Saturday, September 19, 2009

Irving Kristol (1920-2009)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Irving Kristol, father of Bill and one of the founders of neoconservatism, has died at the age of 89. You can find obituaries, among other places, at the Times and the Post, as well as from Robert Kagan (a close friend of Bill and a leading neocon) and John Podhoretz (son of Norman, another founding neocon, at Commentary, one of the key neocon publications).

I usually find myself in opposition to neoconservatism, and hence I usually found myself in opposition to almost everything Kristol stood for. Indeed, I consider neoconservatism a reckless, insensitive, and at times, as during the Bush II presidency, insane ideology. It was the ideology behind the Iraq War and Occupation (through not just Bill Kristol but, more directly, Paul Wolfowitz), after all, not to mention behind the promotion of American global hegemony (through PNAC, the Bill Kristol- and Kagan-founded think tank). It has also been one of the leading ideologies behind regressive right-wing social policy in reaction to LBJ's Great Society initiatives of the '60s, as well as to the civil rights movement. It is more open, to be sure, than more traditional conservatism -- such as the paleo-conservatism of William Buckley and National Review -- not least with respect to its strong support for Israel, an area where I find some common cause with the neocons (even if I'm hardly as extremist in this regard), but, whatever its initially more radical origins (it grew out of the leftist politics of the City College of New York, for the most part), and however much it offered, early on, a useful critique of liberal public policy, it ultimately devolved into a core plank of the Republican coalition. In this respect, while Irving was a Republican, he was nothing like his son, who has spent his post-academic career as a partisan hack (and not nearly enough as an intellectual), and as an extremist who seems to lack the skepticism and flexibility of the earlier generation (even though, in supporting McCain, he has occasionally found himself in opposition to the Republican establishment).

I have not always been so opposed, however. Back in high school and college, when I was fairly conservative, I came to admire Kristol and the early neocons a great deal. Some of them, of course, didn't veer off to the right and embrace Republican politics, but, regardless, what I admired was their ardent intellectualism, their respect, so much at odds with so much of contemporary conservatism, for ideas. And I respected Kristol, in particular, for his adherence to the political philosophy of Leo Strauss (I studied with Straussians and still consider myself a Straussian, albeit a liberal one -- see here and here) and his admiration for Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century British poet and literary critic who is a hero of mine and on whom I focused my studies in graduate school. I moved away from Kristol -- and from neoconservatism, and from conservatism generally -- many years ago, but I suppose some of that early respect has remained ever since. Even in disagreement, usually strong, I have taken him seriously as a thinker, he and the first generation of neocons. (I've also always admired his wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who has written extensively on the Victorian period.)

I highly recommend Kristol's Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (1983), which I first read as an undergraduate at Tufts in a research seminar on post-war American political thought. It's not easy to find, but it's worth the effort. I also recommend Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (1995). If you want to know more about neoconservatism, why not go back to the source?

Irving Kristol was one of the giants of American conservatism, a true man of ideas who contributed a great deal to enlightened political discourse. Our thoughts go out to his friends and family, including to those with whom we disagree, on the other side of the partisan divide.

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  • I have seen various comments describing Kristol as an intellectual, a man of ideas, etc. They baffle me. His later career was an exact monument to the irrational, a prime example of what Peter Viereck called "metapolitics". Kristol spent decades wiping his emotional wounds in everyone else's face. This is not a respectable activity.

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