Monday, January 14, 2008

Sons and Lovers

Book reviews often turn out to be capsule versions of how the reviewer thinks the book should have been written -- and would have been written had this been a just universe in which the reviewer had been paid to write it instead of the author. Not realizing that writing the damned thing and dreaming of it are two different lines of work.

That's a necessary evil of the book review section. This review, however, abuses the privilege. The reviewer is Slate's Timothy Noah. The book is "They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons" by Jacob Heilbrunn.

That this review is going to be a hit job piled onto a hit job is evident from the three ugly pictures of Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, and Douglas Feith that adorn it. And from the title of the article: "Fathers and Sons," echoing Turgenev's novel about liberal Russian fathers and their children who turn out to be -- not conservatives, or even better liberals, but arrogant nihilists.

As a self-described neo-con, I get used to a stream of scapegoating from certain quarters. But when a writer takes "neo-con" to mean, essentially, "Jews we don't like in the American foreign policy establishment," I have to object, on the basis of clarity of language, if not decency.

Noah starts off with the alleged fixation of the neo-cons with Hitler. Here's another clue that this is going to get around eventually to the ethnic heritage of the neo-cons. He lists various sentences in which alleged neo-cons have reached for Hitler comparisons in describing perceived opponents such as Saddam, Bin Laden, Ahmadinejad, and Yasir Arafat.

Never mind that all those men, in various ways (especially Saddam), have compared their work or their ideologies favorably to Hitler's, or deliberately adopted his techniques. Or that their democratic opponents in their various homelands have called them Hitlers, with good reason. Or that a German author like Hans Magnus Enzensberger could explore such comparisons (in 1991's “Hitler’s Successor: Saddam Hussein in the Context of German History”). Or that Madeleine Albright or Al Gore both evoked Hitler when speaking about Saddam. Though I might also call them neo-cons, during their time in the Clinton Administration.

Never mind that one of the essential lesson-problems of the West in the 20th century was Munich and appeasement of totalitarianism (along with post-World War I American isolationism and Cold War warping of democracy), and thus it is pertinent to try to understand modern problems partially in light of that past.

And never mind that everyone gets compared to Hitler at some point. A catalogue of Bush-Hitler comparisons, for instance, could be used as the basis of defining the modern American progressives.

Noah then veers into an illogical cheap shot, by writing:

Just about the only place the neoconservative movement can’t locate Hitler is Nazi Germany.

Based on? A 1944 comment from Irving Kristol. But at that point in his life Kristol was 24, still a die-hard Trotskyite. He was not a neo-con -- the very name implies a movement from something to something else, and at that time he was very much in the "something" phase.

Noah then immediately fast-forwards to William Kristol, Irving's son, writing against Saddam in 2003. Fathers and sons, indeed. What the father said at 24 supposedly is the key to understanding the son. I wonder what my father was saying at 24. Or yours. Or Noah's. Evidently we better educate ourselves on that.

Well, what Irving was saying at 24 (don't take the totalitarian too seriously) is the opposite of what William was saying (take the totalitarian seriously). You'd think that might give a writer like Noah pause. Instead, that's the key to the conspiracy, you see. Irving wrote as he did because he was “indulging in an abstract crusade for a better world.” And so was William!

And so was Wilson, and Lincoln, and Reagan, and Tolstoy, and Mother Teresa, and Oprah, and John Edwards and -- oh, you name them. Yet this "crusading myopia" (along with ethnicity) is to be the defining quality of the damned neo-cons.

That's just the beginning. Along the way we learn that neoconservatives"spurn empirical methods of inquiry," are “uncompromising” and are possessed of "a prophetic cast of mind."

Did someone say “prophetic”? There’s no point denying it: neocons tend to be Jewish. There are plenty of prominent exceptions ... but neoconservatism’s priorities, which range from strong support for Israel to vehement opposition to affirmative action, are heavily influenced by the values, interests and collective historical memory of the Jewish people.

Whew! Do you smell that, too?

Heilbrunn carries this conceit to the outermost boundaries of good taste by dividing his book into sections whose names are derived from the Old Testament: “Exodus,” “Wilderness,” “Redemption” and “Return to Exile.”

Not that there's anything really wrong with that. The worst Noah can say is "the author’s disillusioned perspective feels a tad insular, and occasionally shades into snideness ...." All the while vying to outdo Heilbrunn's snideness in his own prose.

Noah describes the political history of the leading neo-cons, but does not attempt to define their identifying characteristics -- other than being principally Jews, and (vaguely) wrong about everything. But as the leading neo-con himself describes it, it is all over the map, a Chinese restaurant menu of ideas, some creative, some in reaction against the left, and nobody holds all of them in equal measure, and plenty of people share enthusiasm for neo-con domestic notions (cutting taxes to spur growth, or opposition to welfare states) without being neo-cons -- or even Jews! It is not a movement, not a unity.

In the end, Noah (and, apparently Heilbrunn) are baffled that the most basic reality of their subject does not conform to their thesis. (Talk about spurning empirical methods of inquiry.)

The great mystery of George W. Bush’s presidency is why he ever jumped into bed with neoconservatives in the first place. During the presidential primaries in 2000, The Weekly Standard, by then neoconservatism’s pre-eminent publication, had preferred John McCain. Bush had no great fondness for intellectuals, and a disinclination to engage in nation-building. And before 9/11, even Wolfowitz had predicted that the big foreign-policy challenge would not be Iraq, but China. What brought about this unlikely alliance?

His answer is Cheney. But Cheney wasn't a neo-con, either.

Probably the most significant factor was the presence of Vice President Dick Cheney, who helped Wolfowitz secure his berth with Rumsfeld, which in turn allowed Wolfowitz to install Feith. What transformed Cheney from a mild skeptic about Iraq intervention when he was defense secretary in the early 1990s (one “former colleague” informs Heilbrunn that in those days Cheney was “not in thrall” to Wolfowitz) to the unappeasable hawk he revealed himself to be after 9/11?

[UPDATE: hint]

Ah, well. When in doubt, blame it on Cheney. Hey, maybe he's a Jew, too, eh, fellows? "Maybe an evil spirit terrorized Cheney while he slept. The ghost of Hitler, perhaps?"

I've grown accustomed to being identified as many things because I, too, think of myself as a neo-con. Granted I never was a New York Trotskyite. But I do agree with this, from the "Weekly Standard" article:

These attitudes can be summarized in the following "theses" (as a Marxist would say): First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.

Some people can see that and conclude it must be the work of twisted-minded and maniacal Christ-killers who made everything in the world go wrong. Which is exactly how the Bolsheviks were seen by ... oh, never mind.

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