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The Business of Intellectuals

Breaking Ranks By Norman Podhoretz Harper & Row, $15.00

By Michael Stein

IF THE REAL BUSINESS OF AMERICA is, as Calvin Coolidge once said, business, then who needs intellectuals? Breaking Ranks in Norman Podhoretz' attempt to answer this question. In a world where the exclusive concerns of professional politicians are "the distribution of patronage and the administration of the going system," intellectuals, Podhoretz affirms, bear the responsibility of providing us vision and direction. Breaking Ranks is his unabashed celebration of intellectualism.

Podhoretz' book, written as an expanded letter to his own son, describes both his personal political attitudes and America's during the past 30 years. He is not confessional or apologetic but doggedly forthright as he discusses the forces that convinced him to turn from liberalism in the 1950's to radicalism in the 60's and finally to the opposition of the New Left and the counter culture in the 70's.

At first glance, then, Podhoretz might appear politically fickle, switching wings more often than a hockey player. But Breaking Ranks reveals a principled man, one who does not quit believing when it hurts to believe. This man has written a serious autobiography, his candid attempt to understand and then describe his motivations and convictions.

NORMAN PODHORETZ ARRIVED on the intellectual magazine circuit in the early '40's, fresh from a brilliant undergraduate career as Lionel Trilling's and F.R. Leavis' favorite son. He cut his political teeth in the late 1940's as a liberal and an anti-Communist.

As an anti-Communist, Podhoretz supported the American intiative in foreign affairs. As a liberal, he was shocked by America's continued prosperity which many had expected to disappear after the war, and was forced grudgingly into the conclusion that "America works."

But by the mid '50's, intellectuals decided that spiritual corruption had begun to decay American life. They pointed to a society burdened with the "national disease" of success. Middle class respectability had become a form of living death. A new, "restless generation" had committed itself to early marriages and children, thereby cheating itself of its youth.

To explain this growing disillusionment, Podhoretz points the reader to Paul Goodman's late '50's work, Growing Up Absurd, a book that influenced both Podhoretz and the nation. Goodman places the blame for public malaise on the dehumanizing construction of American institutions. He calls for a society that allows for the mazimum fulfillment of individual potential. But it was not specifically the doctrines of this new utopianism that attracted Podhoretz, but rather its relative optimism--Goodman's conviction that American society had not irreperably decayed.

As the decade turned, and the intellectuals debated the repercussions of the Cold War, the attention of the American public turned to the rumblings of the Civil Rights movement. Podhoretz, age 30, became editor of Commentary, and immediately focused its attention on social questions. Breaking Ranks reflects this stress: Podhoretz talks about James Baldwin's the Fire Next Time and his own My Negro Problem--and Ours, offering a fascinating discussion of the accusations and threats which accompanied the movement toward integration.

While by the early '60's Podhoretz still admired the humane values and vision that Students for a Democratic Society and other radical groups continued to promulgate, he had begun to believe that their appraisal of American cultural decay was exaggerated, unwarranted and dangerous. Podhoretz' complete divorce from radicalism came after the riots at Berkeley in 1968. He decided that violence had been done to "language and ideas." The rational arguments of earlier radicalism had been replaced by "direct action" based on the assumption that "there was no longer anything to argue about except the choice of means to an end already known with great certainly to be just." In other words, Podhoretz, with many of his colleagues, chose loyalty to intellectual standards over radicalism.

Podhoretz suggests that a responsible intellectual is one who teaches us to distrust other intellectuals' ideas, and an irresponsible intellectual is one who doesn't know the limits of his function--who actually wants his ideas directly translated into a legislative program. He maintains that the intellectual's goal is ideally not the transformation of society but rather the "deepening of society's sense of things...the refinement of its consciousness, the enhancement of its cultural life."

PODHORETZ DROPS NAMES, and not always affectionately. He hates the politically nerveless and the overly cynical, but lands heaviest on the intellectual hypocrites, attacking, for example, Lillian Hellman, whose book Scoundrel Time defended Stalin and his crimes, while disgracefully comparing the plight of Eastern European dissidents to the bogus martyrdom of those who, under congressional questioning, evasively pleaded the fifth.

While Podhoretz concedes the detachment of the intellectuals from the immediate political arena, he underestimates the extent of their removal from everyday life. This insularity is evidence everywhere, even in the user of the word "Neoconservative." Although lay writers now bandy this word about freely, to intellectuals it bears a specific, non-literal, denotation. Thus, while Podhoretz is considered a Neoconservative by intellectuals, he remains a liberal to the public.

More importantly, Podhoretz' notion of the power of the ideas of intellectuals is illusory. As editor of Commentary, he believes the ideas will determine the political actions of his country by themselves. But ideas only truly take hold in a society if they represent a class or interest. We are not mobilized by ideas alone. The competition between intellectual magazines has little effect on general public opinion. Podhoretz' analysis underplays the spontaneity of political actions. If, as he submits, we act only when gripped by ideas, how can he explain the riots by blacks in Watts in the summer of 1965? His view of the 1960s denies both social and economic factors, and accounts unsatisfactorily for political eruptions. Any celebration of intellectuals must remain within bounds. When Podhoretz exaggerates the efficacy of intellectuals he is really Breaking Ranks.

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