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.”