October 19, 2003


What It Takes to Be a Neo-Neoconservative (JAMES ATLAS, 10/19/03, NY Times)

Among the enduring legacies of the earlier [Vietnam] era was the split between liberals who opposed the war and the small splinter group that would become known as the neoconservatives. The group's decision to support the Vietnam War — or at least to oppose those who opposed it — was a shift that would lead them to a new level of power and influence.

The war in Iraq has shown signs of a similar split: a pro-war faction of the liberal intelligentsia has rejected a reflexive antiwar stance to form a movement of its own. The influence of these voices isn't to be underestimated. The marginality of intellectuals is a myth; even in the resolutely hermetic world of Washington, their voices are heard.

For the liberal intellectuals of this generation, the war in Iraq has required nuanced positions. Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a self-styled "liberal centrist," focused on the human rights issue: if liberating Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein saved opponents of the regime from torture or death, that in itself justified the war.

The political philosopher Michael Walzer, the editor of Dissent magazine, was ambivalent, but directed much of his anger at the rigid politics of the anti-interventionist left in the face of Sept. 11.

Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair who had disapproved of United States intervention in the first Persian Gulf war, was excited about Americanization as a revolutionary force. Calling himself a "Paine-ite," he saw the new war as an uprising against an illegitimate state.

The writer Paul Berman forcefully expressed the opinion that not only was President Bush justified in his prosecution of the war but that he had dragged his feet. Terrorism, Mr. Berman wrote in his book "Terror and Liberalism," is a form of totalitarianism; the war in the Middle East is a war to defend liberal civilization. [...]

In the early stages of their ideological development, neoconservatives saw themselves more as reformed liberals than as true conservatives. Mr. Bell, who predicted "the end of ideology," identified himself as a socialist; Mr. Kristol identified himself -- in a famous formulation -- as a liberal who has been "mugged by reality."

Yet in the end, all were liberals who, by the 1970's and the midpoint in their careers, were proud to identify themselves as neoconservatives, who were not the heirs of classical conservatism but rather had discovered the limitations of liberalism. A neoconservative, it might be postulated, is one who read and repudiated Marx; a conservative, one who read and embraced Hume, Locke and Hobbes.

This generation of liberal intellectuals, like its precursors, prefers to see itself less as a political coalition than as an assemblage of writers with diverse views — which of course it is. Ideological labels are always provisional. Yet however much their attitudes toward the war in Iraq differ from those of such contemporary neoconservatives as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, they are heirs of the same intellectual tradition. Given this, can they still be classified as liberals? Or could it be that they've become . . . neoconservatives?

It's an interesting dynamic that takes hold in such situations: they begin by recognizing--perhaps with some surprise--that they actually like our culture well enough to want to defend it against external enemies, and as time goes by they realize that if it really is worth preserving it has to be defended from internal enemies too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2003 9:25 AM

It's interesting - and a good idea for a piece - to see Hitchen's embrace of our culture, of liberal democratic, capitalist America. Really didn't see it coming; more of a epiphany (9/11) than a evolution, I'd say.

My guess is it's Hitchens' extreme antipathy towards religion. I wonder whether he would have responded similarly had the terrorists been secular. My guess is no. He was, after all, a vocal critic of the Gulf War.


Posted by: SteveMG at October 19, 2003 2:39 PM


I've long argued the exact opposite, that Hitchens has been trending conservative for years (thus his reverence for Orwell, who charted a similar course), that this is just a weigh station, and that he'll be an avowed man of faith--probably Catholic--within a few years. The three most recent giveaways in that regard are his essays on Evelyn Waugh & the King James Bible and this line from Orwell:

Within the last few decades, in countries like Britain or the United States, the literary intelligentsia has grown large enough to constitute a world in itself. One important result of this is that the opinions which writers feel frightened of expressing are not those which are disapproved of by society as a whole The daring thing, or at any rate the unfashionable thing is to believe in God or to approve of the capitalist system.

Posted by: at October 19, 2003 3:21 PM

Hmm, I'm thinking of the 1980s Hitchens who promoted the "October Surprise" nonsense and the CIA and Contras created the crack epidemic conspiracy. You read his stuff in The Nation during the Reagan years and it was almost pure Chomsky. That Hitchens bears little resemblance to today's version.

He embraces religion - a Catholic Hitchens (??) - and all bets are off. I'd be stunned.

Recall Steven Jay Gould's hypothesis on evolution: Punctuated equlibrium? Perhaps we see that with Hitchens' own political evolution? No epiphanies, nothing gradual - but an evolving in fits and starts as the evidence accumulates. Quantity changes quality, no?


Posted by: SteveMG at October 19, 2003 3:39 PM

Oh yeah, I remember him in the 80s--there wasn't a communist dictator he wouldn't apologize for. I always figured he's the role model for the dissipated Brit in Bonfire of the Vanities, but he might be a bit too young.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2003 3:48 PM

I reread Bonfire of the Vanities recently, and in my mind the dissipated Brit kept brushing aside a dangling forelock, a la Hitchens.

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

Posted by: F.A. Jacobsen at October 20, 2003 2:32 AM

Slightly off topic - I would not be so quick to disregard the CIA/crack thing until you've read The Dark Alliance by Gary Webb.

It is extremely well-researched and the conclusions just about bullet proof. His hometown paper at the time (San Jose Mercury News) was only too happy to run it as a huge story with their full support, until the CIA complained, at which point they developed a lack of cojones. That is a story unto itself ...

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at October 20, 2003 9:24 AM


I'd assume the Contras were using coke sales to support themselves, but the notion that the CIA developed an especially addictive form of coke in order to re-enslave Black America seems lunatic, not least because it worked. If CIA tried such a thing it would more likely be a disaster, like New Coke.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2003 10:11 AM