Keeping up with Midge Decter wasn’t easy. Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1927, she never stopped taking on responsibilities: as a daughter, sister, spouse, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; as a social critic, commentator, and author; as a book and magazine editor; as a political activist and foreign-policy maven; and as a friend and mentor.
Decter’s first adult job was as a typist at COMMENTARY during the late 1940s. Though she left the office for other pursuits, her presence continued to be felt in her many essays and reviews for the magazine and, indirectly, in the editorships of her husband Norman and her son John. Between the 1960s and 2000s, she seemed to be everywhere—writing, speaking, arguing, fighting, caring, teaching.
The Heritage Foundation was among her favorite places. It was an association Decter did not expect. She was a Jewish New York intellectual, a former liberal Democrat who, along with her husband, became part of the neoconservative movement in the 1970s. Geography as well as opinion separated the neocons from Heritage, the D.C.-based think tank known as the policy engine of the populist, Christian New Right.
Imagine, then, Decter’s surprise in the spring of 1981 when Heritage’s co-founder and longtime president, Ed Feulner, asked her to join the organization’s board of trustees. She quickly said yes, telling Feulner, “You must always join the side you are on.”
That side was well represented at Heritage on a sunny afternoon in May. A group of scholars, readers, colleagues, and admirers met to discuss Decter’s work and legacy one year after her death at age 94. The gathering served as a reminder that the confusions, problems, and dilemmas that animated Decter’s public life have not gone away. In some cases, they have grown worse. Which makes Decter’s wisdom and example more important than ever.
A few of the speakers shared anecdotes. Feulner told the story of Decter’s first encounter with conservative grassroots activist Phyllis Schlafly. These two critics of women’s liberation took to each other immediately. Decter once said that it was “easy” to get along with Schlafly: “She’s been doing my dirty work for years.”
Civil-rights activist Robert Woodson spoke of his experience reading Decter’s landmark essay on the New York City blackout, “Looting and Liberal Racism,” when it was published in COMMENTARY in 1977. He was impressed that Decter expected the same standard of behavior from all people and struck up a friendship with her. They worked together to oppose race-based affirmative action and to improve the condition of poor black communities by bolstering families, churches, and neighborhoods.
The panelists who didn’t know Decter liked to quote her, and for good reason. Her writings on sex, race, culture, foreign policy, and conservatism are no less sharp and funny and discerning today than they were decades ago. “She saw what was coming in a way that really was prescient,” said Samuel Goldman of George Washington University, whose main takeaway from Decter was the realization that “slippery slopes are real.” Daniel J. Mahoney of Assumption College praised Decter’s writing style. Her “lucid common sense,” he said, possessed “an elegance of clarity.”
The Tikvah Fund’s Ruth Wisse, who was in the audience, suggested a reason for her friend’s unique and penetrating voice. Decter never obtained an advanced degree—indeed, never graduated from college—and thus never acquired the bad habits one picks up in the academy. “She never had to subordinate her thinking to anyone,” Wisse said.
The conference was divided into sessions that treated separately such topics as culture and the family, national security, and the conservative future. I came away impressed by the unity of Decter’s thought. Three words kept popping up in the discussion: “role,” “responsibility,” and “gratitude.”
Decter had a keen understanding of and an appreciation for social roles. She grasped that individuals are meant to play certain parts in the drama of society. Men and women, parents and children, singles and marrieds, and congregants and citizens have different functions in sustaining the institutions of civilization and in transmitting learning, rituals, and manners from one generation to the next.
Each of these roles carries special responsibilities. Children honor and obey their parents. Husbands and wives are faithful. Parents are committed to their children. Citizens respect the law. When we forget or abandon our duties, there is chaos. “Assuming responsibility for one’s life, for one’s everyday choices as well as for one’s moral conduct, is a practice that has been eroding in American life for a long, long time,” Decter wrote in these pages in 1992.
Nowhere has the flight from responsibility been more destructive than in the turn against the traditional family. Decter neither romanticized nor idealized this foundational institution: “The rock of family can sometimes have a pretty scratchy surface,” she said in 1998.
Her argument was that wealth, personal freedom, arrogance, selfishness, and ideology undermined the family by persuading men and women that their private desires ought to take precedence over spousal and parental commitments. The wreckage is ongoing.
Nor are parents and citizens the only ones who shoulder heavy burdens. The country does, too. Decter’s work for the Committee for the Free World was based on the idea that the United States is an exceptional country and the bulwark of freedom and democracy across the globe. If America shirks its responsibility, the world falls apart.
Decter would have been the first to admit that living up to what the world demands of us is not easy. But the rewards of fulfilling our responsibilities are sublime. To understand that the value of one’s life is tied up with the lives of one’s descendants is to be filled with purpose and satisfaction and with an awareness of the great chain of being. Participation in this intergenerational drama inspires a sense of gratitude. “There is no single life, however lousy, however full of pain and anxiety and seeming unfairness, that is not a gift,” Decter wrote in 1986. “Gratitude for this gift, even if it seems to others to be a meager or worthless one, is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the attitude to which people would nowadays affix the rather paltry term ‘conservative.’”
Midge Decter met presidents, jousted with public intellectuals, and put steel in the spine of the United States in its long twilight struggle with the Soviet Empire. The largest part she played in the lives of others was as a wife and a mother. One of Decter’s three daughters, Naomi, closed the conference with some remarks on her mother’s greatest legacy.
Naomi had surveyed Decter’s 13 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren (another is on the way) and shared their impressions. “She was comfort and warmth,” one said. “She could actually have a serious conversation with a five-year-old—and really enjoy it,” said another. A third described her grandmother’s grilled-cheese sandwiches: “Simple. Precise. And comforting.” One of the older great-grandchildren had said, “She was very strong. She was really good at Scrabble. And she always had a good retort.”
Naomi concluded with a quote from one of Midge’s younger great-grandchildren. “I like her,” the child had said. “But I haven’t seen her in a while.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as a grateful audience lovingly recalled this woman of valor.
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