September 24, 2009

Remembering Irving Kristol

Readers of this website have been asking me since the death of Irving Kristol at the age of 89 why I?ve not addressed the meaning of his life and passing. There are three reasons that I initially decided not to weigh in. One, I believe that Grant Havers, and now Richard Spencer, have said all that needs to be said about Kristol?s legacy in their pithy commentaries. Two, I?ve already written a great deal, for example, in Conservatism in America, about the character and effects of Kristol?s beliefs. At this point there seems nothing left for me to say about him or them. No one who has read me with any regularity would mistake me for a devotee of Kristol?or of the movement he purported to found. And I suspect that most of those who wanted me to respond were waiting for a fiery outburst against someone whom they suspected I disliked.

Three, the main reason I abstained from commenting until now is that I don?t think Kristol was much of a presence of any kind. Aside from his accomplishments in wangling big sums for his pals from corporate executives and in helping younger neoconservatives take over philanthropic organizations, Kristol contributed nothing of substance to neoconservatism. Many of the views he expressed went counter to those of Frum, Brooks, and his son Bill, and especially on the danger of utopian thinking in foreign policy. In the 1990s Irving often sounded like his supposed adversary, Pat Buchanan, in calling for a fusion of nationalism with conservative religion.

Although Kristol continued to write for the Wall Street Journal well into his 80s, he often sounded like someone out of the past, who had become incoherent. In a section on ?the mutating thought? of Kristol in Conservatism In America,  I show how nonchalantly Kristol could announce to Buchanan back in 1992 that ?the cultural war is lost; the Left has won,? and then proclaim a few days later that ?conservatism has won.? His inflated claims, e.g. that neoconservatism had created Republican presidencies and that no true conservatism had existed in America before the neoconservatives, often bordered on megalomania or shocking historical ignorance. And what made these claims even more questionable was that neoconservatism in practice had zilch to do with Kristol?s editorials or dabs of political theory. With some justification Russell Kirk and Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddhin, who had only limited exposure to Irving?s rhetoric, both thought to have discovered in him a true conservative sensibility. Depending on what one read of his essays and columns, this judgment could be defended. It was the rest of his work that gave him away as a sloganeer and braggart. But one should not really blame Irving for what became neoconservatism. He did not create this world historical force (or catastrophe), however much he delighted in taking credit for having launched it.

Kristol was certainly not the literary or social equivalent of another big name in American conservatism, William F. Buckley. Unlike Buckley, he was not a brilliant polemicist or charismatic personality. He looked and sounded like the displaced leader of a New York garment workers? union, which were his real roots. His widely distributed prose rarely rose above pedestrian platitudes, often mixed with the jejune utterances of neoconservative professors in the social sciences. If his writing was meant to galvanize or sway, then I was totally immune to its effect. But Kristol, to his credit, never descended to the evil pandering that became characteristic of the later Buckley. He was fiercely loyal to his own kind, meaning New York Jews who came from the same background. This may have been the side of Kristol that was the most admirable. Although probably not a side that would endear him to many visitors to this website, it suggests to me that he was a better human being than the far more gifted social butterfly who became the father of post-World War Two conservatism.

As for the celebrations of his genius that have popped up since his death, one must attribute them to the usual sources, those whom Irving or his family sponsored and enriched and those who would be terrified of neoconservative retaliation if they failed to extol the neoconservative godfather. Since none of us falls into either category, we may speak about the real Irving Kristol, a deceased journalist and a resourceful fund-raiser.

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