I’ve liked John Podhoretz ever since, years ago, he called to introduce himself and ask me to write something for him—on Thomas Mann’s novels, as it happens. I very gratefully learned, as much as I was able, to write literary reviews by churning them out for him while he was at the Weekly Standard.
I’ve liked David Goldman ever since a mutual friend put us in touch two years ago. He’s visited me in the hills over the summer, and he’s now worked in the First Things offices for just over a year, a fine and valued colleague.
Always we’d have the new friend meet the old, as Yeats once put it, And we are hurt if either friend seem cold, . . . / And quarrels are blown up upon that head.
And now a quarrel has blown up. Over at his Pajamas Media blog, Michael Ledeen lays out the chronology. David began by repeating some of a loose but interesting pop-psychology of President Obama that he wrote two years ago for the Asia Times website.
And John promptly wrote that it was “unacceptable” and “beyond the pale” and “disgusting” in three ways: as taste (in mentioning the president’s mother as someone “who sought to expiate her white guilt by going to bed with Muslim Third World men”); as intellectual endeavor (in trying to psychologize from parents to children); and as ideology (in calling Obama “a Third World anthropologist studying us”).
It was the last that John dwelt most on—”Casting Obama as a malign foreign influence is a particular and unforgivable intellectual madness on the Right over the past two years”—and he seems to relate it to the Birther controversy about Obama’s birth certificate.
Figuring out who is, and who is not, a true conservative is a never-ending pastime of conservatives—and rightly so, in some ways. Just in recent weeks, a billion pixels have been burned over the question of David Frum’s leaving the American Enterprise Institute, and over what National Review called Max Boot’s “attempt to drum Diana West out of the conservative movement” for criticizing Gen. David Petraeus' comments about Israel as a source of America’s woes in the Middle East.
As it happens, David Goldman picked up Petraeus' comments, too, and he wrote bitterly about them—and about those who continue to support Petraeus despite those commente—in a piece for the relatively new Jewish online journal, The Tablet, but it’s David’s new repeating of his old comments about Obama that is the focus of the attempt to write David out of conservatism.
Having read it all, I’ve got to say that John is absolutely right that David was tasteless in his phrasing about Obama’s mother. She wed among Muslim men; why do we have to have it that she also bed among them? David was echoing phrasings that he used two years ago, and he shouldn’t have—mostly because, not to put too arrogant a point on it, he now writes for First Things. It wouldn’t have ever gone into the print magazine, and so it shouldn’t go onto the web. For that matter, I don’t have much of a stomach for psychologizing, although I recognize that others do.
On the matter of David’s participation in the nutball conspiracy theories of the fringe, however, I’ve got to say that John is absolutely wrong. Over at National Review, Jonah Goldberg posted a comment, initially on John’s side—and focusing solely on what he, too, took to be John’s main point, about the affinity for the Birther fringe.
But then Jonah updated his post with a note from one of his friends, who writes:
I don’t care for Goldman’s rhetoric, but I’m not sure I don’t see his point. I think, to paraphrase him, he’s arguing that Obama’s family life—left-wing grandparents and an extremely left-wing, anti-American radical mother—and upbringing abroad and in the precincts of the left have provided him with an extra-American worldview—that is, he looks at America as an object, not necessarily a subject of which he is wholly part, and that his agenda is at least in part about re-making America into something he thinks will be more acceptable to those outsiders regarding it.
This strikes me as a not unreasonable conjecture given Obama’s own narrative in Dreams from My Father, and given that it has been a commonplace on the hard left since at least Vietnam to affect—and internalize—an alienated stance against America. Obama’s come out of a more ideologically pure left-wing environment than any major Democratic figure in a while.
Focusing on David’s phrase “Third World anthropologist,” John insists that “there is nothing foreign about Obama’s ideas or ideology, alas, which can be understood, in my view, almost entirely from the curricula and extracurricular ideas endemic in the American university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was in college.”
But this is what David was saying—that it’s a homegrown American phenomena, this preference for the Third World over America’s own First World. David thinks it arrived in the family with the mother’s generation, and John thinks it arrived with the son’s generation, but neither of them is somehow hinting that Obama is a foreigner. No one is trying to connect this to the Birther fantasy, and the stressed point of John’s complaint about David—the charge of bad ideology—is simply a misreading.
Along the way, John swerves off into an attempt to explain all this in terms of Lyndon LaRouche, but I couldn’t follow the connection, which was, in any event, tasteless and offensive in its own way. David then replied with a line from the German poet Heinrich Heine, which he does from time to time.
Enough with all this, already. On Friday, David wrote, “I posted an essay on the Jewish webzine Tablet explaining how my neoconservative friends (and they are my friends) blew it on the Middle East.” And on Tuesday, John wrote that, despite their disagreements, his foreign-policy thinking and David’s “stem from the same root—a conviction that the West is under ideological assault and needs defending from its Islamofascist enemies.”
Maybe this current muddle is a proxy for that foreign-policy debate they’re not engaging, but then, again, maybe it isn’t. Regardless, the point to take away is that there simply isn’t any disagreement here about the homespun nature of President Obama. If push comes to shove, I’m going to have to whack David upside the head for indulging that vulgarity about Obama’s mother and then completely support him, because he works with me, and because I enjoy his mercurial brilliance, and because he didn’t say what he’s thought to have said.
But why does it have to come to that? We’ve got enemies enough without creating more.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.