Recalling the life and many achievements of the writer and editor Midge Decter, who passed away on Monday at the age of ninety-four, Tevi Troy calls attention to her active engagement in political affairs. Decter in 1972 helped to establish the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, which aimed to rescue the Democratic party from its more radical elements. In 1981, she founded the Committee for a Free World, dedicated to combatting Communism. At the root of both projects, writes Troy, was Decter’s opposition to the hard left:
This left, with its rejection of tradition and authority, made her uncomfortable. As she wrote in Commentary in 1982, “The refusal to be bound by rules, any rules, turned children against their elders, impelled them to don rags and roam the country simulating poverty, destroy their brains with drugs, burn books, and rage against the very idea of responsibility, social, intellectual, or personal.”
She was also a staunch anti-Communist. As she would write, Commentary’s “true animating passion was a deep hatred for Communism in any and all of its manifestations.” She felt that the Democratic Party of the 1970s was wavering on that principle. Unlike many of her fellow neoconservatives, she had never had a Marxist phase. “The only grand posturing of my teens,” she once recalled, “had been a declared intention to die on the barricades in Palestine” [fighting Arab aggression]. To her, the George McGovern Democrats of the early 1970s no longer upheld the liberal anti-Communist banner she held dear.
In his own remembrance, Yuval Levin praises Decter as a “a powerful and penetrating writer” and seeks to identify the threads connecting her social criticism with her political ideals:
Her essays could see right to the core of the failures of the modern left—often long before those failures become apparent as a practical matter to everyone with eyes to see. Her early collections, The Liberated Woman and The New Chastity, from the early 1970s, are full of insights that our society would take decades to grasp, but which Decter could see in real time because she took the radicals’ unseriousness seriously and understood where their moral recklessness would lead.
The need to take responsibility for what was breaking down in our society was a theme to which she would recur for decades—refusing to let Americans get away with blaming the degradation of our culture on anyone but ourselves.
For me, perhaps the most powerful articulation of the point came in an extraordinary essay that was my first exposure to Decter—a piece called “A Jew in Anti-Christian America,” published in First Things in 1995, when I was a college freshman. It’s not her greatest or most lasting piece of writing, but it combines autobiography, social analysis, and startling insight in her characteristic “force for good” style. You should read it today. In it she argues, among other things, that the radicalism she had warned of in the 70s had evolved into a combination of arrogance and nihilism that she described as the philosophy of “why not?” and “so what?”