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A Tragedy of Errors | The Nation

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A Tragedy of Errors

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According to Brooks, "To hear these people [the alleged conspiracy theorists] describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles." He writes that "con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish.'" With this vicious slur, Brooks has now joined Jonah Goldberg, Joshua Muravchik, Joel Mowbray, Robert J. Lieber and other neoconservative writers in accusing all critics of Israel's Likud government and its neoconservative supporters of treating "neoconservative" as a synonym for "Jew." Among those smeared by neocons in this way in the past year are Chris Matthews, William Pfaff, Eric Alterman, Joshua Micah Marshall, Gen. Anthony Zinni and yours truly. When I, the descendant, in part, of Jewish immigrants, exposed Pat Robertson's anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in 1995, Norman Podhoretz denounced me, not Robertson, reasoning that while Robertson was objectively anti-Semitic he could be forgiven because of his Christian Zionist support for Israel, on the analogy of the rabbinical rule of batel beshishim, which governs impurities in kosher bread. The most loathsome libel in this loathsome campaign was written by Mowbray: "Discussing the Iraq war with the Washington Post last week, former General Anthony Zinni took the path chosen by so many anti-Semites: he blamed it on the Jews.... Technically, the former head of the Central Command in the Middle East didn't say 'Jews.' He instead used a term that has become a new favorite for anti-Semites: 'neoconservatives.'" In An End to Evil, Perle and Frum--spontaneously, one can only suppose, as neocons "don't actually have much contact with one another"--repeat the new party line: "Most important, the neoconservative myth offers Europeans and liberals a useful euphemism for expressing their hostility to Israel."

About the Author

Michael Lind
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The American Way of Strategy...

Also by the Author

Now that neoconservative policies have led us into disaster, it's time to give liberal internationalism a chance.

During the early years of the civil rights revolution, Theodore Bilbo,
the ferocious segregationist senator from Mississippi, published a book
titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongreli

It is true, and unfortunate, that some journalists tend to use "neoconservative" to refer only to Jewish neoconservatives, a practice that forces them to invent categories like "nationalist conservative" or "Western conservative" for Rumsfeld and Cheney. But neoconservatism is an ideology, like paleoconservatism and libertarianism, and Rumsfeld and Dick and Lynne Cheney are full-fledged neocons, as distinct from paleocons or libertarians, even though they are not Jewish and were never liberals or leftists. What is more, Jewish neocons do not speak for the majority of American Jews. According to the 2003 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion by the American Jewish Committee, 54 percent of American Jews surveyed disapproved of the war on Iraq, compared with only 43 percent who approved, and American Jews disapproved of the way Bush is handling the campaign against terrorism by a margin of 54-41.

Neoconservatism--the term was Michael Harrington's--originated in the 1970s as a movement of anti-Soviet liberals and social democrats in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey and Henry ("Scoop") Jackson, many of whom preferred to call themselves "paleoliberals." While there was a pro-Israel wing, the movement's focus was on confrontation with the Soviet bloc abroad and on the defense of New Deal liberalism and color-blind liberal integrationism against rivals on the left at home. With the end of the cold war and the ascendancy of the Democratic Leadership Council, many "paleoliberals" drifted back to the Democratic center. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once spoken of as a possible neoconservative presidential candidate, broke with the movement in the 1980s over its growing contempt for international law and its exaggeration of the Soviet threat. Today's neocons are a shrunken remnant of the original broad neocon coalition.

Nevertheless, the origins of their ideology on the left are still apparent. The fact that most of the younger neocons were never on the left is irrelevant; they are the intellectual (and, in the case of William Kristol and John Podhoretz, the literal) heirs of older ex-leftists. The idea that the United States and similar societies are dominated by a decadent, postbourgeois "new class" was developed by thinkers in the Trotskyist tradition like James Burnham and Max Schachtman, who influenced an older generation of neocons. The concept of the "global democratic revolution" has its origins in the Trotskyist Fourth International's vision of permanent revolution. The economic determinist idea that liberal democracy is an epiphenomenon of capitalism, promoted by neocons like Michael Novak, is simply Marxism with entrepreneurs substituted for proletarians as the heroic subjects of history.

The organization as well as the ideology of the neoconservative movement has left-liberal origins. PNAC is modeled on the Committee on the Present Danger, which in turn was modeled on the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded network of the anti-Communist center-left that sought to counter Stalin's international cultural front groups between the 1940s and the 1960s. Many of the older neocons are veterans of the CCF, including Irving Kristol, who with Stephen Spender co-edited Encounter, the CIA-bankrolled magazine of the movement. European social democratic models inspired the quintessential neocon institution, the National Endowment for Democracy.

Along with other traditions that have emerged from the anti-Stalinist left, neoconservatism has appealed to many Jewish intellectuals and activists, but it is not, for that reason, a Jewish movement. Like other schools on the left, neoconservatism recruited from diverse "farm teams," including liberal Catholics (William Bennett and Michael Novak began on the Catholic left) and populists, socialists and New Deal liberals in the South and Southwest (the pool from which Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey and I were drawn). There were, and are, very few Northeastern WASP mandarins in the neoconservative movement, for the same reason that there were few on the older American left, which tended to mirror the New Deal coalition of ethnic and regional outsiders.

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