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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 01/25/2011

Irving Kristol still persuades

By Jennifer Rubin

The Neoconservative Persuasion, a collection of essays by Irving Kristol, the man dubbed the father of neo-conservatism, could not have come out at a better time. It is peculiar to say that of a volume of writings that all appeared somewhere before. But the collection as a whole is not only essential reading for those not thoroughly familiar with his more than 60 years of writings on everything from modern art to Israel; it is an immensely important reminder to even the most avid admirers of Kristol's work of some important political truths.

In large part, the essays are a lesson in tone for conservatives and neo-conservatives (more about the distinction later). Kristol was celebrated for his wit, his genial self-deprecation and his ability to dismantle an opposing argument without dismantling his opponents. The lightness of touch is evident throughout. He mocks the pomposity of the media:

There can no longer be any question about it. I am, for better or worse, a "neo-conservative" intellectual. Newsweek, Time and the New York Times have all identified me as such, and that settles the matter. As with the original Adam, theirs is the power to give names to all the political creatures in the land, who in turn can only be grateful for having been rescued from anonymity.

After an exhaustive analysis of the folly of most peace processing conducted under the faux social science of "conflict resolution," he concludes: "Perhaps this will persuade the State Department there really is a difference between the art of diplomatic mediation and the social science of 'conflict resolution.' On the other hand, perhaps not."

We are now adrift in a pool of near-farcical civility that imagines that the buddy system at the State of the Union address improves our political culture. Perhaps, rather than civility, we should demand wit and levity. That requirement would certainly winnow down the number of noisy antagonists.

I am also struck by the enduring relevance of so many of Kristol's topics. More than 20 years before another neo-conservative giant, Norman Podhoretz, wrote Why are Jews Liberal?, Kristol wrote "On the political stupidity of Jews," analyzing their devotion to liberal dogma.

We are perpetually immersed in a debate about government sponsorship of art and media. In 1990, his "It's Obscene, but Is It Art?" dissected the folly of government sponsorship for what passes for post-modern art ("art that is utterly contemptuous of the notion of educating the tastes and sensibilities of the citizenry. Its goal, instead, is deliberately to outrage those tastes and to trash the very idea of an 'aesthetic sensibility'.")

As rifts emerge among factions of the conservative movement, it is instructive to read Kristol's analysis of the intellectual conflicts between those of the neo-conservative "persuasion" and "traditional conservatives" (most especially on the role of government), and also the degree to which neo-conservatives' emphasis on domestic reform managed to "convert the Republican Party, and American conservatives in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy." Readers are reminded that while "neo-conservatives" have, of late, been identified almost exclusively by their foreign policy views, neo-conservatism, for a considerable time, focused with at least as much fervor on domestic reform, preservation of traditional values and "high culture," and defense of free markets.

On foreign policy, we see that aside from the great triumph of the West -- the fall of communism -- much has remained the same. In 1983, Kristol was writing "What's Wrong with NATO?" (pretty much what is wrong now, namely the Europeans' slothful indifference to their own security). In 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, Kristol wrote, "I am most annoyed at those urbane Jewish liberals who claim to see 'both sides' of this conflict and apportion blame and responsibility with academic detachment." And on peace processing, he wrote more than a decade ago that "it is hard to find a peace process that has accomplished anything, anywhere." Then, as now, the issue was the Palestinians' maximalist demands and the refusal of the State Department to insist that the Palestinians "disavow" an agenda that would spell the demise of the Jewish state.

Readers can't help but be struck by how well the observations and admonitions hold up over time. (Had I read the volume before writing the introduction to this blog, I certainly would have written: "Nearly all wisdom is found in the Godfather movies (no, not Part 3!) and the Torah and Irving Kristol's collected works.")

Certainly much praise is due to the editor of the volume: Kristol's wife of nearly 67 years (and a great scholar in her own right), Gertrude Himmelfarb. By grouping essays topically, selecting works on a range of subjects and from diverse time periods, and providing a remarkable introduction, she has, like a skilled jeweler, presented her gem in its most exquisite light.

And on a personal note, the inclusion of their son Bill's immensely moving eulogy, delivered at Congregation Adas Israel in September of 2009, reminds me of a day of sadness and uplift when so many intellectual comrades and dear friends gathered to pay tribute to one of America's greatest intellectuals, providing ample evidence -- if any more was needed -- that Irving Kristol left behind writings of tremendous import but also a vibrant community of kindred intellectual souls.

By Jennifer Rubin  | January 25, 2011; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Conservative movement  
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You have to have great respect for the man and his intellectual prowess, even though I don't agree with many of his conclusions.

You also have to respect that he walked the walk as a an infantryman in WWII.

It makes you wonder then how he could have given birth, both figuratively and literally, to such a group of cowards as the current conservative leadership of this nation?

Wonder why all those who praise Israel in that movement, don't believe in it's policy that everybody serves and takes the shared risk?

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 25, 2011 2:25 PM | Report abuse

The article below shows some of the vitriol existing from the Paleos to the Neos
"Irving Kristol, Soviet Spy?"
Gawker has scans of the FBI documents showing that the reputed Godfather of neo-conservatism was a person of interest in an ongoing investigation into a potential Soviet spy

Wiki gives a fuller,more deisclosed description of NeoConism.

And Mr Paul's opinion:
"Neocons Should be called Neocons, not Republicans!"

Posted by: rcaruth | January 25, 2011 2:34 PM | Report abuse

War is bad and neocons are crazy.

Posted by: danw1 | January 25, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

War is bad and neocons are crazy.
Posted by: danw1

Neoconism is actually very logical(Of course logic with a bad initial premise becomes very crazy)if you are familiar with the Trotskyite ideology that preceded it. In fact,if you substitute the word the word Democracy for Socialism,Capitalism for communism,and American exceptionalism for international Revolution,it is exactly the same. Like Trotskyism,NeoConism is a philosophy that requires force to remake the world into the Utopian flavor of the day. Yesterday it was international Communism,today it is international Exceptionalism,tommorow it is the United States/Israel world union.

Posted by: rcaruth | January 25, 2011 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I have been noticing, johnmarshall5446, that you dish out judgmental comments about all sorts of people are quite liberally.

I have better things to do than keep track of all the ways you judge people in all your various comments, but I could not help noticing in your comment above that you accuse the current conservative leadership of this nation of being cowards.

Since one should not judge lest he be judge accordingly, would you please inform us what qualifies you to judge our nation’s conservative leaders as cowards and also, while you are at it, please list your medals of valor, along with the citations that go with them if you want.

One thing I noticed a long time ago is that it takes more courage to be a conservative leader than a liberal leader. Conservatives have to stand up to a constant barrage of attacks (not counting yours) and obloquy from the Liberal media. Liberal leaders generally do not have to worry about this or even their shoddy moral behavior unless they threaten to wander off the reservation accidentally (as in the case, say, of an inadvertent PC offense) or on purpose (as in the case of Joe Lieberman).

Posted by: nvjma | January 25, 2011 4:34 PM | Report abuse


If the shoe fits,What NeoConservative has ever gone into actual combat,W Bush,Cheney,Rumsfeld,Rove,J Podhoretz,Wehner,Boot,Eliot Abrams,Help me out here.

Posted by: rcaruth | January 25, 2011 5:08 PM | Report abuse

I typically skim right over your logorrhea (who has the time?), but your entries above are provoking enough that, rashly, I will respond.
Is it somehow your contention that only those with experience in the military have a moral right to send our young men off to war? If so, you've chosen your villains quite lopsidedly.

Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Bill Clinton (remember Black Hawk Down and Kosovo?), and our own Barack Obama, all have sent our young men to fight and die in battle, and none managed to spend a day in military service themselves. There isn't space enough to include all their advisors of the same ilk.

What was your system, if not merely absurd partisan hackery? It's interesting that you chose to include George W. Bush, who has more military experience than all the Democrat presidents listed above, put together.

Posted by: TYoke | January 25, 2011 5:51 PM | Report abuse

TYOKE/Woodrow Wilson, FDR*, Bill Clinton (remember Black Hawk Down and Kosovo?), and our own Barack Obama, all have sent our young men to fight and die in battle, and none managed to spend a day in military service themselves

I didn't vote for Clinton or Obama,and have minimal respect for either,I despise W Wilson,but you still haven't answered the question,can you name one NeoCon who served in combat?
Give it a try.
*I think FDR had a doctor's note

What was your system, if not merely absurd partisan hackery? It's interesting that you chose to include George W. Bush, (who has had no combat experience/I wouldn't follow W to a neighborhood bar,much less follow him in combat. Were he a Platoon leader/Company Comander,he would be the survivor,while those under him died because of his incompetence.

Posted by: rcaruth | January 25, 2011 6:31 PM | Report abuse


We are not talking moral courage which I would agree can be found in many places. We are talking sheer physical courage that used to be found in the conservative movement of Robert Dole and George H.W. Bush, but is nowhere to be seen among their succesors.

In Israel the people sending their young men and women in harm's way have themselves served their time in the miltary, taken shared risks of their own lives. They also know that their own sons and daughters will be expected to take that risk too as their laws demand.

The conservative leadership movement is almost exclusively the country club of cowards. I say that not because they didn't serve in the military. That is a common enough fact of life in this country, and no disgrace or disqualification.

It's because they didn't serve, or like Dick Cheney REFUSED to serve and then become strong advocates for the use of force with other people's children when their time has passed. (Not their own children of course.) That is sheer cowardice.

Where are the Teddy Roosevelt Republicans, who not only put his own life at risk, but lost a son in WWI.

So my background is unimportant as is yours and many others on this board, because by and large none of us here (except Jennifer) constantly call for the use of our military to fight wars of choice in far off lands.

My answer will probably not satisify you but I hope that I have at least illuminated my position more.

Anyway, thanks for the reply.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 25, 2011 7:25 PM | Report abuse


Yes, Bill Clinton was a coward too. How could you think I would say otherwise?

Obama gets a pass from me because his wars were handed to him and not of his choice. I've never heard him advocate sending our troops all over the world to make Haliburton richer, or to ring bellicose against Iran or North Korea.

I'm not even talking about an Afghanistan situation where certainly there was overwhelming reason to fight. No American politician chose to go to war in Afghanistan.

Wilson, Roosevelt and other who came of age prior to WWI faced an entirely different situation. The country had no professional standing army worth the name. Units were created in response to national crises e.g. the Rough Riders of Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War.

So effectively speaking there was no army to join.

Think more on the lines of the classic Cowardly Lion, John Bolton. He wouldn't fight in Vietnam, a war which he supported, because he decided it was "already lost". However now he's a big advocate of using force anywhere, anytime.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 25, 2011 7:49 PM | Report abuse

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