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Nation Topics - Conservatives and the American Right

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Neoconservatives are serial grave-robbers. Back in the early eighties, Norman Podhoretz tried to claim both Ronald Reagan and George Orwell as part of his meshuggeneh mishpocheh. Now, say what you will about the dimwitted defender of right-wing terrorism and the scrupulously honest symbol of the Anglo-American democratic left, they do not belong in the same political movement. Honest admirers of both men pointed out the fallacy in this transparent tactic, but two decades later, no cure has been found. Last seen in the neocons' trunk leaving the literary graveyard were the intellectual remains of the liberals' liberal, the critic Lionel Trilling.

Trilling never uttered so much as a sympathetic syllable about the neocon/Reaganite worldview to which his would-be inheritors became so attached after his death in 1975. Yet there he was, sitting atop a pyramid of Reagan-worshipers--people whose politics he never endorsed and whose style of argument he abhorred--in a chart accompanying a Sam Tanenhaus-authored encomium to the neocons in the New York Times a few Saturdays ago. The trick with Trilling is really no different from that with the refashioned Orwell. (Ironically, as John Rodden notes in his 1989 study, The Politics of Literary Reputation, it was Trilling's introduction to a 1952 reissue of Homage to Catalonia that was almost singularly responsible for securing the writer's reputation in the United States as a kind of secular saint.) Both men wrote witheringly of those intellectuals who gave their hearts and minds over to Stalinism, prescribing tough-minded scrutiny in the face of emotional appeals. In a foreword to a 1974 edition of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling pointed out that his early essays were inspired by "a particular political-cultural situation" he identified as "the commitment that a large segment of the intelligentsia of the West gave to the degraded version of Marxism known as Stalinism." With Trilling safely unable to respond, the neocons twist these words in order to apply them to liberalism itself.

Podhoretz has long been critical of his ex-teacher for what he termed his "failure of nerve" that was part of "an epidemic of cowardice" he detected in anyone who failed to agree with him. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Nathan Glick notes that "besides being a disloyal deprecation of a former friend and mentor," these claims "have the scent of ideological self-serving. They come with particular ill grace from a writer who treats his own seven-year flirtation with the New Left as not only easily forgivable but also proof of his editorial flair for riding the tide of political fashion." In fact, as Glick points out, Trilling viewed liberalism as "a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty." Nothing, however, could be further from the neoconservatives' creed--one that has served, in the view of Leon Wieseltier, editor of a generous new collection of Trilling essays called The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, as "the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals." By inventing a genealogy that goes back to Trilling, Wieseltier notes, "They enhance their intellectual self-esteem. They have this view that everyone to the right of the left is Neoconservative, or a Neoconservative who dares not speak its name."

In fact, the critics of the counterculture whose writings have held up best during the past thirty years are those who never gave themselves over to the neocon temptation--who never became apologists for Reagan and Bush, much less Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Liberal and socialist anticommunists like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, Alfred Kazin and Garry Wills led a relatively lonely intellectual life in the eighties, as Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Elliott Abrams and Jeane Kirkpatrick were all toasting themselves at the Reagan White House. But contrary to Tanenhaus's apologia, it is their works--together with Updike's Rabbit and Roth's Zuckerman extravaganzas--to which historians will one day turn to comprehend the combination of ignorant arrogance and small-minded self-delusion that captured both American extremes in the final decades of the twentieth century.

Another oddity of Tanenhaus's article was the news that the forever-ricocheting Michael Lind, who mimicked Podhoretz recently with his own McCarthyite tract on the Vietnam era, is writing a manifesto to try to revive the neoconservative creed he once savaged. His co-author is Ted Halstead, president of the New America Foundation. Here history repeats itself as farce. First-generation neocons hijacked liberal institutions like Commentary and Partisan Review (and, sadly, much of The New Republic) and gave them over to conservative purposes. Halstead's organization (with which I was briefly associated) now takes precious funds from progressive donors and redistributes them to the likes of the right-wing Lind and the conservative, isolationist, foreign-policy writer Robert Kaplan. Halstead has even boasted of trying to hire George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. "Fool me once, and shame on you," explained the sage engineer of the Star Ship Enterprise, Mr. Scott. "Fool me twice, and shame on me."

* * *

Babs in Toyland: The famously sensitive liberal icon Barbra Streisand recently played the first in a long series of "farewell performances" in New York and LA, gouging fans to the tune of $2,500 per ticket. The worthy cause? Another twenty million or so for the greater glory of Barbra Streisand Inc. Streisand herself destroyed the political economy of concert-going in the mid-nineties by charging in the hundreds for tickets. Today the Eagles and Billy Joel jack up prices to $1,000 apiece. The Stones routinely charge $350; the Who, $250. Both bands were a hell of a lot better in the pre-Streisandified seventies, when I saw them for about two-weeks' allowance. Yes, I know, markets, supply and demand, blah, blah, blah. But could we please put an end to the deification of multimillionaire rock stars who shake down their own fans? (Rock critics rarely make this point, because they get free tickets.)

The future of the Supreme Court is the most important issue in the most important election year since 1932. Progressive Americans should treat it that way. The radical right does.

Perhaps it was because he was recovering from painful back surgery, but a few weeks before the Republican convention, Paul Weyrich, a founder of the religious right, was awful grumpy about George

Research assistance was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

(A Gilbert and Sullivan Solo for George W. Bush)

Both Republican candidates battled to claim the mantle of the Gipper. John McCain calls himself "a true Reagan Republican." George W.

In Kennebunk, land of the Bushes,
The men of the cloth all wore tweed.
And one didn't meet any Christians
Like Robertson, Falwell and Reed.

I watched these presidential hopefuls join
Together for debating in Des Moines,
And many times I heard allegiance sworn
To Jesus and to babies not quite born.

Research assistance for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

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