Since my review of Ramesh Ponnuru’s book Party of Death appeared last week, I have been buttonholed–and last night, at a big gathering of conservatives, well-nigh mobbed–by people asking me whether I was not concerned that Ramesh might be seriously bent out of shape by the negative remarks in my review. (I have not yet been asked if Ramesh would be bent back into shape by the many positive remarks.) My stock reply has been: “Ramesh is a big boy, a very smart boy, and he’s been round the block a few times. He can take care of himself pretty well.”
So it has proved. Ramesh has a spirited response up on NRO, giving quite as good as he got–and then some, I have an uncomfortable suspicion. Plainly we could go on rebutting and counter-rebutting indefinitely, until the referee parted us. I don’t myself much feel like doing this, for reasons which I hope will emerge from what follows.
From a coldly commercial point of view, there is actually a case for continuing the fight. When Ramesh and I had a brief round of fisticuffs on The Corner last year, at the time of Mrs. Schiavo’s death, I got numerous reader e-mails to the effect: “This is great! We don’t see enough of this from you guys!” It was, in fact, the memory of that, of the vitality boost Ramesh and I unwittingly (we were both just speaking our minds, with no particular thought of treating Corner readers to pugilistic thrills) gave to The Corner at that time, that helped dispel my doubts about reviewing P.o.D.
And doubts I had. Reviewing a colleague’s book is never a really brilliant idea, unless you are a swooning fan. My motivations for doing that review of P.o.D. were: (1) To help out the New English Review people with their venture in web journalism. They are personal friends, and I thought a controversial review might get them some readers. I hope it has. (2) Via the same controversy, to make a bit of noise on behalf of Ramesh’s book, the MSM neglect of which is–as I said in my review–shameful. (Though I wrote my review before the WSJ published theirs.) Good writing, including good polemical writing, should always get noticed. I don’t know if Ramesh, or his agent or editor, or any of his fans, has tracked the Amazon sales progress of P.o.D. this past few days. If anyone has, I’d be interested to know the results. “There is no such thing as bad publicity” is a pretty good rule in cases like this. And (3) to perk up The Corner a bit. No offense to anyone at all, and indeed I write as a mid-level and pretty steady Corner contributor myself, but we go through some dull patches now & then. So readers tell me.
On reflection, I must say, I wish my doubts had prevailed. There is a matter of fine judgment here, and I now think I got it wrong. On the one hand, there’s collegiality. On the other, spirited controversy.
Collegiality: We at NR are all involved in the same enterprise, we all sink or swim with that enterprise, and the ordinary conflicts and abrasions that occur among any group of opinionated people need to be watched, managed, and to some degree suppressed in the interest of keeping the thing afloat. We should, to Buckleyize the point, eschew rancor. I honestly thought, and still think, I did so eschew; and in this connection, I believe that the construction Ramesh has put on those parts of my review he found most obnoxious, will not be supported by a fair-minded reader–nor even, I hope, by Ramesh himself, if he re-reads them with a cold eye.
Controversy: The first question I ever asked of the National Review editors, over lunch in a Thai restaurant on Third Avenue some years ago, when they first recruited me into the family, was: How strict is the “line” at NR? They replied that there was really no “line,” that all major strains of modern American conservatism were represented, the magazine’s character being determined by the proportions of their representation. I have found this to be true. This gives us scope for disagreement; and from its earliest days NR has been enlivened by internal disagreements. “Life” issues should by no means be exempt from such disagreement. Lots of conservatives see nothing much wrong with abortion or euthanasia. One of the two or three greatest conservatives of my lifetime has been Margaret Thatcher, a firm supporter of abortion rights. Similarly, plenty of conservatives, including this one, would be delighted to see Rudy Giuliani’s name on a presidential ballot. Disagreements over “life” issues are a fundamental part of the conservative conversation.
Still, I now wish I had let collegiality trump controversy. The main reason I wish this is, that Ramesh is much more bent out of shape than I anticipated he would be. I don’t know why I misjudged this (I suspect it is something to do with my style–see below), and I regret having done so. I like and admire Ramesh tremendously as a person, and would be very sorry to think we were estranged. Not that such things don’t inevitably happen from time to time in the course of life and work, but Ramesh is one of the last people I would wish it to happen with. I admire his intellect very much (though see below again), and his swift wit even a little more. A National Review editorial meeting at which Ramesh is present has twice as many laughs as one that doesn’t–and we laugh a lot at the dullest of times.
Having decided to do the review, though, I did it as fairly as I could, going to some pains to praise the things I liked about P.o.D. The style of the review is just mine, and I shall not apologize for it. If it’s sometimes florid and a bit mannered, well, that’s how I write, and I’m too old to change my ways. I understand a lot of people–obviously including Ramesh–don’t like it, but that is always the case with a writer’s style. There isn’t anything to be done about it. A lot of readers do like my style, and write to tell me so (thank you!) That’s how it goes with writing.
To return to the point about Ramesh’s intellect: Yes, there is a deep difference of temperament here. Ramesh really is an intellectual, and I will admit, grudgingly, that the Right needs some intellectuals. I am not an intellectual, as I have said many times. Here, for instance:
I am not really an intellectual. Philosophy puts me to sleep, I can’t read it. I keep trying Roger Scruton’s books, but I just can’t get past page 30. I’m really not very good at connected thinking, and work mostly from impressions. The upside of this is that most people are the same as me, so lots of readers see their own thought processes reflected in mine, and they like that. The downside is that I nurse a nagging sense of inferiority towards people who really have read all the deep-brow stuff, thought everything through and made a coherent belief-system out of it in their heads.
That “nagging sense of inferiority” I nurse certainly embraces Ramesh. The effect on my self-esteem, however, is wonderfully slight, since I have read lots of 20th-century history and know what a pig’s ear intellectuals always make of things when they get their hands on the levers of power. When I feel an intellectual mood coming over me, I go and read (or write–did you think I was going to get through this without plugging MY book?) some math, the only form of intellection that is perfectly harmless. I hope it won’t be thought immodest if I say that I really believe that an un-intellectual–all right, anti-intellectual–voice like mine has a place in the conservative conversation too.
So far as Ramesh’s particular points are concerned, I urge interested readers to buy his book, read my review, and make up their own minds. (Though I can’t resist helping out a little: “abortion is a terrible act of violence against the young” is on page 2; “evidence that the ratifiers [all right, all right, I said ‘Framers’ in my review] of the Fourteenth Amendment considered the unborn to be ‘persons’ worthy of protection…” is on page 16.) I especially urge them to buy Ramesh’s book. It is, to quote from my review, “an exceptionally fine piece of polemical writing.” Oh, and, to quote again from my review: “the title is perfect–just the one I would have chosen myself in Ponnuru’s place.” I think that so far Ramesh and I are the only people who like that title. At least we agree on something.
And if it’s argument you’re wanting, Ross Douthat has a pretty good thread going here, prefaced with some remarks about myself that struck me as so creepily accurate I had to think hard to come up with any quibbles (but eventually did so–scroll down through the comments a bit).