Today is my 75th birthday, and I thought instead of a regular column, I would write about my thoughts and feelings about reaching this milestone. To use the Yiddish vernacular, I’m now officially an alta cocker, which when younger we used as a term for those old Jews who sat on benches in the non-hip Miami Beach of yesteryear. Pretty soon I’ll be able to join — if only I could be funny — my brethren who post entries on “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”
In a slightly more serious vein, as I face the reality that I’m entering my twilight years, my thoughts turn to that which has seen me through both good times and bad. I’m fortunate to have had a wonderful marriage for some thirty-seven years to my wife Allis, with whom I now write books, and to have marvelous children and grandchildren. My son Daniel in Brooklyn and his wife Gina have three fantastic kids (Milo, Margalit and Seraphina), and my daughter Laura in Berlin and her partner Silke have two beautiful girls (Malka and Noemie). And our son Mike and his wife Jen, who live nearby us in Maryland, have an always-on-the-go, energetic one year old named Evan. As everyone knows, this is what life is all about, and it affords me great pleasure.
I still have friends not only from high school, but from elementary school as well. About two years ago, I went to New York City where at one of the clubs, a group of old friends from P.S.173 in Washington Heights, where I grew up, met for a wonderful dinner of talk and reminiscences. All four of us, I’m happy to report, were successful in life and have made great contributions in our chosen careers. One of them is a now retired top editor and writer, another a player in Democratic Party circles and a lawyer of renown, and the third a highly regarded New York character actor, whom you have undoubtedly seen on the stage or in various television programs. We all remembered vividly, as if it were yesterday, events from the days in our old neighborhood. Memories do stay with us.
Last week, while on a research trip to West Branch, Iowa, for the book Allis and I are writing on the presidency of Warren Harding, I was able to meet one of my best friends from high school, who works as an artist and is now retired from Cornell College in that state. Seeing old friends and remaining in touch with them is yet another blessing to be counted.
The passing of the years has also led me to reflect on what keeps me going with columns, articles, and books — instead of supposedly enjoying going to the golf course every day (a problem anyway — since I don’t play golf) or constantly traveling to exotic locales. One is supposed to slow down as time goes on, take it easy, enjoy simple reading, watch movies, and just enjoy oneself.
Instead, I find myself angry and as motivated as I ever was to try and tell what I consider to be the truth, and to take up and challenge all the charlatans that surround us. The past few days I have worked hard on an article to appear in the next issue of The Weekly Standard, a review-essay on the new TV documentary series and book by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick titled Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States. Watching the episodes literally made my blood pressure rise. I was quite simply infuriated at what I watched and heard Stone come up with.
I knew that others would not have the expertise and background to take up the misinformation he offers Americans who listen to him and think they are learning the truth about our past. My anger and disdain for a culture that allows Stone’s celebrity as a Hollywood filmmaker — to present himself as a historian who has anything to contribute to comprehending the American story — led me to realize that I had to deal with him, because in most likelihood no one else would.
That desire to answer the likes of Stone has a lot to do with my leftist childhood and adolescence. As readers of my memoir Commies know, my decision to become a historian in the first place came from the inspiration I had from a Marxist-Leninist history teacher at my high school, who told me that “Marx said history is the queen of the sciences.” I don’t know if indeed Marx said that, but I remember the teacher whom I regarded highly telling me that. (One can be influenced by high school mentors a great deal, which is why I think Paul Kengor is correct to call attention in his book to the influence on Barack Obama of the president’s mentor in Hawaii, Frank Marshall Davis. I reviewed it here.)
My adoption of communism and a belief that it was the key to all truth stemmed from what I was taught by my high school teachers. I recently talked to the school’s official historian, now employed by the institution and teaching there now. He told me that virtually every member of the faculty when I attended the school from 1949 through 1955 was an actual member of the American Communist Party. Recall that this took place during the so-called McCarthyite reign of terror in the 1950s. And here, in the heart of New York, communist teachers were employed by a private school based on the pedagogical theories of John Dewey (who was on its original board of trustees) and no one threw them in prison. Some were indeed good teachers, but the truth is that impressionable young people like me learned that being decent meant being a good leftist. The school, Elisabeth Irwin High School, was the upper division of The Little Red Schoolhouse, the elementary school we referred to as “The Little Red Schoolhouse for Little Reds.” It is not surprising that in their big anniversary book published some years ago, they noted that for a period in the postwar era, the school stopped teaching American history and taught only Soviet history, since that was the future of the world it wanted its students prepared for.
Most of my readers also know that what got me in trouble with the Left when I still considered myself part of it was writing The Rosenberg File, published in 1983. That book came from the same motivation that led me this week to write about the Stone film. The difference is that when I started, I believed that the Rosenbergs were innocent, and that as a historian, I could prove it. As I began my research with my friend Sol Stern, it quickly became apparent that they were guilty as charged. Seeing that the evidence did not square with the views I believed, I went with the evidence, and began to reevaluate the left-wing mythologies I had always thought were true.
Although the period I considered myself a communist was thankfully a very brief one, and decades ago, I realize how if someone skillful had been around to counter the misinformation I was regularly fed, I could have avoided taking such a path that led to some wasted years. Today, equally idealistic and well-meaning young people, who now as before crave a better world, join movements and organizations that espouse a totalitarian mentality because they believe they are promoting social justice. They too think their oppositional stance will lead to the utopian future they think remains possible — not understanding that no such utopia exists for them to make possible, and that their actions will only make things worse. How else to explain the alliance in Europe, especially in Britain, between the old New Left, the remaining old Communists, and the various Trotskyist splinter groups with the Islamists and Salafi fundamentalists?
As in the past, these folks on the Left have a double standard; they want to end the patriarchy and espouse feminism but remain silent on the real war on women by radical Islamists, since to criticize them is to attack the West they believe is responsible for all evil, and to say anything is to be ethnocentric and to criticize their chosen ways of behavior, which is itself coming from an imperialist perspective.
A few years ago, Joan Wallach Scott of Princeton’s Institute for Advance Studies exemplified this attitude. As The New Yorker reported,
Scott, a feminist scholar, was asked by the moderator, Jacob Weisberg of Slate, about the treatment of Muslim women and Ramadan’s views on the subject, including his call for a “moratorium” in Muslim countries on the Islamic criminal code, including stoning of adulteresses. Her answer came in two parts: first, she said, the whole question is just a distraction from the plight of unemployed Muslims in Europe. Second, who are we to criticize? Let them work things out according to their religion.
Scott, by the way, is also a leftist I knew well as a fellow student during my UW-Madison undergraduate and graduate years.
So, let me return to the theme of thoughts on being 75. The way to keep going is to do what gives your life passion and meaning, and to continue to do so as long as possible. In my personal case, it is to hopefully provide the kind of wisdom that will allow some to avoid taking the path of utopian fantasies that can never be realized, and to write works as a historian that give my readers a real perspective on our country’s path — rather than the kind of ideologically motivated “history” of an Oliver Stone, that takes material out of context to fit it to his preconceived, communist world-view.
So I will carry on, keeping-on keeping-on. Therefore, dear readers, you can look forward to more from me at PJM and elsewhere. And now, I’ll go out and celebrate my birthday!
Image courtesty shutterstock / Robyn Mackenzie