ARGUING THE WORLD
Of the four 'New York Jewish intellectuals' profiled in Arguing the World, political pundit Irving Kristol emerges as the most emblematic, charismatic and obnoxious figure. The strange odyssey of Kristol, an ardent Trotskyist in his youth who became a confidante of Ronald Reagan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, exemplifies the ease with which a small, but influential, circle of Depression radicals eventually embraced neo-conservatism in the pages of 'little magazines' like Commentary and The Public Interest. If Kristol functions as the reactionary many in the audience will love to hate, the centrist liberals featured in Joseph Dorman's earnest documentary-sociologists Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer-are, by comparison, plodding and colorless. The late Irving Howe is the sole representative of the bona fide left, but his weary eloquence appears like the defense of a dying creed, especially when contrasted with Kristol's near-manic exuberance.
Since leftism is associated with nostalgia in Dorman's film, the vibrancy of the tradition now reviled by polemicists such as Kristol and Glazer only emerges in early sequences chronicling the protagonists' adolescent flirtations with Trotskyism. Kristol, Bell, Glazer and Howe all cut their polemical teeth at New York's Ciy College, and Arguing the World lovingly recreates the infatuation with ideas that suffused ferocious collegiate debates between the youthful Trotskyists and their Stalinist antagonists. Internecine squabbles of the '30s come alive in cunningly juxtaposed interviews; Kristol claims that Howe played an instrumental role in arranging his expulsion from the Workers Party, while Howe brushes the accusation off as mere gratuitous slander. Bell aptly summarizes the spirit of youthful fervor by recounting his defiant renunciation of Judaism: At the time of his Bar Mitzvah, he gleefully announced to the rabbi that he was abandoning God for the greater truth of the Young People's Socialist League.
Arguing the World also acutely captures the irreparable schism between old Leftists such as Howe and countercultural radicals during the '60s. Unfortunately, Dorman stacks the deck in Howe's favor by casting the dour Tom Hayden (referred to by Bell as the 'New Left's Nixon') as the spokesman for an anti-war movement that preferred direct action to incessant debate. Hayden's unappealing screen presence notwithstanding, a fairer appraisal of this leftist family quarrel might have illustrated the fact that Howe's inability to distinguish genuine Stalinism from the New Left's occasionally naive celebration of authoritarian regimes prevented him from acknowledging the cogency of the younger generation's critique of American society. To be fair, however, Dorman also includes remarks from one of Nathan Glazer's Berkeley students, a woman who entertainingly expresses her impatience with the arrogance of a supposed liberal who smugly condemned anti-war activists.
The film also presents a slightly misleading view of New York intellectual life by focusing exclusively on Jews and-with the exception of literary critic Howe-concentrating on social scientists rather than artistic or literary figures. The seemingly inevitable progression from Marxism to Reaganism would have been challenged if Dorman had at least mentioned (all now, unfortunately and conveniently, dead) gentiles-and unrepentant leftists-like Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald or Jewish art or literary critics such as Meyer Schapiro and Phillip Rahv who never abandoned their radical roots.
Intellectual history is not particularly well-suited to a relatively fast-paced medium like film and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the procession of 'talking heads' displayed in this leisurely documentary risks alienating impatient members of the audience. Nevertheless, Arguing the World demonstrates the inherent excitement of intellectual debate, even though astute viewers will read a few books to fill in the ideological gaps. It should also be pointed out that the overweening conservatism of most of the participants must have appealed to the film's principal funders-Channel Thirteen (the New York PBS outlet) and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
An impassioned lead performance and timely parallels to contemporary social issues enliven and elevate this otherwise somewhat routine biopic. More »
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