Floats Like A Vulture
In his essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill wrote:
A Tory philosopher cannot be wholly a Tory, but must often be a better Liberal than Liberals themselves; while he is the natural means of rescuing from oblivion truths which Tories have forgotten and which the prevailing schools of Liberalism never knew…. “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies,” should be the prayer of every true Reformer; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.
When I first encountered this passage, I agreed wholeheartedly with Mill (though his terminology needs a bit of updating: for “Tories,” read conservatives; for “Reformers,” liberals; for “philosophers,” public intellectuals). These days, I’m not so sure. Conservatism was different in Mill’s time. What he rejoiced at in Coleridge’s example was the prospect of deliverance from “the owl-like dread of light, the drudge-like aversion to change, which were the characteristics of the old unreasoning race of bigots”—Sir Leicester Dedlock, for example, or the Duke of Wellington. A conservative intellectual was virtually an oxymoron before the Industrial Revolution; too much cleverness made a man “unsound.”
Nowadays conservative intellectuals are legion, and some of them are very clever. But they have not become enlightened or enlightening, as Mill hoped. Instead of rescuing forgotten truths, they devise novel fallacies like the efficient markets hypothesis or “Islam’s bloody borderlands.” No longer automatically subversive of authority, the conservative intellectual has become authority’s chief of staff.
Feudalism shunned intelligence; capitalism profits from it—partly by controlling the institutions that manufacture public opinion (advertising, media, publishing, education, research), and partly by cultivating talented individuals with suitable values and views. According to the pioneering political scientist Harold Lasswell, the advent of modern society “compelled the development of a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda…. the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques.” Irving Kristol, propagandist par excellence, foresaw that “intellectuals would move inexorably closer to the seats of authority” and devoted his long career to furthering that rapprochement, recruiting lavish support from an anxious business class for the right kind of intellectuals. The contemporary neoconservative intelligentsia, including Charles Krauthammer, is the result.
Krauthammer, an internationally syndicated Washington Post columnist, Time essayist, and frequent guest on Fox and other networks, is quite possibly the most respected neoconservative public intellectual. On the occasion of Krauthammer’s first collection, Cutting Edges (1985), Michael Walzer praised the author as “intellectually tough and morally serious” (exactly the qualities whose absence on the left Walzer complained of in his widely discussed essay “Can There Be a Decent Left?”). In 1987, Krauthammer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his “witty and insightful columns on national issues.” And according to Henry Kissinger, Krauthammer’s latest collection, Things That Matter—with its “learned examinations of history and policy”—demonstrates its author’s “sharply honed analysis, humane values and questing mind.”
High praise, though it withers a little under the heat of this blast from the as-yet-unreconstructed Christopher Hitchens:
In the charmed circle of neoliberal and neoconservative journalism, “unpredictability” is the special emblem and certificate of self-congratulation. To be able to bray that “as a liberal, I say bomb the shit out of them” is to have achieved that eye-catching, versatile marketability that is so beloved of editors and talk-show hosts. As a lifelong socialist I say don’t let’s bomb the shit out of them. See what I mean? It lacks the sex appeal somehow. Predictable as hell.
Picture, then, if you will, the unusual difficulties faced by Charles Krauthammer, newest of the neocon mini-windbags. He has the arduous job, in an arduous time, of being an unpredictable conformist. He has the no less demanding task of making this pose appear original and, more, of making it appear courageous. At a time when the polity (as he might well choose to call it) is showing signs of Will-fatigue, it can’t be easy to write an attack on the United Nations or Albania or Qaddafi and make it seem like a lone, fearless affirmation. An average week of reading The Washington Post Op-Ed page already exposes me to appearances from George Will, William F. Buckley Jr., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, Emmett Tyrrell, Joe Kraft, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, and Stephen Rosenfeld. Clearly its editors felt that a radical new voice was needed when they turned to the blazing, impatient talents on offer in The New Republic—and selected Krauthammer. I dare say Time felt the same way when it followed suit. We live in a period when a chat show that includes Morton Kondracke considers that it has filled the liberal slot.
Krauthammer can dish it out, too: he is a savage scoffer and a merciless mocker (though hardly in a league with Hitchens). He is a commercial as well as a political success: Things That Matter topped the New York Times bestseller list last fall for ten weeks. Facility in framing the conventional wisdom, however vacuous, with perfect assurance—indeed, with an edge of impatience in one’s voice that such truisms need to be explained at all—is a singular gift, and probably the supreme qualification for an op-ed columnist or talk-show guest. But Krauthammer has paid the unavoidable price for composing too many 1,000-word essays for Time, 800-word columns for The Washington Post and 20-second sound bites for Fox News. There is very little intellectual tension, dialectical drama or sense of discovery in his arguments, and very little rhythm, color or finesse to his prose. He floats like a vulture, stings like a jellyfish.
* * *