Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right | By Benjamin Balint | PublicAffairs | 304 pages, $26.95
In April of this year, a small crack emerged in the usually monolithic conservative movement. Julian Sanchez, a fellow at the libertarian CATO Institute, diagnosed today’s right wing with “epistemic closure”—an unwillingness to consider new ideas and new evidence. Inspired by this intramural ankle-biting, Jim Manzi, an editor at the National Review, soon took to that magazine’s blog The Corner (normally a bastion of party-line conservatism) to blast author and radio host Mark Levin’s denial of global warming. The reaction to this sortie only proved Sanchez’s initial point. Within twenty-four hours, two fellow Corner bloggers attacked Manzi and stridently defended Levin, on mostly personal, not policy, grounds.
To those of us on the outside, the “epistemic closure” of the right wing has been obvious for some time. The vibrant conservatism of the postwar period, one defined by argument and the exchange of ideas, is a distant memory. Candid debates about America’s place in the world, the welfare state, and religion’s utility have been replaced by the endless parroting of talking points and unquestioning worship of the Republican Party’s electoral interests. How and why did conservatism stop thinking?
Benjamin Balint knows at least part of the answer. In Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right, he masterfully charts both the history of the little Jewish journal that could and the ensuing rise and fall of conservative intellectualism. The success of Balint’s book is especially remarkable given his close proximity to his subject. Now a Jerusalem-based fellow of the Hudson Institute, Balint was earlier a junior Commentary editor, and obviously retains some affection for the magazine. Yet his book is no mash note. Instead, it is a surprising account of how Commentary steered neoconservatism to the height of power while leading it intellectually astray.
The beginnings of this tale are familiar enough. Spurred on by the dynamism of the City College cafeteria—where the anti-Stalinist left famously mixed it up with those more friendly to the Soviet dictator—as well as by the gale-force winds of history, Jewish intellectual life during and after World War II was in upheaval. Jews were at once outside mainstream American culture and striving to break in. Some of this was plainly the fault of that culture: quota systems and (mostly) latent anti-Semitism kept many Jews out of the elite precincts in politics and academe. Yet Clement Greenberg, later a Commentary managing editor and an influential art critic, could plausibly proclaim that “[n]o people on earth are . . . more provincial” than the mass of middle-class Jews.
When the American Jewish Committee founded the magazine in 1945 and appointed Elliot Cohen its first editor, there was hope that the publication could change all this. “American Jewry more and more must stand wholly on its own feet,” mused Salo Baron in the first issue. An essential thesis of the magazine in its early incarnation was that, through the refinement of their ideas, Jews could move beyond the devastation of the Holocaust and achieve a coherent sense of themselves as a people in America.
For the first twenty years of his stewardship, Cohen was a wildly successful editor, winning Commentary the sort of influence that had never before been wielded by an explicitly Jewish publication. (One of the many joys of Balint’s story is his description of the Jewish magazine that preceded Commentary, such as the Menorah Journal, which more or less have been lost to history but were enormously important in their time.) The only comparable precedent, the Yiddish-language (and socialist) Jewish Daily Forward, was read in Roosevelt’s White House. Yet the Forward’s achievements pale beside those of Commentary.
Between 1945 and the early 1960s, Commentary was the first English-language periodical to publish excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary, and it gave early exposure to both Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. The magazine also offered a voice to the Jewish intellectual left—one more religious than, say, the Partisan Review, but no less substantive. Perhaps most importantly, the idea that Jews should feel at home in America began to gain salience in Commentary’s pages. The magazine’s writers, Balint notes, “no longer assumed that a sense of belonging endangered the free exercise of critical intelligence.”