Posts Tagged ‘neoconservatism’

Farewell to the ‘godfather.’

September 19, 2009

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.”

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Another Declaration.

July 4, 2009

In July 1979, Walter Karp published his great essay “Republican Virtues” (also known as “The Two Americas”). He published it at a time when the radical Right — the neoconservatives, dedicated as Karp writes to founding a new religion based on “consecration to the State” — were preparing to seize the country, which had been drifting away from its nationist moorings for more than a decade. The signs of nascent republicanism — demands for government transparency, for election reforms, and above all for a modest foreign policy — had put genuine fear into the country’s rulers. A people that loudly demanded two presidents’ dismissal — wartime presidents — was no longer safe for them to rule. Something had to be done, and the new republicanism would be throttled first in the humiliation and destruction of a Democratic president who spoke of the task of “citizens,” and the exaltation and triumph of a Republican president who blamed “government” for all our ills, and then reminded us of a “government right to confidentiality.” America, declared the neoconservatives, was “proud” again, and “free,” too, free of its own sacred traditions — no longer at risk of being subverted by its own republican principles.

Against so much perverting and defaming of “patriotism,” Karp wrote his essay as a sort of Declaration of Independence. He declared independence from leftists and rightists alike, finding his roots in the half-forgotten principles of the republic itself — the principles that had nothing to do with flags or fireworks. I still remember the first time I read his concluding paragraphs, shivering as I recognized in them thoughts I had always held but never quite been able to put into words. The whole essay deserves reading — and rereading, should you be so moved — but the final paragraphs sum it up. They continue to be the most succinct and powerful statement of republicanism I have ever read.

The republic is more than our form of government plus a few rudimentary maxims and memories. It embodies a profound principle of political action — an “energizing” principle, as Jefferson called it. It is supposed to operate at all times and under all conditions against oligarchy, special privilege, and arbitrary power. The energizing principle is the preservation and perfecting of self-government, the securing to each citizen of an equal voice in his own government. That grand object, as Lincoln once said, we must as republicans constantly strive for, constantly try to “approximate” even if we can never perfectly achieve it. Without its energizing principle a republic becomes a hollow form, or still worse, a ponderous hindrance.

Yet it is a truly burdensome principle to live by. It is easier to be servile than free, easier to submit to the rule of a few than to keep up the endless struggle for self-rule. It is easier to fight enemies abroad than to fight for the republic at home. That is why the virtue of virtues in a republic, as Montesquieu long ago observed, is the citizens’ love of the republic — “to be jealous of naught save the republican character of their country,” as the Workingmen’s party put it 150 years ago when it campaigned for free public schools in America. That is why the enemies of popular self-government have striven to erect and strengthen the rival cult of the nation, by war if possible, by the menace of war when there is a perilous lull in the fighting. It is the only way to undermine the people’s love of the republic and subvert among the citizenry themselves its energizing principle.

In the name of the nation, that undermining goes on unceasingly. It is the reason why the one thing never taught in our free public schools is “to be jealous of naught save the republican character” of our country. In my own schooldays we learned more about Betsy Ross and the wonders of the Panama Canal than we did about Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is no longer celebrated in a dozen states that once paid his memory that homage. Above all, it is the reason why what old Henry Cabot Lodge called the “large” foreign policy — the policy of having a busy foreign policy — has governed our foreign affairs for so many long years. It is precisely the “large” policy that keeps the nation alive and the republic in twilight.

Another neocon sounds off on the election.

November 1, 2008

The economic crisis has got the political ruling class in a panic for obvious reasons. For one thing, we’re already at the tail-end of one miserable war started to distract the people from problems at home, so there’s precious little hope of starting another one. As this particularly odious Wall Street Journal piece shows, they’re desperate for something — anything — to take the heat off. With America facing the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Fred Kagan declares that the election should be decided based on national security.

As we consider whether various bailout plans help Main Street as well as Wall Street, the subtext is that both are much more important to Americans than Haifa Street.

Imagine the quaint notion that Americans might care more about their own immediate problems than someone else’s hypothetical troubles!

s it possible that American inattention to the world in the coming years could lead to a similarly devastating result (as Hitler’s rise to power)? You betcha. .. the next president will almost certainly face Iran’s arrival at the threshold of nuclear-weapons capability. … Whatever the parallels between the current economic situation and that of the early 1930s, the current international environment is by any comparison more dangerous for the U.S. than the one that led to World War II.

You heard it here first: a country that spends less than a hundredth what we do on the military poses a more dire threat than Nazi Germany did in 1941 to a United States that had virtually no army at all! Is no falsehood too shameless?

The presidential impact on foreign-policy problems is much more direct (than economic issues). Skillful approaches can avoid or mitigate conflict; foolish ones can lead to cataclysms. And make no mistake — mistaken policies will lead to the unnecessary deaths of Americans, and not just our soldiers. Any American who wants to travel outside the U.S. can be directly affected by the wisdom or folly of our foreign policy. Even those who never leave their own state must be concerned, as residents of New York, Arlington and Pennsylvania can attest.

Back in the 1880s, this used to be called “waving the bloody flag.” Like all neocons, Kagan has no scruples about threatening Americans with unthinkable destruction should they fail to accept every tenet of the neocon platform. (Fortunately, the only people who read The Wall Street Journal either already believe this nonsense or are too wised-up to accept it.)

In Kagan’s weird universe, Obama is the petty nationalist concerned with mere parochial affairs like the national economy, while McCain (and his demagogue of a running mate) is a Serious Contender for whom international issues are the only issues. (What’s really shocking is that a neocon felt it was even worth commenting on something as puny and unimportant as a presidential election.) Worst of all, as Matt Stone rightly observes over at The Global Buzz, Kagan’s chirpy use of “You betcha” hints, not so subtly, that the grossly unqualified and ignorant Palin, of all people, is the “security maven” he’s got in mind. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.