commentary neoconservatives were more than a faction of Jews focussed on the Soviet threat. The pages of the magazine were also a source of criticism of the urban agenda that had led to the moral bankruptcy of the liberal welfare state. Just as the founding of William F. Buckley's National Review helped jump-start American conservatism in the 1950s, so too can Commentary lay claim to the transformation of that same movement decades later.
As Podhoretz has himself written following his retirement, the term neoconservative is itself now an anachronism. Those who are now labeled neocons are actually either former liberals who are today conservatives of long standing or young conservatives who were never liberals.
Commentary and Podhoretz have their critics. Liberal revisionists are still prepared to dispute the magazine's courageous stand against the totalitarian Soviets. Far-right paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan lament the fact that the neoconservatives have eclipsed the influence of the old anti-Semitic forces of the right in conservative circles. Indeed, for these paleos, neoconservative is virtually synonymous with "Jew," and their opposition to neo-con policies is more a function of anti-Semitism than anything else.
This is particularly important today. Despite the brickbats of ex-friends and rivals, Podhoretz and Commentary won the intellectual arguments of the 1970s and 1980s. But the magazine's voice, today raised against the terrorist threat of Islamist fascism, is needed more than ever. Fortunately, that message is heard not only in Commentary, but in publications such as The Weekly Standard (led by Irving Kristol's son William), and in the thinking of prominent Bush administration figures such as Elliot Abrams (Podhoretz's son-in-law) and others.
The proof of the enduring importance of this slim monthly whose pages boast no pictures cannot be measured solely in the resumes of its writers, but in the power of its ideas. Those ideas, rooted in a rejection of anti-American leftism, have found expression in the rhetoric of the current Bush administration, and helped to revive the spirit of a principled and idealistic foreign policy dedicated to promoting democracy, and implacably opposed to totalitarians.
In the past, Commentary rallied intellectuals and general readers to the defense of American democratic values. Today, the growing chorus of vituperative anti-American critics should remind us that this fight is not over. Such ideas matter. Whether they fully understand it or not, all those who speak up for these principles are the children of Commentary.