Irving Kristol still persuades
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.
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