In the late 1990s, I attended a conference on conservatism held by the American Enterprise Institute at the Mayflower Hotel. Various eminences of the right were in attendance, including Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter.
Podhoretz was on a panel with Glenn Loury, who had moved away from his conservative views, and Podhoretz ventilated his exasperation over this evolution. But the panel that really caught my eye was the one that Decter spoke on about American culture. She described a country in a state of breakdown, prompting her daughter, Rachel, to remark, “Mom, it isn’t that bad!” The audience laughed.
For Decter, however, it was never a laughing matter. Decter, who recently died, formed what in retrospect can be seen as the vanguard of the culture war. To a remarkable extent, her concerns and preoccupations did not merely anticipate but also shaped many of the themes that now animate the Republican Party in its quest to reverse the cultural revolution of the past fifty years. While Podhoretz and Irving Kristol have commanded the spotlight in most accounts of the neocon movement, it was Decter and Gertrude Himmelfarb who laid a good part of the foundation for the assault on liberalism.
Himmelfarb did it by seeking to rehabilitate the Victorians as exemplars from the past for the present. Bloomsbury was presented as a deviation, a gay paradise that epitomized the loss of nerve and steel of the British upper class. Once it had devoted itself to upholding the empire. Now it was dedicated to sneering at the great men and women of the past, treating them as less-than-eminent Victorians. Himmelfarb would have none of this.
Nor would Decter. The contrast with Himmelfarb is enlightening. Himmelfarb earned a doctorate on Lord Acton at the University of Chicago. Decter attended several academic institutions but never earned a degree. In a way, it’s fitting. There was a suppleness and directness to her prose that scholarly training would probably have quashed. It’s impossible to imagine Himmelfarb publishing an essay with the title “The Beast With Two Backs,” as Decter did. It’s also hard to imagine Himmelfarb defending the working stiff in the kind of language that Decter employed — a “poor schnook” who worked an eight-hour day only to be berated for his backwardness by his newly enlightened feminist wife when he came home in the evening. Decter, in other words, could really dish it out.
Much of her writing appeared, of course, in Commentary. The magazine reached its high-water mark under Podhoretz in the 1970s and 1980s, when it crusaded against Soviet communism. Decter headed an organization called the Committee for the Free World and published a newsletter called Contentions. Contentions could itself become contentious. Saul Bellow resigned from the Committee for the Free World in the fall of 1983 because, as he wrote Decter in a letter that is included in a compendium of his correspondence edited by Benjamin Taylor, he could not abide the fact that it was straying into literary matters, including attacking Gore Vidal.
The Cold War might have been over, but Decter’s battle for America itself was not. The older neocon generation, or at least a good part of it, returned to its original preoccupations — fighting what it perceived as a recrudescence of domestic radicalism akin to that of the 1930s. As Irving Kristol announced in 1993:
There is no “after the Cold War” for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. It cannot win, but it can make us all losers. We have, I do believe, reached a critical turning point in the history of the American democracy. Now that the other “Cold War” is over, the real cold war has begun.
When Kristol penned those words, it seemed outlandish. “Let them retreat into their parochial concerns,” Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, told me. This seemed sensible at the time. But it is Decter and Co. whose embrace of a Kulturkampf appears to have turned out to be a recipe for political success, at least for now.
Decter never wavered, never faltered, never paused in her crusade against what she saw as the regnant radical left. Time did not pass her by. Instead, the Republican Party, now more than ever, is fighting the battles she insisted must be fought.