Commentary Magazine


Arnold Beichman, 1913-2010

Word has just arrived of the death of Arnold Beichman at the age of 96. Arnold was, I think, the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known, and though I first knew him as a boy, I found to my wonderment that I became his friend as a man, even though he was nearly a half-century older.

And yet he was not older. He was younger. Younger than I at 23 when he was 72 and we became reacquainted at the Washington Times; younger than I at 47 when I last saw him in his 97th year, though he had finally wearied enough of walking that he was mostly using a wheelchair. Whatever Arnold Beichman had in him, if they could bottle it and we could take it, we would immediately lead lives of energy and purpose, high good humor and great good feeling, and a sense that, though there were very dark forces at work in the world, the world itself was a wonderful place and one should embrace it and drink it deep to the dregs, and then drink the dregs and relish them too.

What a life he lived! I’m talking about a man who grew up on the Lower East Side, a Yiddish-speaking son of a pious working-class father who made his way to Columbia University in the late 1920s — there to edit the Columbia Spectator along with the man who would be his lifelong friend, Herman Wouk. In the 1930s he worked for what was called the "exploitation department" of Warner Bros., I believe, writing  press releases about Jimmy Cagney’s command of Yiddish and showing Cagney around New York during a publicity tour. (He knew Babe Ruth too.) He then became a journalist, and had a storied career, going from the New York Herald Tribune to PM to other places, as a labor reporter and city editor and foreign correspondent. He wrote cover stories for Newsweek about the anti-imperialist wars in Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s. In his 50s he decided he needed to educate himself better and went to get himself a Ph.D. from Columbia in political science, then became a teacher, and then, in his 60s, embarked on yet another career as a Sovietologist of distinction. He was writing regularly until he was 95.

Arnold’s great issue was anti-Communism; it was the animating intellectual and political force in his life, and he was wise and tough and immensely knowledgeable and completely without illusions and totally without fear of the views of those who claimed his passion was vulgar and overheated. He knew evil when he saw it and he called it by its name, and he was as astonished as anyone when the evil against which he had fought for so long crumbled to dust in 1989. He was also a man with an abiding love for the United States as his rock and salvation as a Jew who did things no one could ever have imagined a poor Jewish boy doing in the year of his birth, and he wrote a wonderful book in 1972 taking on the critics of the United States called Nine Lies about America that I commend to you.

But what Arnold was, first and foremost, was a man of roaring enthusiasm, a man who always looked forward — it was why he never sat down to write a memoir, I think, even though he had a great one in him, because he didn’t want to look back. There was a reason for this. A great family man, he had lost one of his beloved children to suicide; the only time he ever spoke of it to me was when he was speaking passionately (as he spoke of everything) about his atheism — and revealed suddenly that he wasn’t really an atheist at all, but a man who was in a state of permanent anger at God for what had happened to his son. That he survived that blow, and thrived in spite of it, and kept himself moving, driving motorcycles into his 60s and flying planes into his 80s and spending the springs and summers tending to apple orchards and writing books and columns with his beloved wife, Carroll, on her family farm in Naramata, BC, a hundred million worlds away from the streets below Houston that he had haunted as a child of the tenements, until this very last summer, testified to a greatness of spirit unique in my experience.

Here, from COMMENTARY’s archives, is Arnold Beichman’s contribution to a symposium published to mark the magazine’s 50th anniversary on the subject of "The American Prospect." You will see how he takes issue with any notion of the United States in decline. He himself was 82 when it appeared:

On the surface, two of the three questions we are asked by the editors to discuss seem a little absurd: is our national project unraveling, and what about the basic stability of American institutions?

After all, the U.S. and its allies did win the cold war and, more recently, the Gulf war. Russia is a storm-tossed fragment of its former self. The threat of nuclear war has been removed. In fact, the threat of global war, with alliance pitted against alliance, can be said to have disappeared. Most of the world’s would-be immigrants want to come to the U.S. The world, more and more, is moving toward democracy, says Samuel Huntington, in “an almost irresistible global tide.” Socialism is bye-bye. Competitive economies are in.

As for the question concerning the conservative resurgence, Irving Kristol told us in 1993 that “liberalism today is at the end of its intellectual tether.” He was right, as usual.

Even more unhappily for the declinist school, for the Marcusean doomsayers, and for the anti-American American Left, the U.S., according to Michael Boskin, “remains the world’s largest, richest, and most productive economy.” With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. produces about a quarter of the world’s total output of goods and services. The American standard of living exceeds that of any other industrialized country. The U.S. is not deindustrializing, nor is it losing its overall competitive edge.

Yet something is bugging us. It is the horrible things that are being said, written, published, intoned daily and hourly about this country. As Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post has written: "A Martian reading about [the U.S. as depicted in the media] might in fact suppose America to be composed entirely of abused minorities living in squalid and sadistically run mental hospitals, except for a small elite of venal businessmen and county commissioners who are profiting from the unfortunates’ misery."

A quarter-century ago, the South African novelist Alan Paton spoke moving words to America at a Harvard commencement exercise: "Your tribulations are known to the whole world. Some of us in the outside world derive satisfaction from them. . . . It is foolish of us to gloat when you appear to fail to solve them, for are we any better, any worse than you? Therefore you must regard yourselves as the testing ground of the world, and of the human race. If you fail, it will not be America that fails, but all of us."

So generous an appraisal of the national project is not to be found among the liberal Left. Here is Martin Walker, at present the Washington correspondent of the British daily, the Guardian, in a recent book: "The similarities between Moscow in the early 1980′s and Washington in the early 1990′s became eerily acute to one who had lived through both. The contrast between the former Soviet Union’s release of its prisoners and the way that the USA had over one million of its citizens incarcerated, summoned the bizarre, dismaying thought of an American gulag."

You really have to loathe our huge, blundering democracy to talk about an “American gulag”—or perhaps you just need to be a member of the marxisant Left. And that raises a puzzle. The great Polish émigré philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once said that Marxism has been “the greatest fantasy of our century.” On the one hand, Marxism’s century-and-a-half authority is gone. Without it, there is no epistemological foundation for the hostile, extirpationist analysis of capitalism, no longer any “scientific” alternative structure. The Open Society, with no scientific pretensions whatever, has triumphed over its enemies.

So why, on the other hand, is so much Marxism and Left liberalism still to be found in the halls of academe? Why, when anti-Americanism has diminished in most of the world, and Marxism has become a relic of a miserable past, is there so much academic anti-Americanism here at home? Why is the United States the world capital of political correctness, affirmative action, job quotas, multiculturalism, gay rights, radical feminism, Afrocentrism?

A close observer of the American scene, John Gray of Oxford University, has marveled at this phenomenon—and at the fact that while in most parts of the world liberalism, having lost its moral cachet, has moved to the Center and even to the Right, American liberalism is moving further and further to the Left. In an article in National Review, Gray asks: "What is it in American culture that renders it uniquely vulnerable to such pathologies? Are we to suppose that the unparalleled strength of these radical movements in America is merely accidental? Or does the fact that America must now have the most leftist political—and popular—culture on earth call for an explanation?"

Gray’s explanation is this: for the American Left, America is not a nation "grounded in the contingencies of language and cultural affinity, but an ideological construction whose identity derives from universalist principles. For [the Left] America is not a nation but a civil religion, and loyalty to it is a matter not of sentiment but of ideological commitment. It is only to be expected that attachment to America as a civil religion should come to express itself as hatred of the values and institutions that are most definitive of America as an historic nationality."

I suppose I could be taxed for not writing about such problems as drugs, homosexuality, pornography, crime, jobs, racism, homelessness, AIDS, Oklahoma City, welfare, the deficit, and all the domestic difficulties which, to some people, look as if they are going to overwhelm this country and destroy the national project. My response is simple: the American people—black and white—will deal with these problems as they have dealt with other problems in the past. Our national project is not unraveling, and the country is not fragmenting. It is the liberal-Left that is unraveling—its stridency is the best sign of that—and that is a good thing, too.

Though he wouldn’t have liked my saying it — or, rather, would actually have liked it very much: may Carroll, Charles, Janine, John, their spouses, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchild be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. He died this morning in Pasadena with much of his family around him, without pain. The God who understandably had angered him led this profoundly noble soul to his end with the grace He had bestowed upon those of us who had been given the inestimable gift of knowing him.

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