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What's In A Name? The Curious Case Of "Neoconservative"
April 30, 2003
How can something exist and not exist both at the same time? The answer: by being neoconservative.
Since last winter, neoconservative columnists David Frum, Jonah Goldberg, Max Boot, and John Podhoretz have been insisting that the word "neoconservative" is either a tautologous term for a right-winger or an anti-Semitic slur aimed at pro-Israeli conservative Jews.
On April 22, Republican booster and talk show host Rush Limbaugh entered the fray. He denounced
"these media people speaking in their own code language. A case in point is their use of the term 'neoconservative.' Whether they choose to hyphenate the label or not, it's a pejorative code word for 'Jews.' That's right. They use it as a way to say guys like Bill Kristol, Irving Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Norman Podhoretz, John Podhoretz and others are just trying to support Israel at the USA's expense
Anti-Semites Use "Neo-Con" Code Word, Rushlimbaugh.com, April 22, 2003
Rush's website commentary links to a lead essay "I Confess" written by John Podhoretz for the New York Post (April 22), which might help clarify Rush's gripe.
Both Podhoretz and Limbaugh assert that neoconservatives are the genuine conservatives, whom anti-Semites are slandering by attaching the derogatory prefix "neo." Limbaugh mumbles about "these media people"—as if the Establishment mediacrats that the neocons socialize and share their goodies with were the problem. ["A friend of mine suggests it [neocon] means the kind of right-winger a liberal wouldn't be embarrassed to have over for cocktails. - What the Heck Is a 'Neocon'? By Max Boot, Opinionjournal.com, December 30, 2002]
Podhoretz understands that this snickering is coming from the Old Right, which is emphatically non-Establishment. But snickering can be contagious–hence the neocon efforts to anathematize their detractors.
There are, it seems to me, two reasons that neoconservatives are starting to shed their label.
Firstly, the term "neoconservative" is now too closely identified with the personal and ethnic concerns of its Jewish celebrities. Despite their frequent attempts to find kept gentiles, the game of speaking through proxies may be showing diminishing results. Everyone with minimal intelligence knows that Bill Bennett, Frank Gaffney, Ed Feulner, Michael Novak, George Weigel, James Nuechterlein, and Cal Thomas front for the neocons. It is increasingly useless to depend on out-group surrogates to repackage a movement so clearly rooted in a particular ethnicity—and even subethnicity (Eastern European Jews). Better to seek cover by changing a culturally-specific label into something more generic.
And neocons, given their iron control of today's "movement conservatives," can call themselves whatever they want. It is doubtful they would meet much opposition if tomorrow they order movement conservatives to call them Martians.
Secondly, the recent attacks on "neoconservatives" that have appeared here and in Europe depicting them as global revolutionary radicals have created other terminological problems for those who wish to be associated, however fictitiously, with the Right. While posing as a friend of order, one does not want to be burdened with a moniker that connotes "creative destruction," as Michael Ledeen was unwisely boasting recently. Thus it seems a good idea for neocons in some circumstances to abandon the label associated with the worship of revolution—for example, when playing to Midwestern small-town Republicans or to corporate executives.
Neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol pioneered this practice in his Reflections of a Neoconservative (1983)—yes, he used the term—when he ingeniously argued: "A welfare state, properly conceived, can be an integral part of a conservative society."
"Welfare State" = New Deal.
The same year George Will, by then a wannabe neocon, was explaining in Statecraft as Soulcraft that Aristotle and Burke were the true fathers of the American welfare state. Only radicals, like Taft Republicans, says Will, stood athwart this essentially conservative institution. Moreover, "two conservatives [Bismarck and Disraeli] pioneered the welfare state and did so for impeccably conservative reasons: to reconcile the masses to the vicissitudes and hazards of a dynamic industrial economy."
Thus, although the neoconservatives are now the party of global "creative destruction," in 1983 they were still reaching for Tory-Democratic window-dressing to present themselves and Big Government as "conservative" forces.
Abandoning the label "neoconservative" is a project of astonishing ambition and daring, comparable in a small way to the project of persuading the Americans to conquer and colonize the Middle East. "Neoconservative" has been a conventional descriptive term since the seventies when Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Daniel Bell themselves began applying that term to their thinking. By the 1980s, when John B. Judis of the New Republic noticed that "conservative wars" had erupted (New Republic, 11 August, 1986), neocons were proudly flaunting their identity, in order to distinguish themselves from the traditional American Right.
Unlike that rejected traditional Right, neocons saw themselves as friends of a large federal welfare state. They despised Taft Republicans and followers of the late Senator Joe McCarthy as rightwing extremists. Bill Kristol's enthusiastic endorsement (during an interview in 1997 with Washington Post's E.J. Dionne) of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the tone of which is faithfully reproduced by Sam Francis in his essay Chronicles (May 2003), reflects this line of thought. Neoconservatives, as opposed to constitutional conservatives, do not disguise their adoration of the contemporary managerial state.
And young militant Max Boot, writing in the Wall Street Journal (December 30, 2002) did not shy away from the N word, when he told us that "support for Israel [is ]a key tenet of neoconservatism." Zionism inheres specifically in neoconservatism, which also, as Boot reminded us, is in favor of the welfare state. (I write this as a supporter of Israel. I am less enthusiastic about the welfare state). [Open borders may be another "key tenet". Click here for Scott McConnell's account of the hostile neoconservative reaction to the reopening of the immigration debate – from sixth paragraph.]
Irving Kristol, of course, titled two of his most widely distributed collections of thoughts Reflections of a Neoconservative (1983) and Neoconservatism: Autobiography of an Idea (1999). In both works, "neoconservativism" is celebrated as a positive quality that Kristol discerns in himself and in his spiritual progeny.
Moreover, in 1995 Mark Gerson, a "twenty-three years old rising neoconservative," (see www.amazon.com) brought out a flattering history of Kristol's movement, The Neoconservative Vision, which was profusely praised in First Things (October 1996, 7-8). In this work Gerson stressed the distinctions between his beloved "neoconservatives" and those who had occupied the Right before. Gerson hoped to make the difference between the two crystal-clear (the pun is deliberate) when he published simultaneously The Essential Neoconservative Reader, which is meant to introduce us to the authors of identifiably "neoconservative" verities.
Many of these authors are featured on an internet fansite http://neoconservatism.com/ An especially exciting feature of this website, which lists neocon affiliate groups in England and France, is the availability of the commentaries of Max Boot, David Frum, John Podhoretz, and Jonah Goldberg and those of such golden oldies as Michael Ledeen, Daniel Pipes, and Frank Gaffney.
Curiously enough, this site has posted its heroes' recent comments denying the very existence of that movement whose sacred shrine we have just entered. These angry denials are juxtaposed with a pervasive affirmation of neoconservative identity.
How can this be?
Perhaps the neocons are imitating the American Communist practice of assuming multiple identities at different organizational levels. Remember the way that J. Edgar Hoover depicted the Communists as "masters of deceit" because of their skill at infiltrating other groups, partly by appearing to be other than Communists, e.g., Ban-the-Bombers or members of the U.S.-Soviet Friendship League.
To the question of whether alleged Communists were really what they were, the ready answer of their defenders was, no, they were not. They were simply misrepresented friends of peace and/or dedicated anti-fascists.
Those who were in the know understood the game. But everyone else—let's say the Rush Limbaughs—tried to believe the disinformation that the Communists spread throughout their support system. The fellow travelers did not look too deeply and put out of their minds unwelcome facts that contradicted what they wished to think.
Once again our global revolutionaries may be taking a leaf from their leftist home base.
That is where they return, like other habitual leftists, for strategic and rhetorical nurture.
Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory, and Multiculturalism And The Politics of Guilt: Toward A Secular Theocracy.