Friday, May 27, 2022

Robert George: "Every boy needs a Jewish mother. Midge Decter, who died last week at age 94, was mine."

By An Old Friend
Sent: Thu, May 26, 2022 3:33 p.m.

Princeton prof Robert George: "Every boy needs a Jewish mother. Midge Decter, who died last week at age 94, was mine."

An enjoyable read ...

N.S.: It's beautiful. I can't believe she was so old!

"'[S]omeone who becomes a conservative for money is not a conservative.' She paused as he took in the point, then delivered her punchline: 'He's merely a Republican.'"

Every boy needs a Jewish mother. Midge Decter, who died last week at age 94, was mine.

Though I didn't meet Miss Decter until I was in my early 30s, I'd long admired her. My impression was that she was tough and smart. She saw the direction the Left was intent on taking the country and she dissented. Decter did intellectual battle with socialists, feminists, gay liberationists, anti-anti-communists, and others in the vanguard, standing her ground.

In the beginning, she understood herself as a sensible liberal concerned that more extreme elements were taking the Left to bad places — hostility to marriage and the family, naivete on the evils of communism and Soviet expansionism, even worse naivete on how best to fight poverty and overcome racism and the legacy of Jim Crow.

Eventually, though, she decided, as she famously put it, that "you have to join the side you're on." She became, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that she confirmed that she had become, a conservative.

By the time I met her, she was an icon in the conservative movement. She had founded and directed a major organization to defend democracies against Soviet communism, she was on the board of the Heritage Foundation, and she was in constant demand to appear at conservative events and in the media to represent the conservative point of view. I was a fledgling scholar, recently having completed my doctorate in philosophy of law at the University of Oxford and just starting out at Princeton University. I met her and her husband, Norman Podhoretz, at the ordination of our mutual friend Richard John Neuhaus when he became a Catholic priest after converting from Lutheranism. Soon she was informally and then later formally working with Neuhaus at his Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things magazine.

The institute functioned as a kind of seminar. An extraordinary collection of distinguished senior scholars included the great Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, the eminent scholar of Jewish law and ethics Rabbi David Novak, influential Catholic thinkers Michael Novak, Mary Ann Glendon, and George Weigel, the illustrious political theorist Hadley Arkes, the esteemed Protestant theologian Robert Jenson, and more. When we met in person, the meetings were extremely lively. The younger scholars, including me, philosopher Russell Hittinger, legal scholar Gerard Bradley, literary critic Joseph Bottum, and a few more, were rambunctious and intellectually ambitious. We were the kids. We jostled and nipped at each other like puppies and challenged our elders in ways that were sometimes productive and sometimes silly. We needed both encouragement and discipline. We needed a mother.

That's where Midge came in.

Midge was often a participant in meetings even before becoming an editor and full-time employee of the institute and the magazine. Her stature was beyond doubt. To the kids, most of whom, as it happened, were Catholics, Midge was the voice of common sense. She was also the disciplinarian. She encouraged us to speak up, not to be timid, indeed to be confident and intellectually bold. But she would step in, usually, though not always, gently but nonetheless firmly, when we were being obscurantist or pompous, taking the discussion off in an unfruitful direction, digging ourselves into a hole, making fools of ourselves, or showing off. She had an infallible sense of when we were talking nonsense even when we were deep in the weeds holding forth on topics in our areas of scholarly expertise where she herself had no training or background. She was in the role of Samuel Johnson admonishing her gang of little James Boswells to "rid your mind of cant."

I'm often complimented, even by people who disagree with me, on the clarity of my written work and oral presentations. If there's any truth in it, the credit belongs to Midge. She would simply stop me when I was being obscure. She would insist that I make my points more clearly, in plain English. If I would protest that the complexity of the philosophical problem I was addressing made it impossible to be any clearer, she would refuse to accept that. And she was always right. We were never offended by her admonitions for the same reason children are generally not offended by their mother's rebukes: We knew she loved us, thought the world of us, wanted the best for us, wanted us to be the greatest, and was certain we would be. What's more, we knew she would do anything for us. We knew that it was not about her. It was about us — about making us the best, most publicly useful scholars we could be. We knew she believed in us.

One more thing: She could be wickedly funny, and her admonitions and rebukes always took advantage of her talent for humor — not to make us the butt of jokes but to make us laugh at ourselves.

I once heard a guy in his late 20s or thereabouts explain to her that he had been a liberal in his youth and all the way through college but became a conservative when he graduated, got a job, and saw how much money the government took from his salary in taxes. "Young man," Midge replied, "someone who becomes a conservative for money is not a conservative." She paused as he took in the point, then delivered her punchline: "He's merely a Republican." He and the rest of us broke into laughter.

Our Jewish mother never failed to greet her kids with a kiss on the cheek and give us each a good looking over. And while she would, if necessary, be generous with criticism of, say, an essay one of us had written that she had seen and had some disagreements with, heaven help the person who spoke ill of us in her presence or suggested that our destinies were anything less than future greatness.

My early impression was correct: Midge was indeed tough and smart. But I learned that she was also generous, kind, and loving. She was this Catholic kid's Jewish mom.

Robert P. George is McCormick professor of jurisprudence and the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.


Anonymous said...

But could she cook?


Anonymous said...

From Anonymous:

All this may be true, but considering Midge Decter as a literal mother of the execrable John Podhoretz, I don't think that such eulogies are quite in order. Exactly what values did Midge Decter instill in him? JPod, as he is sometimes known, has repeatedly attacked conservative writers in the crudest, most childish terms. When John Derbyshire was fired from "National Review" in 2012 after publishing "The Talk" in, JPod approved, writing in "Commentary" Apr. 9, 2012 that the "noxious seeds" [of racism] had "finally blossomed into full poisonous flower with his latest piece." Podhoretz has spent years denouncing the blogger Steve Sailer. For example, in exchanging views on birthright citizenship, which he approves of, JPod wrote to Sailer in 2005, "Please keep attacking me. It's how I know I'm not a bigoted, racist scum" (7/17/05). Twelve years later he called Sailer "loathsome repllant [sic] racist filth" for a mild photoshop joke on Twitter about Hurricane Harvey (8/31/17). And here he is on Twitter railing against VDare's Peter Brimelow as "a racist swine" for defending white Americans concerned about their displacement (4/29/18). I could go on and on.

Nicholas said...

You’re absolutely right.

“My John Podhoretz Problem—and Ours”

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to your devastating VDare piece.