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Norman’s Conquest

How Norman Podhoretz made it

Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By DOUGLAS MURRAY
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I don’t raise these matters simply to object. And I recognize that writing a biography of a hero, let alone a living one, is tricky. But Podhoretz as a subject deserves to be treated in the round. Warts and all. If one grants that Norman Podhoretz is not literally a prophet (and Jeffers seems to be out on this one), then he is still certainly big enough to cope with a more critical treatment.

On the substantial subjects he dealt with, as this book helpfully reminds us, Norman Podhoretz stands at the summit of political writers of his generation. Yet even to say this is to say something which, by the end of Jeffers’s work, one suspects might be thought grudging. If there is a reason, it may, I think, come down to a restless streak in Podhoretz which has clearly formed part of his extraordinary drive, and which should have been examined. Writers, intellectuals, thinkers, and artists have always been challenged by the man of action. Either they accept the limitations of their chosen role, or they aspire to something more. On any analysis of his literary and personal style, it seems clear that Podhoretz was never quite happy with simply being a writer—even a great one. Those who just missed out on the First World War often felt this, and Podhoretz was not alone in expressing the feeling after the Second.

However self-aggrandizingly some like to exaggerate the fisticuffs of intellectual struggle, writing is only metaphorical warfare. Only soldiers experience the real fighting. Podhoretz’s christening of the war against Islamic fascism as “World War IV” somehow gets to the core here. If there is a reason that calling the Cold War “World War III” has never caught on with the public it is not because, or not in all cases, they do not believe the Cold War to have been real and a threat, but rather because (as with the hotter conflict in which we are now engaged) they sense that the sacrifices in the earlier wars are diminished by such comparisons. Writers of greatness should, of course, take part in the struggles of their time, and it is understandable that many have the instinct to wage kinds of war of their own. But one should, I think, pause and think on the eagerness on finding oneself a couple of World Wars ahead of everyone else.

Norman Podhoretz’s life has been not just admirable but important. Not only through his lucid and forceful interventions did Podhoretz help guide some of the political events of his time, he also (principally at Commentary) played an important part as a kind of intellectual anchor. By holding fast against the counterculture he managed to sustain values and loyalties which will survive him and, hopefully, us. Against the current of his generation and most of his early friends, Podhoretz thought for himself. And in doing so he made one of the most difficult realizations of his generation. 

I was educated to believe that the last thing one ought to be defending was one’s own, that it was more honorable and nobler to turn one’s back on one’s own and fight for others and for other things in which one had no personal stake or interest. This has been a very hard lesson to unlearn, and I am proud to have unlearned it.

It was a lesson which he learned not just for himself but for others: an achievement which, on its own, would put him among the American greats.

Douglas Murray is the author of Bosie:A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas and Neoconservatism: Why We Need It.

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