Norman Podhoretz

My Love Affair with America, Part II

VTR Date: September 21, 2000

Guest: Podhoretz, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Podhoretz
Title: “My Love Affair With America”, Part II
VTR: 9/21/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and we’ve just finished taping a program with my old friend Norman Podhoretz really based on his book, his new book, “My Love Affair With America”. We didn’t finish one whit all the things we wanted to talk about and so I’m winging this introduction because I asked Norman Podhoretz to stay here. He’s agreed. And I want to go on and ask him some, what I consider important questions.

Norman, back … the fourth of July weekend, perfectly appropriate to a man who was just going to publish “My Love Affair With America” …

PODHORETZ: The book was published on July 4th officially.

HEFFNER: Ah, See. You and Victor Navasky, another old friend, participated in a debate in the New York Times. They titled it “Debating How Best To Love Your Country”. Quite appropriate question. And I wanted to ask you about, about this exchange in which Victor Navasky, the publisher now of The Nation magazine said “my definition of patriotism would involved fighting to make sure your country lives up to its highest ideals”. And you had the opportunity, a moment later to say, “I would like to take issue with the definition that Victor is offering. To define American patriotism as struggling to make the country live up to its best ideals has in practice generally meant denigrating the country for not doing so. The ideal is very often the enemy of the real”. And I gather this is a basic theme, in the exchange that you and Victor have here. You want to elaborate on that? Why would you say the ideal is very often the enemy of the real?”.

PODHORETZ: I say it because it’s true. And just as it’s often said, “the best is the enemy of the good”. People who are intoxicated with the ideal, we sometimes call them Utopians. The word “utopia” is a Greek word, it means nowhere. And there is a very ancient tradition of fantasies about some place that doesn’t actually exist, but that is perfect, depending upon the author’s or the imaginers idea of what perfection consists of. And what is the real world, which of course is imperfect, and always is imperfect and always will be imperfect, is invidiously contrasted with this Utopia that is conjured up by some author or other, or some fantasist or other. Now, the Utopian temptation, as I like to call it, to which we are all subject. I have been subject to it. In my book, “My Love Affair With America” I have a whole chapter in which I talk about how Utopianism … I was seized by Utopian fevers around 1960 this and led me into a period of what I describe as “infidelity” in my love affair with America or, if you like, my marriage to America. But as sometimes happens in love affairs or marriages, this period of infidelity ended with the relations strengthened rather than weakened. My view is that it is one thing to try to make life better. And we have an obligation to do that. You might even say we have a religious obligation to do that, if you happen to be religious. But at the same time I think it is incumbent upon us to be cognizant of what blessings are available or accessible in the real. And it is incumbent upon us to be grateful for those blessings. Incumbent in the sense that it is spiritually necessary to a healthy soul. And not to mention intellectually honest when such blessings exist. Now when you talk about America, that’s all very abstract and philosophical. But if you talk concretely about America, my contention is and I, in fact, demonstrate … try to demonstrate that contention in, in my book … in “My Love Affair With America”. In actuality the, the so-called idealism of certain movements has gone hand in hand with a virulent attack on what is sometimes called the status quo or often called the “status quo” or “the system”, or whatever, “the establishment”, which tends then to get generalized into the nature of the country as a whole and leads to outbursts of anti-Americanism. As happened most recently in the 1960s on the Left.

HEFFNER: But must this be the case when there is a wrong, when you see what is an evil within your country?


HEFFNER: Do you not want to correct it?

PODHORETZ: Yeah, well, I said, I thought it was an obligation to do so and to try to do so. But there’s question of the spirit in which such an effort is undertaken. If it’s undertaken … as corny as this may sound, with love … that is with a genuine desire to improve what is, or to rectify a wrong. If that’s the spirit in which it’s undertaken, you have one kind of phenomenon. If the spirit in which it’s undertaken is destructive and full of hostility, you have something else again. And my own observation, again I go back to the sixties here because it’s the most recent period, and I lived through it, and I was in the thick of it … is that the spirit in which, in which these evils … I now think not everything that was called evil then was, in fact, evil, but even assuming that they were, the spirit in which they were attacked was one of hatred. Let me give you a homely example that I may have even used in my argument with Victor Navasky at the Times. You know there are people who say, “Well, I love my wife, or I would love my wife if only she were perfect. If she were perfect, I would love her. But so long as she’s not perfect, I’m going to hector her, badger her, bring her to court, maybe even beat her up, and until she sees the light, I will continue harassing her in this way. And then someday perhaps she will become perfect, and then I will be able to love her.” And, you know, I don’t think that’s such a bad analogy. I also, you know, said to Victor Navasky, what I believe, I do not see how you can say it is more patriotic to burn the flag than to wrap yourself in it, which is what some people claimed. What he claimed, actually. So, you’re talking here partly about the spirit in which reform is undertaken. You’re talking here about the … to put it bluntly the honesty of the case that’s being made. In other words, some people pretend to be for reform when they are, in fact, for revolution or for undermining the entire system.

HEFFNER: Where would you put the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties?

PODHORETZ: Well, I think the Civil Rights Movement has to be divided into various phases. The early Civil Rights Movement, starting not in the sixties, but in the …

HEFFNER: The fifties.

PODHORETZ: … in the fifties. I would put very high on the list of noble political endeavors in the history of this country. And that very much included the spirit with which it was infused, which was a spirit of love and non-violence. And the objective was for people who had been illegally as well as unjustly excluded from American life, from the centers of American life, it was an effort that they made on their own behalf to be included. Later, in the mid-sixties, you had a new movement arising, which rebelled against this entire phase of the Civil Rights Movement. It came out of the tradition of Black Nationalism, it called itself Black Power. It was not integrationist, that is it wasn’t seeking to be included, but was separating itself from the country. It was defaming the country, it was saying the country was so infested with racism that there was no hope for any justice within the so-called system. That it had to be smashed or replaced. That violence would be necessary. “Pick up the gun” was one of the slogans. And you had the irony of an organization which was name the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, non-violent becoming an advocate of violence some ten years later.

HEFFNER: Norman, do you think if there had not been those episodes of … let’s call it violence. If the cities hadn’t been burning that the right kinds of steps would have been taken to correct the evils that the Civil Rights Movement was designed to correct?

PODHORETZ: Well, I not only think so, but I think that the wrong steps were taken in response to the violence … wrong steps meaning the adoption of a system of reverse discrimination, or preferential treatment that people euphemistically called “affirmative action”. This was a profoundly, profoundly antithetical to the American tradition, this idea of treating people as members of a group, rather than as individuals. And it was out of the panic that seized what the Black radicals themselves called the White power structure that this whole approach was borne, was adopted. And I think it’s caused a lot of damage to this country, I do not agree with people who think that it has been beneficial to its intended beneficiaries. I think it’s injected a new kind of poison into the relations between the races, and that it has undermined the feelings of pride and achievement that might otherwise have been felt by some of its intended beneficiaries. I think it’s undermined a system that I deeply believe in, that is a … the merit system, I think it’s helped to dilute and lower standards of achievement in various areas. And I don’t just mean universities. I mean in the military.

HEFFNER: You feel that it has raised a wall. Would the wall that it was raised to protest and change have come down if there weren’t this kind of contrary movement, which you generally disapprove of.


HEFFNER: Do you think that what you have cited a progress would have taken place without some of the “Burn, baby, burn” aspects of those years.

PODHORETZ: Well, I do. I actually think the “Burn, baby, burn” retarded progress. Thomas Sole, for example, has complied a good deal of evidence showing that things were … the old system, that is a system of treating individuals as individuals and within a framework of integrationsim was actually working before any of this new stuff came about. And had not been given a chance to “show it’s stuff” among Blacks, as it had among other immigrant or minority groups in the past. There’s plenty of evidence that things were improving. And there’s also a fair amount of evidence that this whole turn toward radicalism, violence and so on actually retarded that progress and actually turn a good many Americans, who were sympathetic to the earlier phases of Civil Rights Movement against Blacks.

HEFFNER: Do you think that there was anything to the question that Martin Luther King asked, he asked it certainly in his letter from prison, letter to the ministers. “How can I tell my child … wait. How can I tell my child wait for justice, wait to be treated as you need to be treated” … for another generation.


HEFFNER: … another generation.

PODHORETZ: It was a good question, and I don’t have the answer to that question. But I don’t think Martin Luther King can be cited as a … someone who supported these changes in the Civil Rights Movement that I deplore …

HEFFNER: No. I understand that …

PODHORETZ: … and I think, I mean, you don’t know what somebody would have done had he lived. But we do know that Baird Ruston, who was one of his chief disciples and the architect of the 1965 March on Washington was strongly opposed to the turn that was taken by the Civil Rights Movement after 1965. It no longer was a Civil Rights Movement. It was something else. And it had lost the nobility that we associated with it under King’s leadership and the leadership of some other people like King. So, you know, this is the kind of argument that’s impossible to resolve in a brief discussion …

HEFFNER: It’s not an argument, it’s a question …


HEFFNER: … it’s a question about your feelings about these things.

PODHORETZ: Well, my feelings … as I say, my feeling is that more harm than good was done by the turn that was taken in the mid-sixties in this area. That’s my feeling, yes.

HEFFNER: And you … would you apply this thinking to other great social problems, the assumption that one waits and hopes and thinks and uses love.

PODHORETZ: No. It depends, it depends on the context and it depends on the problem. Look, let me try to put it in another way. This country, which has been highly heterogeneous, ethnically, racially, religiously for at least … well, from the beginning, but even more so since the Civil War and the millions of immigrants who came pouring in from Southern Eastern Europe … Italians, Jews, Germans, you know, all kinds of people. It developed a way of dealing with this problem, a problem incidentally that has lead to the shedding of a great deal of blood in other countries. Well, most recently we saw it in Yugoslavia and ex-Yugoslavia. The English have terrible trouble with this problem, because they’re not used to it, they were a homogeneous society for most of their history. Well, we had developed various methods by which to, as we used to say, “Americanize the immigrants”. Today you’d say, “bring them into the middle class, create upward mobility” … however you wish to put it. It was a … nobody sat down and devised it as a plan. You know, a ten point plan. But, it, it emerged and it had various instrumentalities — the public schools, as I wrote about it in detail in my “My Love Affair With America” were a major instrument. But the basic idea was the Constitutional principle of treating individuals as individuals without regard to race, creed, color, country of national origin. That used to be the Liberal catechism. Now, of course, it was violated in practice very often. But in principle, as Gunnar Myrdahl pointed out a long time ago, it had, because the principle was announced, it had and was bound to have enormous influence and practice, as indeed it did. Well, it was working, it had worked for millions of other people, it was not working as well for Blacks, for a variety of reasons about which a thousand, ten thousand books have been written by now. But it was in fact beginning to take hold among Blacks, as it had among other groups. That’s what I was, the evidence that I was referring to, that has been compiled by Thomas Sole and others. And what we did, as a nation, in the late sixties was to simply turn our backs on, “discard” that system which had worked wonders. And when I say “wonders”, I’m talking as compared with the situation in other countries. An imported, an alien tradition which we …

HEFFNER: Revolution …

PODHORETZ: No, no … I mean reverse discrimination …


PODHORETZ: … I mean group … preferential treatment of groups, or proportional distribution of rewards in accordance with the size of a group, proportional representation … it has a lot of different names, and we tried to graft that on to the American system, with I think very unhappy results, and this system has had very unhappy results in a lot of other countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, others I could name where group warfare has broken out as a result. I mean actual, actual civil war.

HEFFNER: Now, Norman, you never, and you indicate this in “My Love Affair With America”. As a Jew you never had to be concerned about discrimination, really. How so? How do you account for it?

PODHORETZ: Well, first of all I account for it historically. There’s always been anti-Semitism in this country, there still is. But it was never as deep or as pervasive as it was in Europe. And there are reasons for this. One reason is that the Founding Fathers … I mean, I don’t know the Founding Fathers, but the original settlers of this country, the Puritans, were philo-Semitic, I mean they saw themselves as the new Israel, the new covenant, building a city on the hill. They were more interested in the Old Testament, than the New Testament. They have positive feelings toward Judaism and therefore, toward Jews. So, the … from it’s very birth, the country, unlike virtually all European countries, was, as you might say anti-anti-Semitic. That’s one reason. Another reason was that the really sick, pathological feelings that lead to really bad behavior such as was experienced by the Jews, who suffered relatively mild forms of discrimination here as compared with Europe … that really … that comes out of bad conscience and that was directed at the Blacks in this country. That is to say, the Blacks are to the Americans what the Jews were to the Europeans. And, I think that this, in itself … I don’t know, I suppose there’s room for two such pathologies, but … in one culture … but, in fact, America did not have a guilty conscience towards the Jews the way it had towards the Blacks. And I think it’s out of this guilty conscience that a lot of the bad behavior toward Blacks arises. Whereas there was no guilty conscience towards Jews. That’s a second reason. The third reason had to do with the fact that, while I was born in 1930, but by the time I, you know, was in high school or in college or so on, the effects of the Holocaust had begun to make themselves felt. That is people understood that even genteel anti-Semitism, country club anti-Semitism, mild forms of discrimination could actually lead to mass murder. And there was a kind of taboo against the open expression of anti-Semitism that got established in this country, from which I benefited. From which you benefited … any body roughly of our generation benefited. And finally, we were helped, as Jews, by the Cold War because the fear in 1957 when Sputnik was launched that we were going to fall behind the Russians technologically lead to the abolition of quota systems that restricted the entry of Jews into Universities and professions. I mean when I went to Columbia there was an unacknowledged quota system, quota limiting Jews … it was 17% I think. They wouldn’t admit it, but that’s what it was. It was a little higher at Harvard. Harvard had more confidence than Columbia. But that, but the, the nation began to feel, after 1957, that it couldn’t afford this kind of thing any longer in the national interest, because of national security considerations. So, that, too, led to the toppling of whatever barriers remained. And if you put all these factors together, what it adds up to is a relatively low grade anti-Semitic fever to the extent that there is one here. The one exception, ironically, has been among Blacks. Because even though Jews were, of all White groups in America, the ones most sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, especially in its early days … not only as members, but as contributors, the revival of anti-Semitic sentiment in the late sixties occurred among Black radicals. And no good deed goes unpunished … but there was a lot of resentment against Jews and the return of anti-Semitism into public discourse came through the radical Black movement of the late sixties.

HEFFNER: Norman Podhoretz, I always hate it when …

PODHORETZ: [Laughter}

HEFFNER: … a program comes to an end

PODHORETZ: Is it over already?

HEFFNER: It is over already, and thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

PODHORETZ: Well, thank you for having me, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.