Friday, September 18, 2009

The Original Neocon

That would be Irving Kristol, who died today at the age of 89. The link from the Associated Press provides plenty of good biographical information on Mr. Kristol. Over at Commentary magazine, editor John Podhoretz explains why Kristol matters so much:

The intellectual and political life of the United States over the past 60 years was affected in so many important and enduring ways by Irving Kristol that it is difficult to capture in words the extent of his powerful and positive influence. Irving, who died today at the age of 89, was the rarest of creatures—a thoroughgoing intellectual who was also a man of action. He was a maker of things, a builder of institutions, a harvester and disseminator and progenitor of ideas and the means whereby those ideas were made flesh.

High praise indeed. And utterly true. Podhoretz:

The number of institutions with which he was affiliated, or started, or helped grow into major centers of learning and thinking is hard to count. There is this institution, COMMENTARY, where he began working after his release from the Army following the conclusion of the Second World War. There were two other magazines in the 1950s, The Reporter and Encounter, which he helped found and whose influence on civil discourse was profound and enduring, even legendary. There was The Public Interest, the quarterly he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Bell and then ran with Nathan Glazer for more than 30 years, which was the wellspring of neoconservative thinking on domestic policy issues. He helped bring a sleepy Washington think tank called the American Enterprise Institute into the forefront. And he made Basic Books into a publishing powerhouse that was, for more than 20 years, at the red-hot center of every major debate in American life.

It was through his encouragement and lobbying efforts that several foundations began providing the kind of support to thinkers and academics on the Right that other foundations and most universities afforded thinkers and academics on the Left. Through his columns in the Wall Street Journal, he instructed American businessmen on the relation between what they did and the foundational ideas of capitalism as explicated by Adam Smith and changed many of them from sideline players in the battle over the direction of the American economy into frontline advocates.

Aside from William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol was arguably the most important intellectual figure on the American Right in the 20th Century. Lately the term "neocon" has become something of a slur in certain precincts of American life. Much of the venom comes from the backstory of neoconservatism, which was largely an intellectual movement of American Jews away from the increasingly radical leftism of the 1960s. Kristol, along with individuals such as Norman Podhoretz (John's father), David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh, were the prime movers in this movement. It took no uncertain courage for Kristol and his colleagues to make the move -- he and the others have been objects of derision and scorn on the Left for well over 40 years.

John Podhoretz's piece has a lot more and you should read it. But more importantly, I'd commend that you read some of Kristol's highly influential essays. Commentary has opened its archives and has made 45 of Kristol's available online. They are worth your time.


Gino said...

too much to say, not enough bandwidth to say it.

to be short: he murdered the conservative idealogy, instead of promoting it.

neo-conservatism is neither neo, nor conservative.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I think in the long run, a lot of conservatives will look upon the body of Kristol's work as a pill that poisoned their movement.

Also, he was a horrible elitist who viewed most people as morons who needed to be led. Not a very good person, from what I have read.

Here's one of my favorite stories about the guy:

And a quote from the great man:
"There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

And you guys accuse liberals of being elitist?


Mr. D said...

I dunno, guys. While I'd agree that Kristol's importance waned in the last 20 years, the importance of the neos during the Cold War was pretty big. Kristol's economic arguments were pretty important in the 1970s as well.

Elitism is a fair charge. Buckley was an elitist, too. My primary issue with the elites in charge these days is that many of them are intellectually lazy. Most American campuses these days are incredibly orthodox places. My expectation is that anyone who is a member of an elite would have the inclination to look hard at issues and be willing to change his or her mind when new evidence becomes available. Needless to say, there's a lot more to this topic than I can address here.

Gino said...

rich: its always a pleasure when you agree with me. i look forward to you seeing things my way even more in the future. ;)

but you do know what neo-conservatism is dont you? its the democratic party idealogy of JFK.
your party's biggest hero.

when you slam neo-cons, you slam your own parentage, for they have more in common with your party than any true conservative in the GOP.
the only reason why they are slurred by the dems is beacuse they have an R by their name. its pure tribalism.
certainly not for anything they do while in power.

Anonymous said...

my understanding of neo-conservatism and Kristol's particular and somewhatr idiosyncratic politics is a little different than yours. I know that it certainly has leftist roots, but I think those are grounded in the theory and practice of the anti-Stalinist left-wing ideology of Trotskyism and good old fasihoned anti-communist Socialism. He started out as a very bright and moderate Jewish liberal. A very typical first generation mensch who supported Jack Kennedy and the Civil Rights movement. But as influence of Liberalism grew (and, Kristol beleived, became corrupted) he led a group of other moderate liberal intellectuals on a rightward journey across the American political spectrum that landed them on the far right side of American politics in the early 1980s.

That's not what I have a problem with. He's free to believe what he wants, and I truly recognize the guys brilliance. What I didn't like about him is that along with his burgeoning conservatism he also underwent a transformation from a dispassionate political analyst to a fully engaged culture warrior. He took the Trotskyite methods and applied them to his new political ideology. And then he let the methods trump the message. He failed to heed Nietzsche's warning that when you go out into the world to slay monsters, you need to be careful not to become one yourself. And in my opinion, by doing this, he undermined the sunny optimism of Reagan and greatly contributed to the coarsening of political discourse in our country.

I guess as a moderate, I should be grateful to the guy for undermining the message of the Jack Kemp's and Ronald Reagans's of your party. But I am not. The guy was a cancer to the body politic of the country (which made him so very different from Buckley, who I loved and respected.)


Mr. D said...


I'd pretty much agree with you regarding Kristol's journey. Where I guess I part company with you is the notion I took that Kristol was somehow responsible for coarsening the political discourse in this country.

Since Kristol did start out on the Left, he understood how certain leftists operate. And because he understood what they were doing, he brought that knowledge and instinct to the Right. Others who made the journey with Kristol understood it as well, which is why I specifically referenced Horowitz and Radosh in my post.

One of the reasons that Reagan won is that he understood that he would need to fight tough tactics and Kristol and the neos were quite valuable to Reagan that way. Kemp never could quite get past that, which is passing strange for a former football player.

We're seeing the same dynamic at play now. There's been much talk about the role of Saul Alinsky in Obama's thinking and now he is getting a taste of Alinsky-style tactics. People like Andrew Breitbart understand it well.

Would the world be a better place if both sides would forswear Alinsky-type tactics? Hell yes. Will it ever happen? Not bloody likely. And if you'll allow me to be a bit cheeky, demanding that conservatives must be consistent at all times to the image of Reagan or Kemp (or Burke, for that matter) is a classic Alinsky technique. Rule #4, I believe. :)

Gino said...

"One of the reasons that Reagan won is that he understood that he would need to fight tough tactics and Kristol and the neos were quite valuable to Reagan that way."

but that wasnt the problem with the neos. it was one of the bright spots they brought along into the conservative movement.

as for the elites:
elitism was invented by the elites themselves so as to not have to take responsibility for their failures.
it comes down to this: but we are more educated than you, so your opinions dont matter, and ours should be heeded.
btw, we are also the smart ones who can fix this.

case in point: SCOTUS, and all the hairbrained rulings that come out of there. where the english language changes meaning with the political whim of the elite.

Gino said...

" He failed to heed Nietzsche's warning that when you go out into the world to slay monsters,"

and thank you rich, for rightfully comparing today's liberals to monsters.
you and i agree again.
man, i could get used to this.