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The Neoconservative Père et Fils

By / 12.4.2009

PPI Senior Fellow Mike Signer has written a piece in Dissent magazine on Irving Kristol, his son, Bill, and the morphing of neoconservatism from an ideology of skepticism to one of hubris. An excerpt:

NEOCONSERVATISM, AS formulated by Irving Kristol, originated in privation, intellectual combat, and a reckoning with the harsh practical consequences of dangerous ideas. Irving Kristol’s parents were Eastern Europeans who arrived in America in the 1890s.  His father was a garment worker and later a clothing subcontractor; his mother gave birth to Irving in Brooklyn in 1920. When he was sixteen years old, he enrolled at the City College of New York (CCNY). Instead of paying much attention to classes, however, he dove into the extempore debate among the students.

The 1930s were a fervent time to be a student at CCNY. Fascism was taking hold in Italy, and communism was surging in the Soviet Union. The sometimes cheerful, sometimes angry clashes among students who were trying to decide where the world should go at this momentous period helped to launch an intellectual movement that was skeptical about the applications of pure theory.

Though it took decades for it to become “neoconservatism,” the roots of the movement lay in the young intellectuals’ effort to steer America away from the shoals of Stalinism, the horrible outgrowth of what had begun, decades earlier, as an ambitious political theory. This may help explain why Irving Kristol’s own political theory, for all its lushness and bombast, often counseled caution and modesty.  In a lecture he gave in 1970, he pronounced that “moral earnestness and intellectual sobriety” were the “elements . . . most wanted in a democracy.” Strikingly, he applied this ethic of restraint to democracy itself. In 1978, he wrote, “It is the fundamental fallacy of American foreign policy to believe, in face of the evidence, that all peoples, everywhere, are immediately ‘entitled’ to a liberal constitutional government—and a thoroughly democratic one at that.”

By contrast, in the years to come his son fixed neoconservative foreign policy on abstractions and evils—on metaphysics rather than physics—particularly when it came to democracy. As a result, the striking feature of Bill Kristol’s political theory is not the ideas but the extravagance surrounding them.  In a now-famous 1996 Foreign Affairsarticle co-authored with Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol wrote that Republicans should endorse a policy of “benevolent hegemony” that was “good for conservatives, good for America, and good for the world.” “America,” he added, “has the capacity to contain or destroy many of the world’s monsters, most of which can be found without much searching.”

Read the whole thing here.