Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The neo-neo-conservative moment 

The West is under attack from a violent, totalitarian ideology. The right is sounding the call to arms, while the left, as always, is offering excuses at best, and at worst, apologies. Meanwhile, some unexpected allies are coming out of the woodwork to help defend the Free World.

It's 2004, but I'm having flashbacks - to thirty years ago.

What seems like an incredibly long time ago now, sometime in the early 1990s, I decided to settle once and for all the question of my ideological self-classification. I knew most definitely by then that I was of the right, but I also knew there were many rights, all somewhat different to each other in temper and emphasis - so which one exactly was my true home?

I found the answer in 1994, I think, having put down Irving Kristol's collection of essays, "Reflections of a Neo-conservative". And so I became a neo-conservative myself, years after the movement's heyday in the 1970s and 80s had passed and years before it has become a part of every left-wingers' favorite foreign policy conspiracy theory. In many ways, I joined the club when it was least fashionable, which entailed a lot of explaining to my friends about this whole "neo" thing. If remembered at all outside of the conservative fraternity, the neo-cons were at that time still much better known for their social policy work (Himmelfarb, Moynihan, Kristol) rather than their foreign policy contribution in the late stages of the Cold War. In the early 1990s, sinister plots to spread democracy and the American Way to the Middle East were still only a twinkle in Paul Wolfowitz's eye. Those were the days.

What attracted me to neo-conservatism, as opposed to any other faction of the right, was the combination of its principled anti-totalitarian foreign policy, respect for society's traditions and institutions, a sensible - through never doctrinaire - preference for free market, and a strong stance in the culture wars against the tide of trendy philistinism. Yet when I say that I became a neo-con, I'm not being strictly accurate; I merely found the most appropriate label for the beliefs I already held. I certainly didn't share with many (most?) of the neo-conservatives the experience of a political migration from socialism or Trotskyism through muscular liberalism all the way into the mainstream of conservatism.

Some neo-conservatives might argue with me on this point, but to me one of the essential aspects of the classical neo-conservative experience between, say, 1950 and 1980, was that very fact of "becoming" - the often harrowing political odysseys of Marxists mugged by reality into becoming liberals and mugged yet again into becoming conservatives. For the generation of neo-con Founding Fathers, the recognition of the reality of - and of the danger posed by - the international communism provided the main catalyst for their political transmutation (the rise of the New Left gave an additional, somewhat less significant, domestic stimulus). Without this Cold War wake up call it is quite likely that the Kristols and the Podhoretzes of this world would still be writing for "The New Republic" if not "The Nation."

All this rather long introduction by way of a lead-up to a simple and far from an original observation that we are arguably witnessing a similar process taking place today: some leftists and liberals are being mugged by reality again, but this time, in place of the Cold War and the communist threat, the watershed experiences that define the break with the comfortable political certainties of the past are S11, Iraq and the war on terror - the Islamist challenge to the West, generally speaking.

Examples abound.
Christopher Hitchens is probably the best knows case of a committed leftist who broke away from his former colleagues over the ruins of Twin Towers. Paul Berman, to a lesser and less public extent, is another. In our familiar world of blogs I can think of quite a few prominent players who would probably describe themselves as liberals or moderates, but who on account of their response to the Islamist threat now find themselves in an unusual new company, strongly supporting George Bush and certainly the President's war on terror. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, Roger L Simon (see this profile), Dean Esmay of Dean's World, and Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs (I'm relying here on Cathy Seipp), all quickly come to mind. I'm sure you can probably name another few.

Their experiences are, of course, quite varied, as encounters on the road to Damascus tend to be, but the shared thread seems to be the realization not only that our Western way of life is under attack, but that it is also worth defending, and defend it we should, with all the strength and determination we can muster.

What does it all mean, then? Well, we're in the early stages yet - today's the equivalent of the 1950s and the early 60s as far as the neo-con transformations go - the time of the first awakenings. We don't know whether all those
"liberals with sense" (in the oft quoted by me formulation of the former NY mayor Ed Koch) will continue on the journey, like most of the original neo-cons did, and having embraced the foreign and defense policies of the right, will also eventually come to accept the rest of the package as well (the economic, social and cultural policies), or whether they will be happy just to remain "liberal hawks" (and we have to remember that, after all, not all neo-cons ended up on the right - Daniel Patrick Moynihan stayed a Democrat till the end, and Daniel Bell always thought of himself as a man of moderate left). One thing's for certain though - Hitchens, Reynolds and Co will not look at the world the same way ever again. It might be too melodramatic to say that the world has changed on S11 - but some people certainly have.

What all of this also means is that the media, with their goldfish-like attention span, and other assorted shortsighted critics have once again got it wrong. They have suddenly discovered the existence of neo-conservatism some two years ago, as if in some strange quantum physics manner the movement didn't exist before it was observed by the pundits. Then just as suddenly, after the novelty had worn off, the same people decided to celebrate the
end of the neo-conservative moment (and here from a different perspective). Yet, if I'm right and we are witnessing the birth of a new neo-con generation and the beginnings of the next neo-con wave, then the movement was not merely a flash-in-the-pan footnote in the political history of the twentieth century, but is an ongoing, and largely self-perpetuating phenomenon. And that, in turn, means that contrary to the mainstream media's "the rise and fall of the neo-con cabal" wet editorial dreams, the neo-conservatives, just like the poor, will be always with us.

I will follow with some interest the liberal hawks' future paths to see if another international crisis had indeed precipitated the birth of the new neo-conservative movement in the United States and elsewhere around the world. It was an American socialist,
Michael Harrington, who originally coined the term "neo-conservative" as a derisive description of his former Trotskyite friends. Let's not allow another of the movement's enemies to again christen the neo-neos - this time let's welcome them ourselves.


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