THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Midge Decter
Title: “Democracy Triumphant…A Farewell to Arms?”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…and I want to admit right up front that my guest today is always a source of the greatest delight for me.
Fro Midge Decter, writer, editor, conservative polemicist or commentator as you wish – for years now has been a good and greatly valued friend, however much we may disagree politically at times.
But on occasion my guest surprises me, too. As five years ago on THE OPEN MIND when she quite pointedly criticized her fellow conservative Reed Irvine for his “Accuracy in Media”, in “Academia”, I should say, organization’s search – and destroy – mission conducted against liberals on America’s campuses.
Not so surprising at all, or course, has her own acerbic criticism of feminism here at this table a dozen years ago and since that time, too. Or her visits here on THE OPEN MIND as Executive Director of The Committee for a Free world, which stated its purposes as:
“To reaffirm that Western Democratic society provides
the best model known to mankind of a just and humane order.
To rouse the unconcerned to the recognition that whatever
Diminishes freedom anywhere in the world diminishes their own freedom as well.
To oppose the influence of all those, both from outside free
Society and within, who have made themselves the enemies of the Democratic
But very surprising – to me at least – was Midge Decter’s announcement at the end of 1990 that the Committee had done its job, had won its battles, and had folded its tent. Surprised enough to ask her here to explain her swan song which I think can probably best be stated in a few of her own sentences:
“You see”, she wrote, “to those of us who supported the Committee, feeling that he particular mission we set for ourselves, that is to make the argument for the incomparable virtues of the American political, economic and social system has now been successfully carried. The Committee has decided to close its office and shut down its operation. Virtually no one in the world believes anymore that there is a system preferable to ours…more benign, more equitable, more productive. To bring just such a message to our fellow citizens was the task for which we organized. That battle, at least among serious people, is now over. We have won it”. And Midge, I guess I want to ask you whether you’re really so sure that we have won it?
Decter: Well, I think we have won the argument. I think if you read, again, serious magazines…I’m not talking about…I’m not talking about radical fluff heads, I’m talking about people whoa re to be taken seriously, and who have seriously maintained this steady kind of radical criticism of Western democracy…if you look at their magazines, and read their books, they have collapsed. And they have collapsed, with the collapse of the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Empire which I believe is certainly going to be the case. I was in Moscow a year and a half ago, a year ago last June…and you have to see who is the hero of the Russian people we met in Moscow. I will tell you who it is, his name is Ronald Reagan. (Laughter) If you hear Ronald Reagan cheered in Moscow, and you see what is happening…now the collapse of the Soviet Empire is going to be a very nasty and bloody business. It isn’t simply going to happen with a magic wand. It hasn’t happened yet. The Communist Part and the KGB, they’re not going to give up without a fight. That fight was not our aim. We don’t presume to be able to carry off on a fight on the ground. We were not an activist organization. We were a group of scribblers.
Heffner: But you were dealing as scribblers with ideas.
Decter: Oh, yes.
Heffner: And are you suggesting that the ideas that you combated are gone, are dead forever? You can bury them. You have buried them. And now go your way?
Decter: Well, I, I am convinced that the ideas that we combated, vis-à-vis Communist and Socialist power are dead, yes. I am. There are many, many other fights to get into and I certainly hope to get into them. But it didn’t seem to me to be honest, to conduct these fights under the rubric of the “free world”. It seemed to me that the subject had changed. And probably the personnel. The Committee for the Free world was a loose coalition of all kinds of people who had one thing in common, which was their love for Western democracy. There are now other battles coming ahead, and I think probably the Committee itself, as it had been constituted on that principle will be dividing up along other lines. I…for instance, the great new battle for American intellectual life, it seems to me, is the battle against this monstrosity which is called “multi-culturalism”. And which is anything but multi-culturalism. The miracle of real pluralism was created in the United States, and in the name of some horrible violation of genuine pluralism, we are now being asked to support something called “multi-culturalism”. This is something I would really like to fight. It just didn’t seem to me to be an honest way to, to deal with people, to have an organization that they signed on to, which had one set of purposes: to change the set of purposes.
Heffner: Are you say…suggesting then that the field of battle had been the world outside and now it will be the world inside?
Decter: Yes. Yes, I am.
Heffner: And, how do you go about it? I know what you did in your battle for the world outside…and, you know,…no, I’m not going to…I’m not going to let myself turn inward again quite so soon because I, I want to stay with this notion…
Heffner: …that for the outside world, the battle has largely been won because even if you deal only with ideas, and not with the power structure…the Soviet Union…it seems to me that what is going on in the Gulf, and what is going on in many, many other parts of the world would indicate that that battle, that ideological battle, that philosophical battle is still very much going on.
Decter: Well, of course. If you’re talking about the Gulf, you’re talking about religious wars. You’re talking about an entirely different civilization. You’re talking about Islam. And it’s interesting, for instance, that Saddam, who is, after all a complete secularist, and just a nasty piece of work dictator, is now…in order to strengthen himself…is now…has now made a call to Islam. That’s a fight of a different kind. The fight we were involved in is a fight within Western civilization, within Western…including Communism, which is, after all, the invention of Western history.
Heffner: Indeed it is.
Decter: And…(laughter)…and grows out of the same traditions that all the other lines of thought which we contend and to which we subscribe come from. So it was really a battle against those ingrates who had available to them the blessings of Western civilization…technologic, political, cultural…who spurned them in the name either of some meretricious notion of their love for the Third World, or spurned them in the name of some ideal, so-called, of something that never existed and never could exist.
Heffner: When you talk about “ingrates”, I wonder whether the, the attitudes, the essential psychological attitudes that informed that ingratitude aren’t themselves what you really had to be mostly concerned with, and whether those demands are…aren’t going to simply surface in other forms, in other fashions?
Decter: Well, perhaps. You may be right about that to some extent. Some of them, some of those demands come from that. Some of them just simply come from the luxury of people who have it so good they don’t know what the devil to do with themselves. And who have learned to be extremely ungrateful to life, in general. That, of course, is a larger cultural attitude. But there were…but the, the…the West European Socialists, for instance…I won’t even say the American Socialists. The American Socialists are a joke, and they’ve long been a joke. And there is no such thing as American Socialism except in the left Wing of the Democratic Party. But, but the West European Socialists were people who, who were in some sense kind of driven to, driven mad by the beginning of the tradition of the French Revolution…and wanted to …after all these centuries of blood and sweat and suffering and toil, still were heedless. And so it was, it was that internal argument that we were involved in. We’re not in…we were not involved in…if it’s a fight between Western civilization and Islam, that’s another kind of argument. And that belongs in other hands than mine.
Heffner: Well, I was really thinking about the psychological needs that were met of these people whom you would pillory, that were met by their opposition to…that were fed and then satisfied, by their opposition to our own country, their opposition to the ideas that you were supportive of. And my assumption that those psychological needs haven’t just disappeared, that they will crop up…
Decter: No, they haven’t. No. By no means, of course, they haven’t disappeared any more than the seven cardinal sins have disappeared…(laughter)…or ever will.
Heffner: As long as we accept that.
Decter: But it depends what form they take and where they are to be found, and they are to be dealt with in a certain…they have to be dealt as they crop up. At the moment, for instance, there’s a great…there was a great wave of the love of suicide in this country. And there was a wave of adolescent suicide which was being responded to in some horrendous way; it seemed to me, because all the people who were talking about it were discussing it as if it were a kind of failed Boy Scout meeting or something. And…but for years prior to this wave of adolescent suicide, people had been praised for committing suicide. I notice they are again. This is, this kind of ingratitude to life is something that comes from living without, without having figured out how to live without God. Which is something we have…he…they tell me that God died in the middle of the 19th century…(laughter)…I really wouldn’t presume to know that. As far as I’m concerned, he’s still very much alive. But, for the people who seem to understand that he’s dead, they haven’t figured out what to do about that yet.
Heffner: What are the target ideas? You talk about this matter of multi-culturalism…
Decter: Yes, that’s one. That’s one, and, and that proliferates, that exfoliates in a number of ways. For instance, the crime that is being committed against American Blacks…American Black kids by people who profess themselves to be the true lovers of Blacks and full of compassion and so on, the great crime that is being committed against them by an effort to…by, for one thing, making excuses for all their bad behavior, which is just another way of saying, “They’re not the same as us”. And now, there’s this kind of new effort…we’ve…which I believe will be growing…it’s starting in New York and it’s started in Milwaukee, and by the way, is very much supported by many of my conservative friends and colleagues, to , to create segregated Black schools again in order to be able to teach Blacks self-esteem, by, by teaching them that they really don’t belong in the mainstream of America, in effect.
Heffner: That’s going to become increasingly a battleground…an intellectual battleground.
Decter: It certainly…
Heffner: Isn’t it?
Decter: …is. It absolutely is. And it, it began in the universities where all bad things begin…
Heffner: Oh, come, come, come, Midge.
Decter: (Laughter) Well, it did. It absolutely did. It began, it began in the universities where all disciplines and all studies began to be Balkanized, so that there’s “women”, and then there are “Blacks”, and there are “gays”, and there are this and there are that. And this is all an attempt to say that nothing is any different from anything else. Nothing more worthy of study than anything else. And so on. Well, the women can survive this. And the gays can survive it. But I don’t think that the Blacks, who are being treated this way…to the ultimate kind of racism…will really get through it without great damage, and I’m not so sure that the women will get though it without damage, either. But it’s not the same thing. And this is something; this is a condition who…the description of which has just been stood on its head. And this is supposed to be Black self-esteem and compassion for the Blacks. And it’s exactly the opposite. It’s virulent racism. And it’s a virulently racist message to Black kids, which is that the whole world has go to be re-defined or else you’ll never be able to find your place in it. I think this is a lie. I think it’s a monstrosity. And, and I think it’s racist. And this is where the battle is. But it’s not honest…it could be done, it could be…you could twist it around so that you could call this a free world battle, and in some very ultimate sense it is. But it’s not honestly conducted under that rubric.
Heffner: But I think you will concede that this notion that you see as a matter of recreating segregation in the schools is held to be by some people who you would never accuse of being segregationist, some people who are very much aware of the problems of the past, and who are deeply concerned about the well-being and development of Blacks still feel this is a weapon that has its drawbacks, but all in all, is a plus. It’s not quite…
Decter: There may be some of those…I think there are many fewer who belong in that category than you might think.
Heffner: Well, I…listen…I know that my friend ken Clark is sputtering and muttering about this drive in this direction, and is infuriated, as you are…
Decter: Yes. Yes.
Heffner: …by it.
Decter: I never expected to end up on the same…
Heffner: The same side.
Decter: …side (laughter) as Ken Clark. But I do feel very strongly about this. He made his contribution to it, by the way, and I’m glad to see that he is now…he is now attempting to make some reform and some (laughter)…
Heffner: Well, I think there were those…I would include myself…who would challenge you on the notion that he made a contribution to that…
Decter: But he did. He did make a contribution to that because in the early 60s he, along with other people…it was a Civil Rights notion…
Decter: …done with the best will, but he was a man who articulated the view that Black children couldn’t learn unless certain artificial conditions were created. In those days it was they couldn’t learn unless they were in a classroom with Whites. He all but said that.
Heffner: But that’s quite different…
Decter: And now…
Heffner: …from what is being said now…
Decter: …well, no…well, it certainly is quite different from what is being said now. But he made his contribution to it because he, he shut down debate…he and others, but he was very important. He shut down debate just at the moment when it was very important to have one, and everyone who disagreed or demurred or wanted to ask questions was considered a racist.
Heffner: That’s the real problem, isn’t it, in our times, when you talk, use that nice phrase “shut down debate”, whether we would agree or not about Ken’s participation in that…shutting down debate seems to be the way…the authoritarian intellect…
Decter: …that’s right.
Heffner: And I guess that’s why I was saying at the beginning of our discussion today that that need to shut down debate, that need to support authoritarianism of one brand or another just can’t disappear, it just moves, changes venue, pops up some place else.
Decter: Yes, that’s true.
Heffner: The absolutists…
Decter: But there are such things as vaccinations against certain kinds of diseases, or you can attempt to vaccinate, and you can succeed. Or you can just let them rage.
Heffner: What do you think is happening now on the campuses?
Decter: Well, what I think is happening on the campuses is that he fruits of the 1960s collapse of moral and intellectual authority are being…now being reaped. And, aside form the, the bad conscience on the part of university authorities, which makes it possible for faculties to impose political correctness…this, this new, this new fashion on everybody, an that’s just bad conscience. Everybody…all reasonable people in authority know better than that.
Heffner: Political “correctness”, it seemed to me, and I, I assume you agree is…it is fascism. Or any other “ism”…
Heffner: …as used…
Decter: Certainly it is.
Heffner: How much, how much of the inroads, how much by way of inroads have been made?
Decter: Well, I think quite a lot of inroads have been made, but it has to be understood that the inroads that have been made have been made because along with…political correctness has something very comforting to offer people who aren’t political at all, which is a way of getting through college without having to read any hard books, and without having to think any difficult thoughts. Without having to face any undue challenges, and all you can do is, you know, is genuflect in the right way, and then go have a beer. So, though it’s very expensive, it’s also an easy way to get through. And I think most of the students on these campuses are just that cynical about it. I don’t believe that they are, that, that political correctness has actually overtaken the students.
Heffner: You think it’s just a passkey, an easy way in…
Decter: That’s right.
Heffner: …through the door.
Decter: That’s what I think, for most of them, not all of them. But for most of them, and it’s a lot easier than subjecting yourself to the bullying. But the…but the people who interest me…we had this conversation when we were talking about Accuracy in Academia…I remember…it’s still the same, only it’s even worse. Are all of those deans and presidents and department heads, and serious professors, people who, who are not the tenured radicals, who know perfectly well what a proper intellectual life is like. And who have simply surrendered to all of this…out of fear, out of cowardice, out of sloth. And so now the rewards are being reaped, and I think the university is kind of destroyed for another fifty years or something like that.
Decter: But there are these kids and people all over the place, and they don’t need to be destroyed. And, and there have been times in this country when, when the real, serious intellectual life was not being led in the universities and we can do it again.
Heffner: That, that puzzles me that you say that. Do you mean that at the highest level of the university there have been times when the easy way out was the predominant way out? And we got through that and over that? It seems to me…
Decter: Well, they…they were…
Heffner: …to be a phenomenon of our times.
Decter: …the challenge to them is a phenomenon. But after all, there was a time when the American university was a fuddy-duddy place, or it was a little gentlemen’s club or something, and there was a very lively intellectual life in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. You wouldn’t find it in universities. I mean if you read The Education of Henry Adams…
Decter: And you read what he ways about Harvard (laughter). So it went on, it goes on among literary people and among thinkers, and they find other places to do it. They find journals and magazines and writings and books and so on.
Heffner: Can you…
Decter: To carry on their intellectual life…
Heffner: You mean there can be soft-headedness, and an antidote to it, or that we grow out of it?
Decter: Sure, of course.
Heffner: You’re a Pollyanna all the way down the line.
Decter: (Laughter) Would I be…would I be telling you that I’m sitting here and I’m looking and I’m thinking about doing something new? Of course.
Heffner: You think there’s a way out?
Heffner: A way back?
Decter: There is a way back, yes. But not thought the campus. There is a way back. It’s…it’s small bands of people who still insist upon being serious and…don’t you find it interesting that the book that electrified America was Allan Bloom’s book? I find it very interesting.
Heffner: Well, what you mean…
Decter: There’s a life going on out there, which…the book was like a call to people and they all jumped up and responded. Not in the universities, God help us.
Heffner: Midge, there’s assign up there that says “Cut” and so we have to bring the program to an end, but sometime let’s argue that business of Allan’s book and what it’s so-called “popularity” meant. I’m not as sanguine as you are. But thank you very much for joining me today…
Heffner: …and making me feel better, anyway. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program with Midge Decter, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.