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MSNBC is difficult to watch these days, but so is Fox News. The warring ideologies are so comfortable in their alarmism, and their certitude about being the noble, much put-upon victims of the other side, that it’s painful to tune into either channel. Probably in a binary situation bereft of books, newspapers and magazines Fox would get the nod from yours truly, but only because some of the hosts on Fox are legitimately funny.

The execrable nature of the two cable networks came to mind while reading former publisher and owner of The New Republic Martin Peretz’s new, and thoroughly unputdownable new memoir, The Controversialist: Arguments With Everyone, Left Right and Center. Describing Fox and MSNBC early on, he laments that the “warring parties cannot even refer to a shared reality.” He puts it so well. I lean Fox (for several years I was a cast member on the late, great Forbes on Fox), but can’t presently watch the channel without rolling my eyes every few seconds.

Peretz seemingly does the same when watching MSNBC, or name your left-leaning news show. As he acknowledged toward book’s end, “I’d grown up on the left, and now I had lost the left.” The surest sign of Peretz’s separation from the left he helped shape at The New Republic (TNR from now on), is that when he wrote an opinion piece in 2013 criticizing the drift of TNR from center-left after its sale to “new money technocrats” (think Chris Hughes, an early Facebook employee), it was published on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, surely the Holy Grail of right-leaning opinion. Peretz’s pro individual freedom, anti-communist, and hawkish views certainly made him more of a fit at the Journal by the 2000s than most any publication on the left. In the left’s defense, it should be said that publications and shows from both sides increasingly feed their flocks. More on this later in the review.

For now, it will be reiterated that Peretz’s memoir is just great. As a small l libertarian, my strong sense is that he and I would agree on a lot, but disagree on a lot too. Peretz’s insights into people, historical events, and the world around us are so interesting. About the title of the memoir, Peretz describes a controversialist as “someone determined to stir the pot.” That he surely does, and he always has to his everlasting credit.

Indeed, while TNR has long had a reputation as left-leaning relative to National Review’s right-leaning magazine, it’s easily forgotten that TNR was the longtime home of numerous conservative heroes including Fred Barnes, Glenn Loury, Morton Kondracke, and Charles Krauthhammer. Andrew Sullivan was at one time the magazine’s editor. Peretz is the embodiment of “stir the pot,” and to read about the thinkers he cultivated from both sides is to hope that there will be more like him (Peretz is 84) on the way. For now, there’s a lot of preaching to the choir by the dominant ideologies.

Peretz is the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. The story of Peretz’s father in particular is a reminder of why we erect barriers to the immigrants stateside at our peril. Peretz’s father was the owner of a pocketbook factory, an apartment landlord, plus he was a “zealous anti-communist.” He was a patriot who would say with pride that “I’m going to die in America.” His father’s background clearly informs Peretz’s own unwillingness to fully embrace some of the hard left’s most common absurdities. For instance, when activists from Peretz’s 1960s world gathered on his porch in Cambridge to sing “anti-Semitic songs about Jewish landlords overcharging and evicting black tenants in Harlem,” Peretz “threw them off the porch.” Having witnessed his father at work, Peretz knew he “wasn’t a bad guy as a landlord and always gave errant tenants, white or black, another week or month.”

At the same time, Peretz’s relationship with his father was troubled. This is noted in the review just because it fascinates me. As Peretz explains it, his father “was angry all the time. The atmosphere he created in our home was a frightening one.” Frightening fathers are so common to Peretz’s era, and so rare nowadays. The Great Santini (released in 1979) is a popular movie with people in Peretz’s age range mainly because so many can relate. It’s still a good movie in 2023, but the bet here is that most twenty or thirtysomethings of the moment wouldn’t get “Bull” Meechum. As for the babies being born today, no chance. The question posed here is why? Why have fathers changed so much? My own speculation is that thoroughly ridiculous numbers like GDP, the “trade deficit,” unemployment and other full-employment notions created for economists don’t come close to explaining just how abundant modern life is, particularly in America. It’s not just that we’re exponentially richer, but we’re also exponentially more fulfilled as wondrous automation frees us from the work we formerly had to do, in favor of work we can’t not do.

Think Peretz himself. His life has been one defined by ideas. He’s a controversialist. He’s made a good, and realistically great living stirring the pot. His father once again owned a pocketbook factory, and pried rent from tenants who likely dreaded the sight of him. Sorry, but life is better. Much better. And because it’s much better, we’re all much happier.

Consider also the world that Peretz was born into. He arrived in 1938, which means he came into the world 23 years after the Armenian genocide, twenty years after the needless tragedy that was World War I, followed by the Great Depression, Hitler, World War II, the nuclear bomb, socialism in England, the Soviet Union’s wrapping of substantial parts of Europe in communism, etc. etc. Please think about what it was like to be a parent then, relative to the present. Think of it in terms of the 2016 election when MSNBC watchers nodded along to predictions that the U.S. would collapse under Donald Trump, the nodding similar to that done by Fox watchers when it was speculated that Hillary Clinton might win.

It’s a long way of saying our problems at present are so microscopic relative to what the world was like when Peretz was born. No wonder his father was so angry? The world was truly on fire. Its greatest countries twice tried to commit suicide. It was hard not to think about this later in the book when Peretz wrote about Al Gore’s pivot from near-president to global warming activist. Peretz, likely out of respect for Gore, merely acknowledges that fear of a warming planet didn’t register as much with him as it did for Gore. The bet here is that in private Peretz might be more expansive with his skepticism? Again, consider the world he came up in. Yet now the alarmists on the left worry endlessly about a warming planet? And the alarmists on the right think our demise will be a consequence of parents choosing to not procreate as much? Oh wow, we must be prosperous and free of real worries to fear such irrelevancies! That’s what I want to imagine Peretz secretly thinks. Left and right today have no idea how good they have it, and how small are their crises. More on Gore later.

For now, it should be added that Peretz’s book is so vivid. Brutally so at times, uplifting at others. One anecdote comes from Peretz’s early life that arguably helps inform his father’s difficult countenance. Though they were in America, danger was so close, including for family members. Peretz’s family is once again from Poland, there were many relatives there when Hitler did what he so tragically did. One of Peretz’s cousins “spent the first four years of his life hiding from the Nazis behind a barn door. He didn’t talk much. In 1950, when we were both eleven, he threw himself from the fifth-floor fire escape.” On a happier note, “Another relative, Charlie, a big, strong, handsome guy, went back to Germany in 1946 or maybe 1947, found out the identities of some ex-Nazi soldiers who had been in a unit that had occupied Levertov [where relatives were in Poland], and killed three of them. Then he came back to America, where he proudly told everyone what he had done.” What a different world it was nearly 80 years ago, and the view here is that the horrors of what came before thoroughly discredit much of the alarmism embraced by the warring ideologies of today. We’re so lucky, while the alarmists are both lucky and spoiled.

For high school, Peretz attended public school, specifically the highly-regarded Bronx High School of Science. He observes that something like 80 percent of the students at New York City’s elite public schools at the time were Jewish. This rates mention as a reminder to conservatives that the biggest driver of a good school isn’t whether it’s public or private, but who attends the school. Where there are conscientious kids frequently raised by parents with high expectations, there are good schools. Always. Conservatives are convinced that “school choice” will “break the government school monopoly” and solve the problem of failing public schools. On its face this sounds wise as competition lifts all boats. Except that a lack of competition isn’t the problem. What ails schools is students who aren’t interested, and who don’t show up to learn, not the fact that they’re public or private.

Notable here is that Peretz attended Brandeis University after Bronx High School of Science. As he describes it, Brandeis “was fulfilling a specific function: it was assimilating mostly Left-American Jewish thinkers and smart American Jewish kids who might be accepted to the University of Chicago, but not to the Ivy Leagues.” Where it gets interesting is that he adds “Once we were accepted everywhere, Brandeis wasn’t needed and began to fade.” The latter arguably explains the decline of public schools in New York City. Far Rockaway High used to educate Nobel Laureates, and no doubt Peretz is aware of how City University of New York formerly educated all manner of great Jewish thinkers who were featured in a 1998 documentary, Arguing the World. Did the quality of education at Far Rockaway and City University of New York decline, or did both “fade” once Jewish students no longer needed them?

About the deep intellectuals that Peretz ran around with post-college, most were Jewish. This rates mention mainly because by Peretz’s own admission, the crowd was dense with socialists and communists. As notable thinker Herbert Marcuse put it to Peretz, “Not for nothing were we called the Office of Stalin’s Servants.” Marcuse was referring to the OSS where he once worked, which is now known as the CIA. Marcuse relayed to Peretz that while at the OSS, his friends (in the words of Peretz) “were Marxists,” that while they “might not all have passed information along to the Soviets,” their “hearts were with Stalin.” Memory says that Carl Bernstein confirmed much the same about his own parents, who were similarly in government, and who apparently told him that Sen. Joe McCarthy was right about the deep penetration of communists within the federal government.

Readers can conclude what they want from the density of communists in government from the Cold War era, but in the eyes of the rabid anti-communist that was and is Peretz, “None of these people were thinking real revolution. Communism in America was a fantasy; anybody with any sense of reality knew it.” This is of crucial importance. Perhaps it can be said that communism was a pose, a style. Evidence supporting the previous claim can be found in Peretz’s description of Max Palevsky, “a pioneer in computer science who sold his company to Xerox in 1969 for $920 million.” About Palevsky, Peretz writes that “Max wanted to be thought of as a man on the Left – that was what sophisticated people did.” Again, there was a posing quality to the left lean, and arguably there still is.

This isn’t meant to excuse the murderous ideology that was and is communism, but it is meant to calm the modern communist alarmists on the right who fear TikTok and other social media are polluting American thought. Try to be serious. Americans love life’s comforts way too much to seriously entertain collectivism, as do the Chinese. A visit to China for those who haven’t been would confirm this truth. The Chinese people are conducting a passionate love affair with all things American. If the CCP can’t convince its own people of how bad the U.S. is, good luck convincing the American people to seriously embrace what is fantasy.

Eventually Peretz made his way to Harvard, where he worked for fifty years as an assistant professor. As he describes it, his arrival at Harvard was “a social leap into the domain of ruling Protestant America.” Yes! For Harvard to remain great, it could no longer be exclusionary, either to students or professors. This is one of many reasons I so very much loathed the Supreme Court’s decisionbanning” affirmative action on U.S. college campuses. There was no need to. Schools should be free to choose their students as they wish, professors, and you name it. Let the markets solve this. While Harvard was formerly very Protestant as Peretz alludes, now it’s not. Those formerly discriminated against are now being discriminated against based on over-representation. How things change. The point here is that Harvard should once again be free to choose its students, and at the same time be free to not choose academically qualified individuals who will undoubtedly thrive elsewhere, and who might eventually earn billions. In other words, Harvard should be free to err or not err in favor of races, children of privilege, athletes, or name your group. How libertarians and conservatives could support the Supreme Court essentially writing Harvard’s admission policies will forever remain a mystery. Why not allow markets to work? They did in the case of Peretz, and many other non-Protestants like him.

That Peretz reached Harvard and thrived there also bears mention considering the times we’re in. Peretz’s book was of course published before the October 7, 2023 tragedy in Israel whereby animalistic members of Hamas ruthlessly murdered over 1,000 Israelis. Subsequent to the tragedy, much ink was spilled about growing antisemitism on U.S. campuses, of how “this time is different” as Jewish students increasingly feel isolated, hated, etc. My own reply was that the commentary didn’t nor does it ring true. The bet here is that Peretz would agree that antisemitism was much worse in the past relative today, so much so that he would disdain the very question. This isn’t to excuse instances of it on campus, and it’s certainly not to excuse what happened in Israel, but it is to say that the presumption of rampant antisemitism on elite college campuses imagines schools with a high percentage of Jewish students (it’s estimated that Harvard’s student body is over 30% Jewish) who actively politic and rant against themselves. With left and right there’s always a crisis of some kind.

One of the most interesting aspects of Peretz’s book are the various comments about famous people and families. About the Kennedys, Peretz recalls that the powers-that-be within the family “filled their inner circle with opportunists and imitators” who “never comprehended that the world, the real world, was a different place than they hoped it would be.” One individual close to the Kennedys (and subsequently LBJ), Richard Goodwin, “always looked like he was thinking about what he was going to say next when he wasn’t talking.”

Regarding George McGovern, long lionized by members of the left, Peretz writes that he “would have been a disaster for the country – maybe for the world.” Is Peretz right? That’s what makes the book so interesting. As a libertarian, Peretz is much more hawkish than me or my crowd, yet most would consider me and my crowd “hard right” versus Peretz’s center left. Interesting here is that Peretz writes of how the “only responsible people” on the matter of the Soviet nuclear threat “were the Reaganites.” It’s interesting mainly because I lunch nearly every week with Cato Institute co-founder Ed Crane (what I’d give to see Peretz and Crane converse!), and it was Crane who, upon returning from a visit to the Soviet Union in 1981 (with Charles Koch, no less), subsequently wrote a spectacular essay (“Fear and Loathing In the Soviet Union”) in which he concluded that members of the left were thoroughly mindless for imagining that the Soviets had an economy, but that members of the right were similarly mindless for imagining that a wrecked, odiferous country populated with hunched over, miserable people represented any kind of threat to the U.S. It’s a long way of saying that what had Peretz fearful about McGovern (foreign policy issues) would not have worried Crane. Ideally this helps explain why so many libertarians are so offended when they’re referred to as conservatives. Not remotely.

About gay marriage, Peretz is rightly proud that TNR ran a cover-story supporting gay marriage in 1985, but then Crane and other libertarians like Charles Koch always supported individual choice on the matter of gay marriage, they were always skeptical about foreign policy adventurism, and they’ve long supported drug legalization. It’s important to mention all this because books like Wildland (my review here), by frequently wise members of the left like Evan Osnos, portray libertarians as they’re decidedly not. In reality, we’re the liberals. Big time.

Quoting Peretz writing about the thinking of TNR legend Leon Wieseltier, “Liberals were supposed to care about individuals and freedom.” Yes, they should. That’s what true libertarians think and care about. We’re not anti-government because small government “increases GDP” or name your idiotic measure relied on by witless economists, rather we’re for limited government because we’re for freedom. We would be for limited government even if it could be proved that big government directly associates with prosperity. It doesn’t, but that’s how deep our belief in freedom is.

Peretz cites with lament Hillary Clinton’s admonition to conservative Democrat Jim Cooper in the early days of the Bill Clinton administration that “We’ll crush you” for not siding with the administration on Hillary-care, and there lies another libertarian problem with government. The force involved. Peretz also notes that the Clinton DOJ found “nothing constitutionally problematic” with the Defense of Marriage Act, yet it’s the “libertarians” in books like Wildland who are the rigid ones? Rest assured that libertarians never saw anything remotely constitutional about federal limits on choice of any kind, and certainly not government control over whom one marries. Peretz ultimately concluded about the Clintons and their administration that it was defined by “the new American elite, the types of students I’d been so hopeful about when they came to Harvard twenty-five years earlier.”

The most appealing part of Peretz’s book is his discussion of Charles Murray, and his and Andrew Sullivan’s decision (in the face of major protest within the magazine, and outside of it by readers and partisans) to run an excerpt of Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve. Peretz refused to cave to the critics. While Peretz was “happy to publish dissents,” he was not willing “to cater to people’s axiomatic feelings. When you do that, you’re giving up belief in your readers’ power of reason.” Amen. Many times over. Considering this through the prism of Fox News most notably, Rupert Murdoch and conservatives more broadly were surely correct that “major media” slanted left, at which point Fox News filled a major market need. But now it, MSNBC and other media have seemingly gone overboard in their desire to cater to “axiomatic feelings.” And it’s not just the cable networks.

Think conservative or right leaning media too. And think of it with TikTok top of mind. For the longest time conservatives have said (with good reason) that government can’t do business, that when government inserts itself into business matters, it weakens the business, etc. Yet conservatives are convinced that TikTok is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and that the CCP is using it to shape the thinking of Americans. Can conservatives be serious? If the CCP controlled TikTok, we would never have heard of it, and it certainly wouldn’t have 150 million American users. Notable here is that the views just expressed don’t find their way into conservative media, including the editorial page on which Peretz expressed frustration about the drift of TNR in 2013. This isn’t good. People need their most deeply held views challenged. Sadly, they don’t want them challenged (anecdotally my most complete book, They’re Both Wrong, sold the fewest copies by far!), which explains why Peretz’s willingness to challenge his readers with Murray’s viewpoint was so appealing.

A major reason your reviewer launched the Parkview Institute was to act as a “controversialist” on the right, to challenge increasingly hardened views on the right about China, TikTok, immigration, energy autarky, educational vouchers, monetary policy, and yes, the hawkishness that Peretz shares with some strains of the modern right. There’s not enough of this right now. Members of the right complain about censorship, but in a sense they’ve become the censor at times as evidenced by the growing difficulty of publishing or stating opposing views within conservative media.  

All of which brings us to Iraq. To Peretz and TNR’s credit, they admitted they were incorrect about the invasion and attempts to democratize the country as early as 2004. It was then that TNR ran a cover story “We Were Wrong.” It’s only in 2023 that a few on the right are finally admitting same. As Peretz put it in a paraphrase of the late Donald Rumsfeld, he wasn’t aware of how much he didn’t see, “and how much I didn’t know I didn’t see.” About Peretz’s admission, there will be no longwinded foreign policy discussion here. My subject of interest is economics.

At the same time, it’s so interesting to witness the certitude at the moment on the right about how wrongheaded the “isolationists” are about the U.S.’s substantial involvement in Ukraine, our presumed involvement in Taiwan at some point, and in the ongoing chaos that defines the Middle East. To admit one’s skepticism about the ability of the U.S. defense establishment to get all three or even one correct is to invite major criticism from members of the right. Unknown is why. Conservatives make sport of governmental incompetence domestically, but somehow imagine it acquires competence outside our borders?

More on the Middle East and Israel, Peretz was lightly “canceled” in 2010 for observing in a blog post that “frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims…” Ok, but as evidenced by October 7th, and the wanton murder of Israelis by Hamas members fully aware of the muscular response that would follow, life certainly is cheap to all too many Muslims. It’s discussed here given the view among some libertarians that Israel is unquestionably superior to its neighbors not just in a civilization sense, but also a military sense. “Victory” over Hamas is assured, but what’s victory in a part of the world where life is treated so cheaply? Is it worth wasting more Israeli lives on people who view victory as drawing blood without regard to the subsequent cost? Peretz’s memoir isn’t libertarian despite his clear libertarian lean in some areas, but it’s hard to read it without wishing that the libertarian view would finally get its chance on the world stage. From the U.S. preferably…

Did Peretz’s excellent book have weaknesses? Yes, though not all were the fault of the author in Peretz. The reality is that as the economics of publishing worsen, so does the editing. There were word errors (p. 119), and weird pivots. On page 248 Peretz begins a paragraph about JFK Jr.’s George magazine folding two years after his death, then he switches to the “crop of stars” at TNR, then in the next paragraph he pivots to Norman Mailer. It was hard to figure.

About Al Gore, he and Peretz were and seemingly are very close. What I’ll write here isn’t a critique as much as a comment or question: what happened to Gore? Looking back to 1988 when he first ran for president, at the time he seemed cool, good looking, but most of all normal. While I reject Peretz’s view that Earth In the Balance was “important” (oh wow, what a silly book), that’s almost not the point. My point is that by the time Gore ran against George W. Bush in 2000, he was downright strange. It wasn’t just the kiss at the Democratic convention, it was Gore walking up close to Bush during one of their debates. If he’d been at all normal, Gore would have won. But he wasn’t. The kiss, the close talking, the “everyman” dancing at the Sydney Olympics, the “Kennedy-esque” touch football game at the Veep’s mansion as votes were still being counted in the contested 2000 election. Did something happen to Gore? I say this as someone who has written more than once that Bush #43 was the worst president in my lifetime, and no one else comes close. Peretz is critical of so many in his book, and in particular about their demeanor. John Kerry gets hit very hard. Yet Gore comes off so well. Why?

Peretz claims the Republicans didn’t care about AIDS. That’s not fair. Hollywood’s lean is pretty left, but gay actors like Tony Perkins went to great lengths to hide his AIDS diagnosis for fear that he would never work again.

Which leads to Peretz’s personal life: the book plainly wasn’t meant to be about his sexuality, but it’s hard to divine if Peretz wrote the book under the assumption that readers already knew he was either gay or bisexual, or if he wasn’t sure how to introduce the latter. About his longtime wife Anne Labouisse, whom he divorced in 2009, it’s written that she descends from remarkable wealth (Singer Sewing Machine Company, blocks of Manhattan real estate) and lineage (Henry Richardson Labouisse Jr.), but it’s not clear why in later years Peretz no longer had the money to keep TNR afloat as he once had. It seemed her money became their money as is so often the case in marriage, but there was less clarity later on as the finances of TNR became more fraught. Did her money run out, or did the relationship change? At one point Peretz recalls an inability to recall whom he voted for between Bush and Kerry in 2004, and a similar inability to remember when he stopped teaching at Harvard. Neither rang true?

Regardless, the quibbles are small. What a great read The Controversialist was, and will be for readers. 4/5ths through Peretz writes that “the worst sin in the world is coercion.” So true. Freedom is the point. If libertarians and left liberals could agree on this, ideally they could gradually agree on policy more broadly. Peretz has and continues to have arguments with left, right and center presumably with a desire to bring the warring ideologies together. Hopefully more join him in this noble quest after reading his excellent memoir.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, President of the Parkview Institute, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His latest book is The Money Confusion: How Illiteracy About Currencies and Inflation Sets the Stage For the Crypto Revolution.

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