My Seven Decades
In Love and War
(Regan/Harper/Collins)Ms. Decter is a New York writer and editor, and her works have appeared in Harpers, The Atlantic, The National Review, and The New Republic, among others. For the last forty years or so, she has been married to Norman Podhoretz, past editor of Commentary. She also started an organization to fight what she felt was the liberal bias in the press in this country, the Committee for the Free World (CFW). In the last few years, she has been a member of the board of directors of the Heritage Foundation.
Ms. Decter obviously enjoys being a spokeswoman for the right --- laughingly telling us that liberals refer to her as "the dragon lady" --- and Old Wife's Tale is jam-packed with her opinions on pre-marital sex, hippies, "women's libbers," American schooling, our foreign policy, civil rights, Viet-Nam, political protests, and AIDS.
Ms Decter does have a couple of problems that pop up in this, her life's story. One is that old bugaboo of those who are never sure whether we're going to like them or not: telling us about their old and dear friends. "I called the editor, Victor Navasky, someone I had known in my youth..." "The critic (and my onetime boss and dear friend) Robert Warshow..." "My old friend Bayard Rustin..."
There's another, more annoying tic in Decter's literary bag-of-tricks. Her writing is not unlike that of the students I once had in a course called "Bonehead English." Their papers were always heavily speckled with unsupported, arbitrary, unfounded opinions --- stuff that would cause me to write SOURCE? in the margins. For instance,
Aside from a call to resistance here and there, for the present the idea of masculine-style sexual freedom for women is now too deeply ingrained in the culture of the educated middle class to be confronted head on by anyone but those with an appetite for verbal armed struggle.
This and similar passages --- and there are a mountain of them in Old Wife's Tale --- make us want to suggest that, if she plans a follow-up, Ms. Decter get one of those well-connected friends of hers to find her an editor to work with her on Old Wife's Tale, Vol. II,. At least, let us bury phrases like "an appetite for verbal armed struggle" before they see the light of day.
Concurrently with this, in order to make Ms. Decter's fighting words a bit more palatable --- or at least somewhat more readable --- we would encourage her to immerse herself in the writings of some of the masters of American conservatism. A couple of months studying the essays of William Buckley might be appropriate. He's learned, he can make us laugh (even if we disagree with him) and, unlike her, he taught himself long ago to lace his opinions with facts.
She might even consider having a personal tutorial with Mr. Buckley if he would be willing to put up with her long enough to show her the ins and outs of framing a worthy sentence.
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From my somewhat deranged perspective, her politics seem to have been cast early on in the days of Vlad the Impaler. This is Decter on Central America:
[We] found ourselves first becoming passionate about a leftist insurgency in El Salvador, which was more or less effectively being held off by the democratically elected government of the place, and then even more seriously preoccupied with the successful takeover of Nicaragua by a Communist-dominated coalition called the Sandinistas....[A] peasant army called the Contras were fighting...to overturn the newly installed Sandinista regime....The question essentially boiled down to this: was the government of the United States going to oppose the spread of Communism into our very own neighborhood or not?
We would hope that for her next opus she might want to immerse herself in a study of what we laughingly call The Facts. And we have a somewhat odd idea as to how she could learn the truth about the complicated world of Central American political history. From what she tells us, she a concerned and loving person --- and with three children now grown, and having given up her most recent job, she's more or less sitting around twiddling her thumbs and grouching about "women libbers."
Having shown a profound interest in Central America, we figure she might volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee. It's a private non-profit group associated with the Quakers. They send volunteers down to Nicaragua to work with poor peasants for six months or a year. They teach families techniques for effective farming, how to protect against erosion, and how to grow suitable crops for their personal consumption, rather than bananas for United Fruit.
The AFSC also gives detailed instruction in modern sanitation techniques and ingenious strategies for protecting children against malaria, changas, and dengue --- which regularly savage the Nicaraguans who live in the lowlands.
These volunteers are there to try to help make amends for the damaging civil war that the United States, through the aegis of the CIA, helped to wage in the cities and countryside of Nicaragua --- a war that destroyed the lives of too many innocent men, women, and children. With her enthusiasm and energy, we would think that Ms. Decter would make an excellent volunteer, and we'd guess that after a few months with people who actually survived this devastation, she would have some interesting tales to bring back to us, some facts about what really went on in that war between the Contras and the Sandinistas. By befriending Nicaraguan women --- who, after all, had to pick up the pieces --- she'll learn much about who really did what to whom.
We look forward to her undertaking this project --- and to the enlightening report that she could offer in her next book.
Note: The title's allusion is to either the Old Wives' Tale --- a play from the 16th Century --- or Arnold Bennett's novel of the same name from 1908. The first is very merry; the second, tragic. We could find echoes of neither in Ms. Decters' extended diatribe.--- Carlos Amantea