Forthright essays reveal the world according to Podhoretz

The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet, by Norman Podhoretz. New York: Simon & Schuster. 221 pp. $16.95. Controversy has always been Norman Podhoretz's element. As editor of the magazine Commentary, he reminds us, he was among the first to publish substantive criticism of American involvement in Southeast Asia, back in the early 1960s. Yet, by 1982, he was arguing in his book ``Why We Were in Vietnam'' that our cause had essentially been a noble one.

These days, he castigates Ronald Reagan and his administration for being too ``soft.'' Although Podhoretz's steady march rightward has occasioned much comment, it is, I think, particularly telling that the event that caused the deepest consternation in his immediate circle was the publication of his memoir, ``Making It'' (1967). The book had less to do with ideological politics than with the kind of political in-fighting found in offices, universities, and other institutions. It wasn't considered quite the thing for a writer, especially one who presented himself as an intellectual, to dwell on such matters, or, worse yet, admit he was ambitious for worldly success.

Forthright as ever, Podhoretz continues on his course, burdened by a sense of being the only person (or, at least, one of a small minority) to ``tell it like it is'' -- or, more accurately, to tell it like he thinks it is, although one sometimes wonders if he perceives the difference. Indeed, he has become so unafraid of being labeled an extremist it would seem he has ceased to examine his position in a critical spirit.

The title of this collection of essays comes from Lionel Trilling's characterization of cultural criticism as the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet. Podhoretz is one of that diverse group -- ranging from Morris Dickstein, champion of the counter-culture, to Podhoretz himself, the adversary culture's adversary -- that claims Trilling as its intellectual mentor. Yet it is certainly a long way from Trilling's elaborately balanced, carefully considered cadences to the exponential leaps by which Podhoretz drives a line of reasoning to its ``logical,'' if not always tenable, extreme.

Podhoretz begins by asserting that it is not enough to be anticommunist: one must also be pro-capitalist. Thus, he explains in the first essay, the ex-communists who contributed to the landmark book, ``The God That Failed,'' helped expose what no outsider could quite realize: the seriousness and urgency of the communist threat. But they failed, he believes, in that they did not all go so far as to support American capitalism. Certain that any honest, right-minded person would have to agree, Podhoretz in his next piece advances the proposition that if Orwell were alive today, he would have joined the neo-conservatives. This despite the fact that, to the end of his life, Orwell declared himself a democratic socialist. A similar case is made for Camus, in the course of which Podhoretz grimly notes an insidious spirit of neutralism afoot in recent Camus studies denigrating his most avowedly anticommunist works.

There is a core of value in this, and a truth that bears even the amount of repetition Podhoretz gives it, here and in the remaining six essays on Henry Adams, Henry Kissinger, F. R. Leavis, Milan Kundera, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the ``adversary culture.'' Yes, there is a choice between freedom and totalitarianism; yes, capitalism has had a better track record than communism in providing freedom and equality.

Yet, to many of us who regard American society as more than capitalism in action, this simplistic identification of the two is disturbing, to say the least. And Podhoretz's special brand of pro-capitalism is alarmingly intolerant: not only of communists and neutralists, but of any criticism leveled against his ideals of the free market, the family, and middle-class values. Feminists, homosexual-rights advocates, even opponents of nuclear power plants and other environmentalists rouse his suspicions. In the world according to Podhoretz, people who worry about conserving natural resources are anti-American doomsayers. Watergate was the handiwork of ``the New Class'' -- i.e., the adversary culture grown up. (Can he seriously mean such apostles of the counter-culture as Sam Ervin, John Dean, John Sirica, and that most crucial figure in the whole drama, Richard Nixon himself?)

There's no denying the power of Podhoretz's vision or the occasional brilliance of his insights. Like a spotlight, he can be dramatic and illuminating, but also like a spotlight, he can be stagey, misleading, and blinkered. Yet to call him misleading may also be misleading. He misleads in all honesty -- carried away by the inner force of his own logic. Perhaps this is what makes him, for all his excesses, so compulsively readable.

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