by Norman Podhoretz
Free Press, 239 pp.
Another autobiography from Norman Podhoretz?! Last year, when the longtime "Commentary" editor published "Ex-Friends," an account of feuds and fallings-out with various literati, critics groused that it plundered anecdotes--and even paragraphs of prose--from his two earlier, splashier, memoirs "Making It" and "Breaking Ranks." Certainly Podhoretz, the son of Jewish immigrants who became a neoconservative doyen, has had an interesting life. But that interesting? Four-books-worth interesting?
At least the incorrigible Podhoretz has the ingenuity to arrange his well-known tales in the service of a new theme-the way Bob Dylan performs his old standards these days to new tunes. In "My Love Affair with America," Podhoretz's theme is patriotism. This isn't to say he grapples with the philosophic meaning of national loyalty or examines why the concept packs such political force; the book is disappointingly short on original thought. But written with Podhoretz's characteristic gusto and spleen, it is a heartfelt and often amusing polemic about why the author is grateful to be an American.
Not so amusing are Podhoretz's incessant gibes at various political antagonists, who he feels are lacking in love of country. Any American who has traveled abroad and heard foreigners blithely run down the United States can share his irritation at the too-casual badmouthing of the U.S. often heard from the left. And you can't help cheering when Podhoretz eviscerates the odious Gore Vidal for his Blame-America-First mentality (as well as his rank anti-Semitism) or right-wingers who speak maliciously of the Clinton "regime."
But Podhoretz doesn't seem to realize that these characters inhabit only the fringes of our politics. Or maybe he's just using them as stalking horses for political opponents he can't dismiss so lightly: those who criticize aspects of the American system, such as the Vietnam War or intractable economic inequality. For one thing, there are many people to whom America has been less generous than it has been to Podhoretz; it's quite clear why they don't share his inclination to celebrate. Others, while perhaps affluent, secure and well-treated, justifiably fault a country they love--as deeply as Podhoretz does--for failing its own ideals. One has only to think (to pick one of innumerable examples) of Abbie Hoffman in his star-spangled '60s costumes to recall that patriotism assumes untold guises.
Podhoretz's need to denigrate other brands of patriotism springs, I would speculate, from what turns out to be the ultimate tenuousness of his own. His love affair with America seems, paradoxically, to arise from a deep-rooted sense that he doesn't really belong here. He recounts a painful boyhood episode when his Yiddish accent landed him in speech-therapy classes--Podhoretz admits that "I could never quite get over the feeling that I was not as 'real' an American as someone whose people had come here earlier than mine." Consequently, has spent his life trying to prove his authenticity. Hence, his call that we all constantly "celebrate" America's glories.
Despite his own lingering feelings of outsiderness, Podhoretz asserts that by now they ought to be vestigial. Contemporary America, he notes, has been very good to the Jews (a formulation that, while true, still implicitly affirms the premise that Jews are guests, not full members, of the U.S.) After all, despite the few pockets where Jewish schoolchildren are forced to praise Christ, and despite the occasional eruption of anti-Semitic crime, most American Jews enjoy life unhampered by prejudice or discrimination. On the contrary, they have prospered in all fields of achievement.
Following the lead of Will Herberg and Eliot Cohen in the 1950s, Podhoretz argues convincingly that post-World War II American Jews are "not living in galut, the diaspora, waiting to be brought home by the messiah or David Ben-Gurion: they [are] home already." Indeed, excepting perhaps Moorish Spain, have Jews ever been happier in a non-Jewish state than they are in the U.S. today?
Recalling the dayenu hymn Jews recite on Passover, Podhoretz ends his book with an American dayenu--a prayer of thanks for the many ways America has met and exceeded his expectations: allowing him to attend a great university, to make a living as an intellectual, to run his own magazine, to own a house, and much more. Any one of these gifts would have been enough.
It's moving, even exhilarating, to savor Podhoretz's joy at feeling accepted and secure in the U.S., and it's clear why he so loves this magnificent country. But the narcissism that makes him think it's a good idea to write four memoirs blinds him. His experience is not the whole of the American experience, and his variety of patriotism is not for everyone.