Writing in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Israeli History about Israeli revisionism, Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought makes the observation that while American neoconservatives like to present themselves as people who “care deeply about ideas,” in truth “they are engaged in intellectual life…not out of curiosity or natural inclination, but out of a purely political passion to challenge ‘the intellectuals,’ conceived as a class whose political tactics must be combated in kind.” Hence, the “quasi-militaristic rhetoric,” the “cavalier use of sources and quotations,” and the frequent “insinuations of intellectual bad faith and cowardice, even treason.” This style marks them, Lilla notes, as a new breed: the “counter-intellectual.”
A former editor of the neocon policy journal The Public Interest and author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, Lilla observes that among his older friends, some “had once been genuine intellectuals who made important contributions to history and criticism.” Their obsessive hatred of the culture of the sixties, however, induced them to renounce “any intellectual ambitions that did not serve the cause of restoring the cultural status quo ante. As for the young people they inspired and frequently sired, they became counter-intellectuals without ever having been intellectuals–a unique American phenomenon.” Neocon history, Lilla explains, is one of “political success and intellectual failure.” He laments, “To judge by the kinds of articles published in magazines like Commentary and even Partisan Review in this period, it was hard to imagine that writers like Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, and Delmore Schwartz had ever graced their pages.”
The mass media never noticed this transformation. If you look, for instance, at the reviews of David Brock’s book Blinded by the Right–wherein Brock laments the moral and intellectual decline from Norman Podhoretz to homo-hating son John–even die-hard liberals take the old guys on their own self-flattering terms, as if the neocon parents were men and women of profound idealism while the “minicon” children can muster only attitude. Well, as John Lennon used to say, “The dream is over.” The neocons have shown their true intellectual colors, and they are not pretty.
As The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hilton Kramer and the intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins have all withdrawn from a conference honoring the work of Sidney Hook, to be held at the City University of New York. Diggins, according to conference organizer Robert Talisse, went so far as to threaten not only to convince others to stay away but also to convince certain funding institutions to withdraw their money (and hence, destroy the conference). The alleged crime: Somebody invited Cornel West to replace Richard Rorty as a featured guest.
Now whatever one may think of Brother West’s recent political activities–and I think very little of them–he is a recognized scholar of both Hook and the pragmatist tradition in which the latter labored. Rorty, for instance, whose authority on pragmatism nobody dares to question, praises West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy as “a novel piece of intellectual history.” The book contains a long and thoughtful discussion of Hook.