It would be a mistake, however, to write Midge off as a contrary troublemaker. A troublemaker, no doubt. But contrary, no way. She is for freedom, and therefore against totalitarianism; for marriage and family, and therefore against feminism. True, she delights in breaking eggs (probably even more than we delight in watching her perform that operation), but her eye is always on the omelet. Anyone can express opinions about Communism or feminism or anything else under the sun, of course, and most people do. But what is it about those rare individuals like Midge whose thoughts are not only worth reflecting on but also worth setting down in durable print? I think there are at least three things that separate such minds from the common run: They take ideas seriously, they are morally committed to defending ideas that are indispensable to civilization, and their writing bubbles with a wit that draws its energy from a joyous sense of life.
Anyone committed to defend must be willing to fight, and Midge was one of the great though insufficiently appreciated fighters in the late war against Soviet Communism. That war, like most wars, was fought secondarily as one military power against another, but primarily as one philosophy against another, and it was on that ground that Midge earned her ribbons. Her moment of enlistment came, symbolically speaking, one morning in 1979. She was employed as an editor at Basic Books at the time, and Basic had just published a book called The Romance of American Communism, by Vivian Gornick. It was a collection of nostalgic and sentimental portraits of a bunch of American Commies. Midge recalls this moment in her delightful memoirs, An Old Wife's Tale:
A year later she got into the right business, what she remembers as "my very own battle station, called the Committee for the Free World," which she established in New York. From her battle station, she stitched together a national coalition of intellectuals, authors, academics and scientists who possessed the spine to stand unabashedly for capitalism and freedom, and against Communism and its totalitarian fashions. The value of her moral support for this coalition is easy to understate, because one of the left's favorite tactics is to make scapegoats and pariahs of anyone loyal to traditional American values, a loyalty that is especially intolerable in the world of letters.
Recall that the Committee was born at the dawn of the Reagan presidency, when standing tall against the Evil Empire was giving conniption fits to liberals accustomed to Jimmy Carter's soft-shelled detente. That stormy transition to sanity was supported by the Committee in many ways, not least through its monthly newsletters debunking the latest liberal lies and nonsense that were pumped through newspapers, magazines and television documentaries. All told, the Committee claimed as many as ten thousand members in the United States and elsewhere, furnishing intellectual and financial ammunition.
But the battles extended beyond foreign policy and political philosophy. The 1960s had incubated an assortment of virulent ideas that, by the 1980s, had worked deep into the marrow of American culture. Few symptoms were more disturbing than feminism's fanatical, anti-family agenda, and it is here that Midge earned and continues to earn the respect and gratitude of levelheaded people. What she provides, in a nutshell, is a clarification and validation of common sense. You've probably found yourself in a social setting where someone is spouting the current feminist humbug. But you politely stifle the thought of how ridiculous they sound, because merely framing the words in your mind would give you the sort of countenance you would wear if you suddenly encountered a person with two heads.
Midge possesses the brains and courage to point out dangerous nonsense and call it by its right name, as you will see in the pages ahead. Among many examples is her discussion of a photo that ran on the front page of the New York Post at the beginning of the Gulf War. It showed a woman in full combat gear giving a farewell kiss to her infant cradled in the father's arms. As the riddle goes, What's wrong with this picture? No doubt many who saw it felt (at most) a vague stirring inside that something was amiss. But they look at the photo and move on because, of course, here is a woman who has achieved equal status with men and is joining them in the valiant defense of her country.
Of course? Count on Midge to stand up and state emphatically: Of course not!
Everybody has always known such things: What is a husband; what is a wife? What is a mother; what is a father? How have we come to the place where they are open for debate? "Untune that string," says Shakespeare, "and hark what discord follows."
Midge will tell you how we came to that place, and the clarity of her answer is one of many reasons why these speeches and essays were worth collecting and setting down in durable print. I am especially proud that they run here under the imprint of The Heritage Foundation. All were first published in Heritage publications or delivered at Heritage events. Midge has served on our Board of Trustees since 1981. How she came to that post provides yet another insight into her intellectual honesty.
She wasn't always a conservative. A few quibblers might say she isn't one now, but rather a neoconservative. That prefix, however, doesn't connote where she stands philosophically, but merely what propelled her there. As Irving Kristol famously put it, "A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality." Midge was mugged during the sixties while hanging around Commentary magazine — co-mugged, more precisely, along with a young writer named Norman Podhoretz, who had courted and married her.
The sixties were a decisive decade for the couple. As she faithfully recalls in her memoirs, she and Norman "had grown more and more disgusted by, and contemptuous of, both the heedless and mindless leftist politics and intellectual and artistic nihilism of fashionable literary-intellectual society." She and other neocons found themselves in a narrow niche to the right of the Democratic party and to the left of the Republican party, and the niche was closing in on them. Most of this group, she remembers, "when the time came would fly into the arms of Ronald Reagan. From there it would be only a short and easy journey into full-blown conservatism."
Fly into his arms she did, and soon afterward launched the Committee for the Free World. And then one day out of the blue, Ed Feulner, president of Heritage, invited her to lunch.
Midge wondered whether the invitation was a gesture that reflected the tokenism of the times. Did we want her on our board because she is a woman? Or perhaps because she is a Jew? She later asked Ed Feulner about that, and he told her he wanted to "make a statement," to show that the conservative movement was a big tent. "The problem was," she recalls, "that I could hardly be of service in enlarging the conservative tent because every time I met one of the leaders of the old-time conservatism, I discovered that we were in total agreement about everything that mattered."
Thus did a liberal of the 1950s become a conservative of the 1980s, unflinchingly facing intellectual errors and correcting them by assimilating ideas from the right. Always right. It takes uncommon intellectual courage to undergo such changes, and that is one reason to admire Midge Decter.
You will find many others in the pages ahead. As you read these conservative commentaries from her first-rate mind, you will understand why she is a first-rate pain to her opponents on the left. A few of them would probably be happy to serve her from the same cup of hemlock that did for poor Socrates. For our part at The Heritage Foundation, we raise a cup of cheer and wish her many more years of (in her serviceable phrase) "raising hell with the world."