“People are free to choose whatever view they wish to hold. If it were up to me, all intellectuals would be defending our kind of society. Let me add to this: I think American civilization, as a socio-political system, is one of the high points of human achievement. I compare it to fifth-century Athens. Not in the cultural sense; though we have not done too badly in the creation of artistic monuments, we don’t rank with fifth-century Athens or sixteenth-century Italy or Elizabethan England; but as a socio-political, democratic system we will be seen — if there is a future and there are future historians — as one of the highest points of human achievement, because we have created a society in which more people enjoy more freedom and more prosperity than any human community ever known to human history. And that is not nothing, to put it mildly. I wish everybody recognized that. Many people still don’t.”
Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, speaking in an interview with Harry Kreisler as part of his “Conversations with History” series. You’ll find more substantial reflections like this in Podhoretz’s political memoir My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative.
This statement comes toward the tail end of Podhoretz and Kreisler’s hour-long conversation. The interview covers a lot of ground, and I recommend giving the whole thing a listen, though the next reflection, which wraps up their talk, has a special poignancy. Podhoretz is asked to summarize a lesson for his grandchildren in the context of his own strange intellectual journey from Marxist to founding neoconservative. He replies:
I hope that they would first of all learn to place the kind of value on this country that I think it deserves. Secondly, I hope that they would learn to understand how important ideas are… I would hope that they would also understand the idea that was most eloquently expressed by George Orwell who said something like this: the truth to which we have got to cling as a drowning man to a raft is that is possible to be a normal decent human being and still be fully alive. And I endorse that view with all my heart. I would hope my grandchildren would learn to endorse it as well.
Update: I emailed this excerpt to Noam Chomsky last night, with a question about how to square Podhoretz’s patriotism with Chomsky’s hypercritical posture towards American society and government. He replied:
No society deserves “gushing patriotism.” In terms of material prosperity, the US ranks fairly high. In the 18th century the colonies were probably the richest part of the world, and the US has incomparable material advantages, at least after the indigenous population was exterminated or expelled. Huge resources and territory, incomparable security, etc. One can debate how well the society has done considering these incomparable advantages. Similar questions arise in other dimensions. A true patriot doesn’t gush about how marvelous we are, but evaluates successes and failures and seeks to overcome the failures.
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