September 18, 2009


Irving Kristol, conservative thinker, dies at 89 (CNN, September 18th, 2009)

Kristol, whom Esquire Magazine once hailed as the godfather of neo-conservatism, served as editor of several conservative publications over the last five decades including Commentary magazine and The National Interest.

In 2002, President Bush awarded Kristol the Medal of Freedom, calling him a "brilliant writer of remarkable insight and wit, [who] profoundly improved public discourse on the ideas he championed."

Irving Kristol, Architect of Neoconservatism, Dies at 89 (Adam Bernstein, 9/19/09, Washington Post)
Mr. Kristol and his historian wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, along with a group of sociologists, historians and academics including Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Richard Pipes and for a while Daniel P. Moynihan, emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s as prominent critics of welfare programs, tax policy, moral relativism and countercultural social upheavals they felt were contributing to America's cultural and social decay.

His father was an immigrant garment worker from Eastern Europe, and Mr. Kristol grew up under humble circumstances that shaped his beliefs. "Those who have been raised in poor neighborhoods -- the Daniel Patrick Moynihans, Edward Banfields, Nathan Glazers -- tend to be tough-minded about slums and their inhabitants," he told the New York Times.

Middle-class sociologists, he said, "are certain that a juvenile delinquent from a welfare family is a far more interesting figure -- with a greater potentiality for redeeming not only himself but all of us -- than an ordinary, law-abiding and conforming youngster who is from the very same household."

Mr. Kristol had grown dismayed by the fragmentation of the Democratic Party over the war in Southeast Asia and remained a vigorous defender of a strong military to combat communist threats. He championed a steady focus on economic growth that gives "modern democracies their legitimacy and durability" but cautioned against running deficits. He popularized supply-side economics, long considered a fringe belief that tax cuts would lead to widespread financial prosperity. Supply side became a leading conservative cause in the 1980s and influenced the Reagan White House tax policy.

Mr. Kristol and many of his colleagues were dubbed neoconservatives, a term introduced by social critic Michael Harrington to describe the rightward turn of onetime liberals such as Mr. Kristol, whose extraordinary political odyssey had taken him from Depression-era socialist to anticommunist Cold Warrior and Vietnam War hawk.

While Harrington's use of neoconservative was not intended as a compliment, Mr. Kristol embraced the term and became its widely accepted godfather. A cover story on Mr. Kristol in Esquire magazine in 1979 helped legitimize him as the leader of a full-fledged movement, even as he played down the idea that such a formal faction existed.

"We are not a movement," he once said. "There has never been a meeting of neoconservatives." He called it an "intellectual current" that came to prominence after a "gradual evolution."

Irving Kristol, 'Neoconservative' And Father Of William, Has Died (Mark Memmott, 9/18/09, NPR) -TRIBUTE: In Memoriam: Irving Kristol (1920–2009) (J. David Hoeveler, Jr. - 09/18/09, First Principles)

-AEI SCHOLAR: Irving Kristol (American Enterprise Institute)
-ESSAY: The Neoconservative Persuasion: What it was, and what it is. (Irving Kristol, 08/25/2003, Weekly Standard)

Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the "American grain." It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked. Of course, those worthies are in no way overlooked by a large, probably the largest, segment of the Republican party, with the result that most Republican politicians know nothing and could not care less about neoconservatism. Nevertheless, they cannot be blind to the fact that neoconservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters. Nor has it passed official notice that it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies. [...]

Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on "the road to serfdom." Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. Because they tend to be more interested in history than economics or sociology, they know that the 19th-century idea, so neatly propounded by Herbert Spencer in his "The Man Versus the State," was a historical eccentricity. People have always preferred strong government to weak government, although they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government. Neocons feel at home in today's America to a degree that more traditional conservatives do not. Though they find much to be critical about, they tend to seek intellectual guidance in the democratic wisdom of Tocqueville, rather than in the Tory nostalgia of, say, Russell Kirk.

But it is only to a degree that neocons are comfortable in modern America. The steady decline in our democratic culture, sinking to new levels of vulgarity, does unite neocons with traditional conservatives--though not with those libertarian conservatives who are conservative in economics but unmindful of the culture. The upshot is a quite unexpected alliance between neocons, who include a fair proportion of secular intellectuals, and religious traditionalists. They are united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government's attention. And since the Republican party now has a substantial base among the religious, this gives neocons a certain influence and even power. Because religious conservatism is so feeble in Europe, the neoconservative potential there is correspondingly weak.

AND THEN, of course, there is foreign policy, the area of American politics where neoconservatism has recently been the focus of media attention. This is surprising since there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience. (The favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs, thanks to professors Leo Strauss of Chicago and Donald Kagan of Yale, is Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.) These attitudes can be summarized in the following "theses" (as a Marxist would say): First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.

Finally, for a great power, the "national interest" is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.

-ESSAY: On the Political Stupidity of the Jews: Whether in America or in their own sovereign country, Jews still have no idea what statecraft is. (Irving Kristol, 1999, Azure)
-VIDEO ARCHIVES: Irving Kristol (Charlie Rose Show, PBS)
-ESSAY: My Cold War (Irving Kristol, Spring 1993, The Public Interest)
-INTERVIEW: A Conversation With Irving Kristol [The following article was published in the May 1969 edition of The Alternative (as The American Spectator was then known)]
-The Public Interest
-ARCHIVES: Irving Kristol (Public Interest)
-ARCHIVES: Irving Kristol (Harper's)
-ARCHIVES: Remembering Irving Kristol (Weekly Standard, 9/18/09)
-ARCHIVES: Irving Kristol (Find Articles)
-ARCHIVES: irving kristol (NY Times Book Review)
-PROFILE: Irving Kristol (Arguing the World, PBS)
-PROFILE: Irving Kristol’s Long, Strange Trip (George Packer, 4/15/09, The New Yorker)
-REVIEW: of Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea by Irving Kristol ( Harvey Mansfield, National Review)
Most important, the neoconservatives believed in ideas: "The truth is that ideas are all-important." Kristol contrasts his belief with the conservatism of Michael Oakeshott (among others), for whom the human resistance to ideas and the many parochial comforts of life not to be deduced from our universal nature are the main truth. One can make an idea out of the resistance we offer to ideas, and that might be the substance of Oakeshott's conservatism. Kristol considers that conservatism too European, not right for an America that must be a universal idea because it can attract and receive all kinds of immigrants -- including Jews.

Hardly any neoconservative is not a Jew, but then again, hardly any Jew is a conservative. So neoconservative Jews are above all critics of other Jews: they cannot be explained by their Jewishness unless it is Jewishness rightly understood by a very few. Kristol says that America must be an idea because the only alternative is plain luck, or Divine Providence: "I really cannot believe that Americans are a historically unique and chosen people. I am myself a Jew and an American, and with all due respect to the Deity, I think the odds are prohibitive that He would have gone out of His way to choose me twice over."

The American idea is democracy, a form of government that permits a man, as in the joke above, to say that he is a Jew before affirming he is an American. Most Jews are liberals, Mr. Kristol remarks, because they think that the secular humanism of liberals will guarantee Jews against anti-Semitism and make America their home. But the price exacted by liberalism is to transform Judaism into secular humanism. For Kristol, the price is prohibitively high for Jews and for liberals as well, since, as he repeats with emphasis, man is essentially religious, or "theotropic."

-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Arguing the World with Irving Kristol (Talk of the Nation, March 15, 1999, NPR)
-REVIEW: of Neoconservatism (Andrew Sullivan, NY Times Book Review)
[F]rom the beginning, his writing has exhibited a wealth of common sense and understated wit. This book is full of both. To take one example, his criticism of intellectualism in the conduct of foreign policy is as sharp now as it was in 1967: "The politics of American intellectuals . . . is more often than not a kind of transcendentalist politics, focusing less on the reform of the polity than on the perfection and purification of self in opposition to the polity."

His quiet understanding of the importance of family life, and the way in which it undergirds so much of our social cohesion, is all the more admirable for having been expressed when it was extremely unfashionable to do so, and in terms that were never likely to win the plaudits of the class of which he was, and is, a member. To read one 1971 essay is to be reminded of the benefits of reading political philosophy. He predicted what would take another decade or so to prove: that welfare in and of itself may not cure poverty, and may indeed merely create a new and more intractable form. He did so by reflecting on Tocqueville's "Essay on Pauperism," written in the 1850's, and contrasting it with the sociological cant of his own period. It is a masterly piece of journalism.

Mr. Kristol's writing, unlike that of some other polemicists, is not without the human touch, or the injection of mild, almost British humor, or that matter-of-fact world-weariness that has become his trademark. Here is one of the more memorable passages in this vein, an evocation of his father: "I don't recall ever having an extended conversation with him. He never read to me -- his command of English was too imperfect and, in any case, there were no children's books in our house. He worked long hours. . . . In the evening, he was too tired to do more than chat with my mother, leaf through the newspaper and listen to the radio while dozing off. He was always calm and genial -- but distant -- in demeanor, and was thought by all our relatives and his fellow workers to be wise, and fair, and good. I thought so, too. He was, and remains in memory, a version of the good father. And I never felt the need for a better one."

The latter phrase, it turns out, could also be applied to most of Mr. Kristol's life. Nowhere in this book is there much sense of struggle or incompletion, of passion or tension, of radical dissatisfaction or even genuine intellectual torment.

-REVIEW: of REFLECTIONS OF A NEOCONSERVATIVE: Looking Back, Looking Ahead. By Irving Kristol (Paul Johnson, NY Times Boom Review)
[T]he core of the book is the relationship between economics and society, and here Mr. Kristol is at his best and boldest. He has been called, and he accepts the term, a neoconservative. To my mind it is an ugly and inadequate label. Conservatives, whether new or old, are engaged in preserving as much of the past and present as possible, and there are many aspects of both that Mr. Kristol finds repugnant. He is not a romantic or an Arcadian; he does not suffer from an excess of nostalgia; he has no formal attachments to traditional religious or secular hierarchies. On the contrary, as these pages make clear, he warmly supports the sensible, empirical pursuit of progress and seems to believe that mankind, while far from perfectible, is capable of slow but indefinite improvement. But he distrusts the ories of almost any kind and disbelieves passionately in utopias. I would call him a skeptical liberal democrat, in the proper sense of these terms, and leave it at that. Mr. Kristol's thesis is as follows. In the second half of the 18th century, the formative period of the modern world, there were two distinct types of revolutionary thinkers, who were responsible for two quite different kinds of revolution. On the one hand, there were the French, the Encyclopedists, the men of the Gallic Enlightenment, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and so forth, the thinkers who precipitated the French Revolution and all its violent and totalitarian offshoots from that day to this. These men lived in a rigidly hierarchical and compartmentalized society, in which they occupied what Mr. Kristol terms a ''marginal situation.'' They were true intellectuals, a caste apart, different, ''at home in the Parisian salons but not in the society as a whole.'' They thus originated what Lionel Trilling called ''the adversary culture,'' seeing their life and work as a ''mission, to be achieved against the massive resistance of tradition, custom, habit and all the institutions'' of society. French rationalism, Mr. Kristol argues, ''identified the condition of being progressive with the condition of being rebellious.''

As he observes, the French concept of revolution and progress has become the dominant one in the 20th century, at any rate among intellectuals, and this has led to a needless fundamentalism in the pursuit of change and so in turn to needless violence. It has also led to the notion that progress is the peculiar property of an enlightened elite, who have a mission to promote it and, if necessary, to impose it on society, even against the will of the members of that society. Naturally, this has been destructive of democracy in any genuine form. The seeds of modern totalitarianism lie in the alienation of Rousseau and Voltaire from their social surroundings.

BY contrast, Mr. Kristol points to the ''other revolution'' of the 18th century, which has its origins in the Unites States and the Anglo- Scottish Enlightenment, a quite different affair from its French counterpart. He sees an appropriate significance in the fact that the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith's ''Wealth of Nations'' were published in the same year, 1776. The one introduced bourgeois democracy in its most quintessential form; the other analyzed and illuminated in rational terms the capitalist system then springing into existence. The empirical politics of the one married the empirical economics of the other, and the result was the American Republic, citadel of democratic capitalism, the most stable and on the whole most successful framework for promoting human progress.

-TRIBUTE: Irving Kristol: 1920-2009: Neoconservative Pioneer Paved Way for Reagan (Stephen Miller, 9/19/09, WSJ)
-EXCERPTS: Irving Kristol's Reality Principles: A great mind exposes ideological illusions, while thinking through better alternatives. (Irving Kristol, WSJ)

The following are excerpts from essays that appeared in The Wall Street Journal by Irving Kristol, who died yesterday at age 89. An editorial on his legacy appears nearby.

-OBIT: Irving Kristol: The man who put 'neo' into conservatism. (WSJ, 9/19/09)
The tension between neoconservatism and its critics still lies at the heart of our political division today, or much of it. Irving Kristol was a monthly contributor to these pages for some 25 years, beginning in the early 1970s at the invitation of then editorial page editor Bob Bartley.

It was through this period, both as a contributor to the Journal Editorial Page and as the editor of The Public Interest magazine, that Kristol developed his critique of the welfare state, the often illiberal ambitions of liberal social science, and the Democratic Party's steady drift to the left. (See excerpts from those columns nearby.)

In late July 1998, he wrote a piece for the Journal titled "Politics Reaches an Endpoint." In it he described the evolution of the Democratic Party into what it remains today. In typical fashion, Kristol made his argument by looking for a counterintuitive truth. Here, it was that George McGovern had "won" the 1972 election:

"He did not win the White House but he won the Democratic Party. Again, it was his nomination that was the crucial event, not the election. His nomination meant that the left-liberal wing of the Democratic Party had finally seized control, ousting the more 'centrist' wing that had its base mainly in the South and West. Can anyone imagine Lyndon Johnson being terribly concerned about discrimination against homosexuals in the military, fighting tooth and nail against tax cuts or vetoing legislation limiting late-term abortions?"

The Kristol critique helped shape the basis for many opposition ideas to the modern political left, in both domestic and foreign policy. American politics rarely bends for long to the ideas of one person, a modest truth that Irving Kristol understood. So it should be noted that he enlisted a small army of similarly minded intellectuals ("like-minded" would be an oxymoron among this crowd) to carry the fight.

-TRIBUTE: Irving Kristol, 1920-2009 (Roger Kimball, 9/19/09, Roger's Rules)
His favored form, though, was the literary surgical strike. Irving could pack an extraordinary amount in 1200 – 1500 words. Whether the topic was the welfare state, foreign policy, the totalitarian temptation, or the terrible legacy of the 1960s, Irving always articulated exactly what was at stake in the subject under discussion. He was a practical man, consummately attuned to what, for lack of a more elegant term, I will call the “policy implications” of ideas. But he saw with unusual perspicacity that ideas mattered. In a 1973 essay called “On Capitalism and the Democratic Idea,” he put it thus:

For two centuries, the very important people who managed the affairs of this society could not believe in the importance of ideas — until one day they were shocked to discover that their children, having been captured and shaped by certain ideas, were either rebelling against their authority or seceding from their society. The truth is that ideas are all-important. The massive and seemingly solid institutions of any society — the economic institutions, the political institutions, the religious institutions — are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions. The leverage of ideas is so immense that a slight change in the intellectual climate can and will — perhaps slowly but nevertheless inexorably — twist a familiar institution into an unrecognizable shape.

Well put, is it not? And how often we need to remind ourselves of that weighty moral.

Irving Kristol: The moral critic. (Steven Menashi, 09.19.09, Forbes)
Back in his college days, however, Kristol counted himself among the Trotskyists and the members of various socialist factions who met in Alcove No. 1 of the lunchroom at New York's City College. Yet what brought those students together and animated their debates was not a uniform political doctrine but their shared opposition to the much larger group of students who gathered in Alcove No. 2, where the Stalinists met. In a time and place where a serious, politically engaged student had only two alternatives--to join either the pro- or anti-Stalinist Left--one might say Kristol made the responsible, if not conservative, choice.

While the denizens of Alcove No. 2 had to twist the facts to fit their ideological loyalties--in order to justify the Moscow trials, to defend the purges, and so on--the students of Alcove No. 1 recognized how much the reality of Soviet terror fell short of socialist theory. Their task was to articulate a theory that corresponded to the real world. "We in Alcove No. 1 were terribly concerned with being 'right' in politics, economics, sociology, philosophy, history, anthropology, and so forth," Kristol once reflected.

That naturally led to general skepticism of Utopian ideals, and in articulating his politics, the ostensibly radical Kristol did not sound much different from the later conservative one. "Utopian political doctrines are to be deplored, and not only because of their unattainability; in practice they will have worse effects than those more conservative and cautious," Kristol wrote (under his Trotskyist party name, William Ferry) in one of his first published essays in 1943. The next year he denounced the "simplistic faith in perfectibility which cultivates the domineering arrogance of the self-righteous reformer, and which forgives in advance inhumanity disguised as humanistic zeal."

Against utopianism he endorsed "moral realism," which "foresees no new virtues" and is "interested in human beings as it finds them, content with the possibilities and limitations that are always with us." An effective politics, wrote the young Kristol, must accept people as they are and attempt to organize them to achieve social goals.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2009 2:48 PM
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