`Neo-conservatives` vs. the Real McCoy
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Whatever else emerged from the crisis endured by Republicans because of Strom Thurmond's birthday party, intellectual coherence didn't. The controversy within the Republican right itself over what Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott meant and what should be done about it merely served to confuse even those who pronounced their opinions on the matter. Mainly what emerged as more confused than ever was the very meaning of the terms "conservative," "paleo-conservative," and "neo-conservative."

Thus, neo-conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer drew the line between "paleo-conservatives," who defended Lott; "traditional conservatives," like those at National Review; and neo-cons like himself who demanded that Lott get the boot because, as former liberals, they have "staked their ground for decades on colorblindness and a reverence for the civil rights movement as originally defined." [Lott and the Right, By Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, December 20, 2002]

A writer at National Review challenged this analysis, declaiming that "paleo-conservatives" are simply racists and anti-Semites and not legitimate conservatives at all. Finally, there was a person called Max Boot writing in the Wall Street Journal who confessed that he didn't understand why people still use the term "neo-conservative" at all. ["What the Heck Is a 'Neocon'?"  By Max Boot, December 30, 2002]

If the whole misinformed discussion proved anything, it was that virtually no authentic conservatism remains intact in the United States, or at least not one visible in such establishment forums as the Journal and National Review. Mr. Krauthammer's column denouncing Sen. Lott, for example, was virtually indistinguishable from that of liberal E.J. Dionne, which the Washington Post published on the same page the same day.

Mr. Boot's contribution to political philosophy disclosed the same mentality. First, Mr. Boot made sure there was plenty of distance between himself, on the one hand, and the terrible "paleos" and their leader Pat Buchanan, whose views he generously characterized as "nativist, protectionist, isolationist," on the other. And, predictably, Mr. Boot at last got down to anti-Semitism, a subject never far from the neo-con mind.

"When Buchananites toss around 'neoconservative," he wrote, "—and cite names like Wolfowitz and Cohen—it sometimes sounds as if what they really mean is 'Jewish conservative.'" Therefore, "neo-conservative" is really merely a codeword for "Jew" and those who use the term critically are themselves anti-Jewish. Mr. Boot's command of logic is breath-taking.

In fact he merely constructed a rather thin straw man and then knocked it down by pointing out that many neo-cons aren't Jewish anyway and that "support for Israel," a "key tenet of neoconservatism," is strongest among the Christian right. No one, least of all paleos, would disagree. But since neo-conservatives are not necessarily Jewish, how can it be a codeword for Jews? No one but Mr. Boot says it is.

Yet neo-conservatism, as Mr. Boot finally allows, does have a meaning. "It stands for a broad sympathy with a traditionalist agenda and a rejection of extreme libertarianism"—a shoe so wide it would fit virtually any foot in American politics. Show me the political leader anywhere who boasts of being against all traditions and calls himself an extreme libertarian. But lest anyone imagine Mr. Boot is too wedded to neo-con dogmas, he hastens to make clear, "There is hardly an orthodoxy laid down by Neocon Central. I for one am not eager to ban either abortion or cloning." That's swell. Now that we know what you aren't eager to do, which happens to clash with what the overwhelming majority of real American conservatives believe, why not tell us what you are eager for?

Well, you see, neo-conservatism is really "Hard Wilsonianism," at least among some proponents like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz (there you go with the anti-Semitism again). "Soft Wilsonians" want to rely on international organizations and treaties, but "Hard Wilsonians" want "to use American might to promote American ideals."

Swell again, but any kind of "Wilsonianism" is of the left, driven by a passion to reconstruct the world, including one's own country, along utopian lines. That's why liberals and neo-conservatives agree in their "reverence for the civil rights movement," a utopian crusade that sought to reconstruct the country along egalitarian lines, as well as why they also agree on foreign policy goals and disagree merely on the means. Finally, it's why paleo-conservatives disagree with both.

Mr. Boot never bothers to tell us what "American ideals" are, how you know what they are, which ones we should promote, or how to tell whether the means of promoting them (waging war, for instance) might or might not be appropriate to achieving the goal. In order to tell things like that, you need to know something—about history, political theory, law, human nature and the nature of civilization—instead of regurgitating bromides swiped from the establishment left. That's where a body of thought known as "conservatism" comes in. Mr. Boot and his fellow neo-cons might want to read up on it some time.


January 16, 2003

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