The Magazine

Decter's Decades

The remarkable writing of a remarkable woman.

Dec 3, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 12 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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IN HER RECENT not-quite-a-memoir, "An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War," the great social critic Midge Decter gives an episodic account of her life as a New York intellectual and devotes more space, as it turns out, to discussing her children than her books. What kind of social critic, great or not, finds her children more remarkable than her books?

To declare my own interest: I know three of Midge Decter's four children, and find them remarkable too. I hope readers flock to "An Old Wife's Tale" and enjoy it as most reviewers did--as J. Bottum did, for example, in this very magazine--relishing her irony, her murderous wit and sharp eye, and her unerring gift for the tricky art of verbal caricature.

But I hoped as well that the book might serve as an advertisement, inducing readers to search out and rediscover her earlier books. There were three of these, and together they form an essential critique of what we have come to call "the sixties," written in the white heat of the Great Disruption itself and, for that reason and others, still worthy of close attention. Quite apart from the merits of their argument, which is still sound, they display a way of thinking, a way of being intellectually formidable, you rarely come across among people who take on the job of "intellectual."

Of her books "An Old Wife's Tale" is probably the best, but when I was done reading it, a couple of weeks ago, I went back to her first, "The Liberated Woman and Other Americans," published in 1971. It's not a well-known book. She ignores it altogether in her memoir, and several admirers I mentioned it to didn't even know of its existence. After "The Liberated Woman" came "The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women's Liberation" (1972) and then "Liberal Parents, Radical Children" (1976). Because they offered, in cold black and white, the spectacle of a well-known liberal intellectual turning into a conservative critic of liberalism, both books made quite a splash, earning her noisy appearances on the talk shows and all kinds of publicity as a controversialist, and I suppose the first book was simply swamped in their wake and forgotten. It shouldn't have been.

"The Liberated Woman" is a collection of occasional essays culled from magazines like Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly and Commentary, where they appeared over a span of ten years or so. In those days she still called herself a liberal, specifically a Cold War liberal whose passion was anti-communism, but it's clear from essay to essay that the seeds of her apostasy were already breaking open. You can spot it in the most unlikely places; for among other things this collection shows that Midge Decter had it in her to be a great movie critic. Even in so frivolous a field as movies she resisted the centrifugal pull of conventional wisdom that drew in her fellow intellectuals, whose professed disdain for conventional wisdom was rivaled only by their dread of departing from it.

She is pitiless, for example, in her treatment of the earnest and conspicuously virtuous Stanley Kramer, who had meant to show the world the horrors of nuclear war when he made his high-minded film "On the Beach" (1959). In fact, she notes (as no one else did at the time), the movie is perversely rosy--a pretty picture from which the real horrors raised by the prospect of atomic Armageddon are squeamishly excluded. "Kramer has fallen victim to the most insidious seduction of our time--the seduction of the apocalypse," she writes. "What he has given us is a fantasy in which all problems are solved by a single explosion."

Three years later, she goes further, daring to criticize the uncriticizable "Dr. Strangelove," a movie prized then and now by the verbal class for what was taken to be its bravery and anarchism. Midge Decter instead saw a funny movie limited by a timid devotion to "conventional political piety." Look closer, she said: Beyond its excellent jokes and masterly technique, the movie is "strangely polite in its choice of enemies"--the right-wing general, the ex-Nazi nuclear scientist, the overzealous nuclear strategist, and so on. "No liberals are ridiculed in this 'anarchic' movie," she writes.

"To have poked as much fun at the inadequacy of pacifist thought in the face of the nuclear danger as it does at the absurdity of strategic thought would have involved the movie in a complexity--and an anarchism of spirit--quite beyond its basic intentions. And Kubrick in that case would probably not have been extolled for his courage by everyone from Robert Brustein in the New York Review of Books to the editorialists of Life. Everyone, after all, is against psychotic generals and Nazis."