The neoconservatives: as outdated as the old left

The Argument

Ideological movements, however pioneering, reach maturity and go stale -- and the neocons' day has passed.

Books

January 27, 2002|By Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

The trouble with being an intellectual pioneer is not, as you might expect, that the frontier always ends, but that it doesn't. There is no California in the landscape of ideas, and likewise, there was no Waterloo in the culture wars that were fought there so spiritedly in the second half of the 20th century. The wars pitted cultural leftists against conservatives.

Nobody surrendered, nobody won and nobody ever will, except the occasional young apostate who when he changes sides these days does so more often out of boredom and professional self-interest than conviction. He knows the heat of the conflict is over.

But don't tell that to the neoconservative old guard, many of whom were once as rabidly radical as they now are convalescently conservative. Their lurch to the right was by no means opportunistic. It was the fruit of deep conviction, the culmination of their life's work. It defined them, and, as such, has kept them reiterating their once fresh battle cry into redundancy. Their time in the fray is done. They just don't know it yet.

Take paragon Hilton Kramer, for example. In the '50s and '60s he wrote for the left-wing journals The Nation and Partisan Review. But he also began writing for Commentary magazine under the editorial eye of another prominent intellectual who was defecting from the left: Norman Podhoretz.

One of Podhoretz's recent books Ex-Friends (1999, Free Press, 256 pages, $25) is the archetypal intellectual grudge memoir, typical fare for today's neoconservative gerontocracy. All pointed fingers and self-aggrandizement.

Like Podhoretz, Kramer drifted further to the right over the years, and by 1982, had founded a conservative journal called The New Criterion. Kramer's latest offering, a collection of essays, The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War (1999, Ivan R. Dee, 376 pages, $16.95), is Podhoretzesque in its obsession with intellectual disappointments and feuds that should have expired 40 years ago.

His perseverations about who, among the reigning mid-century Stalinist intelligentsia (Malcolm Crowley, Clement Greenberg, Mary McCarthy, Michael Straight and Dwight MacDonald among others) was the greatest traitor to liberalism often feel more pathetic than anything else at this late date. The rage has kept recycling in anthologies like The Betrayal of Liberalism: How the Disciples of Freedom and Equality Helped Foster the Illiberal Politics of Coercion and Control (1999, Ivan R. Dee, 256 pages, $14.95) and Against the Grain: The New Criterion on Art and Intellect at the End of the Twentieth Century (1995, Ivan R. Dee, 463 pages, $35), both of which Kramer edited with New Criterion colleague Roger Kimball.

The younger Kimball was an early star in the reinvigorated culture wars of the 1980s and '90s, a kind of intellectual godchild, it seemed, of the movement. This was when the neocons really made their public stand as an ideological entity fiercely opposed to the legacy of their ex-friends, who were likewise creeping into middle age. These paleo-Marxists were doing so, however, with their '60s mentalities still intact, and had begun converting prodigies in the liberal groves of academe.

The inevitable rematch had to happen in the late 1980s. This phase began when Irving Kristol wrote his manifesto for the movement, Neoconservatism (1995, Free Press, $25). Taking up the cause of Kristol, Kramer and Podhoretz, Kimball wrote of leftist brainwashing on campus: Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (1990, Ivan R. Dee, $25). This helped blow open the vociferous debates about political correctness in education that plague us to this day. The argument was fresh then, and necessary. But by now, after more than a decade of listening to the same combatants bat the same arguments back and forth, many of us have grown weary of the fracas.

Like Kramer, Kimball's recent offerings are just more of the same, more typically reductive rightist paeans to a time before morally corrupting French philosophy was king -- Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age (2000, Ivan R. Dee, 352 pages, $28.50) -- and more gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over the ill effects of the far too permissive and amoral 1960s -- The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (2000, Encounter, 326 pages, $23.95).

Like Kimball, over the past decade, Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor of history emeritus, dextral dragon lady, and wife of Irving Kristol, has beaten the drum especially long and hard for the righteous. Throughout the '90s, she churned out jeremiads with suitably outraged and gloomy titles like On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1995, Vintage, 212 pages, $15) and The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1996, Vintage, $13).

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