restricted access 15. Why the Neocons Hate Henry Adams
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Why the Neocons Hate Henry Adams»In the New Criterion in 1983, Norman Podhoretz wrote, “I see little of value that would be lost by allowing [Henry Adams] to slip into the obscurity he so often boasted of wishing to achieve.”1 In The Bloody Crossroads : Where Literature and Politics Meet, Podhoretz wrote at great length to link Henry Adams to the then fashionable target of right-wing intellectuals, the so-called new class, the “adversarial elite” that stood in disdainful opposition to the current state of American politics and culture.2 Writing in the tradition of Talcott Parsons’s critique of intellectual leadership in creating the welfare state, Podhoretz objected to Adams and his supposed heirs in the new class for wanting to substitute leadership of educated elites for the messy politics of democratic contention. Essentially, for Podhoretz, Adams was a bad American, a traitor to its democracy and a forerunner of the leftist sympathizers, the experts from government and academia, who would dominate public policy, culture, and state institutions.3 The Bloody Crossroads insidiously implies a connection between Adams and the new class, on the one hand, and the Communist sympathizers who supported the Soviet Union not only during the Cold War but also after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Reviewing Podhoretz in the New York Times Book Review, Cynthia Ozick quickly sees how Adams stands in for all the political and cultural traits that Podhoretz despises: “The elitist bitterness of Adams, with his half-concealed hunger for domination, his disappointed superiority and his fastidious contempt for bourgeois satisfactions, is here almost allegorical . No doubt we are being told something about the potential for political irrelevance of intellectuals who substitute the Adams style of mechanical melodramatic national self-disgust for ordinary, often imperfect, democratic repair.”4 Ozick’s prose suffers a surprising weakness here: we cannot quite tell how near or far she stands to Podhoretz’s frightening display of readerly 15 Why the Neocons Hate Henry Adams 203 incompetence in producing this image of Adams. No matter, however, for Podhoretz, invoking Edmund Wilson and John Jay Chapman, announces his dislike of The Education of Henry Adams and refuses to follow Wilson in taking Adams as an “indictment” of the capitalist debacle America had become after the Civil War and through the Gilded Age.5 We would be wrong to accuse Podhoretz of blind loyalty to market capitalism—although he certainly suffered from that belief; what matters in this case is Adams’ assumption of an intellectual stance against what America had become after the Civil War, a political and social form dominated by corporate interests, dehumanized practices of subject formation, and a war-based economy. As harsh as it might seem, it is Podhoretz and the neocons’ warm embrace of war, corporatism, and mystification that makes Adams a necessary adversary, an easily available bogeyman for their political visions and tyrannical populist demagoguery. Admirers and detractors both make much of Podhoretz having studied with Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis. Perhaps from Leavis he inherited the belief that prejudice can stand in for criticism, but surely he did not learn from Trilling how to read. The greatest Adams scholar is the poet-critic Richard Palmer Blackmur whose care for reading is legendary and whose judgments always rest on sharp evidence and close examination. Typically, Podhoretz sweeps Blackmur aside precisely because his research concludes the opposite of what Podhoretz’s prejudiced belief requires. For Podhoretz, as for all sectarians but for warmongers in particular, care, curiosity, and creativity may not obstruct the exercise of power for immediate desires. In almost all the issues that matter here, war stands at their center and as their nexus. For the neocons, war is a good, exciting and high-purposed, legitimated by their own sense of American exceptionalism.6 Their hyperpatriotism , and the chauvinism of their public statements, forbids all criticism of American economic forms and their cultural political consequences. Despite their differing judgments of The Education of Henry Adams, Blackmur and Wilson both conclude that Adams had a good reading of American life from 1868 through the Gilded Age and that, indeed, as Blackmur put it, the United States in that period was unable “to furnish a free field for intelligent political action.”7 Podhoretz rejects out of hand any such criticism of American life and institutions. He follows the same line as Louis Kronenberger who, in 1939, wrote this: “The Education is a grand-scale study of maladjustment, of the failure of an...


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