A few years ago, when I was discussing over lunch with the late Irving Kristol the breakdown of Western civilisation (as one did), he asked a question.
Why was it, he inquired, that there was no organised fightback in Britain to defend its core moral principles and cultural traditions as there was in America?
Why hadn't someone started up a magazine such as The Public Interest or Commentary to challenge the deadly grip of the neo-communist Left on the British print media? (This was, I hasten to add, in the days before Standpoint was even a twinkle in the editor's eye.)
I volunteered some of the obvious explanations — grip of the welfare state, erosion of philanthropic instinct, demoralisation of political and religious elites. But the real reason was staring at me across the dining table. It was that Britain simply hadn't produced anyone quite like Irving Kristol, the grand-daddy of the culture wars and nor was it ever likely to do so.
Now a new book expands much further on this very point. Benjamin Balint's riveting history of Commentary magazine is much more than an account of an influential publication. It is a chronicle of what has happened since the Second World War to American society.
And it is also the story of American Jews — more specifically, a group of American Jews, including Kristol, which constituted a truly amazing constellation of political and intellectual brilliance, and which quite simply helped change the face of America.
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For without this group's unique combination of titanic intellectual energy, political insight and moral courage, it is arguable that there would have been no culture wars in America, but instead a rout of the kind that has forced Britain to its cultural knees. And the crucible of this American resistance was Commentary.
From the start, it dazzled with the stellar quality of its output due to the creative and intellectual genius of its editors. It is astonishing now to look back on the work it introduced to the public: the early fiction of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick; the literary criticism of Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe; analysis of the Holocaust by Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt.
It always conceived of itself as a Family, bound by a common language and frame of reference. But that frame of reference was to be turned on its head in a series of dizzying political gyrations — all promoted with ferocious single-mindedness, and turning Commentary into the driving force of often vitriolic national debate.