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Jewish World Review June 30, 2000 / 27 Sivan, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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In love with America -- LOVE STORIES are special. And stories about loving America are extra special. Norman Podhoretz's new book, "My Love Affair with America" is one of those extra special stories.

Seldom has so much wisdom been packed into such a small book -- part autobiography, part editorial, part history, part grand philosophy and all American. If one gave gifts on the Fourth of July, this would be the kind of gift to give. Perhaps it would be an appropriate gift to some young person heading off to college, where clever but shallow academics will try to convince him or her that this is a terrible country.

This book even contains a word seldom used among today's intellectuals -- or non-intellectuals: "gratitude." It closes with a recitation of all the good things that came Podhoretz's way because of being an American, beginning with the English language and its cultural riches that helped shape his life.

Norman Podhoretz has been so long identified as the editor of "Commentary" magazine that some may find it surprising to discover that he did not create this premier intellectual publication himself. Now retired and approaching the biblical threescore and ten years, Podhoretz looks back on his life and on the life of the country to which his parents immigrated early in the 20th century.

Born in a Brooklyn tenement during the Great Depression, Norman Podhoretz grew up in what would today be considered poverty, though he never realized that he was poor until long after the time when it might have soured or crushed his spirits. Instead, as his life unfolded, he marveled and gloried in the things that a poor boy with immigrant parents could do in this country.

As he went out into a wider world, especially as an enlisted man in the army, Podhoretz marveled at the American people themselves. And he defended them fiercely against shallow and arrogant intellectuals in other countries -- or at home.

Although "My Love Affair with America" celebrates this country, its author does not confuse the United States with Utopia. On the contrary, he regards the pursuit of Utopian ideas as contrary to the whole spirit of American society and the American system of government.

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A politically active intellectual, Podhoretz took part in the civil rights struggles and the anti-war movement of the 1960s, as well as publishing in his magazine many critics of American society whose views led them ultimately to an anti-Americanism that he could not share.

Podhoretz's love of America is like the love for members of one's family -- a love that denies none of their blemishes, but cherishes them nevertheless as human beings dear to one's heart. His book, however, is also an intellectual defense of the United States as entitled to "a place among the very greatest of human societies."

The way he makes this comparison speaks volumes about how different his moral framework is from that of most intellectuals. Podhoretz compares America to other societies of human beings -- not to some abstract ideal. His comparison recalls another book by another son of the Brooklyn ghetto -- black talk-show host Ken Hamblin, whose book was defiantly titled "Pick a Better Country."

"My Love Affair with America" is not just a backward-looking book. It is passionate about the present as well.

Podhoretz argues fiercely that today's immigrant children should have the same opportunity he had to learn the English language and have the whole vast world of its intellectual treasures open to them, from science to literature, rather than being trapped in a linguistic ghetto misnamed "bilingualism" for the benefit of ethnic hustlers.

Equally fiercely, "My Love Affair with America" argues against the role of the Supreme Court in dismantling the Constitution for the sake of its own pet policies. Nor are today's American people spared, for "gratitude went out of fashion" and "its, opposite, constant complaining, which had formerly been regarded as unseemly, took its place as a virtue."

He quotes black novelist Ralph Ellison, who said that his people were heirs to an "American tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one's anguish for gain and sympathy." Describing himself as a "cheerful conservative," Norman Podhoretz refuses to let the things that have gone wrong in this country discourage him about its future. He is himself one of the many things that have gone right.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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