by Norman Podhoretz
Free Press, 239 pp.
Another autobiography from Norman Podhoretz?! Last year, when thelongtime "Commentary" editor published "Ex-Friends," an account offeuds and fallings-out with various literati, critics groused that itplundered anecdotes--and even paragraphs of prose--from his two earlier,splashier, memoirs "Making It" and "Breaking Ranks." CertainlyPodhoretz, the son of Jewish immigrants who became a neoconservative doyen,has had an interesting life. But that interesting? Four-books-worthinteresting?
At least the incorrigible Podhoretz has the ingenuity to arrange hiswell-known tales in the service of a new theme-the way Bob Dylan performshis old standards these days to new tunes. In "My Love Affair withAmerica," Podhoretz's theme is patriotism. This isn't to say he grappleswith the philosophic meaning of national loyalty or examines why the conceptpacks such political force; the book is disappointingly short on originalthought. But written with Podhoretz's characteristic gusto and spleen, it isa heartfelt and often amusing polemic about why the author is grateful to bean American.
Not so amusing are Podhoretz's incessant gibes at various politicalantagonists, who he feels are lacking in love of country. Any American whohas traveled abroad and heard foreigners blithely run down the United Statescan share his irritation at the too-casual badmouthing of the U.S. oftenheard from the left. And you can't help cheering when Podhoretz evisceratesthe odious Gore Vidal for his Blame-America-First mentality (as well as hisrank anti-Semitism) or right-wingers who speak maliciously of the Clinton"regime."
But Podhoretz doesn't seem to realize that these characters inhabit onlythe fringes of our politics. Or maybe he's just using them as stalkinghorses for political opponents he can't dismiss so lightly: those whocriticize aspects of the American system, such as the VietnamWar or intractable economic inequality. For one thing, there are manypeople to whom America has been less generous than it has been toPodhoretz; it's quite clear why they don't share his inclination tocelebrate. Others, while perhaps affluent, secure and well-treated,justifiably fault a country they love--as deeply as Podhoretz does--forfailing its own ideals. One has only to think (to pick one of innumerableexamples) of Abbie Hoffman in his star-spangled '60s costumes to recallthat patriotism assumes untold guises.
Podhoretz's need to denigrate other brands of patriotism springs, Iwould speculate, from what turns out to be the ultimate tenuousness of hisown. His love affair with America seems, paradoxically, to arise from adeep-rooted sense that he doesn't really belong here. He recounts apainful boyhood episode when his Yiddish accent landed him inspeech-therapy classes--Podhoretz admits that "I could never quite getover the feeling that I was not as 'real' an American as someone whosepeople had come here earlier than mine." Consequently, has spent his lifetrying to prove his authenticity. Hence, his call that we all constantly"celebrate" America's glories.
Despite his own lingering feelings of outsiderness, Podhoretz asserts thatby now they ought to be vestigial. Contemporary America, he notes, has beenvery good to the Jews (a formulation that, while true, still implicitlyaffirms the premise that Jews are guests, not full members, of the U.S.)After all, despite the few pockets where Jewish schoolchildren are forced topraise Christ, and despite the occasional eruption of anti-Semitic crime,most American Jews enjoy life unhampered by prejudice or discrimination. Onthe contrary, they have prospered in all fields of achievement.
Following the lead of Will Herberg and Eliot Cohen in the 1950s, Podhoretzargues convincingly that post-World War II American Jews are "not living ingalut, the diaspora, waiting to be brought home by the messiah orDavid Ben-Gurion: they [are] home already." Indeed, excepting perhapsMoorish Spain, have Jews ever been happier in a non-Jewish state than theyare in the U.S. today?
Recalling the dayenu hymn Jews recite on Passover, Podhoretz endshis book with an American dayenu--a prayer of thanks for the many waysAmerica has met and exceeded his expectations: allowing him to attend agreat university, to make a living as an intellectual, to run his ownmagazine, to own a house, and much more. Any one of these gifts would havebeen enough.
It's moving, even exhilarating, to savor Podhoretz's joy at feelingaccepted and secure in the U.S., and it's clear why he so loves thismagnificent country. But the narcissism that makes him think it's a goodidea to write four memoirs blinds him. His experience is not the whole ofthe American experience, and his variety of patriotism is not for everyone.