David Brooks: Three Cheers for Irving

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Brooks is Op-Ed columnist at The New York Times.]

Irving Kristol was born into a fanatical century and thrust himself into every ideologically charged battle of his age. In the 1930s, as a young socialist, he fought the Stalinists. In the 1940s, as a soldier, he fought fascism. In the decades beyond, as a writer and intellectual, he engaged with McCarthyism, the cold war, the Great Society, the Woodstock generation, the culture wars of the 1970s, the Reagan revolution and so on.

The century was filled with hysterias, all of which he refused to join. There were fanaticisms, none of which he had any part in. Kristol, who died on Friday, seemed to enter life with an intellectual demeanor that he once characterized as “detached attachment.”

He would champion certain causes. He could arrive at surprising and radical conclusions. He was unabashedly neoconservative. But he also stood apart, and directed his skeptical gaze even on his own positions, and even on the things to which he was most loyal.

“There are no benefits without costs in human affairs,” he once wrote. And so there is no idea so true and no movement so pure that it doesn’t require scrutiny. There was no position in this fallen world without flaws.

So while others were marching to barricades, picking out bits of the truth that confirmed their own prejudices, editing contrary evidence and working themselves up a righteous lather, Kristol would adopt an attitude of smiling forbearance. He was able to pick a side without losing his clarity.

Kristol championed capitalism and wrote brilliantly about Adam Smith. But like Smith, he could only give two cheers for capitalism, because the system of creative destruction has victims as well as beneficiaries.

Kristol championed middle-class virtues like faith, family and responsibility, especially during the 1960s when they were so much under attack. But he acknowledged that bourgeois culture could be boring and spiritually unsatisfying.

Kristol championed democracy but understood its limitations. He emphasized that the American founders believed in a democratic system, but were appalled by the democratic faith: the idea that the majority view should be followed in all circumstances. They built a system that was half-democracy and half a republic, designed to acknowledge and also subdue popular will.

Kristol embraced the welfare state (one of his great achievements was to reconcile conservatism with the New Deal), but he was skeptical of most individual proposals. Improving society is so intractably hard that all efforts to do so should be subject to the most careful scrutiny.

His goal, he wrote, was “not to dismantle the welfare state in the name of free-market economics but rather to reshape it so as to attach it to the conservative predispositions of the people.” He believed that government programs that were not paternalistic, but merely provided social insurance, would “engender larger loyalties,” which is “precisely what the art of government, properly understood, is all about.”

Kristol was easily the most influential contemporary writer in my life, and while going over my worn collections, I’ve wondered where this attitude of detached attachment came from...

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