"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Hercules Of The Left - Heavy Lifting And Hernias All For Naught

Harold Levin had been a 97 lb. weakling – a virtual model for the 50s Charles Atlas ad which promised a sculptured, buff physique in thirty days.  He was always the skinny, gawky, geeky kid on the playground, butt of smarmy jokes, always left on the curb, bloodied and bruised, his gabardine pants ripped and smeared; until one day he had had enough.  

He couldn’t do much about his scrawny physique – generations of Levin men all had had a gaunt, dark look. Old sepia prints of great grandfather Isaac in the shtetl showed the same creaky frame, beaky nose, rail-thin legs, and a squint.  Grandfather Saul who had come to America from Poland in the early years of the century was no different. Formal photographs of him on Orchard Street pushing his cart were no different – a scarecrow of a man with sunken eyes.

He would have to get out from under in another way.  Brains were his long suit. For long hours under bad lighting he read the Torah and replayed the Spassky-Fischer World Championship match. If he was to be a geek, the geek, he would have to put some meat on his bones – figuratively of course, for no matter how many potatoes he ate, not an ounce of fat stuck to him.  No, his weight would be in his brain, and he would outthink and outsmart any comers.

He went to Brooklyn College, all smart Jews, Yeshiva, and Schul; but even with this intense intellectual competition, he came out first in his class, and was accepted on full scholarship to the MIT PhD program in theoretical physics.

But Cambridge being the hermetically and uniformly liberal place that it was, and the zeitgeist of the times as liberal as they had ever been, his head was turned from quantum mechanics to social change.  The heroes of his parents – Samuel Gompers, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Louis Brandeis and the entire pantheon of Jewish socialists and progressives – so revered and invoked at suppers with Aunt Sadie and Uncle Herman, Daily Worker journalists and editors, now became real.  

What were the workings of the atom compared to the rot in American society?  How could particles and muons be of any relevance when crony capitalism was eating away at the very fibers of society? When society was at its unequal nadir?

So, to his parents’ inconsolable disappointment, Peter left bosons and relativity for political science.  He would make a difference and make his parents proud.  By this time the old people had given up on labor, community organizing, and socialist reforms and become more Milton Friedman conservatives.  “Now, that’s a Jew for you”, his father was fond of repeating while schvitzing with his alte kocker friends at the Jewish Center in Brighton Beach.

Not surprisingly Harold did well, wrote a seminal dissertation on what would become known as ‘diversity’. Taming the Beast – Racial Equality in a Lacanian Way received recognition far beyond Cambridge especially after it had been edited and excerpted for The New York Review of Books.  Soon after publication, he was approached by the most influential progressive think tanks in Washington and aides to the most hardened and committed liberal Congressmen from both Brooklyn and Cambridge.

“We want you to do the heavy lifting for us”, said the CEO of Americans for Progressive Reform, unaware as to how that innocent aphorism could have resonated so strongly with the young man sitting opposite him over latte and chocolate croissants. Visions of his nasty, brutish playground tormentors returned – ugly Bruce Schwartz and the snarly Bette Gold – as he accepted the generous offer.

‘Heavy lifting’ meant a heavy workload – the movement needed ink, intelligent, MIT script and a convincing oratory.  It had been losing credibility over the past few years because of its failure to connect with those on the fence.  Too much screed, too little promise.  It simply wasn’t enough to hammer on about The Black Man, especially when crime, drugs, assaults, armed robbery, rape, and child abuse were increasing in the black inner cities throughout America.  More had to be said about his native superiority, his iconic tribal African roots – in other words, the ethnology of greatness – and Harold was the man to make it real. 

Unfortunately progressives had always been a dour, unattractive lot– frizzy-haired, lopsided, overly eager, sour women and, to be honest, physically unappealing men like him.  One of the perks of belonging to the movement, he thought, was sexual – the political exuberance of the Sixties had morphed into a sexual abandon that made the days and nights in bus stations and paddy wagons worth it.  Yet here, at this apogee of progressive influence, things were as dead as a doornail. Obsequies rather than poetry.  This would have been the one place where an ugly man could thrive; and maybe even attain the Jewish idyll, a blonde, blue-eyed Candace from Minnesota.

It was not meant to be, so in good Freudian style he sublimated his unsatisfied sexual urges, and became an advocate for progressive causes.  He took on The Black Man, the gender spectrum, Woman, the climate, income inequality, and affordable housing; and was tireless in pursuit of a righteous justice and a new America. 


Heavy lifting became Herculean, and he was feted, praised, and touted by everyone from the most senior Democrats in Congress to the lowest ward heeler and street activist in Chicago.

Harold was indefatigable, a champion, a long distance runner of stamina and fortitude.  A man to be admired, a model.

No man on a pinnacle can ever remain there for long.  The air is too thin and the view too disconcertingly wide, and some wobbling and an eventual fall is inevitable; and so, after long years at the barricades in places that matter, Harold Levin began to wonder really what was what.  His colleagues' cant, public rectitude, and righteous hectoring began to wear thin. 

Liberals do not become conservatives overnight.  There has to be a gradual unclogging of arteries, more fluidity, clarity, and accelerated thought; but it takes only one illuminating event to bring the past to a close.  If, after all the predation, territorial wars, brutality, and inhumanity of the Twentieth Century, such offenses still continue; and if the same disregard for polity and community continues to be repeated despite the most optimistic predictions, there must be something to the idea of historical permanence.  Once grasped, never forgotten.  A progressive early, a conservative late, a historical imperative as conclusive as quenching a thirst. 

And so it was with Harold.  Perhaps not one epiphany, one moment in time which cut the knot; rather many things which loosened the knot until it slipped off; but once it did, he was relieved.  No more onerous, dutiful subscription to good causes; no more dark harbingers.  A light, springy step, a happy bursting at the seams. 

Conservatives are no strangers to cant and hyperbole, and the days of William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman are long gone; but the principles remain intact and holding on to them was a bit like remaining Catholic despite the Church's scandals.  

In fact, his embrace of conservatism was a bit monastic.  He wanted no part of pulpit politics and kept his own counsel; but there was no doubting his new movement's logic.  Progressives had gone far off the rails but never seemed to notice.  They banged and hammered on about this and that, assuming that they were loved but stunned when finally the electorate turned them out. 

Harold demurred when asked about his politics.  He still felt sheepish about his adolescent dalliances.  Yet he had turned the corner and his new direction was at least properly lighted.

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