Why Norman Podhoretz’s ‘Brutal Bargain’ Still Matters
Norman Podhoretz admitted it himself — the premise of “Making It” no longer holds. “I think it’s not true anymore, in fact it might be the opposite,” he told me in an interview. The neoconservative intellectual raged in his 1967 memoir about the culture’s duplicitous attitude toward success: encouraging people to pursue wealth while shaming those who achieved it. The ’80s drowned humility in a martini glass, and voters last fall sent a gold-plated con man to the White House.
But dismissing “Making It” as an anachronism would be a mistake. Released in a new edition by the New York Review of Books to mark its 50th anniversary, the memoir throws off insights on the nature of assimilation, along with fun asides on writing, career advancement, military service and a host of other topics. Meanwhile, the author, among the last of the New York intellectuals, still attracts headlines at the age of 87.
Podhoretz’s memoir follows his rise from a poor childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to the height of Manhattan’s literary scene. Despite his middle-aged embrace of hot dogs and handguns patriotism, he’s frank about the benefits and drawbacks of his evolution. His ascent to the beau monde comes thanks to what he calls “the brutal bargain”: Admission to high society is given in exchange for adopting the aesthetic and intellectual fashions of the country’s ruling Anglo-Saxons.
Podhoretz’s “conversion” begins prior to his awareness of it, and certainly before he possesses language to express it. As a student at Boys High School he catches the attention of “Mrs. K.,” who sets about to turn this “filthy little slum child” into a “facsimile WASP.” Making him for a Harvard man (he later goes to Columbia), Mrs. K. seems to teach him as much about table manners as she does about English.
He attempts to avoid his destiny, but there’s no hiding from the inevitable. He steadily picks up a more refined accent and starts to find his Brownsville apartment “tasteless and tawdry,” and the area women “too elaborately made up.” Podhoretz casts that same harsh look on the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he takes classes to please his father. Columbia is animated by “universal [culture], existing not in space or time, but in some transcendental realm of the spirit.” Meanwhile, JTS insists on Jewish particularity, infusing its teaching with “a strident note of apologetics and defensiveness.”
Only as a graduate student at Cambridge University does he realize that elite institutions, too, pursue narrow ends. His acknowledgement that there’s no such thing as universal culture but rather a disparate collection of national cultures leaves him in a bind as a “problematic American and even more problematic Jew.” Ultimately, it leads him back to the United States and to the offices of Commentary, the politics-and-culture magazine owned by the American Jewish Committee.
He arrives at the magazine at the right time, as the editor, Elliot Cohen, attempts in the early ’50s to reconcile America, the Jews and the New York intellectuals. He freelances for Commentary, and joins the staff after a brief stint in the military. Podhoretz soon finds his place among those New York intellectuals, a group of mostly Jewish polemicists and critics including Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling and Saul Bellow.
Joining the crew of anti-Stalinists and modernists, he becomes part of a sort of Jewish family, with feuds and relationships sprawling over three generations. He belongs to the third generation, born in the 1920s and ’30s and less inhibited about Jewish identity than the first, whose members were born at the turn of the century. Eventually, he’s asked to write for Partisan Review, the premier magazine of the New York intellectuals, and succeeds Cohen as the editor of Commentary.
Podhoretz likens his first invitation to a Partisan Review social to a bar mitzvah, and that’s an apt metaphor. His reception into the family amounts to a homecoming to Jewishness, as the man gone to Cambridge explores the streets of New York and the riches of his own culture. But Manhattan’s Greenwich Village is no Brownsville. And for Podhoretz there’s no returning to the values of his native milieu, no escaping the “brutal bargain” of assimilation. Commentary may be Jewish, but its Judaism is domesticated, not too offensive for the gentile world.
Anxieties about class mobility and cultural change are well-known to Jews. “We need to be conscious of the fact that we are a cultural admixture, in a more poignant sense than any other people,” Martin Buber said in one of his addresses to pre-war Germany’s highly assimilated Jewish population. German Jews had left the ghetto, won political rights and mixed with others. But those advances had come with a loss of familiarity with their own heritage. Buber exhorted them to affirm themselves as Jews and reconnect with “the element of the prophets, the psalmists and the kings of Judah.”
Buber elevated into a positive value the merging of Jews into general society. Jews were, in his telling, “Asiatic refugees” dispersed throughout Europe. Their situation put them in the right spot to “link Orient and Occident in fruitful reciprocity,” a goal he thought best served by resettling the Holy Land and mediating tensions from the new perch. Far from an impediment, assimilation could be subsumed into a secular messianism.
Podhoretz has no utopian dreams in “Making It” about his growing alienation from Brownsville. “No wonder the choice had to be blind,” he wrote, referring to his ascent. “There was a kind of treason in it: treason toward my family, treason toward my friends. In choosing the road I chose, I was pronouncing a judgment upon them, and the fact that they themselves concurred in the judgment makes the whole thing sadder but no less cruel.” His mother shares these regrets, telling him she should have encouraged him to be a dentist, a profession that might not have estranged him so completely from her.
“Making It” was a controversial book in its day, scandalous enough that Podhoretz’s regular publisher refused to touch it. The memoir’s confessional quality, and its dishing on the New York intellectuals, transformed Podhoretz into an outcast among the group. He told me over the phone the memoir was so explosive because his arguments on success gave off “penumbras and emanations” of his later move to the right. That could be true, but what most intrigues me about “Making It” is the extent to which gripes about the “brutal bargain” anticipate the contemporary campus left and discussions on the right to difference.
At the country’s best universities, students are now clamoring against perceived institutional biases. At Harvard, the law school has been forced to abandon its crest after campus activists pointed out it came from slave-owner donors. The English department has de-centered the “Dead White Men” of the Western canon by requiring students to take at least one course featuring authors “marginalized for historical reasons.” Some campus lefties have gone further, denouncing certain forms of dialogue and pedagogy as violent “micro-aggressions.”
Podhoretz’s concerns about pressure to conform to dominant cultural norms, and the consequent need to amputate parts of oneself, find an echo in the language of those campus activists. “You come to college and walk through brick building after brick building without seeing your face on a wall and you begin to think of yourself as The Other,” read an editorial in Renegade, a magazine run by minority students at Harvard. “We bring back our ancestors, people who were forced to forget themselves and their tongues and their histories, and place them at the center of the conversation.”
In another Renegade piece, a Latina student described school as a “battlefield,” given the tendency of teachers to make insulting cultural assumptions. “When my teachers complimented me, they weren’t complimenting me simply because of my abilities,” she wrote. “They were complimenting me because to them, it was as if I overcame my Latina heritage by being intelligent.” She added: “School has been the place where I have to constantly fight against everything everyone thinks they know about Latinas, immigrants and undocumented persons.”
Podhoretz disputed this comparison with the campus left during our chat. “I was happy to be received into the culture of Western civilization, and I didn’t think it was at odds with being Jewish,” he said. “They’re bullshitters today, and it’s because they can’t perform,” he explained, citing Stanford scholar Thomas Sowell’s studies about “mismatch” between racial minorities and prestigious academic institutions.
It is difficult to imagine Podhoretz ditching a seminar because it triggered him. He would no doubt chafe at identity politics epistemology, which insists that a person’s ability to understand issues depends on his or her group markers. But we cannot ignore the similarities between some of the ideas articulated in “Making It” and those expressed in publications like Renegade. Podhoretz acknowledges that elite institutions advance prevalent cultural norms and present those interests as neutral or universal. He discusses how becoming educated can entail a painful separation from one’s original environment. He even suggests that the concept of the Ivy League gentleman might be implicitly anti-Semitic.
Such assertions are commonplace among today’s campus left. That is no excuse to tolerate the illiberalism of many activists. But the affinities between them and the ’60s-era Podhoretz are cause enough not to deride the whole bunch as “snowflakes,” the insult du jour on Fox News. As it turns 50 “Making It” has maintained its relevance, if not for always obvious reasons.