I noticed last week the passing of Irving Kristol, the self-acknowledged godfather of "neoconservatism." I have not read much of his work, knowing of him more by reputation. I have read a couple of books by his widow, noted scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb. They, of course, are the parents of William Kristol, whose commentary in print and on television is usually a good measure of that of which I most opposed. I don't believe of speaking ill of the dead, and apparently the senior Mr. Kristol was a kind and gentle man, beloved by his family and wide circle of friends. No doubt. That said, the philosophy and policy he espoused, and as implemented by his disciples, is one of the most malicious and pernicious to ever attach itself to the American body politic. So, I read with interest the commentary associated with his passing.
This, from Richard Spencer:
Neocons were always well suited to flourish in a postwar America that, after subjecting Western and Central Europe to military and dollar hegemony, could prop up a consumer lifestyle as a kind of unalienable right. Personal prosperity became equated (somehow) with America having military bases all over the world. It’s rather easy to see how in such a situation Americans would fall in love with conservatives who told them that they represented the zenith of “freedom,” “democracy,” and general goodness.
More difficult to articulate, though none the less important, is a certain American Puritan foundation myth (which the neocons have consciously latched onto of late) of the American people as “chosen,” their land as a Second Jerusalem, and their task that of spreading this Good News across the world. The urbane and mostly Jewish neocons’ alliance with evangelical “Christian Zionist” is a grotesque spectacle, to be sure, but it certainly couldn’t have lasted as long as it has without a strong theological foundation. Put simply, Americans might have been tempted to invent the neocons, if the CIA hadn’t done so already.
Irving Kristol conceived of his country’s identity as “ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear,” and argued that the U.S. would thus “inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.” One wonders whether at the end Kristol grasped that his beloved Superpower was quickly going the way of the Evil Empire of old.
This, from J. David Hoeveler, Jr.:
Although Kristol showed a commitment to a free-enterprise economy and accepted as a fact the death of socialism, he registered a clear ambivalence about capitalism and the society it had produced. He distinguished between the bourgeois moral ethic, based on the traditional values of work, saving, and delayed gratification, and the capitalistic ethic, which was materialistic and hedonist. Kristol insisted that capitalism had once established its legitimacy on the bourgeois ethic, but it had eroded to the point that American society had become vulgar and self-indulgent. In his lament at this condition, Kristol sometimes echoed Victorian standards of moral judgment. He considered contemporary bourgeois society prosaic and unheroic. And he believed that institutional religion was American society’s only hope for a recovery from its spiritual malaise. Perhaps this contributed to his decision, late in life, to become a practicing Jew.
And no anti-neocon rant on my part would be complete without a nod to Daniel Larison:
It is not at all clear that neoconservatives have “returned” in any way, and it seems highly unlikely that many people overseas are now craving the firm smack of incompetent warmongering that the neocons can offer. To a large extent, the neocons never went anywhere in domestic policy and political debates. This is because there has not been any accountability in either the foreign policy community or the conservative movement for their colossal failures and misjudgments. That said, they are not exactly riding high, either. Neocons continue to be taken far too seriously and they continue to have access to a great many media outlets, but for the most part they have been leading the Republican Party’s charge into spluttering irrelevance on foreign policy. Having destroyed the party’s political fortunes with the war in Iraq, they seem intent on sinking the party even deeper into the ditch into which it has crashed. If this is a “return,” I wonder what decline looks like.