Published January 1, 1998
Arguing the World, a documentary directed by Joseph Dorman, is what a documentary should be. That is, it persuasively re-creates a historical milieu—in this case intellectual life in post-War New York—by telling a particular story. The story is that of City College in the 1930s and 1940s, known as “the Jewish Harvard,” where the sons (no girls in those days) of poor immigrants could get a top-notch education for free. Of course they had to give it to themselves, as the faculty wasn’t much good, but as Newman observed it is true of all great universities that the students educate each other far more effectively than their supposed teachers can ever hope to do.
This university’s brief period of intellectual prominence is further particularized by telling in some detail the life stories of four of its most prominent alumni of the time—reading from left to right, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol—and following them on their politically divergent paths. All four of them are bright, funny, interesting and amusingly waspish about each other in spite of a lingering mutual affection which only doesn’t stretch, quite, across the spectrum from one Irving to the other (Howe died shortly after being interviewed for the film). Their combination of great learning and an earthy unpretentiousness, born of their early lives in the Jewish ghettos of Manhattan and Brooklyn, is immensely charming and accessible to the less learned among us. And it may well be the last we shall ever see of such qualities in our increasingly in-bred intellectual élites.
It would be easy to fill several e-pages with quotations. Among the many things I liked were Irving Kristol’s observation about his own childhood that “When poverty is near universal, you don’t experience it as poverty.” Then there was Daniel Bell on his announcement of his atheism to his father: “So you don’t believe in God? Do you think God cares?” And what about Nathan Glazer’s comment on charges of “selling out” leveled by Dissent against Glazer and other upwardly mobile academics: “We were all becoming professors, so I couldn’t see why one group of professors should attack another” ? Perhaps the most revealing comment comes from one of many peripheral figures interviewed for the film, Lionel Abel, who commented on the passionate leftism of everybody up until 1945: “We didn’t know he [Trotsky]
was right. We only knew he was interesting. And in the Village then, to be interesting was to be right. Certainly to be uninteresting was to be wrong. And I’m not sure I don’t still hold to that.”
Most impressively, by following its four central figures through the 1950s and 1960s, Dorman shows not only what happened to them but also what happened to the intellectual left in this country when it encountered the “New Left” of the 60s. It was not a pretty sight. Even Howe couldn’t stand the likes of Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden (whom Bell describes as “the Richard Nixon of the left” ), and both those gentlemen together with others of their persuasion are brought before the camera to display for us those endearing qualities which have done so much to create the present state of intellectual totalitarianism that prevails in American academic and intellectual life. No editorial comment is necessary.
I liked Todd Gitlin’s saying that, for him and the other young revolutionaries of the 60s, “Freedom was an endless meeting.” Just so. A meeting is not an argument in the sense Dorman’s title. In fact, it is effectively an engine for silencing arguments, a means for the exercise of power, not intellect. And so our contemporary universities are devoted to the things that belong to power and not those of intellect, to meetings and not arguments—because the New Left was successful in marginalizing men like these. Thankfully, some of them are still around to serve as an example to the rest of us. About the founding of the “neoconservative” Public Interest in the 1960s, Irving Kristol says, “We started a magazine. It was the only thing I could think of to do.” Would that it had been the only thing their hard-eyed successors could have thought of to do.