Patricia Cohen Stays on the Intolerant Intellectual Conservative Beat

Patricia Cohen says the conservative journal Commentary "has an us-versus-them view of the world and has been unforgiving of family members who publicly air disagreements. Mr. Balint, however, concludes that such obeisance has hurt Commentary."

In March 2009, Times arts writer Patricia Cohen found academic bias against liberals, which is like finding dinosaurs in Central Park. This April 28 she jumped into an arcane internecine debate among conservative intellectuals. She made the same point in her latest piece, on Saturday, on a famed neo-conservative opinion journal: "Commentary Is All About Commentary These Days." Once again, Cohen is alleging intolerance of dissent in the conservative intellectual movement.

From her Arts section piece about Commentary:

The evolution of a tiny group of mostly Jewish New York intellectuals from left-wing radicals in the late 1930s and '40s to confidants of the Reagan and both Bush administrations continues to fascinate. Those who made the journey from left to right, and those who jumped off the rope swing along the way, have already told their pungent versions of events in books, memoirs, manifestos, documentaries, magazines, newspapers and conferences.

But Cohen focused on a new critical history by Benjamin Balint, whose "impressive conservative credentials" she boosted, even as she quoted his book accusing the neo-conservative magazine of being intolerant of political dissent.

And then there is the new "Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right" (PublicAffairs), by Benjamin Balint, a former editor at the magazine with impressive conservative credentials. Mr. Balint said his aim was to explain how the history of Commentary and its take-no-prisoners approach to politics was also a history of Jews in America, of unprivileged and marginalized outsiders becoming consummate insiders.

Why does Cohen emphasize Balint's "conservative credentials," which should go without saying given his previous employment? Perhaps because he's about to lay into his former employers.

In writing "Running Commentary," Mr. Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington (where Mr. Podhoretz is an adjunct fellow), said, "I tried not to be polemical." That comment may surprise those familiar with a journal that frequently has an us-versus-them view of the world and has been unforgiving of family members who publicly air disagreements.

Mr. Balint, however, concludes that such obeisance has hurt Commentary. "Once a magazine's mind is settled, once it brooks fewer challenges to its certainties, its momentum flags," he writes, adding that Commentary's style is "more cramped and crabbed than before, the pages less commodious."

As if left-wing magazines like The Nation or In These Times are famous for welcoming outside opinions!

Now that Mr. Balint lives in Israel, he said he was harder pressed to label his politics.

"I wouldn't know how to classify them," he said. "The longer I live here, the more I see how complicated it is, and the less the labels of right wing and left wing seem useful to me."

Raw Story, a left-wing news website, obtained a more politically revealing statement from Balint suggesting the author has become disillusioned with neoconservatism:

Benjamin Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right, says that even despite their overly rosy predictions surrounding Iraq, neoconservatives have remained steadfast.

They've offered "not a heart-searching mea culpa, not a re-examination of first principles, but very nearly the opposite," Balint says.

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