RIP: Nerve and Vision — Remembering Midge Decter.
A skilled writer, editor, and political activist, Midge Decter was a key figure in the movement of neoconservative, anti-Communist liberals away from the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s.
Born in St. Paul in 1927, Decter attended multiple universities—the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and New York University—but did not receive a degree from any of them. In 1950, she began working at Commentary, then a liberal magazine published under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee. She left shortly afterward but returned in 1953, remaining for three more years, after which she left again for other professional pursuits. Even after that second departure, though, she never really left: she wrote 69 pieces for Commentary over 55 years. She also married Norman Podhoretz, who would become the magazine’s editor, and one of their children, John, would later become editor as well, as he remains today.
Commentary was part of Decter’s family, but it was also a key magazine of The Family, a collection of mostly Jewish New York liberal anti-Communist intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s. Decter and Podhoretz were important figures in this group, and their apartment became a hub of activity and social events. In 1964, they hosted a party for Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the recently assassinated president. (Philip Roth referred to her as “the shiksa.”) Former attorney general William Barr’s father was in the Family milieu as well, and Barr recalled in his recent memoir attending “birthday parties at the home of power couple Norman Podhoretz, editor in chief of Commentary magazine, and Midge Decter, a prominent journalist and author.” Decter also wrote for magazines like Harper’s, where she served as executive editor from 1969 to 1971.
It was a charmed life, or so it seemed. But things changed in the 1960s with the growth of the New Left. This Left, with its rejection of tradition and authority, made her uncomfortable. As she wrote in Commentary in 1982, “The refusal to be bound by rules, any rules, turned children against their elders, impelled them to don rags and roam the country simulating poverty, destroy their brains with drugs, burn books, and rage against the very idea of responsibility, social, intellectual, or personal.”
She was also a staunch anti-Communist. As she would write, Commentary’s “true animating passion was a deep hatred for Communism in any and all of its manifestations.” She felt that the Democratic Party of the 1970s was wavering on that principle. Unlike many of her fellow neoconservatives, she had never had a Marxist phase. “The only grand posturing of my teens,” she once recalled, “had been a declared intention to die on the barricades in Palestine.” To her, the George McGovern Democrats of the early 1970s no longer upheld the liberal anti-Communist banner she held dear.
While it’s lost its paragraph formatting after the Weekly Standard collapsed and its archives were folded into the Washington Examiner, this 2001 review by Andrew Ferguson of Decter’s then-recent book An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War illustrates her perception:
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.
Exit quote: “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.”
Little has changed in that department in the decades since, except that the left’s desire to strike poses has accelerated exponentially in the “Woke” era.