“It’s a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive,” Martin Peretz, the former owner of the New Republic and Beinart’s earliest patron, told me. “I always knew he was a very vain man, but a lot of us are vain, and if you had his mother, or if I had his mother, I’d be even more vain than I am.” Peretz put on a mocking falsetto—“this is the most brilliant boy, he’s so smart, he’s so touching”—before going on: “It’s a Jewish mother situation. You can use that—even if it makes me sound a little bitchy.”
The quote’s from an article in Tablet about the firestorm of criticism of Peter Beinart’s new book. But it seems to me, given the close emotional and intellectual identification between the two men during the period of Beinart’s editorship, and the consequent depth of the feelings of betrayal, that the real Jewish mother in the situation is . . . Marty Peretz. And what’s a Jewish mother to do when guilt doesn’t work anymore?
What is it Alex Portnoy overhears his mother say to her friends, apropos of the lengths she has to go to to get him to eat? “I have to stand over him with a knife!”
To be a bit more serious for a moment, though, Chesterton famously quipped: “My country, right or wrong is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying: My mother, drunk or sober.” Well, yes, but she is your mother, drunk or sober, right? Similarly, it is your country, whether your country is right or wrong. The question is what that entails. If your mother is a drunk, and begs for another drink, are you obliged to give it to her? Presumably not.
But are you obliged to devote yourself to getting her to dry out? That, it seems to me is the real heart of the question. I think many of Beinart’s critics – like Jeffrey Goldberg – would say: that’s exactly how they think about Israel and the settlements. They are against them. They think they were and are a grave and historic mistake, have caused criminal suffering to the Palestinians, and are, to some degree, a crime in and of themselves. Goldberg praised Gershom Gorenberg’s recent book, for instance, which makes precisely the point that Zionists should in the forefront of opposition to the settlement enterprise because the settlement enterprise is undoing the historic achievements of Zionism.
So they are doing what they can to convince their mother to check herself in, and dry out. But she’s their mother. If it takes her a long time to convince, they’ll keep trying. If she slips a drink on the sly, they’ll try to hide the liquor better, but they’ll forgive her. And, whatever she does, they certainly aren’t going to call the cops on her, and give the neighbors (who never liked her, even have tried to get her evicted) the satisfaction of seeing her humiliated by her own son in public. After all, she’s their mother.
Well, talk to a few children of alcoholics, and you’ll discover that “my mother, drunk or sober” is not always a tenable proposition. Sometimes, for some people, the sense of obligation to one’s mother is trumped by a sense of obligation to oneself, and to protect oneself from her disease. And that, in a nutshell, is what Beinart is saying. She may be my mother, yes, but if she keeps carrying on, I don’t care what the neighbors say, and I don’t care if she never speaks to me again afterward: I’m going to call the cops on her.
So how would you react if you were the son who was standing by your mother through another bout with the bottle, and if your brother – who, unlike you, never sat up nights with her when she had d.t., never moved back home for months to keep watch on her, indeed, for years never even really acknowledged she had a problem – said that, and said that all your support was just enabling her illness.
But so what? Say you’re right about him. Maybe he is a shallow, self-regarding, cold-hearted son-of-a . . . well, I won’t say because I’m not going to insult our mother. Say all that’s true.
He might still be right about her. And he still might be right about you.