September 04, 2003
In an astoundingly silly remark made by a presumably intelligent man, veteran International Herald Tribune columnist William Pfaff asserted earlier this summer that American conservatives were "not particularly intelligent" through most of the twentieth century. He added
"The radical neoconservatives, who appeared in the 1960s, are the first seriously intelligent movement of the American Right since the 19th century...the main intellectual influence on the neoconservatives has been the philosopher Leo Strauss."
The long reach of Leo Strauss William Pfaff, International Herald Tribune, May 15, 2003
In a truly devastating critique in the current issue of Chronicles Magazine (September 2003), Sam Francis demolishes these opinions. Sam is easily able to demonstrate that there was an extensive and rich recent conservative heritage in the U.S. before the neocons came along, by pointing to, among other sources, George Nash's Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945. Leo Strauss does not figure in this heritage. Furthermore, Francis shows that that most neoconservatives are far too ignorant of Strauss's thought and of political theory in general to qualify as Straussians.
Indeed, in my view it is very questionable whether neoconservatives" have any significant link do with what was considered "conservative" before they took over the American Right. A glance at the old National Review—say, before Vietnam - would efficiently demonstrate this. For the pre-neoconservative American Right, FDR, Martin Luther King, the welfare state, immigration expansion, crusades allegedly for "global democracy", and human "rights" beliefs were all objects of hostile comment. But for the neoconservatives, these are the reference beacons for their credo.
It is hard to believe that Pfaff, a widely-read and published expert on foreign affairs and other weighty subjects, now approaching seventy, could really believe his own inane statements. Surely he has read the commentaries of Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, Linda Chavez, Bill Bennett, and Ramesh Ponnuru. Could Pfaff properly characterize any of these prominent publicists as "seriously intelligent"?
Perhaps we should send him a copy of Bill Bennett's doctoral dissertation, a copy of which I was forced to look at while preparing The Conservative Movement (second edition). This seventy-page embarrassment abounds in grammatical and syntactical bloopers. It contains long stretches of prose that I have given out to students as examples of how not to write.
As for Irving Kristol, going back to an original thematic essay, which was printed in the Buffalo News in 1980, through his theoretical phase in Neoconservatism (1984) until the pronouncement recently published in the Weekly Standard (August 25), he has been going on about how he is a Straussian because he prefers Aristotle to Plato and Locke to Rousseau. In point of fact, Strauss, and many of his disciples, have expressed exactly the opposite preferences.
Pfaff would do well to look at the telling observations that Francis, Thomas DiLorenzo, Larry Auster, and other conservative critics have been making about Irving's most recent attempt to talk up his movement. Kristol's political writing actually is merely a pontifical assertion of what American conservatives should embrace: a large federal welfare state, wars to spread "democracy" (particularly if helpful to Israel), and a cult of those presidents whom Irving and his friends happen to like, e.g., FDR but not Eisenhower.
Ultimately, what is most disturbing about Pfaff's remarks is not that they are grossly uninformed but that they plainly display deep intellectual dishonesty. What Pfaff means when he misrepresents the neoconservatives, and demeans non-neocons leaders on the American Right, is quite simply that he agrees with the neocons but not with the others.
Well, in my own research, I frequently find myself writing about people I do not agree with but who were obviously "intelligent." The German pioneer of political correctness, Jurgen Habermas, is a case in point. I would not deny that Habermas is "seriously intelligent" although our political values are diametrically opposed. Why can't Pfaff demonstrate similar objectivity?
Arguably what has made Irving and his godchildren successful is actually the opposite of what Pfaff attributes to them: their lack of the kind of theoretical originality and brilliance that were common to most of the subjects of Nash's work.
It is the iron predictability of the Neocon party line, and the reconcilability of that party line, via Cold War liberal platitudes, with center and center-left politics, that have made them more successful than the real Right—especially in ingratiating themselves with the main stream media.
Speaking as a scholar dealing with political theory, it is shocking to me that anyone with a smattering of education could take any of the neoconservative journalists as political thinkers of any stature. (And in fact, Pfaff has subsequently published a scathing critique of the result of all that serious neoconservative intelligence applied ti Iraq.)
The fact that Pfaff initially replicated such nonsense testifies to a fraud—and to the curiously sympathetic reception of neoconservatives in the media.
But let us not confuse journalistic advantage, or the benefit of Pfaff's approval, with serious intelligence.
Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory, and Multiculturalism And The Politics of Guilt: Toward A Secular Theocracy.