Wednesday, October 18, 2006


[posted by Callimachus]

About midway through this Weekly Standard review of "Neoconservatism: Why We Need It" by Douglas Murray, Peter Berkowitz tosses out an essential truth too often forgotten: "neoconservatism" is "neither a creed nor a school but rather a sensibility and style of thought ...."

Yes. But despite the effort of Berkowitz and Murray, the word seems to be headed the way of "liberal" and becoming just a label attached in odium to the political other. I see Rumsfeld and Cheney and even Rice -- even Bush! -- called "neo-cons" and it makes me laugh.

The first generation of neoconservatives -- led by Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Nathan Glazer -- entered the 1960s as liberals and Democrats, but rebelled against relativism's political symptoms, finding in the Johnson administration's Great Society welfare programs an inability to draw crucial moral distinctions and an obliviousness to the dependence of free and democratic institutions on character and culture. But by far the biggest and most dangerous expression of the relativist tendency, against which the first generation of neoconservatives rebelled, was the failure to grasp the menace of Communist tyranny and to recognize the monumental stakes of the Cold War.

Neoconservatives, Murray shows, differ from both traditional conservatives -- and, to use a term that more accurately than "liberal" describes the left in America today, progressives. In contrast to traditional conservatives, neoconservatives are more comfortable with capitalism, always accepted the moral and political necessity of the welfare state, and consistently sought a prominent role for America in creating a stable and just international order.

In contrast to progressives, neoconservatives are more concerned about the costs of modernity's disruptive ways to the family and traditional morality, strongly doubt the ability of the federal government to improve America through higher taxes and more aggressive social policies, and are skeptical of the integrity and efficacy of the United Nations, while maintaining confidence in the ability of the American armed forces, when diplomacy is exhausted, to advance American interests and ideals.

Although the label neoconservative was originated on the left as a term of reproach, it captures an important truth. In post-1960s America, neoconservatism elaborated a new kind of conservatism, one that made conserving and revitalizing the material and moral preconditions of a free society the top political priority.

I suppose, of all the big label-words floating around the domestic political toilet bowl these days, "neo-conservative" comes closest to a DNA match with my beliefs.

Berkowitz limns some of the contradictions at the core of neo-conservatism, including the big ones:

  • It isn't moral relativism, but rather blighted moral intensities, that are neo-conservatism's current enemies in the world.

  • "[W]hat lessons from the neoconservative critique of social engineering at home can be applied to the program for promoting liberty and democracy abroad?

  • And, along the same lines, how can neo-conservatives resolve their promotion of liberal democracy as the panacaea to heal a world full of tensions and violence with their ambivalence about its effects here at home?

A forest of tall trees and thick brambles. But I'm convinced the essential questions for our generation (and, for America, in every generation so far) lie through that wooda, as do the essential answers. I'd rather be cutting a path with the neo-cons than sitting on the fences, laughing at them and toasting to failure.

Critics may chuckle with satisfaction at the perplexities neoconservatism confronts. But the price the critics pay is moral and political blindness. Not that neoconservative solutions are always the right solutions. But the perplexities they confront are inscribed in the American way of life. They partly define the challenges of securing liberty at home, which is not separable today (if it ever was) from promoting it abroad. It is not the least of neoconservatism's achievements to have brought these perplexities into focus.