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." We're grown used nowadays to seeing right-wing critiques of the conventionally left-wing politics of Hollywood movies, so it's difficult to convey how extraordinary this criticism must have seemed in 1964, certainly in a magazine like Commentary, then a flagship for highbrow Democrats and liberals generally (and edited, as it happened, by Midge Decter's husband Norman Podhoretz). But notice that her beef with Kubrick isn't ideological; it's artistic, or better, a matter of artistic character: A gifted moviemaker, he chose to sacrifice complexity and a deeper humor for an easy laugh and public acclaim. He passed up a chance to convey genuine anarchy (as the Marx Brothers dangerously did, she points out, in "Duck Soup") so his movie would be safer and easier to take--and maybe also so it would be praised by an arbiter of elevated taste like Robert Brustein, dean of Yale Drama School, in a brainy fashion magazine like the New York Review of Books. GETTING PRAISED in the New York Review is, at some time or another, the craving of every person who lives in New York and writes for a living, but one of the delights in reading her first book is watching Midge Decter get over it. Her essays show no evidence of status-seeking, bum-bussing, or any of the other fretful tics that wiggle through the work of people who so ambitiously call themselves "public intellectuals" (emphasis on the public). As the era progresses and she watches the new counterculture consume a genuine culture of taste and merit, consume it and render it trivial and silly, her stuff takes on a tone of exasperation that would later, in her most famous book, "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," boil down into anger. But here it has an edge of wonderment to it: What is all this crap? Herself a liberal, she's beginning to think that maybe the problem is with liberalism itself, and with liberals. In a review of a book of speeches released not long after his death, she is admiring of Adlai Stevenson--some early crushes you never get over--but scornful of his followers: "What they sought from him first and foremost was a public token of their superiority to their less educated countrymen." By the dawn of the 1970s, much of liberalism had degenerated into an affectation, a pose, a matter not of conviction but of style. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the idealization of the Kennedys. In her essay "Kennedyism," which takes up a good chunk of "The Liberated Woman," she used the fantasies that swirled around Jack and Bobby and the clan as an occasion to examine the more general relation of intellectuals to politicians, an exercise in wish-fulfillment by which the intellectuals inevitably try to transform politicians into heroic images of themselves. (This is one problem, incidentally, that isn't restricted to liberals; conservative intellectuals do the same thing to Ronald Reagan. Again, Midge Decter comes closer to the truth. In her new memoir she writes that Reagan "was indeed, as by all accounts he was touted to be, perpetually amiable and pleasant. Which means that he must at the core have been a very cold man, for after all only someone whose heart is very distant from the people and day-to-day proceedings all around him can remain perpetually pleasant.") THE MAIN REASON intellectuals are prone to this weakness has to do with a much more comprehensive failing--their detachment from the stuff of daily life. In the great divide between people who brag that they "live for ideas" and people who are preoccupied with just living, Midge Decter, whose own intellectual bona fides are gold-plated, takes the side of ordinary people. "Ordinary," in fact, is one of her favorite terms of approval, used without a trace of condescension. She doesn't mean the word, as intellectuals often do, as a synonym for "simple" or "uncomplicated": Ordinary life is complicated enough to keep everybody busy. "Ordinary" to her suggests life uncorrupted by abstraction--for abstraction, strangely enough, can be the intellectual's way of making life seem less complicated than it is. So she's a populist intellectual, and the tension inherent in the role gives "The Liberated Woman" its special charm. She too may "live for ideas," but she insists that the ideas be firmly rooted in real life. Thus she concedes to David Riesman the intellectual force of his work but senses the larger weakness revealed in his language--his use, for example, of "pretentious and trashy phrases like 'anticipatory socialization' when he means 'upbringing.'" She catches the salutary influence of Max Weber in Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd" but cautions: "There is this difference between Weber and Riesman: to Weber, religion and capitalism were real, as were the human beings caught in their toils. To Riesman, on the other hand, the things of which he speaks are not real but only the limits his speculation gives to them." Revealingly, she praises the journalist Murray Kempton "for that quality of spirit that kept him from the theoretical refinement and ideological coarseness" to which intellectuals were prone. Kempton knew, she says, that "the true sociology of the American worker [is found] in the fact that no one sees fit to clean the filth off a factory floor, rather than in terms like 'other-directed consumer' or 'upward social mobility.'" AS A LIBERAL INTELLECTUAL entering middle age, she knew what she was up to, though she might not have known where it would take her in the end (and might have been horrified to learn). She recognized that human beings have always succumbed to abstraction as a way of keeping harsh reality at bay--"our perpetual process of distancing ourselves, abstracting ourselves, from the conditions of life." What she found new in the 1960s, however, was that the people who were being paid to think about the country and to describe Americans to themselves--the intellectuals and journalists who were her peers and pals--were increasingly describing sheer fantasies. The general culture itself, in fact, encouraged this "process of distancing ourselves from the conditions of life" by promoting ideas that were clearly at odds with common sense: the thoughtless pacifism of the antiwar movement, for example, or, preeminently, the war on the natural order of things that went under the journalistic tag "women's liberation." She has never made this same mistake herself, of giving abstraction the upper hand over experience. We now know, from "An Old Wife's Tale," why this might have been easier for her than for her fellow intellectuals. Not long after the war she moved with her first husband and two toddlers to a new housing development in the far suburbs of New York. While other future Commentary essayists and Harper's editors--she was to become both--were writing their master's theses on Schopenhauer, she worked as a housewife, passing the afternoons with other homemakers in the apartment quadrangle as their toddlers tumbled about on the lawn. Every intellectual should have such a graduate school. Afterward, having returned to Manhattan and taken a job as a secretary in Commentary's offices, she read W.H. Whyte's hugely influential "The Organization Man," an indictment of the dehumanizing effects of suburban and corporate postwar America. The book of course became a lens through which many American journalists and intellectuals continued to view the country for another two decades. Yet despite her firsthand experience with the suburban nightmare, she writes, "I could not recognize a single friend or neighbor, then or even later, in Whyte's book." The chasm between the real world and the world cobbled together by intellectuals became her enduring theme. In her introduction to "The Liberated Woman," she writes: "This, then, has turned out to be my main preoccupation as a writer: to account for the distance between what is, or must be, the experience of something, and the way that experience has come to be talked about, in public life no less than private." She rebutted bad ideas not by citing some competing schematic but by drawing attention to the way life is actually lived, and has been lived, in all its messiness and imperfection. In her most powerful writing she took as her subjects the common material of everyday life: sex, marriage, the rearing of children. AND SO as her peers and pals, beguiled by theory, turned one way, she inevitably turned the other. In her memoir she discusses her ideological journey from left to right, but she didn't really have too far to go, as a reading of "The Liberated Woman" makes plain. In a simultaneously wrenching and funny essay published in Harper's in 1967, she discusses her trepidation as her teenage daughters face the sexual revolution, and she comes out, as mothers used to do where their daughters were concerned, squarely on the side of tradition: "Lust as an independent value divorces itself from institutions, personal relations, and travels with utter unconcern from creature contact to creature contact. This is, as a matter of fact, exactly how the Puritans understood the matter, and they were right. We understand it, too, in the pits of our stomachs if not in our minds, and we scurry about to improvise our excuses." Her impatience with all this excuse-making is her great contribution to American intellectual life, and the impatience remained acute whether she called herself a liberal or a conservative. We shouldn't be surprised that in her memoir such a writer devotes more space to her children than to her books. Every human being is more remarkable than every book. Or so, I suspect, it would seem to Midge Decter, who is after all a singular figure: the social critic who despises theory, the egghead who trades only in common sense--the intellectual as Mom. Andrew Ferguson is a columnist for Bloomberg News and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. December 3, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 12
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