Four old Jewish guys yammer about politics. Fun for the whole family!
Dir. Joseph Dorman, 1998, 106 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
Listening to four old Jewish guys talk about the development of their political ideals sound about as interesting as… actually, I can’t think of a good simile, since that sort of thing is generally the baseline for sheer boredom. And yet Arguing the World works. It’s maybe ten or twenty minutes longer than it needs to be, but it’s a great look at how one’s beliefs evolve over the course of a lifetime.
During the 60’s and 70’s, the era of radical ideas and cultural upheavals, one of the premier scenes for debate and discussion was the circle of writers and philosophers of the New York Intellectuals. This documentary focuses on four of these Intellectuals, all of them united by a common Judaism and alma mater: City College of New York. Beyond that, they vary greatly in their respective beliefs. Irving Howe is a democratic socialist. Irving Kristol is a neoconservative – the father of neoconservatism, in fact. Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell, both sociologists, fall somewhere in between on the spectrum. Between the four of them, they have dozens of books and hundreds of articles critiquing different aspects of American life through diverse perspectives.
It’s interesting to see how a common environment bred such different world views. All of the men came from very poor immigrant families, and grew up around the same time and place. You would think that this would give rise to a common conviction concerning the role of government, but far from it. And none of them always held the same ideas, either. Glazer became a staunch Marxist at CCNY, but later cast aside that affiliation. All of them faced shifting fortunes for the beliefs they held over the decades, some benefitting at certain times (such as Howe during the radical left movements) and flailing in others. Through their eyes, we see how America itself fell under the sway of different ideas. For a few years, hysterical anti-communism; for another few, rebellious liberalism, and so on and so forth.
The movie is drier than the Sahara, but it’s still quite interesting. Arguing the World is very much a Smart Person’s guide to the 20th Century. It’s not a doc to set your soul afire, but it’s riveting in the way you can’t put down a good issue of The New Yorker.