Dinner with Jonah Goldberg and his very bright wife on a Baltic NRO run cruise, turned out to be a terrific introduction.
Debbie and I had heard Jonah speak at a Boston based NRO conclave earlier and would hear him again at an overflow Cato conclave in Naples, Florida.
Jonah is a master in the public eye and has a commanding delivery that allows him to deliver his message with authority.
Neo-conservatism is difficult subject matter. Jonah’s explanation, abridged by me here, is one of the clearest I have come across.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
Read more here.
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