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Intellectual conservatism, RIP - Neoconservatism - Salon.com | 2009-09-22

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In its origins, neoconservatism was a defense of New Deal/Great Society liberalism at home and abroad, both from the radical, countercultural left of the era and from its own design defects. The early neocons were Kennedy-Johnson liberals who believed that liberal reform should avoid naive utopianism and should be guided by pragmatism and empirical social science. The '70s neoconservatives were so focused on the utopianism of the '60s campus left, however, that most paid too little attention to a far greater threat to their beloved New Deal tradition, the utopianism of the libertarian right. Ultimately Milton Friedman and other free-market ideologues did far more damage to America than the carnival freaks of the counterculture.

But the early neoconservatives were right to defend mainstream liberalism against countercultural radicalism. Like today's right, the '60s and '70s left was emotional, expressivist and anti-intellectual. (One of its bibles was Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book!") Like today's right, the '70s left favored theatrical protest over discussion and debate. The prophets of the Age of Aquarius and the "population explosion" were every bit as apocalyptic as Glenn Beck. And just as today's right-wing radicals play at Boston Tea Parties, so Abbie Hoffman dressed up as Uncle Sam. The teabaggers are the Yippies of the right. 

Boomer nostalgia to the contrary, in the case of practically every domestic issue disputed by the counterculture and the original neoconservatives the mainstream progressive position today is that of the neoconservatives of the '70s. While the neoconservatives of the Committee on the Present Danger in the 1970s exaggerated Soviet power, the kind of muscular liberal internationalism that Pat Moynihan defended against the left in the 1970s and against Reaganite unilateralism in the 1980s is today's progressive grand strategy. Neoconservatives like Moynihan were denounced as racists in the 1970s for saying the same things about the importance of law and order and functioning families that Clinton and Obama have been able to say without controversy. The original neoconservatives like Moynihan and Glazer sought to help the black and Latino poor by means of universal, race-neutral programs instead of race-based affirmative action, which, they warned, would spark a white backlash to the benefit of conservatives. They were right about the political potency and longevity of that backlash, too, even though today's progressives still refuse to admit it.

The enduring legacy of the original neoconservatives is less a matter of policy positions than a particular intellectual style. David Hume defined the essayist as a messenger from the realm of learning to the realm of conversation. Between the late '60s and the mid-'80s, the public intellectuals of the neoconservative movement shuttled between the two realms, writing essays with academic rigor and journalistic clarity for the general educated public in Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz, and the two quarterlies that Irving Kristol founded, the Public Interest and the National Interest. Here are a few of the essays in the inaugural issue of the Public Interest in fall 1965: Daniel Patrick Moynihan on "The Professionalization of Reform"; Robert M. Solow, "Technology and Unemployment"; Jacques Barzun, "Art -- by act-of-Congress"; Nathan Glazer, "Paradoxes of American Poverty"; Daniel Bell, "The Study of the Future." The journal in its ecumenical first issue included Robert L. Heilbroner from the left and Robert A. Nisbet from the right. If you were interested in the scintillant collision of philosophy, politics and policy, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. In an era as inhospitable as our own to the essay as a form, it is encouraging to see an attempt by conservatives to revive the Public Interest under the name of National Affairs. The influence of the neoconservative style of informed debate is evident as well in the flourishing new liberal quarterly Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

In the 1950s, Irving Kristol, with the British poet Stephen Spender, had co-edited Encounter. In my view Encounter was the best magazine in the English language ever (sorry, Addison and Steele). Here is an anthology of the best of Encounter, including essays and poems by W.H.. Auden and Daniel Bell and Isaiah Berlin and short stories by Nadine Gordimer and Edmund Wilson.

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