EVENTS ARE IN THE SADDLE AND THEY RIDE THE NEOCONS :
What is a Neocon? (Derek Copold, 8/18/02, The Texas Mercury)
The label 'neoconservative' has become something of a muddle. At one time it referred to an ex-leftist, someone who had rejected his youthful dalliance with socialism or, more often, communism. Not any more, these days a neoconservative can be anyone, regardless of background. For now, the question of how this came to be is immaterial; I only note that it is so. To be a neoconservative, all one need do is subscribe to a certain set of ideas and positions about foreign and domestic policy. [...]
Friend Copold has written a provocative, though I think not entirely accurate column here, on the nature of neoconservatism. What I believe to be missing is an appreciation of the vast difference between neocons and theocons, a divide that has been most spectacularly illustrated in a colloquium in the pages of the magazine First Things--The End of Democracy?; in the split over the 2000 Presidential nomination, with theocons supporting George W. Bush, while neocons went batty for John McCain; and in the desperate attempts (and failures) of neocons to muster an anti-cloning argument devoid of any religious bases.
Neoconservatism began as a movement among New York's Jewish intellectuals who in Irving Kristol's famous phrase were "liberals who got mugged by reality". The specific reality, it seems fair to say, was twofold : in foreign affairs they came to see liberal opposition to U.S. military might as a threat to the continued existence of Israel; and in domestic affairs they perceived early on that affirmative actions was necessarily a racial spoils system that would secure blacks entree to elite institutions, where they were underrepresented as a percentage of the population, at the expense of Jews, who were "overrepresented". Two final elements soon fell into place and hastened the neocons move to the Right--first was the assault on American culture, mostly on campus, by the New Left, this American culture of course being an artifact of the neocons' Jewish heritage; and second, the rise of Ronald Reagan brought to power a traditional conservative who, unlike say Barry Goldwater, was not adamantly opposed to the social safety net, particularly Social Security itself. All of these factors combined to draw neocons and Reaganauts together, most importantly along the lines of defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
But then a strange thing happened, between the fall of the Iron Curtain and the election of a Republican Congress in 1994, neocons had secured victory on the two issues that had first motivated their migration from the Left. Moreover, with the demise of the Soviet Union essentially defunding terror and triggering a massive exodus of Eastern European Jews to Israel, it seemed that Israel's security might be guaranteed in perpetuity. The Oslo Accords seemed to signal that even the Palestinians had given up on the destruction of Israel. At the same time, a series of Supreme Court decisions cast serious doubt on whether racial quotas were even constitutional, never mind politically desirable. On the two issues central to neoconservatism victory appeared permanent.
Meanwhile, where the first generation of neocons, having been brought up in Jewish families and Jewish neighborhoods, considered their Jewishness to be central to their identities, the second generation (and it is remarkably a family phenomenon with Bill Kristol succeeding Irving and John Podhoretz succeeding Norman and so on) wears its Jewishness rather lightly. In the public mind, and presumably in their own, they are far more the children of conservative intellectuals than the children of Jews. Indeed, Bush advisor Marvin Olasky got in trouble during campaign 2000 when he unwittingly named several McCainiacs "worshippers of Zeus" without realizing he'd singled out three Jews--Bill Kristol, David Brooks, and Frank Rich. What's important about this is that his mistake was entirely understandable. What is there in the writings of any of these three that would convey any sense that they have a religious belief at all, never mind identify them as Jewish. And so, having become a more purely intellectual movement, and less of a cultural one, neocons found themselves allied with theocons and other traditional conservatives, many of them devoutly and outspokenly Christian, whose social agendas made them uncomfortable at best--on issues like abortion and gay rights--or horrified them at worst--prayer in schools, educational vouchers, Creationism, etc.
A further problem arose because these traditional conservatives and their allies to the Right, especially libertarians, did not accept, as Reagan had, the necessity and inevitability of the Social Welfare State. They, in fact, embarked on a sustained, though as yet unsuccessful, assault on everything from welfare to Social Security to public schools. To join in this crusade required that neocons repudiate everything they'd believed in prior to the fifties. The delusion of neoconservatism had always been that they'd stayed in one place but that the Democrats had drifted Left. To accept that the New Deal had been a mistake would be to acknowledge that when they had been Democrats they had been wrong too. That's a lot to ask of folks, eh? Even Ronald Reagan could bring himself to make that admission.
So by the mid-90s the neocons found themselves in a position fairly similar to that of Robert Redford in The Candidate, when after winning election he looks up and asks : Now what? Neoconservatism was a movement without any issues and without any ideology, other than a visceral opposition to liberalism. This last, so often the fate of apostates, enabled individual neocons to summon up sufficient bile to knock off a liberal idea or two, as when Bill Kristol led the fight against the Clinton Health Care Plan, but it left them generally practicing a passive and reactionary politics.
Something had to be done to preserve the movement before it atomized and some cause had to be found to restore its coherence and unity. Such was the impetus behind "National Greatness", the new "ideology" that Bill Kristol and David Brooks propounded. Ideology is in quotes there because it's important to note that National Greatness isn't really an ideology--it's not about believing in ideas--it's about giving folks who no longer have anything to believe in something to do. The most revealing paragraphs in Mr. Brooks's National Greatness manifesto come at the end :
Historically, national missions have included settling the West, building the highway system, creating the post-war science faculties, exploring space, waging the Cold War, and disseminating American culture throughout the world.
It need hardly be pointed out that this is pure "neo" with no remaining "Conservatism" to it. The idea that America's mission in the world is a physical one--building highways?--rather than a moral one--establishing the principles of God given rights and of governance by the governed--is simply ludicrous to a conservative. But more importantly, the elevation of government to a position of centrality in the life of the nation is anathema. To be a conservative is to believe that government is a secondary concern in human affairs, less important than family, faith, society, the culture, and so forth. Government is necessary but it is necessary to limit government lest it destroy what is truly important in our lives. National Greatness would stand this on its head and try to place the work of government at the center of our lives. It is really nothing more than big government liberalism without even liberalism's redeeming, though erroneous, belief that government programs improve people's lives materially.
It's no wonder then that the candidacy of John McCain so appealed to the neocons, for it too was devoid of ideas other than the desirability of exercising political power. It was more or less a traditional "man on the white horse" candidacy, a nearly fascistic campaign premised on the bold man of action who would ride in and do something, anything, to get the nation going again. Like any cult of personality, this campaign required followers to gladly accept any number of character flaws and political positions that should have troubled them, from a repressive campaign finance measure to playing both sides of the fence on abortion. McCain and the neocons believed that government action was fine so long as he was the one running the government, and not the Democrats. Sadly for both, when they got out into the Republican primaries the found that few in the GOP shared their faith in either Mr. McCain or government for government's sake.
By the beginning of 2001 then, neoconservatism had reached its nadir. The real whacko conservatives were still running the House--as symbolized by Tom DeLay; the GOP clung to a narrow margin in the Senate but was run by Southerners like Lott and Nickels, and George W. Bush, who they'd opposed in the primaries and nearly weakened enough so that he lost to the dread Al Gore, was in the White House, obviously unbeholden to them. As if all that weren't bad enough, several neocons, including William Safire, had made no secret of their votes for Bill Clinton in 1992, against George Bush, Sr., and the Bush family is nearly Sicilian in its demands for loyalty to the family. Suddenly the neocons faced the unthinkable, conservatives in control in Washington, but neoconservatives left out in the Cold. Here came the theocons and the paleocons, the hemocons (Blue Bloods) and even the homocons, the libertarians and the gold bugs, the isolationists and homeschoolers, the flat taxers and the flat earthers, every conservative group of every cast and coloration was bellying up to the table, but the neocons were persona non grata. There were going to be tax cuts and budget cuts and privatizing of government and of schooling, and devolution of power to the states and challenges to abortion and all those other nutty things that conservatives who don't appreciate the grandeur of government are always going on about. Something had to be done.
Thus it was that we got Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer picking up the cudgel against cloning. This improbable stance on a social issue took many by surprise--the notion of Kristol siding with the Luddite Jeremy Rifkin was downright shocking--but was an excellent way of getting back in the good graces of social conservatives. Unfortunately though, the same lack of any real ideology that had left them flailing in the first place now came back to haunt them. Charles Krauthammer may be, as you sometimes hear, the smartest columnist in America, but his attempt to defend the sanctity of human life without grounding his argument in religious belief ends up being almost totally incoherent : Research Cloning? No. (Charles Krauthammer, May 10, 2001, Washington Post). After all, if human life is not unique, if humans do not derive a special dignity from being made in God's image, if abortion is not morally wrong for all these reasons, then what sensible reason is there to oppose the manipulation and destruction of embryos that is required in cloning. The neocons buckled on their shields and took to the field of moral combat only to discover that they'd already surrendered too much turf to prevail. To mix a metaphor, they'd already slid too far down the slippery slope to find the purchase necessary to stop themselves. The abyss loomed.
Things certainly looked bleak for our heroes by late summer of '01, but then it's often said that things are darkest before the dawn. For it was right then, mirabile dictu, that Osama bin Laden stepped in and saved them from themselves. Here was their raison d'etre. Islamic fundamentalism and the network of terror associated with it was both an ongoing threat to Israel and exactly the kind of long term project that the National Greats had been looking for without much success. Forget the demands of rival conservatives for budget and tax cuts--all existing resources and quite possibly some new ones must be marshaled in the war effort. Forget the devolution of power--the national government must hoard all possible power unto itself in order to combat terror. Forget social issues and any other distractions--all that matters is stomping out "Islamofascist terror". The neocons have their moment of national greatness and in it the war, the vindication of the nation, is all.
Now this jibes to some significant degree with where other conservatives are at the moment, but it differs too, in important respects. When you hear people raise the issue of defending "Western Culture", you're hearing traditional conservatives, and when the social conservatives are at their most strident, as when the Reverends Falwell, Robertson and Graham question the moral health of American society or the doctrines of Islamic fundamentalists, you'll often hear them being shouted down and the neocons will be shouting the loudest. When an isolationist (or at least a Jacksonian) questions how long the war must go on and how widely it must be waged (a la Dick Armey), you're hearing the voice of traditional conservatism. For the neocons, the war is not about a clash of civilizations, because they don't particularly care about Western Civilization. Nor does it matter what the war costs nor what powers a government on war footing accrues to itself; for them the war is its own justification. It suffices that the government "does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness". Building a road would have been enough, but, what the heck, a war's even better.
So when Mr. Copold looks out across the nation and sees neoconservatism in the saddle, he's really seeing an optical illusion. The neocons, though the most vocal and absolutist, are merely along for the ride. And while it may prove to be the ride of their lives, it's not likely to be a lengthy one. It's hard to see how the dictatorships of the Arab Middle East can last for more than another couple years--Afghanistan's already gone; Pakistan and Palestine are scrambling to reform; Iran faces revolution from within; Iraq faces overthrow from without; even the Saudis are at least wobbly. Democratic values and capitalism and protestantism in religion are all headed to the Middle East with a vengeance and when such forces are gathered they tend to move quickly and to trample everything in their path. Just as the countries of the Iron Curtain seemed permanent until they were transformed almost overnight, so too may the Islamic world be ready to transmogrify before our very eyes. And when that happens conservatives in general will merely cross another defeated "-ism" off of the long list they've dealt with and will move on to the issues that really motivate them--faith; family; freedom; neighborhood; society; culture... But neocons will look around and scratch their heads and once again be confronted with the inevitable question for those who believe in little : Now what?
*ESSAY : A Return to National Greatness : Manifesto for a Lost Creed (David Brooks, Weekly Standard)
*Ê"National Greatness" or Conservative Malaise? (Virginia I. Postrel and James K. Glassman, September 25, 1997, Wall Street Journal)
*Defining national greatness (Donald J. Devine, May 24, 1999, Washington Times)
*Reform Politics, Then What? : Is John McCain advocating reform for reform's sake, or does he have a pressing agenda? (Jack Beatty, February 16, 2000, Atlantic Monthly)
*Bush's "compassionate" advisor singles out Jews : Professor says he didn't know the three writers "with holes in their souls" were Jewish. (Jake Tapper, Feb. 25, 2000, Salon)
*Arguing the GOP : The neocons wake up (FRANKLIN FOER, 03.20.00, New Republic)
*Conservative Confusions (James Nuechterlein, First Things, May 2000)
*Against Honor (David Blankenhorn, 4.10.00, Weekly Standard)
*When Left Turns Right, It Leaves The Middle Muddled (SAM
*The Warrior Class : Bill Kristol and the National Greatne ss Crowd would love to have a war (Tom Bethell, July/August, 2001, The American Spectator)
*Right Turn : WHAT CONSERVATIVES SHOULD LEARN FROM 9/11 (Andrew Sullivan, 12.06.01, New Republic)
*Bush's Republicanism : A combination of both national greatness and leave-us-alone conservatism (Michael Barone, 1/3/02, US News)
*Bad Move (Peter Beinart, 05.13.02, New Republic)
*Against the Neo-Conservative Empire (Derek Copold, Texas Mercury)
*In Search of Greatness : The newest threat to George W. Bush comes from the "national greatness" Republicans and their fondness for John McCain. (Tod Lindberg, May/June 2002, New Democrats Online)
*The Legacy of the Anti-Communist Liberal Intellectuals (Ronald Radosh, April 2000, Partisan Review)
*REVIEW : of Arguing the World : Out of the Alcoves : How did America win the Cold War? An unusual new film recalls the important role played by a small and much maligned band of labor leaders, intellectuals, and political figures. (Seymour Martin Lipset, Wilson Quarterly)
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-Godfather of the American Right: a review of NEOCONSERVATISM: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN IDEA by Irving Kristol (Steve Vieux, New Politics)
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