January 7, 2004


The Era of Distortion (David Brooks, New York Times, 1/06/04)

In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for "conservative" and neo is short for "Jewish") travel in widely different circles and don't actually have much contact with one another. The ones outside government have almost no contact with President Bush. . . .

It's true that both Bush and the people labeled neocons agree that Saddam Hussein represented a unique threat to world peace. But correlation does not mean causation. All evidence suggests that Bush formed his conclusions independently. . . .

Still, there are apparently millions of people who cling to the notion that the world is controlled by well-organized and malevolent forces. And for a subset of these people, Jews are a handy explanation for everything.

There's something else going on, too. The proliferation of media outlets and the segmentation of society have meant that it's much easier for people to hive themselves off into like-minded cliques. . . .

And if you can give your foes a collective name — liberals, fundamentalists or neocons — you can rob them of their individual humanity. . . .

Improvements in information technology have not made public debate more realistic. On the contrary, anti-Semitism is resurgent. Conspiracy theories are prevalent. Partisanship has left many people unhinged.

What is Brooks saying here? Is he saying, as various bloggers have suggested, that there are no neocons, or that the neocons do not form a coherent movement, or that criticizing the neocons is antisemitism? No, yes, no.

Brooks is an enjoyable writer, but he is a shallow analyst. By that, I don't mean to imply that he is not intelligent (as far as I can tell he is very intelligent), or that he is a bad analyst, but that he has chosen a style (can I say a schtick?) that focuses on the outward appearance rather than the inner truth. The best example of this is his theory of the bohemian bourgeois, which is entirely concerned with the outer life of Americans. This style has been a canny choice in terms of professional advancement, but it means that any attempt to read beyond his text is a fool's errand.

As to the first two questions, do the neocons exist and do they form a coherent movement, David Brooks would know better than any of us. They do exist, they do not cohere. This has been obvious to the casual observor for a while: both the Weekly Standard and the National Review are, too some extent, neocon publications (though NR is by no means Jewish), and they often disagree.

Which brings us to the third question: is criticizing the neocons antisemitism, ipso facto. Of course not, but I don't understand Brooks to be saying that, and I don't think that Brooks ever implies anything. Certainly, for some critics -- one will jump immediately to mind -- hatred of the neocons is intimately tied up with hatred of zionists and suspicion of all American Jews. But what I think Brooks is saying, and about which he is correct, is that criticizing the neocons, rather than their policies (or, as Brooks would have it, their policy) is akin to antisemitism, and for that matter the closely related anti-Americanism that we see in the world.

MORE: Having looked around the Blogosphere a little more, I decided to be a little more direct: The lefty/Buchananeer knock against the neocons goes as follows. There is a group of Jewish and academic self-identified conservatives in government and the media who not only favored the war in Iraq, but who took advantage of 9/11 to push an invasion of Iraq that did not serve the strategic interests of the American people. This group was motivated consciously (e.g., Buchanan) or unconsciously (e.g., Mickey Kraus) more by their tribal attachment to Israel than by the loyalty they owe to the United States. Buchanan would go on to say that they are not actually conservatives, as they don't accept some of the defining conservative tenets, such as the divinity of Jesus. The left is happy to accept that this cabal is conservative. Both the left and the Buchananeers use the term "neocon" more than the neocons do.

Brooks says that neocons exist, but not as a cabal; that neo, when used by these critics, means Jewish; and that this is no surprise, because for a number of reasons we are in a worldwide period of paranoid politics. But I don't understand him to be saying that anti-neoconism is antisemitism, but rather that they are related impulses that come together nicely for the isolationist left and right. I think that this is largely correct. I also think that the divided loyalty charge is one that diasporan Jews are very sensitive to and largely have no sense of humor about.

Now, go back and read the comments to this post to see how we've been touching on these issues without putting them into the neocon context. Interestingly, OJ has been more on the neocon side, while I've been more of a Buchananeer (though I was just tweaking OJ when I asked why he kept bringing up Israel: I knew perfectly well why).

Posted by David Cohen at January 7, 2004 11:01 AM

I don't think NR is much a neocon rag. I think David Frum was right when he said that you can't be a neocon if you're incensed about the FTC.

Then again, I think "neocon" has lost so much meaning that only those conservative rags that explicitly reject the term have any chance of avoiding the label.

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2004 11:35 AM

The Corner is discussing this today and trying to define the term "neocon." Here's what Jonah Goldberg has to say about whether NR is neocon:

Meanwhile, the Buchanan crowd says National Review is a "neocon" magazine because it supported the war, while the mainstream press routinely says NR is "paleo" and the Weekly Standard is "neo" even though our respective positions on foreign policy are nearly identical -- albeit from the vantage point of, say, a New York Times or Slate reporter. If being a neocon means being hawkish, then NR was always more neocon than the neocons because we were the ones championing rollback, not containment. And, oh yeah, why did Buchanan want to send the Sixth Fleet to defend Dubrovnik in 1991, if the Paleos are against foreign adventures. And why did ber-neo Charles Krauthammer oppose getting mired in the Balkans?

As for the definition of neocon, do any of us really doubt that Brooks is right about that?

Posted by: David Cohen at January 7, 2004 11:56 AM

How about this? Neocons are, by and large, right-wing liberals; to the extent that individuals among their number drift to the right, they drop the second word of the description. David Brooks is the quintessential right-liberal. Norman Podhoretz, by way of contrast, has probably dropped that "liberal" part for good. Brooks endorses gay marriage with weird biblical allusions; Podhoretz, as evidenced by this essay dislikes and is alarmed by the gay-rights movement.

Posted by: Paul Cella at January 7, 2004 12:28 PM

A sample from Podhoretz's essay: George Orwell said that we live in a time when the obvious needs constantly to be restated, and so, to restate what was once self-evident to everyone, including most homosexuals themselves: men using one another as women constitutes a perversion. To my unreconstructed mind, this is as true as ever; and so far as I am concerned, it would still be true even if gay sex no longer entailed the danger of infection and even if everything about it were legalized by all 50 states and ratified by all nine Justices of the Supreme Court.

If that should ever happen, and if I am still around when it does, I hope I will still have the strength to hold on to my own sense of the fundamental realities of life against the terrible distortions that have been introduced into the general understanding of those realities by the gay-rights movement and its supporters. For it is this that is mainly at stake here, and it is this that explains why the issue of homosexuality is of such great moment not just to the proportionately small number of practicing homosexuals, but to all the rest of us as well.

Posted by: Paul Cella at January 7, 2004 12:29 PM

Judaism is a traditionally homophobic religion and, if you can get the right old Jew talking about the fagelehs, OJ will look mild in comparison.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 7, 2004 12:38 PM

Paul: My problem is that there are so many, disparate folks who are called, frequently self-referentially, neocons. Does Josh Muravchik really have much in common, ideologically, with David Brooks? Charles Krauthammer with Bill Bennett? Podhoretz with either Kristol?

Actually, that's not entirely right, either. There is some overlap. It's just not a consistent overlap.

I miss the old days when neocon meant "former liberal with a vague affection for government who wants to see the Soviet Union crushed."

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2004 12:42 PM

David: Is that how the word's spelled? Learn something new every day.

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2004 12:44 PM

"Does Josh Muravchik really have much in common, ideologically, with David Brooks? Charles Krauthammer with Bill Bennett? Podhoretz with either Kristol?"

Sure, they all have a great deal in common. Hawks in foreign policy, opponents of socialism, former Cold Warriors, mild but empirical and accommodating critics of the welfare state (excepting, perhaps, Bennett), mild opponents of racial quotas, Zionists, supporters of the status quo on immigration, generally pragmatic in economics. How is that?

Posted by: Paul Cella at January 7, 2004 1:04 PM

Josh Marshall says some sensible things about this (and how often am I going to get the chance to write that sentence). I have two caveats: first, he mau-mau's conservatives all the time; second, he doesn't understand at all, or at least gives no sign of understanding, why Jews tend to react sharply to arguments of divided loyalty and see that argument as inherently antisemitic.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 7, 2004 1:22 PM

Paul: Sounds like a lot of conservatives, to me. Most main-line conservatives, including the primary writer of this blog, have resigned themselves to the fact of the welfare state. The neocons were frequently the most strident opponents of racial quotas. (Jeanne Kirkpatrick, anyone?) And so on down the line (immigration is one of the great fault lines in modern conservatism). I don't, in fact, see anything particularly exceptional about this list that would set them apart from other -cons, except the Banana-, pardon, Buchanacons.

What I meant, and admittedly, I should have been more specific in my language, is this: What do these folks have in common that sets them apart from the great, 25-35% of the country conservative herd?

David: You're right: That sentence is of limited application. I'd add that he takes as givens points of debated accuracy (if the neocons have so much influence at the White House, how come their house organs are always sure he's off the reservation?).

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2004 2:14 PM


But you were asking what these guys had in common. My point is that they are on the right edge of Liberalism, or left edge of Conservatism.

It may be true that neocons are very close to the general "conservative herd," in which case Conservatism has moved left. I think to distinguish Neoconservatism from Conservatism, one would have to compare, say, Irving Kristol of 1970 to Buckley of 1970, when the latter wrote this of John Kerry:

"[Kerrys words are] the indictment of an ignorant young man who is willing to condemn in words that would have been appropriately used in Nuremberg the governing class of America: the legislators, the generals, the statesmen. And, reaching beyond them, the people, who named the governors to their positions of responsibility and ratified their decisions in several elections.

The point I want to raise is this: If America is everything that John Kerry says it is, what is it appropriate for us to do? The wells of regeneration are infinitely deep, but the stain described by John Kerry goes too deep to be bleached out by conventional remorse or resolution: better the destruction of America if, to see ourselves truly, we need to look into the mirror John Kerry holds up for us. If we are a nation of sadists, of kid-killers and torturers, of hypocrites and criminals, let us be done with it, and pray that a great flood or fire will destroy us, leaving John Kerry and maybe Mrs. Benjamin Spock to take the place of Lot, in reseeding a new order.

Gentlemen, how many times, in the days ahead, you will need to ask yourselves the most searching question of all, the counterpart of the priests most agonizing doubt: Is there a God? Yours will be: Is America worth it? [. . .]

What I hope you will consider, during these moments of doubt, is the essential professional point: Without organized force, and the threat of the use of it under certain circumstances, there is no freedom, anywhere. Without freedom, there is no true humanity. If America is the monster of John Kerry, burn your commissions tomorrow morning and take others, which will not bind you in the depraved conspiracy you have heard described. If it is otherwise, remember: the freedom John Kerry enjoys and the freedom I enjoy are, quite simply, the result of your dedication. Do you wonder that I accepted the opportunity to salute you?

Posted by: Paul Cella at January 7, 2004 2:45 PM

Paul: And like I said, I was insufficiently specific.

And in answer to your larger point, I don't think conservatism has moved left; I just think that we pulled the neos right. Insofar as there are many true neos left, and I daresay there aren't many. I should also add that the conservatism of the 70s was all well and good; but the world has changed, and fighting those battles today can sometimes be rightly mistaken for madness.

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2004 7:03 PM

Typo: "Insofar as there are any..."

Posted by: Chris at January 8, 2004 6:51 AM