Monday, March 03, 2008

OK, the term neo-conservative "is now officially meaningless" (Andrew Sullivan)

As a number of people have already observed (including me), in most current discussions the words "neo-conservative" and "neocon" long ago ceased to have much concrete substance or specificity. Instead, they're just becoming all-purpose terms of abuse.

Now Andrew Sullivan notices a news report about the death of William F. Buckley ...
US neo-Conservatives icon dies

The great conservative columnist William F. Buckley has died. We shall be looking at the legacy of the rare columnist who managed to make neoconservatism attractive in the liberal American media. [....]
... and offers the verdict that "The term is now officially meaningless."

It's hard to disagree with this reaction. If one wanted to compile a short list of prominent American conservative political intellectuals and public figures whom it makes no sense at all to call neo-conservative--whom it would make more sense to call paleo-conservative if one had to choose--then Buckley would be near the top of the list. He started his magazine, the National Review, long before either the term "neo-conservative" or the neo-conservative movement itself had emerged, at a time when many of those who later became prominent neo-conservative figures in the 1970s and 1980s were still anti-Communist liberal Democrats, vaguely social democratic intellectuals, and the like (the sort of people who, for example, strongly supported the civil rights movement while the National Review was viciously hostile to it). In George Nash's 1976 book on The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, where Buckley is a central figure, the neo-conservatives weren't even mentioned.

=> By the way ... If anyone is interested in reading informed and intelligent discussions of neo-conservatism and its vicissitudes, rather than the more usual ignorant and superficial chatter, I happened to notice three recent pieces that fit the bill: a generally sympathetic though not uncritical consideration by Peter Berkowitz; a brief but useful historical sketch by Adam Simms; and an uneven but intellectually serious assessment by a disillusioned former neo-conservative, Mark Lilla, which recaptures some of the elements that Lilla originally found valuable in neo-conservatism but whose main thrust is a pretty accusatory critique of what he sees neo-conservatism as having turned into. (Unfortunately, Lilla's piece is accessible only to New Republic subscribers.) I don't mean that I fully agree with any of these three analyses--and all three of them can't be right, given their differences in judgment and emphasis--but each is perceptive and usefully thought-provoking in its own way.

--Jeff Weintraub