The following guest post is by Daniel Oppenheimer, author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.
In June of 1970, after two years of existential crisis, Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz broke a long authorial silence with a piece, in the magazine, on the newly invented holiday of Earth Day.
“Reflections on Earth Day” was the debut of a new front-of-the-book column in which Podhoretz would opine on the great issues of the day. It was the debut, as well, of a new, crustier Podhoretz. This Podhoretz, who would go on to become one of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism, was, roughly, his third incarnation.
He made his name first, in the 1950s, as a brash young New York intellectual, heir to the tradition of anti-Stalinist left wing critics and writers like Lionel Trilling, who had been Podhoretz’s mentor-professor at Columbia. In this mode he published intellectually acrobatic reviews and essays in places like Partisan Review, Commentary, The New Yorker, and Esquire, mixing together, in typical New York intellectual fashion, Freud, Marx, Weber, the literature of the western canon, and a deep appreciation for the internal contradictions of modernity.
In 1960 he became editor in chief of Commentary, and launched a second life as a New York intellectual who was willing to energize and in some cases break from that tradition with the new stuff that was happening—sex, drugs, anti-militarism, much of what would later become known as “the Sixties.”
In 1967, when he released his memoir Making It, Podhoretz was still a left-liberal but had grown skeptical of the more radical left-wing movements and figures of the 1960s, and of the militant turn that many of them had taken as the decade neared its end. The ideas and general vibe of the old and early new left had been harmonizable with Podhoretz’s temperament and politics, but the later new left, with its increasingly alienated critique of America, and its increasingly radical dismissal of bourgeois norms, was not. There’s a very good chance that he would have moved at least somewhat to the right, in reaction to this left of the late 1960s and 1970s, if everything else had remained constant in his political, intellectual and personal life. Everything did not remain constant, however, and what likely would have been a moderate, nuanced right turn became more dramatic.
Making It, which was a very deliberate bid for acclaim and praise from the left-liberal world of letters, failed spectacularly. It wasn’t just that the book was panned. Podhoretz himself was panned, often in quite nasty ways. His grandiosity. His presumption. His taste. His foolishness in thinking he could get away with striving quite so nakedly. The final straw was a critical review of the book by his good friend Norman Mailer in the spring 1968 issue of Partisan Review, the house organ of the New York intellectuals.
Podhoretz fell into a deep depression. He tried and failed to write another book. He drank too much. He withdrew substantially from his social life. He contemplated his mistakes, and what he saw as the betrayals of his friends and colleagues (particularly Mailer) and how they were symptomatic of a broader failure of the liberal and left wing worlds of which they were part.
During this period of reconstruction Podhoretz didn’t go so far as to persuade himself that the book he’d written was as good as its critics were saying it was bad. But he reimagined the criteria according to which its worth should be measured. The question was no longer how much literary merit it had, but whether its political content was correct. He also shifted the temporal frame. What he had done wasn’t necessarily done yet, wasn’t bounded by the back cover of the book. It was a beginning, perhaps only the first chapter in an unfolding story of political and intellectual resistance. He could be redeemed over time, depending on what happened next. From that point forward, Podhoretz began to reorganize his very self around the fight to win the war he hadn’t been aware he was launching when he wrote Making It—in defense of America against the barbarians of the Left.
This didn’t mean a sudden conversion to conservatism. He had no template for that. But his sense of where the nation was, and what it needed, had always been a projection of his own feeling of place in the world. When he felt stifled, the nation needed release. When he felt empowered, the nation needed to stride forward exuberantly. Up until that moment, when the book came out and everything started to go wrong, Podhoretz had been a certain kind of man. His vision of what America would look like at its best was to a considerable degree a nation full of people like him. Loud, open, warm, boisterous, aggressive, hopeful, joyful, loyal, mischievous, vulgar in a knowing and cosmopolitan way, confident bordering on arrogant in some ways but also vulnerable in his affections and enthusiasms. Then Making It was published, and his expectations were excruciatingly dashed, and the landscape of his political imagination transformed. He began retreating from those parts of himself that had been in tune with, or seduced by, the spirit of the decade and “the Movement.” He stopped looking around the corner for some new, fresh thing that might be coming, and began instead to retrench.
“Reflections on Earth Day” was his first public effort at an articulation of this new perspective, and it had some rough edges. It’s an interesting text, though, in part because of those rough edges. You can see the raw materials—the intuitions, the impulses, the irritations—that Podhoretz will ultimately craft and refine into a coherent, conservative worldview, but you see them in the context of all sorts of residual attachments to his old loyalties and various unresolved tensions about what kind of political person he wants to be.
He knows he’s viscerally annoyed by Earth Day, and by environmentalist politics generally. He has an intuition that they’re symptomatic of a political impulse or trend that is noxious. He doesn’t yet have the conceptual or ideological tools, however, to do what he’ll do later in his political career, which is attack environmentalism as a stalking horse for the left-wing desire to tear down the fundaments of American culture and politics.
What he does instead is pick at what seems like an odd fact about the environmental politics of 1970. They’re missing. Almost everyone seems to be on board with Earth Day, and more broadly with the basic premise that there is an environmental crisis looming. There are a few malcontents on the left who worry that environmentalism is a distraction from “from Vietnam and the problems of the blacks.” On the far right are groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution who are warning, predictably, that this is yet another attempt by the left to sap our nation’s precious bodily fluids.
“But these exceptions,” Podhoretz writes, “were definitely exceptions. Earth Day signified the acquiescence of most Americans in the idea that a crisis of dire proportions is upon us and that time is running out on our ability to do something about it.”
He wonders how an issue that is so political in its essence, having to do with the allocation and extraction of vital resources, with how we feed and warm and fuel ourselves, has managed to persuade so many people that it isn’t political at all, that it’s above or beyond or apart from politics.
“But there is no such issue in public life,” he writes, “and anyone who believes there is merely volunteers himself as ideological cannon fodder to be used by those whose political interests are furthered by precisely the idea that issues transcending politics exist.”
As to who might be benefiting from just such a scrim of anti-politics, Podhoretz’s answer, in 1970, is a surprising one. Or surprising from the vantage of 2016, at least, when the environmental battle lines are so starkly drawn, with the intersectional forces of the left solidly on the side of nature and sustainability and the capitalistic forces of the right on the side of industry and extraction. Surprising too, from the perspective of the conservative anti-environmentalist consensus that Podhoretz and his magazine would ultimately help shape.
The sinister forces pulling the political strings behind the apolitical veneer of Earth Day, for Podhoretz, aren’t the radical tree huggers he would later accuse of disguising their anti-humanist and anti-capitalist objectives with happy happy celebrations of the earth. Nor are they the savvy corporatists he might once have accused, in his earlier, leftier days, of trying to defang a potentially radical movement by co-opting it. The puppet masters are, of all people, the civic-minded, well-coiffed WASPs of the eastern seaboard-based Republican establishment.
“It is an issue,” Podhoretz writes, “which focuses in a very precise and uniquely poignant way their perennial protest against what they have always seen as the despoliation of the national estate by the selfish interests that were enthroned in the Gilded Age.”
Contemporary environmentalism, in this framing, goes back not just to the conservationism of someone like Theodore Roosevelt, who saw himself as a protector of the land against the rapacious appetites of the trusts and the moneyed interests, but back further to the Gilded Age laments of Henry Adams, that brilliantly melancholic chronicler of the rise of American empire and the concomitant betrayal of the ideals of 1776.
If there is self-interest buried in the WASPs’ eternal, environmental ‘plaint, it is a self-interest hidden not just from the public, but in all likelihood from themselves as well. Which is not, for Podhoretz, a reason to forgive them, but to suspect them all the more.
“[I]n its own eyes the WASP patriciate has no selfish interests. Its only interest, it devoutly believes, is the Public Interest, and it sees itself as the only group in the country which has only the Public Interest at heart. But of course it does in fact have selfish interests, the desire to govern the rest of us being the main one, and it is in the service of that interest that the proclamation of an environmental crisis of apocalyptic proportions seems to be working.”
Podhoretz leaves somewhat vague the political lesson that Commentary readers are to draw from this sort-of conspiracy. He doesn’t address the scientific evidence of environmental crisis, or the substance of policies that had been, or might be, introduced to ameliorate environmental harm. His point is to inject skepticism into a topic that he sees as having received too little of it. It is to say something topical about the role that environmentalism might be playing in the contemporary struggle, for the soul of Republican Party, between the WASP wing of the party and the new right, which is rooted in the expansionist, extractive west.
His point is also to make Jews, as Jews, suspicious of Earth Day and of environmentalism. Because if the WASP not-quite-cabal is behind it all, that’s relevant to Jews. It’s particularly relevant to the kinds of Jews who read Commentary, many of whom are mixing or aspiring to mix, socially and professionally, with the WASP elite. The whiff of genteel WASP anti-Semitism, which Podhoretz detects around the cause of environmentalism, is likely to be a familiar scent to many of Commentary’s readers. It’s what they detect emanating from the elite universities, Westchester country clubs, and corporate board rooms that they’ve been working and hoping to integrate.
It doesn’t really persuade, of course, as an explanation of either the deep truth of environmentalism or the most salient politics of the issue. Certainly not in 2016. But not even in 1970. And not even the author himself. Podhoretz would return to the environmental issue again, and would harden his overall anti-environmentalist stance. But he never went back to this particular line of argument. He never blamed it on the WASPs again. In retrospect it’s clear that he was trying them out, as the villains of the story, to see if he bought it, and also to see if it felt like an intellectually fertile approach. He was also trying the stance on in the context of his larger search for a new political intellectual identity.
What we have in “Reflections on Earth Day,” then, is a species of reasoning that in some ways is more interesting than the considered expression of a mature political worldview. It’s a glimpse into political transition in process. Podhoretz had a political gut feeling, that there was something about Earth Day that didn’t smell right to him. He had various insights and intuitions on the topic, drawing on his life experience, his political education, and his sense of the times. He knew that he wasn’t a left-liberal anymore, but didn’t know yet what he wanted or was destined to become. And he put all these things in conversation with each other, and a column came out the other end. When its argument didn’t do the work for him that he was hoping it would do, he discarded it, and moved on to other syntheses that worked for him better.
For him better. That’s key. Not necessarily better for us, or for the warming world, or the people of those nations and communities who will suffer the most from human-caused climate change. Podhoretz didn’t move on, after all, to a wise and prescient view of our environmental future. He moved on to arguments that felt more emotionally and intellectually satisfying, that were more aligned with the coalescing neoconservative movement, and that were, not coincidentally, far more rhetorically and politically effective, in countering good environmental policies, than his WASP-based theory of environmental politics ever could have been.
The irony, and tragedy, of political belief is how often this is the case. We are at our most persuasive, politically, when our guts, our intellects, and the broader zeitgeist are in harmony. And that harmony, of course, is a reasonable goal for which to strive as a politically minded person. But it’s no guarantee of wisdom or insight. Our guts could be roiling with anger, fear, hurt, and suspicion, and our intellects could channel those feelings into a politics of division and resentment, which may happen to align with the mood of the country. We could have a gut aversion to a given politician because she viscerally reminds us of our mother, toward whom we have unexamined hostility. And precisely because that root hostility is unexamined, our intellects are more likely to compound the problem, by reverse engineering a rational-sounding politics to disguise the transference of a personal issue to a political figure, than they are to help us come to terms with it.
We are utterly dependent on this frail and error-prone process. It’s all we have, really.
The lesson of Norman Podhoretz and his feelings about Earth Day isn’t that he should or even could have disregarded his irritable feelings about Earth Day and its environmentalist supporters, and instead focused purely, rationally, on the science and policy of environmental damage and risk. Strongly held political impulses aren’t easily disregarded; they can be repressed for a while, but they’ll usually return, in one form or another. The lesson (if you grant that he ended up in the wrong place) is that he should have interrogated his irritable feelings more. He should have taken that irritation, held it up to the light, dignified it as an impulse worth interrogating, and then kept working and trying to understand it constructively.
And let’s be honest. What he might have found is that environmentalists can be irritating. They can be alarmist. They can even be, dare I say, kind of WASPy seeming. All that fresh air and nature and vigorous exercise. There was, maybe still is, a good essay to be written on the topic of Protestant reverence for nature and how it intersects with perceptions of Jews. It would maybe connect environmentalism, with its horror of pollution, to a much more ancient and vicious tradition that sees Jews themselves as a kind of pollution, or corruption, of the social order.
Podhoretz may also have found, if he kept interrogating environmentalism, over the years, that it can be irritating primarily because it’s saying something profoundly uncomfortable about the damage we’re doing to the environment, and ourselves, with our consumption and exploitation of the earth. Who wants to hear that? Who doesn’t feel judged, and accused, by that?
If he’d done that work, instead of letting himself off the hook, and blaming the environmentalists for his irritation with them, who knows? Maybe he would have helped keep American conservatism on board with environmentalism, or at least tempered its skepticism. It could have made a world of difference.
Or not. It’s easy to say, 45 years after the fact, that enough introspection and self-awareness and intellectual labor would have produced in Podhoretz the political outcome that, conveniently, is the one that comes easily to me and those like me. What we so quickly forget, in assessing the political beliefs of those who are on the other side from us, or who preceded us in time, is how convenient it is for most of us, most of the time, to hold the beliefs we do. They’re reinforced by our families, our friends, our Facebook feeds, the news sources we choose to consume, the neighborhoods and cities in which we choose to live, our neuroses and pathologies and gut reactions.
The best we can do, perhaps, is be aware of this, and suspicious of ourselves. We can be suspicious of how easy it is to hold our beliefs, and how easy it is to imagine that people who have different politics are reasoning less vigorously, or more reactively, than we are. We can interrogate ourselves, to the degree that that’s reasonable in the course of our excessively busy lives, and try to imagine ourselves into the minds of those who disagree with us. This kind of self-suspicion, and self-interrogation, is a virtue. It produces better citizens, and more constructive politics as well. It won’t necessarily lead to the right answers, since there is unfortunately no foolproof method for doing that. But it will make better outcomes more likely.
Or maybe, in the spirit of self-interrogation, I’m entirely wrong about even that. Maybe too much suspicion of ourselves, and empathy for our political nemeses, are part of the problem, not the solution. That, in any case, is what Norman Podhoretz believed.
In the early spring of 1970, just a few months before his column on Earth Day, Podhoretz had a vision.
“I was finished working and was carrying a martini with me. There I was, walking on this beautiful, chilly, early spring day and the sun hitting the snow. I was feeling very content, benign, the writing had gone well, I had an excellent drink, and all of a sudden I had a vision. . . I saw physically, in the sky, though it was obviously in my head, a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that. It all had a logic of interconnectedness.”
The vision lasted about thirty seconds. He would never come to a final conclusion about whether it was a true vision from God, whatever that might mean. He was sure from the start, however, that the image of the family tree expressed a foundational truth for him, which was that the Judaism he had always rather taken for granted, as a happy substrate of his primarily secular worldview, was much more than that. It was an expression of the most fundamental truths of the universe, of the natural order from which all things flow.
“What emerged for me was clarity,” he later told his biographer. “Clarity is courage. There were truths that had to be articulated and defended, and they weren’t, to use Lionel [Trilling’s] favorite word, complicated. Everything was simple. That was what that vision told me. There was nothing esoteric. There was a simple truth behind everything. From then on I went looking for the simple truth.”