Sunday, December 23, 2018

Jonah Goldberg on Conservatism

I don't care for the never Trumpers. I do appreciate an intellectual argument, and Jonah Goldberg's an accomplished intellectual (IMHO).

This is a follow-up to my piece from earlier this week, "What's Become of Conservatism?"

Here's the "G-File" from Goldberg, at NRO, "Conservative Facts -- Many Toss Facts & Embrace Meanness":


There was always a yin-yang thing to conservatism. Its hard-headedness and philosophical realism about human nature and the limits it imposes on utopian schemes appealed to some and repulsed others. For those who see politics as a romantic enterprise, a means of pursuing collective salvation, conservatism seems mean-spirited. As Emerson put it: “There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact.” That’s what Ben Shapiro is getting at when he says “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” The hitch is that the reverse is also true: Feelings don’t care about your facts. Tell a young progressive activist we can’t afford socialism and the response will be overtly or subliminally emotional: “Why don’t you care about poor people!” or “Why do you love billionaires!?”

The problem conservatism faces these days is that many of the loudest voices have decided to embrace the meanness while throwing away the facts. This has been a trend for a long time now. But Donald Trump has accelerated the problem to critical mass, yielding an explosion of stupid and a radioactive cloud of meanness.

It’s as if people have decided they should live down to Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” epithet. More on that in a moment. But first, since I already wrote the section below, allow me a not-quite-brief, not entirely non-sequitorial aside about neoconservatism. Feel free to skip ahead to the screed at the end if you’re not interested in the eggheadery.

What Is Neoconservatism?

Well, it depends on whom you ask. But let’s work on some common definitions, or at least descriptions.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia page for neoconservatism:
Neoconservatism (commonly shortened to neocon when labelling its adherents) is a political movement born in the United States during the 1960s among liberal hawks who became disenchanted with the increasingly pacifist foreign policy of the Democratic Party, and the growing New Left and counterculture, in particular the Vietnam protests. Some also began to question their liberal beliefs regarding domestic policies such as the Great Society.
This isn’t terrible, but it gets the chronology and emphases somewhat wrong (the Encyclopedia of American Conservatism gets it right, btw). The first neocons were intellectual rebels against the Great Society and the leftward drift of American liberalism (The Public Interest, the first neocon journal, was launched in 1965. It was dedicated entirely to domestic affairs, not foreign policy). Unable to reconcile the facts with the feelings of liberalism, a host of intellectuals decided they would stick with the facts, even if it meant that former friends and allies would call them mean for doing so.

The socialist writer Michael Harrington is usually credited with coining the term in 1973 as a way to disparage former socialists who moved rightward, but people have found earlier mentions of the term (Norman Podhoretz, for instance, called Walter Lipmann and Clinton Rossiter “neoconservatives” in 1963. And Karl Marx(!) called Lord Beaconsfield a Neo Conservative in 1883). It’s certainly true that Harrington popularized the label. Harrington’s essay supports my larger point, though. The Harrington essay that cemented the term “neoconservatism” in American discourse was titled “The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics.” In other words, the original neoconservative critique wasn’t about foreign policy, but domestic policy.

According to William F. Buckley, the neoconservatives brought the rigor and language of sociology to conservatism, which until then had been overly, or at least too uniformly, Aristotelian. The Buckleyites (though certainly not folks like Burnham) tended to talk from first principles and natural laws and rights. The neocons looked at the data and discovered that the numbers tended to back up a lot of the things the Aristotelians had been saying.

The original neocons’ gateway drug to conservatism was the law of unintended consequences. Once eager to tear up Chesterton’s fences wherever they saw them, they discovered that reforms often yielded worse results. As Francis Fukuyama wrote over a decade ago, “If there is a single overarching theme to the domestic social policy critiques carried out by those who wrote for The Public Interest, it is the limits of social engineering. Ambitious efforts to seek social justice, these writers argued, often left societies worse off than before because they either required massive state intervention that disrupted organic social relations; or else produced unanticipated consequences.”

Another understanding of neoconservatism is that it was a movement of ex-Communists who moved rightward. There’s a benign version of this story and a malignant one. The harmless version is basically descriptive. Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, et al., were once briefly socialists or Trotskyists, and as they grew more disillusioned with such utopianism they moved rightward. The invidious version of this story, still common in some feverish and swampy corners of the Right, is that they never let go of their underlying Trotskyist tendencies and were some kind of fifth column on the right. This version has sizable overlap with anti-Semitic fantasies about neoconservatism. More on that in a minute.

Part of the problem with even the benign version of this story is that there are so many exceptions that the explanatory power bleeds away. For instance, Bill Kristol, the supposed Demon Head of neoconservatism these days, was never a Communist or any other flavor of leftist (and he still isn’t). Neither were John Podhoretz, William Bennett, Jean Kirkpatrick, James Q. Wilson, David Brooks, and many, many others often described as neoconservatives. Another problem: If being a Communist-turned-conservative makes you a neocon, then many of the founders of National Review were neocons too. Frank Meyer, Whittaker Chambers, Max Eastman, and James Burnham were all far more committed and accomplished Communists than Irving & Co. ever were. Eastman was one of Trotsky’s close friends and his English-language translator. Burnham co-founded the American Workers Party with Sidney Hook. Chambers was a Soviet agent.

The idea that neoconservatism was primarily about foreign policy, specifically anti-Communism, further complicates things. Part of this is a by-product of the second wave of neoconservatives who joined the movement and the right in the 1970s, mostly through the pages of Commentary. These were rebels against not the welfare state but détente on the right and the radical anti-anti-Communists of the New Left (National Review ran a headline in 1971 on the awakening at Commentary: “Come on In, the Water’s Fine.”) Many of those writers, most famously Jeane Kirkpatrick, ended up leading the intellectual shock troops of the Reagan administration. But, again, if vigorous anti-Communism and hawkish military policy in its pursuit that defines (or defined) neoconservatism, then how does that distinguish those neocons from National Review conservatism and the foreign policy of, say, Barry “Rollback, not Containment” Goldwater?

It is certainly true that the foreign-policy neocons emphasized certain things more than generic conservatives, specifically the promotion of democracy abroad. In ill-intentioned hands, this fact is often used as a cover for invidious arguments about the how the neocons never really shed their Trotskyism and were still determined to “export revolution.” But for the most part, it can’t be supported by what these people actually wrote. Moreover, the idea that only neocons care about promoting democracy simply glosses over everything from the stated purpose of the First World War, the Marshall Plan, stuff like JFK’s inaugural address (“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”), and this thing called the Reagan Doctrine.

And then there are the Joooooz. Outside of deranged comment sections and the swampy ecosystems of the “alt-right,” the sinister version of this theory is usually only hinted at or alluded to. Neocons only care about Israel is the Trojan horse that lets people get away with not saying the J-word. Those bagel-snarfing warmongers want real Americans to do their fighting for them. Pat Buchanan, when opposing the first Gulf War in 1992, listed only Jewish supporters of the war and then said they’d be sending “American kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales and Leroy Brown” to do the fighting. Subtle. (By the way, Leroy Brown must have ended up fighting in the Gulf War after all. How else can we explain how quickly it ended? He was, after all, the baddest man in the whole damn town.)

Even the non-sinister version of the “neocon equals Jew” thing is a mess. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of the most vilified neoconservatives were people like Michael Novak, Father Richard Neuhaus, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Bennett, and later, even George Weigel. During the Iraq war, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John Bolton, and virtually everybody who supported the war were called neocons. Funny, they don’t look neoconnish.

Whatever neoconservatism is, or was, its time as a distinct thing has been over for a while. In his memoir, Irving Kristol, “the Godfather of the Neoconservatives,” argued that the movement had run its course and dissolved into the conservative movement generally. This strikes me as inarguably true. Most of the people I’ve checked off — who are still alive — including Bill Kristol, don’t call themselves neoconservative anymore, and the few who do mostly do so as a nod to nostalgia more than anything else.

So today, neoconservatism has become what it started out as, an invidious term used by its opponents to single out and demonize people as inauthentic, un-American, unreliable, or otherwise suspicious heretics, traitors, or string-pullers. The chief difference is that they were once aliens in the midst of liberalism, now they are called aliens in the midst of conservatism. And it’s all bullsh**.

American Smallness

Which brings me to Chris Buskirk’s ridiculous manifesto of conservative liberation in response to the demise of The Weekly Standard. The editor of American Greatness, a journal whose tagline should be “Coming Up with Reasons Why Donald Trump’s Sh** Doesn’t Stink 24/7” opens with “Neoconservatism is dead, long live American conservatism” and then, amazingly, proceeds to get dumber.

Nowhere in his essay does Buskirk reveal that he has any real grasp of what neoconservatism was or is — and the best defense of his insinuation that neoconservatism was un-American is that it can be chalked up to bad writing.

But Buskirk doesn’t need to demonstrate fluency with the material because for him, “neoconservative” is an anathematizing word and nothing more. He says, “the life and death of The Weekly Standard is really the story of the death and rebirth of American conservatism, which is nothing more than the modern political expression of America’s founding principles.” A bit further on, he asserts that “for years, neoconservatives undermined and discredited the work of conservatives from Lincoln to Reagan . . .” This is so profoundly unserious that not only is it impossible to know where to begin, it’s a struggle to finish the sentence for fear the stupid will rub off. Does he have in mind the Straussians (Walter Berns, Robert Goldwin, et al.) at that neocon nest the American Enterprise Institute who wrote lovingly about Lincoln at book length for decades? Does he think Irving Kristol’s essay “The American Revolution as a Successful Revolution” was an indictment of the founding? Were these essays, on Abraham Lincoln published in The Weekly Standard or by its writers elsewhere, perfidious neocon attempts to topple him from his historic pedestal? What about Andy Ferguson’s loving book on Lincoln?

And what of the scores of neoconservatives who worked for Ronald Reagan and helped him advance the Reaganite agenda? Were they all fifth columnists? Or perhaps they were parasites attaching themselves to a “host organism,” as Buskirk repugnantly describes Kristol?

He doesn’t say, because Buskirk doesn’t rely on an argument. Save for a couple of Bill Kristol tweets out of context, he cites no writing and marshals no evidence. Instead, he lets a wink, or rather the stink, do all of his work. He knows his readers want to hear folderol about neocons. He knows they have their own insidious definitions of what they are and crave to have them confirmed. Bringing any definition or fact to his argument would get in the way of his naked assertions and slimy insinuations.

And what absurd assertions they are. I’m not a fan of tu quoque arguments, but the idea that American Greatness has standing to position itself as an organ dedicated to larger principles and ideas is hilarious, given that the website’s only purpose is to attach itself like a remora to Donald Trump, a man who doesn’t even call himself a conservative, even for convenience, anymore. Just this week, American Greatness’s Julie Kelly mocked Nancy French’s childhood trauma of being sexually abused. When I criticized her for it, Kelly snarked back something about how “Never Trumpers” have a problem with the truth. It’s like these people don’t see it. You cannot claim to care about the truth while being a rabid defender of this president’s hourly mendacity...
There's more.

Chris Buskirk's really looking like an idiot, that's for sure.

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