Sunday, October 17, 2004

Proud to Be a Neo-conservative

"Mr. Cheney enters tonight's debate with Mr. Edwards widely regarded as one of the most influential vice presidents in history, if not the most influential...Mr. Cheney is regarded now as the heavyweight in the Bush inner circle of neoconservatives that is defending the war in Iraq."

-Jules Witcover, Baltimore Sun, Oct. 5, 2004

Liberals and the mainstream media have for the past year been labelling the Bush administration 'neoconservative.' Demonstrating their collective ignorance, the media portrays neoconservatism as primarily a foreign policy paradigm or ideology. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story on May 3 of last year describing neoconservatives as 'hawkish defense intellectuals.' They repeat the word with a tone and in a context that implies neoconservatives are inherently suspect, shadowy figures -- members of a secret society that has 'taken over' or 'dominated' the White House. When at a loss for words or arguments, liberal pundits will often resort to employing the label as if it is a counterargument in itself against anything the labelled person might believe or espouse.

First of all, one can't argue merely by fixing labels on your opponent's thoughts. But such an exercise is even more ridiculous when one doesn't even understand the meaning of the label you seek to apply.

Neoconservatism is a term coined by Irving Kristol, often considered the founder of the movement (although he would probably not call it a movement). To the surprise of many on the left, it has its origins in the left -- the far left. Most founding neoconservatives were reformed Troskyites -- communists. Many lived in communist or fascist countries before emigrating West once they became thoroughly disillusioned with the direction Marxism was taking in the former Soviet Union. Irving Kristol was a member of the Communist Fourth International. Many were Jewish intellectuals, like Leo Strauss who left Nazi Germany for France, then emigrated to England, and finally became a U.S. citizen in the mid-1940s. Thus neoconservatism began as an anti-communist movement headed by ex-communists, and this is likely why many modern pundits incorrectly assume neoconservatism is primarily a foreign policy paradigm. Indeed, insofar as neoconservatives advocated active resistance to Communism in the world and saw the United States as the best chance to stop it, neoconservatism had initially a lot to say about foreign policy. But neoconservatism is about much more than foreign policy, and it is not an ideology. In fact, it is an anti-ideology, a set of attitudes and beliefs about the nature of mankind that is skeptical of any grand scheme of ideas regarding human progress or projects to build utopia. Thus its aversion to communism and the notion that history is a series of struggles culminating in some ultimate, man-made egalitarian society. The neoconservatives identified this trend in human thinking -- men are tempted to eliminate the transcendent and instead attempt to construct the eternal city in the world of the mortal, but such projects always fail. When they fail, the arrogance of the original idea in which the leaders have become so invested causes those leaders to search for saboteurs rather than to admit the falsity of their original premise -- and then purge the saboteurs. Thus, when knowledge of the mass failures of communal agriculture and industry in China finally reached the top levels of government, the response was not reform, but rather a massive push against the 'counterrevolutionaries' -- against the sabateurs whose refusal to be reeducated into the modern ideology and prevented the system from working properly, so the thinking went. That 'cultural revolution' led to the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese either directly in purges or via starvation, plus the exile, torture, and persecution of tens of millions more. The same kind of story can be told about Stalin's Soviet Union. Neoconservatism thus rejects ideology in its strictest sense while it recognizes explicitly the power of ideas and the corruptability of men -- and the need to fight against men who become corrupted by the worst, most hypnotic ideas (hence the distinction between Islam, the religion, and Islamism, a dogmatic, hateful ideology). Neoconservatives believe in the absolute nature of truth as well as the difficulty men have discerning what the truth is, and call on statesmen to take a tough stance against the wrongest ideas. Democracy and freedom are championed -- these are concepts not so dogmatic as to be dangerously ideological. Rather, democracy and liberty are basic values that allow a framework for a state to choose amongst lesser values and attempt to discern the truth.

Neoconservatives call for a more classical view of the state that is not slavishly addicted to the idea of social progress, but rather allows individuals to flourish and drive the democracy. As Irving Kristol has noted in past essays, classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle would be confused by the unique strangeness of our modern polity's tendency to concentrate almost single-mindedly on how the state can improve our lives and material situation. But neoconservatism does not fear strong government -- it recognizes the role of the state in the habituation of virtue insofar as virtuous people make a strong and vibrant people. Neoconservatives are not libertarians who believe that a morality-free approach to government makes morality more praiseworthy when someone manages to attain it on their own. Rather, neoconservatives embrace the concept of a democratic, ordered liberty, a liberty within the constraints of basic morality and civic responsibility -- something much akin to the liberty envisioned by America's founders and classical thinkers alike.

Libertarians often accuse old stlye, paleo-conservatives of self-contradiction: They ask, how can you so adamantly advocate laissez-faire economic principles while simultaneously advocating a heavier hand of the state when it comes to culture and morality? Neoconservatism addresses this problem. It is the concept of economic growth, something that tames the historically explosive divisiveness of class struggle and allows for a stable nation with both haves and have-nots, that demands economic policies that do not hinder the enlargement of the pie, so to speak.

Neoconservatism, then, is not "hawkish defense intellectualism." The media has little idea of what they speak. Neoconservatism is a nuanced (real nuance, as opposed to Kerry's contradictions) philosophy or set of attitudes -- a 'persuasion,' as Irving Kristol puts it. It is a tradition with beginnings in a real struggle between a Godless ideology on the one hand and liberty on the other. It is a label the bearer of which should proudly display.