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Jewish World Review July 5, 2000 / 2 Tamuz, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Consumer Reports

Is patriotism out? --
HAVE CONSERVATIVES fallen out of love with America? That is the thesis of a new book by former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz -- a one-time left-winger who famously "broke ranks" with his colleagues in the late 1960s and became one of the leading lights of the neoconservative movement.

(Aside: So many of the "neocons" were Jewish -- Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle -- that many people seem to think the term means "Jewish conservative," instead of "ex-liberal." I began my career at National Review, headquarters of the Old Right, and have been a conservative more or less since getting my driver's license -- yet I've often been introduced or referred to as a "neocon" because I am Jewish.)

Looking back on it now, Podhoretz traces his break with the left in large part to his lifelong "love affair" with America. When his fellow leftists began to despise this country, even to spell America with a k implying resemblance to Nazi Germany, Podhoretz was so deeply offended that he could no longer call these people allies, or even friends.

Yet Podhoretz now perceives a similar tendency to denigrate this great nation among his friends and allies on the right, and so, however reluctantly, he has "buckled on (his) slightly rusted armor" and ridden into battle again to defend hearth and home.

"My Love Affair with America" is a lovely valentine -- half memoir, half tour d'horizon of the intellectual history of the past 40 years. Podhoretz's participation in the great debates of the last four decades gives his reflections a unique piquancy. He brings a terrific clarity of mind and expression to everything he touches.

Yet his personal story is affecting precisely because it is so common. Like millions of other children of immigrants, the gifted young Podhoretz was able to thrive and flourish in America because this country is and has been uniquely generous, welcoming and benevolent toward newcomers.

This book was apparently inspired by attacks on America from the right, yet its strongest message is to refute current fashion on the left -- particularly the fervor for multiculturalism. As a 5-year-old, Norman Podhoretz was fluent in two languages, Yiddish, the language of his family, and English. Though he was born here in 1930, his Brooklyn milieu was so Jewish that he entered public school speaking English with a pronounced Yiddish accent.

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He was immediately placed in a remedial English class -- from which he emerged not just free of Yiddish inflection but of Brooklynese as well. And the door was flung wide for him to savor -- and eventually master as a literary critic -- the incomparably rich heritage of English literature.

As Podhoretz himself tells it, any similarly situated teacher today who attempted to help a Spanish or Chinese or Hindi speaking child shed his accent and learn the King's English would have a lawsuit or worse on her hands. And so much the worse for today's children! As Podhoretz's life testifies, there is no necessary trade-off between preserving an ethnic or religious heritage and full participation in American life.

It is precisely because America has rejected the ethic of assimilation that conservatives worry. And here it must be said that Podhoretz is too tough on conservative critics of the country (with one or two exceptions). For 40 years, he has railed against the policies that have now become institutionalized. (Bilingualism is fading a bit, but multiculturalism shows no signs of weakness.) Yet Podhoretz bristles when other conservatives condemn the fruits of those failed ideas.

In today's Brooklyn schools and in schools throughout the nation, as Podhoretz surely knows, children are taught very little American history -- and much of what they are taught is negative. We are guilty of racism, sexism and despoiling the environment. Some of it must be understood in context (what nation is free of these sins?), and some of it is simply false.

But it is reasonable to be apprehensive about the long-term prospects of a nation that seems, in important respects, to have lost confidence in itself -- all the while hoping that millions of Americans will celebrate the Fourth of July by buying this book and reminding themselves of what a treasure this country really is.

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