Jim Sleeper: Can Anything Change the Conversation? Maybe This Can.Roundup: Historians' Take
Two events this month suggest a transition from one conversation about the American republic to another.
The old conversation -- often little better than a shouting match or a dance of snarky repartees -- is petering out with the passing, at 89, of Irving Kristol, the"godfather" of neo-conservatism.
A different conversation is renewing itself in a voice coming from the center of the old republic, thanks to Nicholas Thompson's gripping, stirring new book,The Hawk and the Dove. Writing about the half-century-long rivalry and friendship of arms-race"hawk" Paul Nitze and Cold War strategic"dove" George Kennan, Thompson shows that even bitter antagonists can remain friends if they care more about the civic-republican spirit that is the secret of this country's true strength than they do about themselves or their grand strategies.
It's not an obvious or easy truth, but Thompson makes it live. Let me say a few words about the old conversation, though, before taking you to the even-older one that Thompson has revived.
Kristol's death coincides with the public discrediting of the long, sterile bickering between a generation of leftist liberals, who were legitimately angry at the country but ultimately naïve about it, and a generation (really two generations) of"neoconservative" apostates from left-liberalism, who presented themselves (and impressed their corporate and conservative patrons) as more worldly even though events have shown them really more naïve than their opponents.
Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Donald Kagan, and their sons, real and metaphorical, have sometimes been right about how left-liberals are wrong. But something in their make-up has driven them beyond the nuanced criticism that Kristol once practiced, into virtuoso college debating and nasty posturing that get this country's republican experiment wrong.
This isn't the place to detail how the their insecurities and opportunistic alliances have led them to mistake patriotic bombast for honor, decorum for dignity, loyalty for integrity, religiosity for faith, and the national-security state for the indomitable republican strength that is its near opposite and this country's only hope. Suffice it to say here that neo-cons (and some neo-liberal Democrats) have bound themselves to swift, dark, corporatist, violent currents that are displacing the republic's honor, integrity, faith and civic strength with flag-lapel-pin patriotism, jejune affectations of classical virtue, lockstep loyalty to ideological comrades, rancid religiosity, and a bloated, corrupting militarism that appalls even West Point instructors and ensures its own ignominious defeat.
Neoconservatives have done this not only because they've made bad bargains with dubious allies, but also because they were drawn to them in the first place out of a compulsion to discredit whatever they thought smelled of bleeding-heart liberal pietism or political correctness. Were ditzy post-modernists dismissing the humanities as the droppings of dead white males? Well, then, neo-cons would become Vulcan humanists, teaching Thucydides as if he'd masterminded the Global War on Terror. Were liberals trying to curb smoking in public places? Well, then, neo-cons would smoke like chimneys.
One of my first in-person impressions of Irving Kristol, in fact, came at a luncheon given early in the 1990s by the conservative Manhattan Institute for his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, scholar of 18th Century political thought and crusader for a restoration of quasi-Victorian morals. Smoking in closed spaces wasn't yet illegal, but it was coming under censorious social pressure. Therefore, everyone at Kristol's and Himmelfarb's table -- and only at that table -- smoked defiantly throughout the luncheon, Kristol's cigarette ashes falling on his dessert.
The cause of his death last week was complications of lung cancer - a metaphor, perhaps, what went wrong with his faux-cheerful, snide and world-weary disdain for the follies of liberals. He was prone to express it with a hint of Mephistophelean or Grand Inquisitorial satisfaction, playing knowingly to the dark side in us all that can always be relied upon at some point or other to choose power over love. One didn't need to call oneself a neo-con to be drawn to this side, as many people of my age in New York have been since 9/11. Kristol was always ready and waiting, content even if they became only fellow-travelers.
I heard him express himself in these ways on two occasions. One was in the mid-1980s in Washington, at a conference devoted to the confessional"Second Thoughts" of repentant liberals who'd seen the neo-conservative light. The other was his delivery of the Manhattan Institute's Walter Wriston Memorial Lecture to a black-tied audience in a New York ballroom in 1995. Apparently well-juiced by whatever he'd been served and by Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Whitewater Bartley's introduction, Kristol told a couple of scatalogical jokes and offered flatulent bromides consistent with evolution from thinker to pitchman and procurer over the years.
In some ways, though Kristol had new leftists' number, and he loved to tell them, in effect,"Been there, done that. You leftists and liberals are young, but you'll come over my way." But Kristol's own number was terribly wrong, as became clear at the 2008 Republican National Convention, a year before his death: Neo-cons discovered too late that their eagerness to discredit and defeat the left had driven them into the arms of a right they would never instruct or tame.
Kristol had announced years earlier that a neoconservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality. He'd cited his own first"mugging" as a young radical who'd been thrown by World War II into the company of G.I.'s who were raping and looting."I can't build socialism with these people," he'd realized then, and he soon shed his youthful idealism to build something more sinuous and realistic with what he understood the be"the American people."
In a lecture on the future of conservatism at the American Enterprise Institute late in 2007, Sam Tanenhaus, the conservative historian, New York Times Book Review editor, and sometime neo-con fellow traveler, noted that Kristol's strategy was to lead conservatives on a long march through New Deal managerial and academic institutions, which they despised, to build an academic and managerial class of their own. In Tanenhaus' telling, Kristol showed business and conservative leaders that liberal managerialism had bred a"new class" of academic, think-tank, and media-savvy public intellectuals. He counseled his listeners to outdo liberals at this game in order to rescue liberal education and liberal democracy from liberals for the kind of capitalist democracy conservatives could profit from and enjoy. They might even secure the"national greatness" conservatism of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli that David Brooks and Kristol's son Bill would come to adore.
The elder Kristol's auditors took his advice, funding and nurturing a conservative chattering class of"on-message" talkers, squawkers, and intimidators. This"new class" turned American conservatism's deepest contradiction-- its inability to reconcile its yearning for an ordered, sacred liberty with its obeisance to every whim and riptide of capital -- into a tragic flaw that has poisoned conservative and Republican crusades. Those campaigns, straining to cover the conservative contradiction I've just mentioned, connive to drive Americans to fear and blame its cultural and economic consequences not only distant enemies but one another.
Knowing what this has come to, Tanenhaus hinted in his lecture that Kristol knew it, too, but that he'd become cynical and followed the money:"One could look over the trajectory of Mr. Kristol's brilliant career and see that he's in a different place in the 1990s than he was in the 1970s," Tanenhaus said, recalling that Kristol used to cite Matthew Arnold's nobler cultural visions against Milton Friedman's vindications of greed.
No more. What Kristol and neo-conservatives did instead conformed to a despicable jingoism embraced by a distempered minority of Jews in Europe for two or three centuries. Here it peaked during the run-up to the Iraq War, when they and other members of the"new class" served as catalysts and apologists for the populist stampede into Iraq.
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other Vulcan conservatives didn't need encouragement from neo-cons to make war, but neo-cons insinuated themselves into the warmakers' ranks, partly by playing their propagandist and grand-strategist roles to the hilt, including harassing and intimidating the war's critics.
By 2006, William F. Buckley Jr., who had despaired of the Iraq venture, made clear that he considered its neo-conservative enthusiasts to have been one of the conservative movement's misfortunes. And at the ugly 2008 GOP convention, the neo-cons' contribution to Republican populism metastasized into the political equivalent of lung cancer. Speeches by Tom Ridge, Rudy Giuliani, and Sara Palin, and the chanting from the floor, displayed a populism that had become as phony, sinister, and cynical as that of the Stalinist Popular Front of the mid-1930s that had always been Kristol's bête noire.
Observing the swift undercurrents roiling the convention, Kristol must have known that neo-cons like David Brooks and fellow travelers like Ed Koch would soon bail out. But it may not have occurred to him that some of these defectors would end up as liberals who'd been mugged by the"reality" that Kristol had helped to create with his son Bill, the discoverer of Palin, whom he'd introduced to John McCain.
The elder Kristol's epitaph should be his dictum that neo-conservatism's mission is"to explain to the American people that they are right and to the intellectuals that they are wrong." Who are"the American people"? Kristol prided himself on knowing the answer better than liberals did.But he mistreated"the people" partly because he'd become one of"the intellectuals" of his own imagining and partly because, beneath his suave,"seen-it-all" cynicism he, like his movement, was so perversely bitter and insecure.
All this becomes clearer when one compares the neo-cons' collective persona and prose to that of Nicholas Thompson, a grandson of Paul Nitze, the preeminent arms-race"hawk" of the Cold War. In the 1970s, Nitze strode arm in arm with neo-cons in their Committee on the Present Danger, inflating the Soviet threat out of proportion to reality at a time when, as we now know, the USSR was beginning to implode.
If Thompson were a tribalistic, filopietistic neo-con, he'd launch into a pugnacious, Robert Kaganesque defense of his often-militaristic forebear. And he would cast George Kennan, the apostle of Cold War" containment," as the sinister, anti-American foil that many neo-cons did make of him, as they did of others who opposed their grand strategies.
Irving Kristol could make foils of liberals even while writing about Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist hysteria in 1952, acknowledging the senator's vulgar demagoguery yet adding darkly that"the American people" knew well that McCarthy,"like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they know no such thing."
But Thompson has something deeper in mind and at heart than writing such shaming, insinuating prose that became a hall-mark of neo-conservative propaganda, as it had been of the Communist variety in Kristol's youth. Thompson, by contrast, is intent upon telling a truer, more instructive story of two patriots, each annealed in a civic-republican discipline stronger and more supple than anything Kristol and Podhoretz ever absorbed.
While Nitze grew up in comfortable circumstances (his father was a distinguished philologist at the University of Chicago), Kennan grew up almost poor after his mother died when he was an infant. Yet both men attended civic-republican training schools (Kennan the Midwestern St. John's Military Academy, Nitze the elite Hotchkiss preparatory school in northwestern Connecticut) whose brooks seemed to bubble with moral instruction and whose eight-man river rowing taught that self-denial for the common good requires first a self that has been made strong enough to deny.
These schools encouraged self-scrutiny, plain living and high thinking, an understated felicity of expression, a quiet readiness to shoulder responsibility without reward, and a capacity to bear pain with grace (if only because spiritual grace was thereby assured.) A characteristic self-deprecating humor deflected others' envy. The term" character" is ridiculed these days as shorthand for elite breeding, but these lean, bonded boys honed not only the bookish but also the kinetic and moral intelligence that counts for more than the mere"merit" or distinction whose attainment so preoccupied Podhoretz.
But you don't need to have attended a private school like Nitze's or Kennan's to have acquired civic-republican discipline and faith that have been taught in countless black church basements and Little League lots, too. Indeed, neither Kennan nor Nitze really took his civic training to heart while undergoing it: Kennan was rather too introspective and bookish, Nitze boisterous and rebellious. But something of these schools' pedagogy took root and tempered each man's pride and resentments in ways that would benefit the country: It left each man knowing throughout life that his strategic differences with the other weren't as profound as their shared commitment to a kind of republican strength that no grand strategy can nurture or ultimately even defend.
"They often inspired or enraged each other with their ideas," Thompson writes."They did, however, greatly respect each other and admire each other's seriousness of purpose, demeanor, and dedication. They realized they shared an uncommon endurance. They also shared a similar fate: neither reached his ultimate ambitions, while many lesser men reached the positions of influence [Secretary of State or Defense] to which they both aspired."
"My research revealed two very different men who nevertheless shared a commitment to the United States and to their very different ways of serving it," Thompson also notes, and he carries that commitment forward himself in a way that gives it brighter prospects.
Such a commitment need not be elitist or naive, as aristocratic indulgences often are. A civic republican resists"solidarity" with either left or right yet draws from both, knowing that both have valid claims to certain truths: The left knows the necessity of public planning and sustenance for the village that raises the child; without that, the individual dignity and traditions that conservatives cherish would never flourish. The right knows the equally important truth that without irreducibly personal responsibility and initiative, even the best leftists social engineering can turn people into clients, cogs, or worse. A good society, like a healthy person, strides on both feet -- the left of social provision, the right of personal responsibilty -- without worrying whether all its weight is on one or the other foot at any given instant in a balanced stride. But ideologues of the left and right try to strengthen one foot at the expense of the other until it swells, each side clinging to its"own" truth until it becomes a half-truth that curdles into a lie, leaving it right only about how the other is wrong.
Thompson understands this, and he illustrates it by describing the somewhat-unlikely tributes Nitze and Kennan tendered each other, after decades of strategic rivalry, when Nitze dropped his arms-race work for a day to attend Kennan's 80th birthday party in 1984, at one of the tensest moments in the arms race.
Raising his glass, Nitze said,"George Kennan taught us to approach issue of policy, not just from the narrow immediate interest of the United States, but from a longer-range viewpoint that included the culture and interests of others, including our opponents, and a proper regard for the interests of mankind."
As Thompson tells it,"Kennan rose to respond: the main lesson he had learned from Nitze, he said, was that when one disagreed with government, 'it may be best to soldier on, and to do what one can to make the things you believe in come out right."
Kennan wasn't counseling a lockstep or"old school" loyalty without integrity. He was invoking a subtler, more tensile strength that's necessary to sustain both realism and principle in a world of imperfect institutions. But how and when to do that? Reading Thompson reinforces my belief that Kennan, although he was no democrat, understood better than Nitze that power flows not from top-down command but from bottom-up cooperation and from a voluntary acceptance of necessary authority that comes from democratic deliberation itself.
Thompson's account of the two men's trajectories also shows that both understood that the discipline citizens bring to their deliberations can come only, if at all, from a civic culture that doesn't rely on statist surveillance and coercion. Rather, it nurtures people's trust in one another and trains them to cooperate in ways that become second-nature.
By contrast, the more that a society has to rely on state enforcement to preserve"freedom," and the more that it surrenders its deliberative disciplines to a seductive, predatory consumer marketing and dog-eat-dog materialism, the more its freedom has already been lost and, with it, the strength to take a blow from outside without lashing out and squandering itself. Neo-cons are constitutionally unable to see this, because so little in their own historical memories, and therefore their temperaments, seems to confirm it.
Reading Thompson, I'm also drawn to Kennan's peculiar strengths, convictions, and writerly temperament -- and even to some of his insecurities, prejudices, and Gibbonesque despair of the republic -- though not to his anti-democratic biases. I also understand Nitze better and respect his record at least marginally more than I did before.
I've been able to reach these conclusions because Thompson's rendering of Kennan is as compelling, fair, and even sympathetic as is his portrait of his grandfather, whom he knew and loved until his death, when Thompson was 24. This book, then, is more than an effort to give a grandfather his due (or, as some will see it, more than his due) by pairing him with Kennan, whom people like me are inclined to admire more. Thompson is willing to risk my concluding that his grandfather suffers a bit in the comparison, because his true purpose is to present each man's interaction with the other -- and with world events and powers -- in a way that strengthens the civic-republican culture that is the real if elusive protagonist of the book:
"The two men were equally influential and equally important, yet vastly different. Nitze was the diligent insider, Kennan the wise outsider; Nitze the doer, Kennan the thinker. Kennan designed America's policy for the Cold War, and Nitze mastered it. With respect to America's ability to shape the world, Nitze was an idealist and Kennan a realist. In their old age, Nitze still wanted to win the Cold War, and Kennan wanted to be done with it. Their views overlapped at strange and crucial moments; but for most of their working lives, they disagreed profoundly. In [a] New Yorker article published just before his eightieth birthday party, Kennan had indirectly criticized Nitze - who marked the piece up vigorously and also sent a letter to a mutual friend complaining that the argument showed a 'complete separation from fact and logic.'"
Thompson doesn't rest with this quasi-poetic and perhaps pat balancing act. He complicates it with nuances and unexpected details as he unfolds each man's life. He never polemicizes or debates. He draws contradictory currents of perception and principle together, not as Kristol or Podhoretz would in order to swamp their enemies, but to show how the currents actually converged and buffeted one another in historical tides that always confound ideologues who think they can channel them.
Writing a book such as this takes formidable civic-republican strength, even a steely, sometimes chilly courage. It's a strength young neo-conservatives lack because their faith in the republic is over-matched by their insecuritiest. Thompson's writerly strength is palpable in spare, unadorned prose that is the more eloquent for declining to call attention to itself - an old WASP virtue that runs back to the poetry on the 18th-century gravestones standing a hundred yards from me as I write this on a weekend in western Massachusetts, where Kennan's ancestors settled in Puritan times.
Thompson's rendering is so well balanced (and maybe also ironic) that he even gives us the younger and wiser Norman Podhoretz, observing in 1968 -- in a rare moment of agreement with Kennan, who'd just written a condemnation of student militants and hippies -- that Kennan's voice is"an old-fashioned voice: cultivated, gentlemanly, poised, self-assured. There is strength in it, there is serenity in it, there is solidity in it, there is authority in it - but not the kind of authority that can easily be associated with repressiveness." That's not the kind of authority that Podhoretz's own more clamorous and churlish writing has ever achieved.
Thompson not only appreciates Kennan's quiet authority; he radiates it himself. He's not yet Kennan's equal as a writer, and I'm not an historian of the period who can second-guess his decisions about what to show us and how. But Nicholas Thompson has delivered a book that's not just a labor of love; it's a vindication of a tradition of civic-republican comity that can't be coerced but is quietly stronger than anything the republic's noisier claimants offer in this frightening, polarizing time.
comments powered by Disqus
- With Students Back on Campus, Faculty Push Back Against COVID Policies They Consider Inadequate
- How Hong Kong's Elite Have Embraced a Shifting Narrative on Tiananmen Square
- Discovery of Human Footprints Pushes Back Date of Earliest Humans in Americas
- Ghana, WEB DuBois Museum Foundation to Partner on Museum, Research Center
- George Holliday Dies at 61, Taped LAPD Beating of Rodney King
- The Curious Task of Preserving Darwin's Beans and Butterflies
- Local Professor Building History of San Diego's Japanese Americans
- Art History Prof. Recognizes Lost Masterpiece in Local Church
- Rebel is Right: Reassessing the Cultural Revolution
- US COVID Death Count Surpasses Estimates of 1918 Influenza