Midge Decter

National Humanities Medal


Author, essayist, and social critic Midge Decter has seen both sides of the American political divide. The self-described "ardent ideologue" became a political activist in the 1970s, transforming from a Democratic liberal in her youth to a foe of the left. "By the 1970s there was a new peril in the United States," she writes, "the demoralization brought on by the seizure of national self-hatred that had spread like typhus from the sixties radicals into the major institutions of culture."

Decter has never shied away from controversy, defining feminism as "a kind of legal onslaught against men."

Decter attended the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and New York University, but never graduated from college. Her first job was as secretary to the editor of Commentary. She remains a regular contributor to the magazine, which is published by the American Jewish Committee. Her husband Norman Podhoretz was the editor of Commentary and is now editor-at-large.

Her writing has appeared in Harper's, The Atlantic, The American Spectator, and The National Review, and she has published numerous books, from The Liberated Woman & Other Americans (1970), to Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait (2003). Her memoir, An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War, was published in 2002. From 1990 to 1995 she was a senior fellow at the Institute of Religion and Public Life.

From 1980 through 1990, Decter acted as executive director of the Committee for a Free World, an anti-communist organization. "In the end you cannot defend American democracy without defending the economic system that is its necessary underpinning," Decter writes in her memoir. "And you cannot truthfully defend that system without accepting a number of other propositions, perhaps the principal one being that government should be restricted from interfering in lawful economic activity. Paul Johnson, who is among various other admirable things a great modern historian, has said that once he understood that socialism was wrong, he had to rethink everything he knew, including even what he knew about the Roman Empire."

The organization disbanded after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "When the Berlin Wall came down, some of us literally wept for joy," Decter writes. "And when the communist regime in the Soviet Union gave way, we were beside ourselves with the kind of hope it would be difficult for anyone who had not spent his adult life keeping an eye on the evil uses of Soviet power to understand. Although freedom and democracy were a long, long way from universal, and might never be so, they seemed to me nevertheless to be ideologically no longer in question."

"By going to cultural war and taking no prisoners," she writes, "we seem to have made far more noise in the world than our sheer numbers would have suggested."


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.