Arts and Letters Daily, your daily nudge in the ideological ribs, today links to a bunch of fawning encomiums to the late Irving Kristol, dead Friday after a lifetime of boosting “neoconservatism,” a term he himself coined.
The best I can say of Mr. Kristol is that he wasn’t Norman Podhoretz (my vote for the single worst American “intellectual” of the last century, a man utterly without redeeming value), and that he wasn’t his odious son Bill Kristol, whose know-it-all smirk will probably continue to blight the cable news channels for decades to come. But to read these tributes — offset by not even one dissenting voice, unless the New York Times’s chatty, disinterested obit counts — you’d never guess that Kristol’s “ideas” had been utterly disastrous. Their consequences, virtually without exception, have led to ruin. These “ideas” were not based on “reality,” as well-meaning Andrew Sullivan puts it today; they were based on a cranky and misanthropic view of humankind and a barely-concealed adoration of state power.
There was one thing Kristol shared with his conservative offspring: tolerance for the most degraded populism. “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocably anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.” That’s Kristol in 1952. Since the “spokesmen for American liberalism” presumably included the Truman administration, which had just dragged the United States into a horrific and bloody war in the name of preventing the spread of communism from one puny Asian nation to another, we are entitled to doubt Kristol’s sincerity. We can be excused, perhaps, for thinking him an opportunist and a liar.
Unlike, say, William F. Buckley, who never abandoned his lifelong suspicion of government power, Kristol only disliked an overweening state when it did something he didn’t like. In truth, Kristol and his neoconservatives never quit being “Trotskyites.” They continued to harbor contempt for the ignorant masses and call for the enforced return to the old Victorian virtues. Beneath the neoconservatives’ professed disdain for programs that might help ordinary people lay a barely concealed terror of what might happen to their own social status and specialness — their closeness to the crooks in power — were the ugly masses to ever rouse themselves and overthrow the ruling class, as the fundamental principles of the Republic itself dictated. That is why neoconservatives sided with the authoritarian Nixon administration over the mild-mannered McGovern campaign in 1972. What did Nixon’s attempt to wield dictatorial powers matter, when his opponent’s faction included gays and feminists?
Kristol was the quintessential American intellectual. He pretended to lionize the virtues of “ordinary people” while detesting everything about them. He complained about the overblown state while dining at the White House and accusing war opponents of hating America. He was a man who complained about liberals ignoring reality and then helped foist supply-side economics on the country, ruining the economy in the early ’80s and wrecking God only knows how many lives. As Newt Gingrich himself acknowledged today, Kristol’s true legacy was the malicious and hypocritical modern Right, which drowns itself in social issues (gay marriage, abortion rights, pornography) and applauds official spying while pretending to disdain government intervention into private life.
What remains of the conservative “movement”? Nothing save apologies for the Republican Party, which has done its best to uproot and obliterate political liberty and blight the hopes of ordinary people for three decades, replacing the Republic with a brutal Spartan state in which military triumph is the highest of all virtues and individual dissent “treason.” No wonder they called Kristol the “godfather.”