Can I share with you one of the most terrifying moments of my life? I was giving a talk on ‘the protean Left’ at a seminar in Washington, DC. As if the other panellists — Fred Barnes and Eric Breindel — were not daunting enough, what reduced me to a palpably gibbering, sweaty, nerve-wracked hulk was the sight that greeted me in the front row.
Lined up before me were every one of my intellectual heroes: Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol. And they were focussed on one thing: me.
It was like one of those nightmares in which you are back taking your finals, you open the exam paper to see that everything is in Spanish, you have to write your answers in Spanish, and…you speak no Spanish.
I was at once terrified and awestruck. But also on cloud nine, because some years before that seminar, my life had changed when I started reading Irving Kristol, who died last week at 89.
I had been doing some research work for Senator Pat Moynihan and he suggested that I would enjoy reading the neocons. I was a Labour Party member but thoroughly dismissive of the knee-jerk welfarism to which so many fellow members subscribed. Why should the left so loathe the idea of profit?
And what was ‘progressive’ about an educational ideology which condemned a fifth of school leavers to illiteracy? I thought of myself as progressive, but I was intellectually distant from so many in my party. Yet the idea of conservatism seemed entirely alien.
Suddenly there was a body of thought which made sense of it all. The neo-conservatives — to use the label coined insultingly of them by the American socialist writer Michael Harrington — encompassed all these ideas. And Irving Kristol was the titan amongst these titans.
As the great Myron Magnet has written: “Irving was interested in the world as it is, not as some system wanted it to be. He’d had his youthful flirtation with left-utopianism and, disillusioned by experience, became a neoconservative — a liberal, as he defined it, who’s been mugged by reality. What he really meant, of course, was simply a liberal who’d been mugged—who’d seen that all the liberal, welfare-state ideals for the uplift of the poor, and especially the minority poor, had in the end produced a criminal underclass, exactly the opposite of the intended uplift. The good intentions counted for nothing with him and even sparked a certain dry contempt; it was the result that mattered.”
Today, the word neocon is mainly associated with foreign policy. A large part of the canon indeed springs from the Cold War anti-communist, pro-democracy, pro-human rights agenda.
Indeed, the label is now mostly used as a euphemism for ‘imperialist Jew’, by those who would rather not admit openly that they think foreign policy is dictated by Jews.
But the neocon contribution to intellectual and political life in the US (and, because ideas cross the Atlantic, in the UK) was overwhelming and far broader than foreign policy, which was never the main focus.
It is a measure of Irving’s generosity of spirit that, after my talk, he not only offered me, in private, an illuminating, sympathetic critique of my talk; he also invited me to lunch the next day. How I wish that I had recorded that conversation.
The world is a lesser place for Irving Kristol’s passing.