Remarks at the Committee for the Republic
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
15 November 2012, Washington, D.C.
I’ve known Norman Birnbaum for only about an eighth of his very long and productive life. I feel a bit diffident speaking about him. But Norman is someone whose experiences I envy and whose mind and character I have come to admire. There are many reasons for this.
Norman is an active inhabitant of a vibrant trans-Atlantic intellectual community that, sadly, is no longer certain of survival. He has been and remains at home in salons here, in Germany, in the UK, and in other lands on both sides of the ocean that divides Western civilization. He is an American who writes in English for translation into all the great and small languages in which our civilization speaks. He has been a sturdy bridge connecting our country to its civilizational sisters.
When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi famously replied that he “thought it would be a good idea.” Had he met Norman, he would have discovered how wide of the mark that entertaining quip was. Norman epitomizes the civility, tolerance, and empathy that have long distinguished our culture from its competitors. He also exemplifies the modesty and lack of pretense that only those who have aged into comfort with themselves and confidence in their abilities exhibit. He has learned to listen wisely.
Trained in sociology, Norman has obstinately refused to follow his colleagues into obscurantist jargon. He has always written clearly on the issues of class, caste, and status that the recent election has reminded us shape our politics and our history. We and his many readers and interlocutors in high places in Europe are much the wiser for his insights.
In an age of increasingly shoddy education, Norman’s effortless erudition and cultivated sensibility are categorically remarkable. Norman is a writer, not a painter, but he has the capacity of a Pointillist to depict reality in all its fractal complexity and the ability of a Cubist to show it in many simultaneous dimensions. He writes from a moral viewpoint that is uncompromisingly committed to social justice and is informed by much reading, many conversations, and rich experience.
Norman is resolutely secular but proud of his Jewish heritage. I will leave it to him to describe – if he cares to – what that heritage means to him. To me, Norman Birnbaum places high in the ranks of what is truly a glorious tradition of fearless Jewish intellectuals, moral thinkers, and speakers of truth to power. This Jewish ethic of unflinching rectitude is one of the most brilliant ornaments of Western civilization. As an American, I rejoice that it has come to flourish here. You don’t have to be Jewish to want heroes to emulate. This ethic supplies them.
Perhaps the disproportionate ration of intellectual and moral courage displayed by the members of our Jewish community is a product of the extraordinary viciousness of its self-appointed leaders to those who dare to dissent from their deceptive narrative about Zionism and the passionate attachment to Israel that it enforces. It takes unusual fortitude to counter that narrative and to brave the ostracism that doing so inevitably incurs. It’s not impossible to imagine that courage on this issue of special concern to Jews inclines the best of them to valor on other topics as well. Norman Birnbaum’s unblinking honesty on all the subjects he touches is certainly in the Jewish tradition.
Norman is now writing an autobiography. We are told that it is tentatively titled “From the Bronx to Oxford – and Not Quite Back Again.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that, when he was at Oxford, Norman Birnbaum knew J. R. R. Tolkien, who taught English there at the time. I suspect, in fact, that the original title Norman conceived for his book may well have been “There and Not Quite Back Again.” In any event, I prefer this title not just for its simplicity but for its evocation of Bilbo Baggins’ autobiography, which, as you all know, was called “There and Back Again.”
Norman is a bit taller and, I suspect, less hairy-footed than that famous hobbit but equally stubborn in quest of treasure – intellectual treasure, that is – even when the search is obstructed by the orcs of political correctness or guarded by the fire-breathing dragons of aggressive medievalism. Unlike Bilbo Baggins, Norman Birnbaum has not yet celebrated his “eleventy-first” birthday but it’s an encouragement to all of us that he’s on the way there, inspiring us with his integrity and cheering us with his wit as he goes forward.