July 8, 2009
You know how every deli has its table of regulars, the same aging Jewish men who tell the same jokes, kvetch over the same aches and pains, order the same turkey sandwiches (dry) and complain about how the world is going to pot?
That’s what Commentary magazine has become. Except without the jokes.
The once venerable magazine of the independent intellectual class is now just the grumpy neighbor guy who yells at the kids to get off his lawn, the Jewish Mr. Wilson.
Take the current issue (please).
Don’t be fooled by the groovy new font treatments inside and out. The graphics are fresh, the thinking predictable. You can now skim Commentary as quickly as you have long been able to skim Tikkun — you know ahead of time what the writers are going to say.
You can’t underestimate the loss this represents to intelligent life in this universe. Commentary was founded and fully funded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945, designed as an editorially independent journal “to enlighten and clarify public opinion on problems of Jewish concern.”
The founding editor was an unsung Jewish hero named Elliot E. Cohen. The son of a Lithuanian talmudist (and dry goods dealer), Cohen grew up in Mobile, Ala., and entered Yale at age 14. His catholic vision of the Jewish imperative led to the creation of a journal whose audience and influence extended far beyond the Jewish community.
“Cohen had established something that the Anglo-Jewish world had not seen before,” wrote historian Nathan Abrams, “an explicitly Jewish journal speaking both to its core constituency and to the wider community at large and achieving an unrivaled authority in doing so.”
The great writers of the time, from the right to the left, found voice in its pages: Hannah Arendt, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Paul Goodwin, the Trillings.
The ideological slant was clear — liberal anti-Communist — but the opinions were broad, well-argued and open to doubt.
“He might well have taken as his motto the great saying of Johnson,” Rabbi Robert Gordis wrote upon Cohen’s death, “which seems so remote from the temper of our day, ‘Rid your mind of cant.’”
Commentary now drowns in cant. In the last three issues I couldn’t find a single article that has anything but scorn for President Barack Obama. Go ahead, challenge the president on any or all of his policies, but how about a little balance?
My favorite example of the magazine’s blind left-bashing was in a June 2009 article on biotech by Tevi Troy that seemed to blame liberals for death itself.
“Since the work [pharmaceutical companies] did was life-saving or life-enhancing, it was not deemed by a certain liberal mindset to be of special value, worth the expense.”
Yes, liberals (like the ones who founded Commentary) hate to save lives. Please.
Abrams traces the shift to the magazine’s second editor, Norman Podhoretz, who took over in 1960 and set about shaping Commentary into an influential voice of the neoconservative movement.
“Since Podhoretz had enlisted the magazine in a conservative campaign,” Abrams wrote, “this cause, the holy war, had simply overridden more objective judgments of quality.”
I called Abrams, who has written one book on Commentary and has another coming out next year, and suggested to him that things have gotten even worse. He agreed.
Jews wrote off the magazine that had written them off. (The AJC, having nobly birthed the journal, set it loose, though purely for financial reasons). Last January, a search committee picked Podhoretz’s son John to succeed him.
“Basically, what made Commentary distinctive in the [Norman] Podhoretz era was that it was a journal of neoconservativism,” Abrams told me. “Once they dropped the ‘neo’ in the mid-’90s, there was a whole stable of conservative magazines doing the same thing, except the Weekly Standard was doing it better.”
Commentary’s niche, now, is to rail against the left, the Democrats, Obama and pretty much anything new. The current July/August issue has a section titled, “The Hipster Curse,” including an article by Professor D.G. Myers, “The Judaism Rebooters,” which grumbles about a new generation of Jews who dare drag Darfur, global warming and pop-culture relevance into Jewish life. Damn kids! Just for good measure, there’s also an essay by the screenwriter Frederic Raphael grousing that — guess what — there are no good movies anymore. Damn movies!
It’s as if, to paraphrase Woody Allen, Commentary and Senior Living have merged to form ... Sedentary.
One sign of Commentary’s decrepitude is its popularity among organized Jewry’s machers. Cohen’s magazine was the bête noire of the status quo. These days, it’s hard to discern any daylight between Commentary and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
There is a need for a contrary voice in a Jewish community that voted 78 percent for Barack Obama. But for that point of view to be intellectually credible, it needs to be expansive. For it to be a Jewish voice, it needs to challenge itself.
The Jewish role is not to be the crotchety naysayer, but the brilliant dreamer. Elliot Cohen understood that whether that dream is Kafkaesque and dystopian or Herzlesque and utopian, it needs to come alive on the page, as a challenge to the reader and the world.
There’s a change of address tear-out in the latest issue, branded with the words, “Even Conservatives Sometimes Have to Move.”
If only the editors really believed that, they could restore their magazine to greatness.