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Commentary's Tribalism

Damon Linker's excellent New York Times review about Commentary and Norman Podhoretz has one especially sharp passage:

How could a once thoughtful man spend the past 40 years transforming himself into a commissar? In his 1979 memoir, “Breaking Ranks,” Podhoretz himself described his initial lurch to the right as a perfectly sensible reaction to the excesses of the counterculture, the rise of a black power movement tainted by anti-­Semitism, the descent of the antiwar movement into nihilistic violence and the Democratic Party’s embrace of left-wing isolationism in 1972. Jeffers accepts this account but adds a surprising theological twist, telling us that in February 1970, Podhoretz experienced a mystical vision in the woods of upstate New York that convinced him “Judaism was true.” Jeffers has difficulty explaining precisely what this revelation meant, and how it inspired Podhoretz to change his political views, no doubt in part because it had no discernible effect on his observance of Jewish law and rituals. As Podhoretz himself puts it, he felt it unnecessary, both before and after the vision, “to go to services, eat kosher, all that stuff.”
To grasp the true significance of the vision, the reader must skip ahead about 120 pages in Jeffers’s narrative to a 1985 speech in which Podhoretz spoke of his pride at using Commentary to defend “my own” — “my own country” and “my own people.” In light of these comments, Podhoretz’s revelation appears to mark the moment in his life when he began to “unlearn” what, he said, he had been educated to believe as a liberal — namely, “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.” Beginning with his vision in the woods, Podhoretz would devote his life to standing up for himself as a Jew and as an American against an ever lengthening list of those he deemed to be mortal enemies.

There's nothing wrong with taking pride in your own people or your own country. But what Linker is describing, and Podhoretz is all but confessing to, is allowing this kind of particularist pride to become an exemption from the duty of reason. Reason requires formulating principles that apply regardless of identity. Commentary has become a publication that makes little attempt to reason. It assumes that what is good for "us" -- us as Americans or as Jews -- is good, period. There is no need to define any broader principle.

I thought of that dynamic when I read a post by Commentary's Jennifer Rubin, expressing once again her opposition to building a Muslim cultural center within two blocks of Ground Zero. One aspect of Rubin's argument is, well, stupidity. Jeremy Ben-Ami argued:

What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States as they seek to whip up global jihad than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be.

Here is Rubin's rejoinder:

This is daft. We are going to annoy Osama bin Laden if we don’t let them have the mosque steps from where his followers incinerated 3,000 Americans? I think they were annoyed before.

Obviously, nobody is proposing we allow the Muslim cultural center in order to placate Osama bin Laden. The argument is that we allow the center in order to show Muslims who do not agree with Osama bin Laden that the United States does not discriminate against Muslims.

That sort of incomprehension is fairly par for the course at Commentary. What struck me was this salvo later in the post by Rubin against Ben-Ami and J Street:

Maybe they’ve given up trying to disguise themselves as liberal pro-Zionists (whatever that is). If so, it would introduce some refreshing honesty into the debate as to just which groups are “pro-Israel” and which are Israel’s enemies.
But here’s the thing: is there a market for pro–Ground Zero mosque-building in American Jewry? I think not, and I think even the J Streeters get that. Their audience — yeah, another shocker — seems to be not pro-Israel Jews but leftist pro-Muslims.

Now, look. I am not exactly an apologist for J Street. But put the merits of J Street aside. Rubin's charge is that the group is a front for "pro-Muslims." Why? Because it favors religious freedom for American Muslims. Rubin does not charge the group with advance some objectionable principle -- Jihad, America-hatred, or whatnot. She accuses J Street of favoring an objectionable group, Muslims. In her mind, you are either for us or you are for them. The notion that certain principles -- say, religious freedom -- might be good for both us and for them is beyond the scope of her consideration. Indeed, the notion that Americans of all backgrounds deserve equal consideration is utterly foreign to her. In this sense, the current Commentary writers are fitting heirs to the legacy of Podhoretz's descent.