Cover of "Arguing the World"

Cover of Arguing the World

Joseph Dorman‘s Arguing the World (1998) is a dandy documentary about those who constitute what we universally call the New York Intellectuals, who reached adulthood during the early years of the 20th century.  The men featured are Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol.

Because their families were poor, these four gents could and did receive a free education at New York’s City College, albeit they primarily educated themselves there since so many of the profs were mediocre.  A politically radical quartet they became: they were Jews at a time when, the film explains, young Jews were frequently attracted to socialism.  But, except for Howe, they didn’t stay radical.  Their fondness for socialism could not translate into the pro-Communism and even pro-Stalinism that other lefty intellectuals were espousing.  Dorman traces the responses and attitudes of the men to such successive events as the McCarthy hearings, the rise of the New Left, and the Vietnam War protests.

The Partisan Review crowd—this is what they were; they wrote articles for that particular liberal publication.  Diana Trilling appears in the film and says the members of this crowd didn’t know how to behave—“they knew how to think, not how to behave”—but to their credit Bell, et al. found they could not wholly disdain the thinking of the “vulgar” Joe McCarthy.

For his part, Irving Howe calls McCarthy a thug.  A socialist to the end, Howe was also an excellent literary critic, a fact which doesn’t interest Dorman.  What does interest him is that in the Fifties Howe criticized the other Intellectuals for making peace with the status quo, for “conformity,” for renouncing social radicalism.  Irving Kristol wants to know whether Howe was accusing him of “conforming” to the commonly held view that America is a good country, for, after all, Kristol had always had that opinion.

A few years ago I discovered that Kristol commented in a mid-1970s essay of his on how liberalism inevitably makes “a mess of things” before the people vote it out.  Clearly the former radical became anti-Left, and, in point of fact, a conservative.  All four of the men, however, had to encounter the anti-anti-Communism of student rebels of the 1960s, since all four were professors.  Nathan Glazer thought the students were “wrecking the university,” and Bell saw Tom Hayden as “the Richard Nixon of the Left.”  They deplored the New Left’s intellectual superficiality, although in fairness they were offended by the thinking of inexperienced young people, folks no blinder, perhaps, than the Intellectuals themselves when they were young.  Even so, something necessary goes on here.  Dorman interviews the radical Hayden and Todd Gitlin, now middle-aged, and as James Bowman has written, “[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” (  Yep, that’s today’s academic life for you.  Not nearly as worthy as this documentary.