The Last of the Red-Hots?
The past decade has witnessed a seeming revival in the fortunes of America's old, new, and newest Left. Some elders, notably including Bill Ayers, have enjoyed career recrudescences. For years after the 2000 presidential election, a cadre of young people vocalized their rage over its results through various activist organizations and on the Internet; with the recent rise in the congressional fortunes of the GOP, their spleen has been stirred anew. As I write, a group of protesters, young, middle-aged, and old, has just ended its occupation of the capitol building in—where else?—Madison, Wisconsin, where so much once began.
One of the better-known spokesmen and avatars of this revitalized political culture is the veteran writer and activist Todd Gitlin. Born in 1943 to a working-class Jewish family in the Bronx, Gitlin first came to prominence as a two-term president of Students for a Democratic Society, that prototypical 60s campus group: anti-establishment, anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-anti-Communist. Never a true bomb-thrower, even verbally, he went on from Harvard to graduate school and an academic career, writing a dozen or more books and contributing essays to Dissent, Harper's, the New Republic, and other magazines. Most recently he has served as a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.
Gitlin's biography is, thus, the biography of a fortunate man, fortunate in his choice of political affiliations and in his accumulation of the laurels thereunto appertaining. It is also the biography of a familiar type in 20th-century American sociocultural history: the young Jewish striver from New York who ascends to the comfortable heights of the upper middle class through a lifetime of intellectual labor undertaken from a posture of opposition to that same class. Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and countless other members of the generation born two or three decades earlier than Gitlin followed this path. The fact that they were the children of poor, non-English-speaking immigrants, and enjoyed a much less cushioned route upward, may make Gitlin's own ascent seem less impressive. If his case is worth examining all the same, it is partially because one of his two recent books presents itself as an analysis of "chosenness": that is, the very quality that Gitlin's own career seems strikingly to exhibit and that his habitually serene confidence in his views seems to confirm.
But Chosen Peoples—co-authored with Liel Leibovitz—is not about Gitlin. Rather, as its subtitle announces, it is about "America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Election." On these subjects, in a rather mild-mannered way, it comes to some very harsh conclusions. In the authors' view, the political belief in national "election," a belief supposedly exemplified by both Israel and the United States, is what has given license to these two nations to engage in overweening recklessness and chronically irresponsible behavior. In its stead, the book proposes, the central principle of any state should be "the humility ideal."
Actually, and aside from the fact that both Israel and the United States share an affinity for the Hebrew Bible (whose concept of chosenness Gitlin mangles), it is hard to see "chosenness" as primarily their problem, or as more their problem than anybody else's. As Gitlin himself more or less admits in the introduction, both countries are latecomers to the idea of national election. Compared, moreover, with England, France, Germany, and a host of others (Soviet Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Chavez's Venezuela, the Islamic Republic of Iran. . . ), neither of them has exactly been a model of national vainglory, being rather prone to prolonged bouts of self-criticism even when Gitlin isn't around to remind them of their failings.
In any case, our advocate of humility has now moved on to dwell, and with much satisfaction, on his own chosenness. The vehicle is Undying, an essayistic novel on the subject of personal mortality that is set during the presidency of George W. Bush. Its narrator and protagonist, Alan Meisner by name, is a Nietzsche scholar who, just like Gitlin, was born in the Bronx, holds a degree from Harvard, and has lived and worked for decades in the leftward end of the American culture business. His political perspective, too, is uncannily reminiscent of his creator's. Over breakfast, the professor makes a habit of inking-in the face of the President in the morning newspaper. Going into an MRI session that will confirm a diagnosis of cancer, he hopes his oncologist shares his rage at the "usurper" in the White House.
As his illness progresses, Meisner becomes fascinated by the connection of physical to mental sickness, the strangely close relationship between the body and the mind; deep scholar of Nietzsche that he is, he even imagines this as a topic for his next book. Solipsistic ruminations on this and similar topics comprise the central action of Undying. Although other characters put in appearances—Meisner's wife and daughter, vaguely portrayed doctors, a public prosecutor with whom he shares a hospital room—they play decidedly secondary or tertiary roles, serving mostly to distract him from the important business of his own thoughts, fears, doubts, perceptions, and insights.
Pondering Nietzsche's dictum that a wise person moves among people like a botanist among plants, Meisner unctuously oneups the master: "Despite my better judgment, I don't just study people, I am capable of liking them after all." On the death of his former friend Susan Sontag, he meditates self-pityingly: "[T]he complicated pain I feel, reading her obit, starts with the recognition that her death—for me—marks another failure of mine." Providentially delivered from sickness at the end of the novel, he accepts the miracle of his survival as a triumph of the will—his own. The final line informs us: "The little scar northwest of my navel remains—refusing, like me, to vanish."
More's the pity, that. If few things are more arrogant than the public parading of humility, fewer still can be more tiresome than a second-rate ego in pursuit of Meaning with a capital M. Replete with both commodities, Undying inadvertently draws a scathing portrait of what remains of urban intellectual and academic life, radical-Jewish subdivision. Which leads one, in turn, to think back on the generations from whom Gitlin has derived, and to ponder the descent of the species.
As a point of fictional comparison, consider Johanna Kaplan's 1980 novel O My America!. This coruscating comedy of Manhattan manners is centered on Ezra Slavin, a philandering, spiritually inconstant, wildly volatile New York Jewish intellectual of an earlier era whose cosmic narcissism and lack of self-knowledge put Alan Meisner's to shame, even as Kaplan renders Slavin with such artistry that we finish, paradoxically, by empathizing with him. At Meisner's brand of self-obsession, too desiccated to be either comic or tragic, we can only shrug, sigh, and wish he would stop refusing so adamantly to go away.
Sam Munson is the author of The November Criminals (Doubleday). Read his feature on Saul Bellow's Jewish identity here.
The text has been corrected.
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Mario Savio died in 1996, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mario_Savio), making the recrudescence of his fortunes during the last decade, as Munson states, problematic.
Getting simple facts correct is key to a winning argument.