Irving Kristol, 1920-2009: Godfather of Neoconservatism

by Donald Douglas | September 19, 2009 12:40 pm

The Astute Bloggers[1] graciously provides the New York Times link, “Irving Kristol, Godfather of Modern Conservatism, Dies at 89[2].” Also, my good friend Ken Davenport has written his own thoughtful commemoration, “Irving Kristol, 1920-2009[3].” Ken focuses on how Kristol’s neoconservatism has become the most important critique of modern statist ideologies (and of especially the consequences of post-1960s Democratic Party social policy).

There’s lots of commentary at Memeorandum[4]. See Jules Crittenden[5], GayPatriot[6], Power Line[7], The Other McCain[8], and Outside The Beltway[9]. See especially John Podoretz’s obituary at Commentary[10], and Robert Kagan at the Washington Post[11]. And Myron Magnet, at City Journal[12], shares a personal anecdote about Kristol’s compassion:

His generosity, especially to young conservatives, was legendary. It was partly a matter of policy, for nurturing the talented and finding them influential jobs is the way to build a movement. But it was even more an emanation of the sweetness of his temper and the depth of his humanity. I was complaining to him about New York’s plague of aggressive panhandlers back in the 1980s, and he said, “If someone is so in need that he asks me for money, who am I to determine what’s driven him to it? I always give something.” The reality he always had before him was the human reality.

You could probably say the same thing about most neoconservatives. These folks, mostly, are former liberals who saw the light. But coming to one’s senses doesn’t mean abandoning compassion. Neoconservatives have a goodness of vision that’s defining, and a propensity to back idealism with power that’s frightening to many. Indeed, that’s why no other manifestation of conservatism has generated as much hostility among antagonists. One need only to read the comments at Firedoglake’s entry[13] to get the feel for how badly leftists want to eviscerate Kristol, but they’re ironically constrained by the same morality that’s the central plank of the neocon vision: Be good and do good in furtherance of the good society (and don’t be afraid of raw power while you’re at it). That said, not all of the commentators at the post let their better values contain them, and this remark[14] on the “evils” of the neocon worldview perhaps perfectly captures the left’s nihilist zeitgeist:

Neoconservatism visited two disastrous and seemingly endless wars upon us. It engaged in a third, the War on Terror, which wasn’t just seeming but truly was endless by definition. Indefinite detention, rendition, torture, and domestic spying are just a few of its accomplishments. Neoconservatism also helped bankrupt the country, wrecked our image abroad, and damaged our Constitution. It institutionalized the public lie and championed immunity for those neoconservatives, of whom there were many, who broke the law. This is the cobbled together, amazingly unthought out “philosophy” of which Irving Kristol was the godfather.

You can see how comprehensive is that repudiation. But what’s most interesting – besides the classic neo-socialist repudiation of the neoconservative worldview – is how the commenter pleads the neocon mindset is an “unthought” philosophy. It’s a ridiculous statement, of course, borne of a demonic hatred of the mind that’s characteristic of today’s hardline leftist ideologies. The comment thus captures both the secular demonology and the secular collectivism that’s essential to the base of today’s Democratic Party.

As a younger neocon myself, Irving Kristol was less important to my theoretical development than have been the Kagans (Robert, Frederick[15], and Kimberly[16]) and Charles Krauthammer[17].

But I nevertheless often return to Irving Kristol’s brief and excellent summation of neoconservative ideology, published at his son William’s Weekly Standard, “The Neoconservative Persuasion[18].” If folks really are unsure about the fullness of the neocon worldview, which is as much a theory of domestic politics as it is one of foreign policy, they can’t go wrong spending some time with that essay. And if readers want more, Commentary has made available the magazine’s complete archive of Irving Kristol’s work from its pages:

We at COMMENTARY will be opening the entirety of his 45-article oeuvre in our archives[19] (from his first contribution, a short story called “Adam and I[20],” published in November 1946, to his last, a 1994 essay entitled “Countercultures[21]“) for free perusal by all readers. It is a treasure trove, as he was himself an incomparable treasure of a man, an intellectual, and an American. May Bea, Bill, Liz, and Irving’s five grandchildren be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Cross-posted from American Power[22].

  1. Astute Bloggers:
  2. Irving Kristol, Godfather of Modern Conservatism, Dies at 89:
  3. Irving Kristol, 1920-2009:
  4. Memeorandum:
  5. Jules Crittenden:
  6. GayPatriot:
  7. Power Line:
  8. The Other McCain:
  9. Outside The Beltway:
  10. John Podoretz’s obituary at Commentary:
  11. Robert Kagan at the Washington Post:
  12. City Journal:
  13. Firedoglake’s entry:
  14. this remark:
  15. Frederick:
  16. Kimberly:
  17. Charles Krauthammer:
  18. The Neoconservative Persuasion:
  19. the entirety of his 45-article oeuvre in our archives:
  20. a short story called “Adam and I:
  21. a 1994 essay entitled “Countercultures:
  22. American Power:

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