The Case of the “New York Review”
To the Editor:
In his dissection of the New York Review [“The Case of the ‘New York Review,’” November 1970], Dennis Wrong rhetorically asks if my recent criticism of Steven Kelman’s Push Comes to Shove “is not tantamount” to urging that the truth about the wrong-doings of the Left should be suppressed. Answering his own question in the affirmative, he goes on to equate my views with those of apologists for Stalinism and various other unworthy causes.
I intended no such implication. Mr. Wrong omits from his quotation of my review two critical statements: first, my belief—derived from Kelman—that his former friends in Harvard SDS “have long refused to pay any attention to what he says”; and second, my regret (“Alas”) that his book will mostly be read by those far to his Right rather than by those who need to read it. In short, Mr. Wrong seriously mistakes my intention, and supports his error by failing to quote me in full.
My basic and explicit objection to Kelman’s book was not that he revealed the truth about Harvard SDS, but that “for all the validity of his criticisms, Kelman emerges as not a whit less self-righteous than his opponents in SDS.” In fact, then, I was agreeing with Mr. Wrong’s critique of “the politicized will, feeding on its own self-righteousness. . . .” But where Mr. Wrong seems to see self-righteousness as largely the prerogative of the NYR and the New Left, I think I can also detect it as well in some of the critics of the NYR, as in the rising tide of Old Left attacks on the New Left.
Mr. Wrong rightly reminds us of the lessons of the 1930′s. But there is one important lesson he does not mention: the dissension, chaos, and in-fighting produced among German leftists by the threat of Hitler’s rise to power. America today is not Germany in 1931. But in a climate of conservatism, we who are agreed in democratically seeking basic changes in our society must especially try not to fall at the throats of our political neighbors, incessantly accusing each other of self-righteousness, irresponsibility, dogmatism, or “incorrect analysis.” If Old Leftists today were to devote all of their very considerable talents to shredding the tattered remnants of the New Left, attacking the elitism of Harvard SDS, or exposing the parochialism of the NYR, the Left in America would fritter away its needed energies in internecine warfare. To be sure, we must criticize our friends, the more so because they are our friends. But we must also recognize that the major threats to democracy in America today come from the Right.
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editor:
First, Mr. Wrong says that with regard to Czechoslovakia, the NYR “did not discuss the liberalization under Dubcek until after the Soviet invasion.” While this is technically true, it seems to imply an editorial decision that did not occur. Having written the article myself, I can assure Mr. Wrong that it was my intention, and that of the editors of the NYR, that the piece was to be precisely about the liberalization under Dubcek. It was my own schedule, not the wish of the editors, that made it impossible for me to go to Prague before July 1968. I stayed several weeks and left just a few days before the Soviet invasion. In fact, I was in the process of completing the article when the invasion occurred. Naturally, I had to change my report somewhat to include this crucial and unexpected development. To be sure, Mr. Wrong could not be expected to know the history of the article. But as one who writes for magazines he should certainly have realized that an article appearing in the issue of the NYR dated September 26, 1968, and appearing on the stands two weeks earlier (September 12), as is customary with the NYR, could hardly have been commissioned after the Soviet invasion of August 21.
Second, I find objectionable Mr. Wrong’s consistent use of “un-American” to describe criticisms by NYR writers of government policies, of the educational system, of the social structure, etc.—e.g., “the main component of the NYR’s political line is a pervasive anti-Americanism that draws almost as freely on aristocratic, conservative traditions. . . .” Criticisms of public officials and their policies are not un-American. Nor are descriptions of the inadequacy of some of our social institutions. Any reader of COMMENTARY, let alone a regular contributor, could hardly be unaware that such criticisms are one of the basic functions of a magazine of opinion. A press free to criticize the government and to inform its citizens is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. To imply that such criticisms are somehow “un-American” is shameful semantic demagoguery. Unfortunately Mr. Wrong indulges in it not just once, but on numerous occasions. It not only weakens his argument, but is quite unworthy of him, his subject, and the best traditions of COMMENTARY.
New York City
To the Editor:
Dennis Wrong diagnoses the case of the New York Review of Books as one of “extravagant, querulous, self-righteous anti-Americanism.” He says “the main component of the NYR’s political line is a pervasive anti-Americanism,” and he believes that writers who do not follow this line—including many who once published in the Review—find its pages closed to them.
Mr. Wrong offers no specific test for judging the “American” qualities of a specimen of political discourse, but his assault on various positions advanced by various writers in the NYR does clarify what he means by anti-Americanism. The main presenting symptoms of this repulsive disease are: a penchant for conspiracy theories on the assassination of President Kennedy; opposition to racism, bureaucracy, environmental deterioration, uncontrolled technology, and the involvement of intellectuals with the CIA and the Department of Defense; support for the New Left, alienated youth, blacks, and the Third World; calculated indifference toward specifically Jewish interests; unrestrained ideological thinking and frenzied activism.
An examination of this might bring one to conclude that it is hard for a thoughtful and humane person to “think American” these days. But it is also dangerous not to. Dennis Wrong knows how such labels as “anti-American” function in political discourse in the United States. I am sorry to see a man from whom I have learned much join the dreary ranks of those who presume to judge the patriotic credentials of others.
John H. Schaar
University of California
Santa Cruz, California
To the Editor:
As an occasional contributor to the New York Review, I believe that Dennis Wrong’s article in your November issue is overly broad. I have never considered myself to be either a member of the New Left or of the Radical Chic coterie. I write for the New York Review because it is an excellent forum for my views on the criminal law. A number of historians have also contributed since Mr. Wrong’s cut-off date of April 1967. I might cite my colleague David Potter, as well as C. Vann Woodward, Eugene Genovese, and William Appleman Williams, none of whom, by any stretch of the imagination, could possibly be considered to be “Rad Chic” or members of the New Left.
I have always found the editor of the New York Review, Mr. Robert Silvers, to be an excellent editor and willing to put up with my idiosyncratic ideas. Despite Mr. Wrong’s broadside, I trust that no contributor to the New York Review will turn his back on Mr. Silvers.
Herbert L. Packer
To the Editor:
. . . Dennis Wrong’s article raises many intriguing questions. Since I am not privy to the editorial decisions and policies of the NYR, I cannot comment on these. However on page 53 of his article I am introduced as an example of “an extremely bizarre sign of the direction in which the paper [the NYR] was moving,” because the NYR published my criticism of the Warren Commission and my “ingenious but far-fetched theory of a successful conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.” I don’t want to argue about whether my theory is ingenious and/or far-fetched. Some people like it, some don’t. Future historical research will decide whether it has any real merits. (I have a much more elaborate version by now.)
What does intrigue me is that Mr. Wrong sees the publication of my theory as a “bizarre sign.” One of the items that first alerted me to the need to look into the Kennedy assassination was an editorial in COMMENTARY, January 1964, signed “N.P.,” entitled “The Warren Commission: An Editorial.” (I was an avid and thorough reader of COMMENTARY in those days.) N.P. was very worried about whether the Warren Commission would really hold an extensive and independent investigation. And he said: “Is the possibility of a treasonous political conspiracy to be ruled out? Not the least fantastic aspect of the whole fantastic nightmare is the ease with which respectable opinion in America has arrived at the conclusion that such a possibility is absurd; in most other countries, what is regarded as absurd is the idea that the assassination could have been anything but a political murder.”
The opening paragraphs of my piece, “The Second Oswald,” show how influenced I was by N.P.’s agitated words. He and others started my concern with the case. In March 1964 I received an issue of COMMENTARY, with “A Commentary Report” by Léo Sauvage, entitled “The Oswald Affair.” As I indicated in my presentation of my “ingenious but far-fetched theory,” it was Sauvage’s article that first raised for me and many others the possibility that there was some sort of duplication plot. “Léo Sauvage suggested someone was trying to imitate Oswald, that there was a second Oswald” (Popkin, “The Second Oswald,” NYR, July 28, 1966, p. 15). When I met Mr. Sauvage in the fall of 1966, we discussed his being the originator of the theory. My only claim to originality, if I have any, is having worked out the theory, which was presented in varying forms by several critics of the Warren Commission, in more detail, and into a hypothesis to explain what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
In view of all this, I wonder what bizarre sign of direction COMMENTARY’s attack on the official theory of the Kennedy assassination in 1964 represented. Why were they trying to get people like myself agitated even before the Warren Commission had done its “work”? Was this part of the same “extravagant, querulous, self-righteous anti-Americanism” that Mr. Wrong found in the NYR in 1966 and 1967? Perhaps Mr. Wrong will carry his researches further and present us with “The Case of COMMENTARY” that might be published in the NYR.
Richard H. Popkin
Department of Philosophy
University of California
La Jolla, California
To the Editor:
In his article, Dennis Wrong incorrectly placed historian C. Vann Woodward among pariahs such as Lionel Abel, Gunter Gass [sic], Irving Howe, Richard Rovere, and himself. According to Mr. Wrong, their banishment from the NYR resulted from divergent political opinions.
Check again, Mr. Wrong. On December 4, 1969, Professor Woodward’s article on the Southern writer Wilbur J. Cash appeared; on February 27, 1969, his extended review-essay on 19th-century American racial attitudes was published; in the number of August 1, 1968, he reviewed a collection of essays by New Left historians that Barton J. Bernstein edited.
Also appearing on Mr. Wrong’s list of NYR-outcasts was historian Richard Hofstadter. Yet, in the NYR of December 3, 1970, C. Vann Woodward’s eulogy memorializing the passing of Hofstadter was published. That was no act of ideology on the part of the editors and publishers of NYR. (For an example of what younger historians thought of Hofstadter’s more recent scholarship, see Robert Sklar’s review of The Progressive Historians in the Nation, November 18, 1968, which carried the title: “Historians, Simple-Minded and Complex.” Sklar characterized Hofstadter as an elitist historian.)
Pursuing this matter further, to what does Mr. Wrong attribute the presence in NYR since 1969 of such distinguished scholars as John K. Fairbank (Chinese history) or Carl Schorske (German history)? Or the very recent articles by American historians like Eric L. McKitrick, John William Ward, or Willie Lee Rose? Certainly not ideology, I hope! (After all, Professor Rose’s review-essay on the historiography of the martyr John Brown went to great lengths to question the legitimacy of the legend that has survived him by more than 111 years.) Rather, I presume that these scholars were invited to contribute to NYR because of their respective reputations as accomplished, highly literate historians.
Just as Dennis Wrong has been fatuous in dealing with this one aspect of NYR’s offerings, an equally absurd case might be concocted regarding a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY, the urban historian Stephan Thernstrom. The American Historical Review of July 1967 included a notable historiographical article that, among other things, placed Mr. Thernstrom among the so-called New Left historians on the basis of his book, Poverty and Progress, Social Mobility in a Nineteenth-Century City; similarly, the obscure but important journal Radical America, published by graduate history students at the University of Wisconsin, also devoted extended attention to Mr. Thernstrom’s book (March-April 1969). Can we deduce, therefore, that Mr. Thernstrom’s appearances in COMMENTARY are analogous to his penetrating the lines of an enemy? I trust that the editor of the magazine would deny this vehemently. Instead, I am sure, Mr. Thernstrom is published on the basis of his well-deserved reputation.
Mr. Wrong’s credentials as a sociologist may indeed be imposing, but his understanding of current historiographical trends is quite circumscribed. Rather than blame him as a sociologist, however, I prefer to conclude by saying that it is Mr. Wrong’s ideological determinism that has caused him to go so far astray from the reality of NYR’s unique contribution to contemporary historical criticism. And isn’t that just another version of Stalinism?
Michael H. Ebner
Department of History
Herbert H. Lehman College
New York City
To the Editor:
May I set the record straight regarding one small point in Dennis Wrong’s excellent article? Mr. Wrong describes me as belonging to a distinguished group of “old Weimarians.” Actually I was not even twelve years old when Hitler came to power, and since I was not a precocious child, my main field of interest at the time was Weimar football (soccer) rather than Weimar culture.
To the Editor:
Two loud cheers for Dennis Wrong for a brilliant, devastating dissection of the New York Review.
It is only two cheers because in a minor way Mr. Wrong shares the ideologizing impulses of those he criticizes. Perhaps that is as it must be. Those of us who are thoroughly bored by the unrelieved dullness, poor writing, and archaic ideas of the New York Review could never subject ourselves to reading enough of it to do the job that Dennis Wrong has done. Only someone whose adrenalin responds to the banalities of a McDermott or a Chomsky can perform a proper dissection on them.
Why then should I complain if Mr. Wrong still finds it relevant to posit that he talks for the “democratic Left” rather than simply that he seeks to talk the truth?
The reason for my objecting is admittedly personal. It is annoying to be used by Mr. Wrong as a symbol of some adversary ideology so that he can position himself as an exponent of true “radicalism” and virtue, all the while that, like generations of honest men before him, he has gotten off the main train of current radical orthodoxy.
The social scientist who describes reality as he sees it, if he writes about heated issues at all, will be called ideological names. I am used to being called a radical, a conservative, a militarist, a pacifist, an apologist for the Vietnam war (as Mr. Wrong thinks), and a promoter of peace in Vietnam. Ordinarily, I should not argue since one-dimensional labels are necessarily at once both true and false, and, in any case, irrelevant to the arduous effort to describe the complexity of social reality. But Vietnam is such a charged issue that I cannot let Mr. Wrong’s statement pass. The leader of the SDS at MIT had it more nearly correct when he accused me of seeking peace in Vietnam, whereas he wanted Vietcong victory.
What does it mean to be for or against a war? I suspect that Mr. Wrong and I are in considerable agreement on Middle Eastern policy and both of us would oppose the destruction of Israel. Does that mean we are for war? Of course not; we both hope and pray and work for peace, but peace turns out to be hard to achieve. Nonresistance means allowing a pogrom and a pogrom is not peace.
The problem is identical in Vietnam. I believe there are ways to acheve peace. Total and immediate American withdrawal is not one of them. Mr. Wrong and I might argue whether after withdrawal the odds favor a victorious Communist minority which would impose its terror on the South Vietnamese, or a successful military dictatorship which would slaughter Communists in Indonesian fashion, or (most likely) a continuation of the war with swings both ways over time; but peace is none of those scenarios. The issue facing America is not whether one is “for” or “against” the war in Vietnam. That formulation is simpleminded cliché-mongering; no one is for it. The issue is how to end the war, and on that issue the typical dovish demonstrator does not have a clue. To give him his due, he has a program for saving American lives: get out. But that is not ending the war, it is perpetuating it.
The world of the ideologist, however, is, in Mr. Wrong’s own phrase, that of “the simplifying formulas of either-or,” or those who are “for” the war and those who are “against” it. In the world of the ideologist, good guys do only good things, and bad guys only bad ones. Dennis Wrong can see how absurd that is in the New York Review’s extreme version. But in his own version, the concededly inept, violent American effort to prevent the subjection of the Vietnamese people by Communist conquest and oppression is treated as an evil parallel, though on a smaller scale, to Stalin’s terror in Russia. Viewed through that distorted lens, scholarly analysis of Vietnam is perceived as apologetics, since objective description fails to provide the unqualified grounds for condemnation that partisans would like to have.
Be that as it may, let me not divert attention from the main point. The presence of a pinch of ideological pollution is but a small blemish on the essay which is the art of exposé at its best.
Ithiel de Sola Pool
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
To the Editor:
Dennis Wrong’s self-serving article reads as if it were composed by a grievance committee. One ordinarily ignores this kind of thing but the political implications are too grave. Mr. Wrong would like us to believe that, notwithstanding his frequent qualifications, the NYR has “contributed to the present prospect of a confrontation on all fronts between the Movement at its arrogant, mindless worst and the demagogic, patrioteering Right.” But he neither substantiates this charge nor contributes to a responsible analysis of the structure of American society. In fact, at no point in his article does he argue for any substantive position. His dismissal of the internal politics of the Third World as a model for American protest is sound, but easy, and not exactly new (having been made often in the New York Review, for example, by such writers as Christopher Lasch, George Lichtheim, Ronald Steel, among others). However, that point repetitively made, Mr. Wrong refrains from giving us any sense of what the relationship actually is between the present nature of American society and the politics of the Third World, and what the consequences, given that relationship, for a serious American politics, may, in fact, be.
There are, however, some clues to Mr. Wrong’s thinking on this question in his long diatribe. He lets us know, for example, that he believes that American society should be changed in the direction of its own ideals. Now it is one thing to imply that the condition of American society is in opposition to its own professed ideals, which is a sociological cliché, but it is quite another to state that change should be in the direction of realizing its ideals. Perhaps the ideals are organically related to the reality of the present state of American society? Perhaps we have always used them to rationalize unpleasant realities? After all, they were formulated at the same time that blacks and Indians were being brutalized in this country. Perhaps American ideals, as Max Weber implied, have played out their role in the construction of the American reality and have, therefore, been demystified? Nonetheless, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights can still be read, of course, as liberating documents; but would Mr. Wrong subscribe to the rationale for revolution formulated in the former, or the unequivocal defense of due process, so deeply threatened today, as Henry Steele Commager has pointed out, in the latter? To which American ideals is Mr. Wrong referring, to whose interpretations, and to which American reality would he relate them?
All statements of ideals that have remained static over a considerable period of time can easily be reduced to the most diffused and abstract notions; they no longer have any political point if they are not realized in the functioning of social institutions. And as ideals they can always be quoted by their enemies, as Machiavelli knew, to justify realities contrary to their spirit. A man who lectures us about the role of the democratic Left should understand this, and he should be more seriously concerned with examining alternatives to American corporate capitalism both at home and abroad. He might then find that the relevance of the poor who are getting poorer in the Third World, and whose traditional societies have been shattered, is rather greater than he suspects. The poor in the United States, along with the entrapped and mortgaged and, sometimes, desperate middle classes might also attract his attention as part of a bureaucratic capitalist order. Moreover, one who wants to instruct others on the strategy of the democratic Left should be less fearful of backlash. He should understand that the Right is driven by its own needs and may characteristically invent provocations. It does not really need the Left to stir up trouble; it only needs the Left to blame. Would Mr. Wrong then advise that the Left liquidate itself in order to keep the peace? But—alas!—even then the Right would create a Left as Agnew does out of middle-of-the-road Republicans.
Another clue to Mr. Wrong’s position seems to be in his notion that Russian tyranny no longer presents an external threat to American society, and that this makes the job of the self-defined democratic Left more feasible in the United States. However, the fact that Russia and the United States are beginning to recognize certain compelling common interests makes the task of an authentically democratic Left far more difficult. That is to say, we must now begin to visualize a planet in which American corporate capitalism and Soviet bureaucratic collectivism accommodate themselves to each other at the expense of the cultural and social interests of most of the people of the world. Strangely enough, Mr. Wrong makes no mention of that possibility, and that may be one of the reasons why he has ignored the three articles on Biafra (two by Conor Cruise O’Brien and one by myself), along with the lengthy exchanges of letters on the subject, which have appeared in the New York Review during the last three years. For the case of Biafra clearly contradicts the grievance committee’s grotesque case against the New York Review.
Biafra was not, of course, supported by the “New Left,” but was, for the most part, attacked by them. The British, the Russians, and the State Department found themselves objectively allied in the destruction of the new polity. I have expressed myself about the role of the New Left concerning Biafra as follows:
The behavior of the Soviet-oriented left in Europe and the United States toward Biafra was predictable, but that of the New Left was a subtler betrayal . . . with rare exceptions, the theorists of the New Left failed morally and intellectually to understand the many dimensions of this political and human tragedy which confronted them. . . . Some of their arguments overlapped with the notices in Pravda, others were also heard in Washington and Whitehall; they were all rooted in ignorance of the nature of colonialism in Nigeria and of the history of the peoples involved. Worse than ignorant, they were abstract and heartless.
By implication, the New Left demanded that Biafra establish impeccable socialist credentials before it could become worthy of their support. The historical movement of the people and their profoundly egalitarian tradition were simply ignored. The dying and the endurance were not enough; nor were the statements of intention, the anti-colonial history of the Ibo or the actual organization of Biafran society.
What Biafran could possibly believe in the authenticity of those European and American theorists of the New Left who misconceived the most important struggle in modern African history? What African radical can now take them seriously? There were only two alternatives-Nigeria or Biafra. The New Left chose Nigeria by omission or commission, and in so doing commended themselves to the oil companies and sanctioned the imperialism of the Great Powers which remains the only guarantee of a united Nigeria. (Chi, Letters from Biafra, Preface by Stanley Diamond, New Press, pp. 11-13).
In my New York Review article (which was longer than most political essays to appear in the journal), the significance of Great Power assault on Third World cultural possibilities was emphasized; and black militant and New Left indifference or opposition to Biafra was shown to be misconceived. Clearly, Mr. Wrong’s notion that radicals who work for NYR will not, and moreover, must not openly criticize the New Left (which he does not define except tautologically), is false. It should be noted, also, that the Russian defense of the Arab oligarchies and opposition to Israel as part of Soviet Middle East-African strategy was examined at some length in my Biafra article. (Incidentally, Mr. Wrong is characteristically inaccurate when he writes that the New York Review has printed “only one discussion of the Middle East crisis”: I. F. Stone’s piece of August 3, 1967. More recently, the paper published a long discussion of the causes and consequences of the Six-Day War by the Israeli writer, Amos Elon.)
Those who have written for the paper or read it fairly should know that there is no monolithic editorial policy of the type conjured up by Mr. Wrong. One gets the sense, however, that the grievance committee considers opinion that is more critical of American institutions than the material which appears in Dissent to come from a New Lettish no man’s land, well-organized, conspiratorial, and patricidal. In reality, of course, terrorism in the U.S. is confined to a handful of people in a few splinter groups; and the compulsive activism that Mr. Wrong attacks can hardly be considered characteristic of the New York Review, especially if one has read such pieces as the paper’s special supplements on violence by Hannah Arendt and J. M. Cameron (which Mr. Wrong, of course, simply does not mention). As a matter of fact, Mr. Wrong is most obviously self-serving when he assesses individuals. He defines Alvin Gouldner, for example, as a man stemming from the Old Left, who presumably defends academic sociology to the younger radicals, and is always dampening their rhetoric. Gouldner is Max Weber Professor of Sociology at Washington University, and a man of some professional weight, not the sort of fellow sociologist Wrong would be eager to antagonize. Yet, in a favorable review in the New York Times of Gouldner’s important book, The Coming Crisis in Western Sociology, Bennett Berger, a principled sociologist, writes: “He [Gouldner] affirms his faith in the ‘psychedelic consciousness’ of Hippies and the New Left to create new theories authentically expressing that new consciousness, rather than alienating them from it.” Moreover, in Berger’s view, “Gouldner turns characteristically opaque [as a constructive sociologist], a failure he shares with many young radicals who are more lucid as critics of existing society than as visionaries of a better one.”
Clearly, Mr. Wrong projects a New Left category which he slips people into, or out of, at his convenience. One wonders how Mr. Wrong would characterize William Appleman Williams’s tribute to the conservative conscience of Herbert Hoover, in the November 5, 1970 issue of NYR.
But frustrated, bewildered, and self-defeating political elements have not created the major problems in this country—appalling though their behavior may be—nor do they define the consciousness of many radicals who disagree with Dennis Wrong and his friends. Moreover, it is neither principled nor accurate to confuse the great majority of engaged students, who are the conscience of this country, with fugitive splinters of the New Left.
If Mr. Wrong ignores the Biafra articles, he does, however, mention an article on the New School strike written by Ed Nell and myself, which charges us with sympathetically interpreting the “more idiotic slogans of the New Left” as expressions of a new “life style”—“not to be taken too literally.” But the fact is that the New Left played practically no role in the New School strike. For a professional sociologist, Mr. Wrong certainly categorizes in a most vulgar way; he seems to think that the students, whose style we specifically differentiated from that of the New Left, are interchangeable with the New Left. He also seems not to have read our critical remarks about the appearance of William Kunstler. But criticism does not lead us into reification or tautological definition. The New York Review-New Left equation, which defines each in terms of the other, is the sort of logic that Spiro Agnew indulges himself in. But why does Dennis Wrong do this? One can only conclude that he, and those with whom he would want to associate himself, seem more interested in reifying the New Left than in developing a politics equal to the crises of our time.
In the end, although Mr. Wrong’s performance is shallow, it is also poignant. There is so much that he simply does not understand. For example, he does not understand that the literary and political sensibilities of the New York Review unite in a defense of culture against the collective and dehumanizing forces in our society. Since he is fond of invoking Max Weber, let me call to his attention certain concluding remarks in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
[The modern economic] order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage . . . material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. . . .
No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last state of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” . . . The modern man is in general, even with the best will, unable to give religious ideas a significance for culture and national character which they deserve.
Max Weber would certainly have understood the efforts of the young to establish a consciousness contrary to that of bureaucratic collectivism. And he would have had no difficulty in describing Dennis Wrong’s place in the American system.
New School for Social Research
New York City
To the Editor:
Dennis Wrong has provided a very fine perspective on the New York Review of Books, perhaps a little nit-picky in places, but nonetheless a much needed appraisal of a literary bludgeon.
I would like to pick two nits myself. Mr. Wrong says NYR did not “. . . become an extension of the underground press.” Perhaps not an “extension,” but certainly an ally, and as such, included in the Alternative Press Index. This quarterly index, put out by the Radical Research Center at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota, indexes about 130 newspapers and periodicals of the Left. NYR, for all the slavish emulation of the radicals Mr. Wrong suggests, is included as a way of bringing cogent reviews and commentaries to the attention of Movement and counter-culture oriented people. What is notable about NYR’s inclusion in the Alternative Press Index is the fact that it is not included in Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, or any other major index.
The second nit is: Later in his article, Mr. Wrong suggests that “no short summary” of the 1968 New York City public school strike (in particular the Ocean Hill-Brownsville aspect) “is possible.” I trust he has read Naomi Levine’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Case History of Schools in Crisis, a paperback issued by Popular Library, which attempts to grapple with the monster that almost strangled the schools.
New York City
To the Editor:
I particularly admire Dennis Wrong’s handling of Noam Chomsky and Murray Kempton.
His three paragraphs on Noam Chomsky say more, and say it more penetratingly, than the thousands of words Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote on the same subject. Mr. Wrong’s conclusion—that by the mechanical and predictable consistency of his bias Chomsky has forfeited the right to be taken seriously—seems to me so true, even obvious, that my only wonder is why it hasn’t been explicitly stated before. (Poor Schlesinger, who recognized Chomsky’s dishonesty as clearly as anyone, allowed himself to be lured into a detailed exploration of the intellectual Okefenokee Swamp of Chomsky’s writings and wound up, in that interminable exchange of letters in COMMENTARY, sunk up to his neck in the quicksand, while Chomsky, who knows the swamp like the back of his hand from years of darting about in it, sat on the bank and peppered him with coconuts.)
In his comments on Murray Kempton, Mr. Wrong cleared up a puzzle that’s been on my mind for some time. Increasingly in recent years, even when I’ve found myself agreeing with Kempton’s ideas (that is, when I’ve been able to extract them from the thicket of his rhetoric), I have had the feeling in the back of my mind that there is something false in his writing, something deeper than just the precious ornateness of his style, that makes me distrust the reasoning by which he reaches his conclusions. In one short phrase Mr. Wrong perfectly defined for me what that something is: “the arrogance of proclaimed humility.”
James N. Miller
Croton-on-Hudson, New York
Dennis Wrong writes:
My question, to which Kenneth Keniston refers, was really a semi-rhetorical one, but his letter convinces me that I did not mistake his intention. I neglected to mention his statement that Kelman’s fellow students ignored his arguments because I was uncertain as to whether it was seriously intended as a criticism of Kelman. Mr. Keniston now says that it was, at which I can only rub my eyes in disbelief. Why is this a criticism of Kelman and not of the Harvard SDS if, as Mr. Keniston acknowledges, Kelman’s views and arguments were largely valid? Does he expect truth to win instant victories over error? Or, granting that Kelman is himself on occasion self-righteous, though I think Mr. Keniston exaggerates, does he suppose that if Kelman had come on all humble (like, perhaps, Murray Kempton?) he would have won the Harvard radicals to the YPSL cause?
None of us is free from self-righteousness: the very passing of a moral judgment is an implicit assertion of the superior moral sensibility of the judge. (“A man condemns himself, yet praises himself as a self-condemner.”—Nietzsche.) But there is very little content except self-righteous sloganizing in the kind of New Left politics described by Kelman: no coherent political arguments, no novel diagnoses of, or prescriptions for, American social problems. And, as I tried to show, the same is true at the higher level of intellectual sophistication of the New York Review writers I criticized.
Mr. Keniston’s last paragraph moves me to ask him another semi-rhetorical question: Is what he says not tantamount to proclaiming pas d’ennemis à gauche? The lessons I wished to recall were not so much those of the 30′s, let alone Germany in the 30′s, as of America of the late 40′s and early 50′s. Of course it is true today, as it was then, that “the major threats to democracy in America . . . come from the Right.” This is nearly always true and in a sense may be true by definition. But putting it this way is, if I may be excused the term, too “undialectical” a way of looking at it. Would the threat from the Right that McCarthyism represented have become as formidable as it did in the absence of past apologetics for, and, in some cases, active association with, Stalinism by a large section of the Left? Mr. Keniston concedes that America today is not Germany in the early 30′s. His letter is dated November 17, but since the November 3 elections one may readily doubt even that “a climate of conservatism” prevails.
In any case, I do not recognize the Maoists described by Steven Kelman as my “political neighbors,” nor do I think they are any more promising as allies in “democratically seeking basic changes in our society” than, say, the Birchites. Nor am I prepared to surrender what is, after all, my duty as a political intellectual to criticize “incorrect analysis” by writers on the Left when I think I see it. I strongly oppose the political exploitation of antipathy toward student radicalism by the Agnews and Mitchells, and, if a Hitler loomed in the wings, I might acknowledge the necessity of limited tactical alliances with even some of the wilder New Left radicals. But Professor Keniston does not follow through with the Weimar analogy. No doubt all groups on the Left made mistakes in responding to Hitler, but it was the Communists who called the Social Democrats “social fascists” and coined slogans such as “a Nazi is like a beefsteak, brown on the outside, red on the inside.” The New Left, not the Old, has echoed this line in recent years and launched attacks on the most liberal institution in our society, the university. There is reason to hope this period has ended and that criticism such as mine is increasingly obsolescent. But I’m afraid the correct answers to my two semi-rhetorical questions addressed to Mr. Keniston are in the affirmative.
I think the editors of the NYR might have made an effort to discuss the Czech liberalization earlier than they did, but that is clearly not Mr. Steel’s fault. In making his minor point about deadlines, however, he ignores my criticism that he began his piece by seeking parallels with American misdeeds before getting around to reporting on the Soviet invasion, a typical example of the obsessive anti-American slant I attributed to NYR writers.
Mr. Steel’s second point is so outrageous that it scarcely deserves an answer. Either he is being thoroughly disingenuous, or he is a monumentally careless reader, or he is incredibly ignorant. Any politically literate person must know that “un-American” has for more than thirty years been used exclusively by xenophobic or demagogic spokesmen of the Right. Even the House of Representatives recently found the term sufficiently odoriferous to change the name of the notorious committee that did most to give it currency. I have never in my life used the term “un-American” except to attack its use by others, and I did not do so in my article on the NYR, as Steel himself indicates in his one direct quotation from the article. The term I used was “anti-American” and I used it, not “on numerous occasions,” but four times in an article of over 14,000 words, twice in a single paragraph to refer to a single NYR article (by Jason Epstein). I could hardly have wished thus to stigmatize any “criticisms of public officials and their policies” or “descriptions of the inadequacy of our social institutions” since I made such criticisms and pointed to such inadequacies myself in the course of the article and also praised the NYR for having done so, as in its early protests against the Vietnam war. Moreover, I twice deplored the “American celebration” of the 50′s in which some intellectuals participated, and hoped that there would be no recurrence of it today.
In his own voluminous writings, Ronald Steel has often assailed the “rigid” or “sterile” anti-Communism which he sees as having banefully dominated American foreign policy since the late 40′s. Suppose someone were to accuse him of derogating “anti-Communism” because he hewed to a Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and wished to declare illegitimate any criticism of the Soviet Union, China, or Cuba, up to and including the invasion of Czechoslovakia carried out by the first and supported by the other two. I think he would, with complete justification, accuse his critic of prevarication, demagoguery, and “McCarthyism.” Well, his charge against me—“shameful” and “unworthy” are his words—is of exactly the same order. Whether he made it out of malice or ignorance, I think he owes me and COMMENTARY an apology.
Since John Schaar, though he at least gets the word I used right, joins Mr. Steel in accusing me of “presum[ing] to judge the patriotic credentials of others,” further discussion is unfortunately necessary. (Incidentally, my own “patriotic credentials” are scarcely in good order, for, though a long-time resident of the United States, I remain a citizen of Canada.) Anyway, there is nothing in the least idiosyncratic about my use of “anti-American.” It has been used with exactly the same pejorative connotation by writers whose views are much closer to those of the New Left and the NYR than my own. For example, Martin Duberman, in a review of Christopher Lasch’s The Agony of the American Left (most of which was first published in the NYR), wrote: “One quality Lasch assuredly shares with them [the radical youth], and it sets both apart from welfare-state liberals or the N.D.C. [New Democratic Coalition], is uncompromising anti-Americanism. That attitude in the main cannot be faulted. . . . Yet, even so, the case against us can be made too all-inclusive, and Lasch is sometimes guilty of this excess” (New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1969, p. 34). Duberman goes on to complain of a recent “flood of anti-American books and periodicals,” to deprecate “rabid anti-Americanism,” and finally to conclude that “it would be tragic if radical critics, having taken the lead in challenging our country’s mindless anti-Communism, encourage the substitution of mindless anti-Americanism” (ibid., p. 35). Duberman’s equation of “mindless” anti-Communism and anti-Americanism is almost identical with the one I made in commenting on Epstein’s NYR article. In fairness to Christopher Lasch, whom I have criticized myself in COMMENTARY (“Radical Agonies,” July 1969) but exempted specifically from some of my more recent strictures on the NYR, he too disparages “the anti-Americanism of the depression years” (The Agony of the American Left, p. 113). Whatever they may think of me, do Ronald Steel and John Schaar think that Martin Duberman and Christopher Lasch are militant patriots who regard it as “un-American” to criticize American policies and institutions?
Mr. Schaar’s notion that I judge “a specimen of political discourse” by its “American” qualities because I used “anti-American” a few times as an adjective, or in noun form, is as obviously indefensible as that of a Birchite who thinks that criticisms of “anti-Communism” necessarily presuppose a pro-Communist standard of judgment. More important, while this is what Mr. Schaar would certainly like to believe, it finds no warrant whatever in what I actually wrote. For I clearly indicated my agreement with many of the beliefs he lumps together in his amalgam of alleged symptoms. (How, incidentally, does he manage to conclude that I oppose critics of environmental deterioration when my sole reference to it was to report that he himself and Sheldon Wolin had bewailed the new preoccupation of young people with this issue in the NYR?) Unlike Mr. Schaar, I see no reason to congratulate myself for my “dangerous” thoughts on any of these matters—what silly heroics professors do go in for!
Why, instead of dragging in the red, white, and blue herring of Americanism, doesn’t Mr. Schaar address himself to my substantive criticisms, including those I made of Wolin and him? I’m afraid the answer is that he, and Ronald Steel, know only too well how such labels as “un-American” and “judging the patriotic credentials of others” “function in political discourse . . . these days” in the American academic and intellectual communities. I’m sorry I gave them the opening for their gambit, though it still seems to me that “anti-American” is the single most apt generic term to describe the NYR’s political outlook, better than “New Left,” “radical,” or “radical-liberal” (no doubt, I’d have drawn accusations that I was an agent of Agnew if I’d used that one).
I have learned much from Mr. Schaar’s past writings, as he says he has from mine, especially from his argument in Escape from Authority that alienation is not simply a sociological condition to be overcome by political transformation, an argument that has much relevance, I should think, to some of the concerns of today’s “alienated youth.” I’m sad to find Mr. Schaar in his present ideological company, not because he deviates from some patriotic norm, but because he fails to show the scrupulous concern for intellectual rigor, the ethics of controversy, and the challenge the truth presents to all party opinions that I should have expected from him.
In answer to Mr. Packer, my “broadside” was hardly so indiscriminate as to suggest that every contributor to the NYR was “a member of the New Left or of the Radical Chic coterie.” I excluded at the outset of my discussion the entire cultural and scholarly side of the journal, which may certainly be understood to cover Mr. Packer as an authority on the criminal law. I then excepted a number of writers by name from my strictures, including Messrs. Woodward and Genovese. (For further details on the names, see my answer to Michael Ebner below.) I was mistaken in indicating that Mr. Woodward had ceased since the 1967 “cut-off date” to contribute to the NYR, but this small error cancels out my opposite error in stating that Mr. Laqueur was a recent contributor. Whatever their present views may be—and I am aware that Genovese has been a recent and vigorous critic of the New Left—Messrs. Genovese and Williams have in the past been identified with the New Left, Mr. Packer’s inability to stretch his imagination to the contrary notwithstanding. I would welcome a change in the NYR’s political tendency, but I had no intention of advising any contributor “to turn his back on Mr. Silvers.”
Richard Popkin’s queries are really directed to the editor of COMMENTARY. Since “I am not privy to the editorial decisions and policies” of COMMENTARY any more than he is to those of the New York Review, “I cannot comment on these.”1 I can only suggest that there is a difference between questioning the accuracy of the Warren Commission Report and elaborating a theory of a right-wing conspiracy. There have, after all, been critics of the Warren Report, e.g., Edward Jay Epstein, Alexander Bickel, and, most recently, Al Newman in The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Clarkson Potter, Inc., 1970), who have nevertheless accepted the Report’s conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin, if not all of the reasoning by which it arrived at this conclusion.
In answer to Mr. Ebner’s letter, I have already conceded my error regarding C. Vann Woodward, which I discovered myself too late to correct on proofs. But who is Gunter Gass? Mr. Ebner presumably has in mind the German novelist, Gunter Grass, but it was Oscar Gass, the American economist and political analyst, whom I mentioned. Hofstadter’s death and the publication in the NYR of Woodward’s eulogy both occurred after my article had gone to press, the latter after it had already been published. (I hope Mr. Ebner handles names and dates a bit better in his historical work than he does in his letter.) As for the eulogy, is it so uncommon for a journal to publish a eulogistic obituary of an important figure whom they may have ignored or opposed when he was alive? Mr. Ebner’s argument seems to be that, in the first place, the NYR didn’t “banish” Hofstadter, and, in the second place, if they did they were justified because “younger historians” consider him an “elitist.” Well, one review in the Nation doesn’t necessarily amount to a consensus (oops, that word!) of “younger historians,” nor establish a “current historiographical trend.” At Trinity College, where I have been teaching this past term, the student newspaper, The Trinity Tripod, devoted most of its December 8 issue to Richard Hofstadter, publishing a lengthy tribute to his work by a young historian on the faculty and two by undergraduates. Some of us, moreover, find some “younger historians” a mite elitist themselves.
As I reminded Mr. Packer, I not only excluded the NYR’s scholarly coverage from my strictures on its politics, but praised its valuable work of haute vulgarisation in a number of fields, including historical scholarship. So much for Mr. Ebner’s other names. To elaborate on his example of Stephen Thernstrom, he fails to note that Thernstrom is also a contributing editor of Dissent. So what? I never equated the NYR with Ramparts, or even Studies on the Left. But does Mr. Ebner really think that the NYR, COMMENTARY, and Dissent are interchangeable where the ideological preferences of their editors are concerned?
Mr. Ebner’s letter, like several of the others, makes no direct attempt to defend the NYR’s political line, nor any of the figures I criticized in detail as representative of it. They start out by simply denying that it has a political line—“nobody in there but those scholarly chickens.” The NYR is involved with ideology, is maybe partial to the New Left? Perish the thought—there’s no such thing as the New Left! Wrong is just affixing an arbitrary label. There’s nothing but the young and the engaged students who are the “conscience of this country” (Diamond) and the measure of all things. I’m reminded of the sleazy chicanery of bad lawyers.
My apologies to Walter Laqueur. I did not really think that he, nor, for that matter, the others I mentioned, were either greybeards today or stunningly precocious children forty years ago—I was merely using a bit of literary license in calling them “old Weimarians.” I was also mistaken in indicating that Mr. Laqueur had been a contributor to the New York Review in the past two or three years.
Ithiel de Sola Pool misunderstands me. I did not brand him as a “bad guy” in setting up an “either/or” polarity. My sole reference to him was a paraphrase of Noam Chomsky, who has certainly crossed swords with him on frequent occasions. My article did not deal with present policy toward Vietnam, and I agree that the issue of whether one is “for” or “against” the war has been decided in favor of the doves. But Mr. Pool’s conviction that avoidance of the imposition of Communist terror on the South Vietnamese is the key to a peace settlement troubles me because this is exactly the argument that was used in the past to justify the war—used, in fact, by Mr. Pool himself in defense of policies that were, as he now concedes, “inept” and “violent” at best. But I did not equate Stalin’s terror with the American failure in Vietnam: I merely said they had a comparable impact on the political outlook of American intellectuals. Nor do I wish to conduct a retroactive heresy-hunt to brand all past supporters of the Vietnam war, in which category I include Mr. de Sola Pool, as dangerous fools or knaves. I am not Noam Chomsky and I think there has been too much of that sort of thing in this century. Anyway, thanks for the two cheers.
Stanley Diamond, ha! After penning my single reference to him, I paused and reflected that it would undoubtedly draw from him a verbose, sermonizing epistle, quoting from his own works, and full of nasty innuendos of the sort I specifically tried to avoid in my NYR critique, and, judging from the comments I’ve received even from people who don’t agree with me, by and large succeeded in avoiding. Evidently I knew my man! I was tempted to mention in the article Mr. Diamond’s incredibly patronizing remarks about my former and his present colleagues on the Graduate Faculty of the New School, but decided that this would be too parochial a reference.
Well, let’s take up worst things first: I regret having to devote space to so petty a matter, but Mr. Diamond brought it up in accusing me of trying to ingratiate myself with Alvin Gouldner. Mr. Diamond describes Gouldner’s The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology as an “important book,” but he has not thought it important enough to have read it himself, nor has he so much as glanced at the dust jacket, or he would have discovered that I am the author of the single endorsement of the book printed there. If he had flipped a few pages, he would also have found out that Gouldner begins his list of acknowledgments in the Preface with the statement: “I am particularly grateful to Dennis Wrong for a massive critique, at once sensitive and sensible, of the entire study.” I might add that I was invited by the publishers to report, for a fee, on Gouldner’s manuscript and since I was enthusiastic about it, they later asked me for a public endorsement, with which I supplied them, gratis. Thus no matter how “self-serving” I may be, I hardly needed to go out of my way to curry favor with Gouldner by praising his book en passant in COMMENTARY. Mr. Diamond should retire to the corner and write five-hundred times: “I should not cast false aspersions on the motives of fellow intellectuals.” I also expect a personal letter of apology from him. Moreover, since he doubts the accuracy of my characterization of Gouldner as a sometime defender of “academic sociology” to the younger radicals, let me refer him to the article by Gouldner that appeared, since his book, in the first issue of Social Policy. He might also care to inform himself on the sharp controversy this article aroused within the ranks of the “Sociology Liberation Movement.” Mr. Diamond has read carelessly even my brief reference to Gouldner, for there is no inconsistency between my judgment and Bennett Berger’s: I referred to Gouldner’s book as an example of recent radical theorizing, but noted that he is not young, has (as he himself reports in the book) roots in the Old Left, and then commented that even Gouldner had been moved to defend sociology to younger radicals, without retracting his own radical criticisms of it. As for William Appleman Williams, he is almost universally regarded as one of the intellectual founding fathers of the New Left. So he speaks well of Herbert Hoover. Didn’t I myself point out that many of the attitudes of intellectuals sympathetic to the New Left were of conservative origin?
Mr. Diamond possesses that cast of mind often found in leftist professors which compulsively attributes ideas it doesn’t like to hidden, discreditable motives or even to secret conspiracies. Thus my article is “self-serving” (in exactly what way that his own writings are not?), I didn’t even write it myself but it was composed by a “grievance committee” (who were its members?), I and unnamed “friends” are out to do this and that, and so on. He takes it for granted that others think the way he does and thus accuses me of attributing (“conjuring up”) a “monolithic editorial policy” to the NYR dictated by a “well-organized, conspiratorial” New Left. But I didn’t even make the initial attribution: my aim was merely to show that the NYR, like Dissent and COMMENTARY itself, does have an editorial policy, with which I proceeded to take issue. I was careful to note that there were many exceptions to the views and attitudes I criticized and, in fact, referred favorably to more than a dozen contributors by name, including several he accuses me of having ignored, e.g., Lichtheim, Arendt, O’Brien, and Lasch. The last I referred to in the identical connection in which Diamond chides me for ignoring him, as well as elsewhere (I do wish I had alluded to Ronald Steel at the same time, for Steel might then have refrained from accusing me of being “un-American”—I mean of charging critics of American society with being “un-American”). My intellectual debts to George Lichtheim and Hannah Arendt are, it so happens, immeasurable. I didn’t mention J. M. Cameron because, as I surely made plain, I chose to confine my attention to American contributors with a very few exceptions such as Lichtheim. Is Mr. Diamond’s real complaint only that I didn’t mention his Biafra article?
Mr. Diamond is correct, however, in noting that I overlooked a review by Amos Elon of two books on the diplomatic background of the Six-Day War (by Walter Laqueur and Theodore Draper) which ind
1 [In the editorial to which Mr. Popkin refers, written as he indicates before the Warren Commission even began its work, I called for “an independent investigation of the most scrupulous and painstaking kind that culminates in a lengthy report in which every question involved in the assassination is examined with microscopic thoroughness and according to the highest standards of judicial impartiality.” I also warned that “anything less would only reinforce the ugly suspicions circulating through the air. . . .” This is exactly what happened in the event, and Mr. Popkin's theories were only one example. As for Léo Sauvage's 1964 COMMENTARY article, it differed from some of his subsequent writings on the assassination in confining itself to the raising of questions (which we all hoped at that time might in the end be satisfactorily resolved by the Warren Report) without speculating on answers for which no hard evidence existed.—N.P.]