Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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June 01
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SEPTEMBER 19, 2009 6:17AM

Mugged by reality: On the death of Irving Kristol

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Irving Kristol
Irving Kristol, 1920-2009

Irving Kristol, one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals for the past six decades, died on September 18 from complications due to lung cancer at age eighty-nine. Among his many contributions to political thought and social policy, he may be best remembered for his concise definition of a Neoconservative: “A liberal mugged by reality.”

His first major mugging may have occurred during World War II. Kristol was born the son of poor Orthodox Jewish (but non-observant   immigrants from the Ukraine in 1940 and was steeped in New York’s leftist intellectual atmosphere. He studied history at City College, where he belonged to a set of outspoken Trotskyite activists. After completing his BA in 1940, he and some of his fellow graduates founded Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought in 1942. Kristol was drafted into the US Army in 1944. In boot camp and in action in Europe, he saw himself torn from his elite intellectual circle and confronted with tough-talking and frequently anti-Semitic Midwesterners, who had to be physically restrained from looting and abusing POWs and civilians alike. “I said to myself, I can’t build socialism with these people. They’ll probably take it over and make a racket out of it.” This formative experience sharpened Kristol’s approval for authority and may explain much of his trademark ambivalence between the most exalted intellectual elitism and his proclaimed faith in the wisdom of “ordinary people.”

Kristol married a fellow Trotskyite, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, in 1942, but their radical sentiments gradually coalesced into strict anti-Stalinism and a critique of modern liberal values. After the war, Kristol went on to become an editor of Commentary, the British-based Encounter, and The Reporter. In 1965, he and Daniel Bell founded The Public Interest, and Kristol founded and edited The National Interest in 1985. He edited both journals until 2002. He served on the board of contributors of the Wall Street Journal, where he wrote a monthly column. He also served as executive vice-president of the publishing house Basic Books between 1961 and 1969. In his articles, Kristol maintained a strong anti-Communist position, calling for an activist foreign policy and vigorous support of Israel. Kristol was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a particularly influential voice at the American Enterprise Institute, which he joined in 1972. President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2002. His legacy lives on in his son, William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard.

Together with thinkers such as Norman Podhoretz and others of their generation, Kristol helped to reframe the American Conservative movement. It was political scientist Michael Harrington who, distressed by Kristol’s steady drift to the political right, sarcastically called him a “Neoconservative” in an article for Dissent in 1973. Oddly, the label stuck and Kristol embraced it. While he supported the New Deal and entertained some sympathy for Great Society goals, he despised the moral nihilism and social disorder the liberalism and radicalism of the 1960s pushed to the surface. "The liberal paradigm of regulation and license has led to a society where an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 1975, “but only if she is paid the minimum wage." In 1979, Esquire did a cover story on him, calling him “the godfather of the most powerful new political force in America - Neoconservatism."


Kristol’s political ideas were profoundly influenced by his Ukrainian shtetl background, although his critics have always suspected they owed more to an inborn dread of the autocratic rule and civil unrest characteristic of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe than to any identifiable religious faith or ethical foundation. And yet, religion played a critical role in his thinking. Despite his leftist roots and apparent lack of personal religious faith, Kristol had long spoken out against atheism and even turned against Darwinism in his later years, despite the lack of any identifiable credentials in evolutionary biology. As he wrote in 1991: "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded - or even if it suspects - that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

Thus society requires faith in a religious truth to survive. But what truth should this be? Kristol’s notion of truth owes much to philosopher Leo Strauss’s concept of “the noble lie” that must be applied in governing an otherwise uncontrollable society. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,” Kristol once wrote. “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

Kristol was profoundly critical of contemporary Jewish thought in America and denounced “the political stupidity of Jews” in an essay for the Israeli journal Azure in 1999. He seemed to doubt that true peaceful coexistence would ever be possible, either between Jews and Gentiles or between Israelis and Arabs:

At the end of World War II, the major American Jewish organizations, preparing to fight a possible upsurge in anti-Semitism (which never came), discovered a category of contemporary psychology called “conflict resolution,”  which they believed to be ideally suited to the problem they were facing; in fact, its great virtue was that it was ideally suited to their ideological predisposition. According to this branch of social science, ethnic, racial or religious conflicts are the result of bias, prejudice, misunderstanding or ignorance. … [It] assumes that ethnic, religious or racial conflicts can be resolved by educational therapy that will uproot the psychological causes of the conflict. But ultimately it is just one more variant of the universal humanism which was the unofficial religion of the Enlightenment – to which Jews, lacking a realistic political tradition, were especially susceptible, and still are.

Is seems deeply meaningful that Kristol passed away on the Jewish New Year. As Kristol wrote in Commentary many decades ago, "If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without... let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish."

It is clear where Kristol placed himself in this hierarchy – front and center among the sages. What place did he have in mind for the rest of us?

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I was just reading his obituary in The New York Times, and enjoyed your well written piece here.
Neoconservative... intellectual... oxymoron!
This is awfully good stuff.