Irving Kristol's Clear Thinking
9/23/2009 12:01:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
"I am so nostalgic." That's the phrase I associate most with Irving Kristol, who died last week at the age of 89.
What piqued Irving's nostalgia, at an American Enterprise Institute conference I worked on in 1992, was old-fashioned censorship. In the good old days, he explained, local communities were able to determine their own standards without inviting lawsuits from the ACLU and overwrought invocations of "Fahrenheit 451." In fact, hanging a "Banned in Boston" banner in a bookstore window, he explained, was the surest way to sell that book in New York. Local censorship, tethered to common sense and grounded in community norms, gave communities a say in how they would live. It made the world a more diverse, sane place.
I'm not doing the argument justice, but what captured my attention was the calm, reasoned and even folksy way -- for a New York Jewish intellectual -- Kristol managed to slice through layers of liberal cant.
I am a National Review guy, and William F. Buckley would be the first face etched on my American-conservative Mount Rushmore, but, aside from my father, no single person had a bigger impact on my political thinking than Kristol, whose funeral was Tuesday.
The obituaries have focused on Irving's role as the "godfather of neoconservatism" and the founder of the Public Interest. That is as it should be. From that perch, Kristol led a massive counteroffensive on what he called the "new class -- statist intellectuals, lawyers, social workers, educators et al."
"Though they continue to speak the language of Progressive reform," Kristol wrote, "in actuality they are acting upon a hidden agenda: to propel the nation ... toward an economic system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the traditional anti-capitalist aspirations of the Left."
Kristol's formulation wasn't entirely new. He expanded an argument made by such figures as economist Joseph Schumpeter and James Burnham, another Trotskyist turned conservative (and a founding editor of National Review). But two things set Kristol apart. The first is that he understood the new class intimately; he spoke its language and was from the same cultural milieu. The second is that he did something about it.
Buckley said that the neocons' greatest contribution to conservatism was "sociology." The early National Review conservatism was more Aristotelian, Buckley observed, while the neos brought the language of social science to the debate. National Review might first ask whether a government initiative was warranted under the Constitution or whether it violated some immutable moral law. The neocons were less abstract. "The legitimate question to ask about any program," according to Kristol, "is, 'Will it work?'"
Starting at the height of LBJ's Great Society, Kristol unleashed a cadre of America's finest social scientists -- James Q. Wilson, Seymour Martin Lipset, Charles Murray, Thomas Sowell, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom to name a few -- to ask that question, and the answers usually confirmed that the Aristotelians were right all along. (No wonder the "law of unintended consequences" became the neocons' motto.)
Kristol argued that there were two basic orientations on the right: those who are anti-left and those who are anti-state. An anti-statist would say the government shouldn't be running the schools. The Kristolian would say public schools are fine; it's what they teach that's the problem. If anything, today's conservatism is an imperfect fusion of these perspectives. Kristol himself became far more of a traditionalist, noting toward the end of his public life that the work of neoconservatism was largely done. The staffers at the Public Interest -- not to mention his own son, Bill -- were simply "conservatives" now.
There is a tendency among liberals to believe that the only good conservative is a dead conservative. They don't wish violence on their opponents. Rather, once a prominent conservative dies -- Goldwater, Reagan, Buckley and now Kristol -- liberals use their memory to bash living conservatives. "Why can't you be more like those civil, high-brow types?" goes the refrain.
That's already begun with Irving. Liberal intellectuals sorrowfully ask what he would make of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the tea partyers. My hunch is that the man who defended Joe McCarthy's anti-communism (while detesting the man) and saw the evangelical Promise Keepers movement as a healthy sign of America's moral restoration would offer qualified praise. After all, the singular neoconservative duty, Kristol wrote, was "to explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong."
That's the Irving Kristol I will always be nostalgic for.