Dwight Macdonald at 100

One of my favorite journalists profiles one of my intellectual heroes in the New York Times Book Review. Here's Wolcott on a characteristic performance by Macdonald at a panel discussion on American civilization:

His foil on the panel was The New Republic's eternal film critic, Stanley Kauffmann, the gentlemanly soul of generosity, who at one point said he didn't want to speak slightingly of "the popcorn crowd," which made Macdonald crack, "Aw, go ahead." Kauffmann: "No, no; Ingmar Bergman has remarked that those who go to see a Doris Day film — forgive me, is she still alive? — may go to see one of his films the following week. Often in the same theater." Macdonald: "They shouldn't be allowed to." Back and forth they bantered, like a couple of cranky pigeons on a park bench, until Kauffmann explained to the audience that Macdonald came from the Mencken generation, more comfortable responding to culture with a cynical No rather than an embracing Yes. Macdonald pleaded guilty, but argued that experience had taught him the wisdom of heeding his inner veto power: "When I say no I'm always right, and when I say yes I'm almost always wrong."

That last line could have served as Macdonald's credo. He was apt to say the same thing in other contexts — "Whenever I had a hope or a dream, whenever I proposed anything, it never worked out. I'm almost always right when I'm negative," he told Jeff Simon of the Buffalo Evening News in 1973.

And how does that "just say no" philosophy translate into politics? In the same interview (reprinted in Interviews With Dwight Macdonald) he tells Simon, "I'm not a revolutionist and I'm not a pacifist. I'm a conservative anarchist. I believe in the continutiy of things and I don't want to interefere with things by abstract solutions." He fleshed out the idea a little in another interview that same year (also reprinted in Interviews With…):

"We should adopt a kind of ad hoc approach [to social or political problems] and not try to push everybody into one mold, whoever he is, whether he is a Communist or Capitalist. You should have a sense of the limitations of human thought and feeling and also of the continuity of human existence and of the fact that a perfect institution would be completely dead, just as a perfect person. The only time people ever get perfect is when they die."

Those who do believe in pushing others into their preferred molds have their own corollary to that last thought: that the world can be made a better, more perfect place by killing people. They're grateful for the tools of preventive war, abortion, and capital punishment — or any two of the three, at any rate.


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