Commentary Magazine


Topic: Irving Kristol

Gay Marriage and the Myth of Progressive American Secularism

Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

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Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

On Saturday, the faith group Alliance Defending Freedom posted a press release about the Knapps, a married couple both of whom are ordained ministers. The Knapps own and run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The state recently passed an anti-discrimination law that applies to the state’s businesses. Hitching Post is a for-profit chapel. Thus, according to state officials, the law plainly applies without exception to the Knapps.

The ADF press release was a bit ahead of itself. “Officials threaten to punish senior citizen couple – both ordained pastors – if they decline to officiate same-sex ceremonies,” it said up top. But the threat, really, was as-yet implied. The state did, however, confirm that the law applies to the Knapps, and the Knapps have since refused to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple. The clock, then, is ticking–though as of Monday the Knapps had not been charged. They are suing the state to ensure they won’t be, by asking a federal judge to bar enforcement.

Over at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski makes an astute observation:

No one ever expects the Secular Inquisition.

Except that we actually did expect it. In fact, it’s inherent in the fundamental basis of the left’s arguments for gay marriage.

Tracinski has no objection to gay marriage, and in fact considers himself “an advocate of secularism—including secular morality and a secular basis for liberty.” He therefore opposes coercing couples like the Knapps because he doesn’t want his “views similarly discredited by association with the oppressive acts of a new Secular Inquisition.” When he says “similarly discredited,” he is referring to the fact that the Spanish Inquisition “served to discredit religion by associating it with brutality.”

Perhaps. But there’s another way of thinking about this: we should operate under the assumption that there is no secular party in this drama at all.

On October 1, Mosaic Magazine republished Irving Kristol’s 1991 COMMENTARY essay on “The Future of American Jewry.” (Mosaic has just published an e-book of Kristol’s writings on Judaism.) It is a trenchant–and just as relevant today as it was then–take on American Judaism and its entanglement with secular humanism.

About the emergence of the “American creed” of toleration mixed with relegating religion in America to a more private role, Kristol wrote:

Historians call this phase of our intellectual history, now more than a century old, “secularization,” and they point to analogous developments in other lands to sustain the thesis that secularization is an integral part of modernization. It is impossible to argue with this thesis, for which the evidence is overwhelming. But it is possible and legitimate to question the explanatory power of the concept of secularization. Something important happened, that is certain. Secularization is doubtless as good a shorthand term as any to describe what happened. It is not, however, a useful concept if one wishes to explain what happened. For what we call secularization is an idea that only makes sense from a point of view that regards traditional religions as survivals that can, at best, be adapted to a nonreligious society.

Instead, he explained, in what might be the single best one-paragraph précis of left-liberalism then and now:

When we look at secularization without an ideological parti pris, we can fairly—and, I would suggest, more accurately—describe it as the victory of a new, emergent religious impulse over the traditional biblical religions that formed the framework of Western civilization. Nor is there any mystery as to the identity of this new religious impulse. It is named, fairly and accurately, secular humanism. Merely because it incorporates the word “secular” in its self-identification does not mean that it cannot be seriously viewed as a competitive religion—though its adherents resent and resist any such ascription. Such resentment and resistance are, of course, a natural consequence of seeing the human world through “secularist” spectacles. Because secular humanism has, from the very beginning, incorporated the modern scientific view of the universe, it has always felt itself—and today still feels itself—“liberated” from any kind of religious perspective. But secular humanism is more than science, because it proceeds to make all kinds of inferences about the human condition and human possibilities that are not, in any authentic sense, scientific. Those inferences are metaphysical, and in the end theological.

Kristol wrote that in 1991, but in some ways was ahead of his time. Seventeen years later the Democratic Party nominated for president a man who appealed directly to the left’s religious zealotry by painting himself as a progressive prophet and redeemer. Announcing that his looming nomination victory “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” is the language of a religious fanatic, which Obama is and which his followers are as well.

And this is a religious country. Obama won, after all, promising various forms of redemption to his supporters. But the Obama phenomenon was only possible because the demand for such a false prophet existed in the first place. In fact, anyone who has observed American politics and religious discourse in recent years will be aware that when it comes to evangelism, those professing to be godless or secular or progressive are the most thorough. (For a clever take on this, watch Portlandia’s hipster version of door-knocking missionaries. Example: approaching Seattle residents with the line, “We were wondering if you were interested in accepting Portland into your life.”)

Atheists have begun to bring that spirit to life. Last year, the Associated Press detailed the rise of “atheist mega-churches” around the world. (Complete with “Born Again Humanist” bumper stickers.) That movement inspired a column in (where else?) the Guardian railing against the idea of a church for nonbelievers. As the column’s author Sadhbh Walshe, a devout nonbeliever, wrote:

I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.

Ah, but Walshe is right! The trappings of religion are for “people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.” And that is, it appears, most people. Especially in Western countries with religious heritage but aggressive and modern nihilistic instincts. The “secular” left needs a God figure just as much as the religious right. The difference is that the religious right eschews Inquisitions, and the left is just learning how effective they can be. Just ask the Knapps.

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A Cheerful Conservative

Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

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Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

Third, Kristol warned the right against “equat[ing] conservatism with a desperate, defensive commitment to the status quo.” The danger facing conservatism was risk-averseness and a “feebleness of the imagination,” with conservatism being seen as “a tedious if necessary interregnum during which the excesses of the Left are tidied up.”

“Unless conservatives can legitimate their claim to office with a persuasive assertion of the claim to be the future, theirs is a lost cause,” Kristol wrote in 1982. “As between no claim to the future and a fraudulent claim, the latter will always prevail in an ideological age.” 

Fourth, Kristol offered a corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism. He had faith in common people, just not that much faith in them. He understood, as the Founders did, the danger of a citizenry corrupting itself.

A fifth quality of Irving Kristol’s that conservatism today would be wise to replicate is what his friend Charles Krauthammer called “his extraordinary equanimity.”

His temperament was marked by a total lack of rancor. Angst, bitterness and anguish were alien to him. That, of course, made him unusual among the fraternity of conservatives because we believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That makes us cranky. But not Irving. Never Irving. He retained steadiness, serenity and grace that expressed themselves in a courtliness couched in a calm quiet humor.

When you think about some of the leading figures on the right today, words like “steadiness” and “serenity,” “grace” and “calm quiet humor” are not ones that immediately come to mind. Instead the tone and approach we often hear can best be described as apocalyptic, brittle, angry, and embittered. This approach to politics, by the way, was not simply stylistic; it was rooted in a deep understanding of conservatism itself. Kristol believed conservatism was “antiromantic in substance and temperament.” It’s approach to the world, he wrote, “is more ‘rabbinic’ than ‘prophetic.’”

It also would help for conservatism to embody a kind of cheerfulness that was a hallmark of Kristol. As his writings show, he was deeply realistic. He certainly didn’t sugarcoat things. In fact, he described himself as “cheerfully pessimistic.” But one sensed that deep down, the needle leaned a bit more in the direction of cheerfulness than pessimism.

In any event, as long as I’ve been alive (and well before I was born) there have been people on the right issuing dark warnings of the decomposition and dissolution of the West; people who worn about impending tyranny and America’s march toward Gomorrah. I’m all for cursing the darkness when necessary, and have done a bit of it myself now and then. But that cast of mind, without any leavening agent, can lead to despair and radicalism. Those attitudes were unknown to Irving Kristol. He seemed very much at home in the world in the best sense and nudged it along in the right direction when he could. And my how he did.  

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Irving Kristol Revisited

All those who have admired and been influenced by the work of Irving Kristol will be delighted to learn that the Foundation for Constitutional Government has created a valuable new resource; irvingkristol.org. The launch of the website comes as part of a series of similar sites that the FCG has established to celebrate the vast contribution made by such figures as James Q. Wilson, Harvey Mansfield, and Walter Berns. As well as providing a biographical overview, the Kristol website includes such useful resources as a full bibliography of Kristol’s writings organized by subject, a catalogue of commentary on Kristol’s thought, and an extensive multimedia archive, made all the more rare and fascinating given the way Kristol for the most part shunned the limelight.

Irving Kristol was arguably one of the most important political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century. Portrayed as the godfather of neoconservatism, Kristol, along with such figures as former COMMENTARY editor Norman Podhoretz, was responsible for reshaping America’s political landscape irreversibly. The role that Kristol’s thought—and his journal the Public Interest–played in the Reagan Revolution was surely a key component in turning America’s fortunes around after the fraught years of the 1970s and the Carter presidency.

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All those who have admired and been influenced by the work of Irving Kristol will be delighted to learn that the Foundation for Constitutional Government has created a valuable new resource; irvingkristol.org. The launch of the website comes as part of a series of similar sites that the FCG has established to celebrate the vast contribution made by such figures as James Q. Wilson, Harvey Mansfield, and Walter Berns. As well as providing a biographical overview, the Kristol website includes such useful resources as a full bibliography of Kristol’s writings organized by subject, a catalogue of commentary on Kristol’s thought, and an extensive multimedia archive, made all the more rare and fascinating given the way Kristol for the most part shunned the limelight.

Irving Kristol was arguably one of the most important political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century. Portrayed as the godfather of neoconservatism, Kristol, along with such figures as former COMMENTARY editor Norman Podhoretz, was responsible for reshaping America’s political landscape irreversibly. The role that Kristol’s thought—and his journal the Public Interest–played in the Reagan Revolution was surely a key component in turning America’s fortunes around after the fraught years of the 1970s and the Carter presidency.

Today neoconservatism is heavily associated with foreign-policy matters. Yet, a rediscovery of Irving Kristol’s writings might serve as a reminder of just how much first-generation neoconservatives were concerned with social and domestic issues. It may ultimately be that it is in this arena that neoconservatism can continue to play a decisive role in American politics. In the wake of the welfare dependency deepened by the Obama administration, and with a Republican Party that risks fracture between libertarians an social conservatives, Kristol’s thinking may yet offer a way forward for many trying to grapple with contemporary issues. Of course, none of this is to detract from the important role that neoconservatism has played and continues to play in offering a vital dose of moral clarity to America’s foreign-policy debate.

The launch of irvingkristol.org may prove timely. A young generation of conservatives is confronted with perplexing questions about fierce divisions opening up within parts of American society and painful conflicts raging in their own camp. Reading Kristol now may shed some light on what is going wrong in our political thinking and what is to be done about it. 

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Are Neoconservatives Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview?

Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

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Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

As I understand it, contemporary neoconservatism is a philosophy that advocates the promotion of “democracy” and liberal ideals abroad – and one that isn’t shy about using military power to achieve those goals. It’s a doctrine that is far more hawkish than the one Salam describes. The central argument of the neocons in the early 2000s was that an invasion of Iraq would result in the spreading of democratic values across the Middle East; ideals that would be embraced by the people and transform once-bellicose adversaries into reliable allies. For a time, regrettably, I supported the Iraq War because I naively bought into the notion that the United States could turn a neighborhood of authoritarian regimes into a peaceful, economically integrating Middle East. (I also believed one of these regimes had WMDs). As it turned out social engineering doesn’t work abroad either.

The paragraph compresses the timeline of neoconservative thinking on Iraq. Yes, democracy promotion was part of the nation-building strategy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But it’s misleading to suggest that the desire to spread democracy was the reason we invaded Iraq. As Harsanyi notes, there were the widespread fears of weapons of mass destruction, which themselves came after (chronologically speaking) other concerns. The first Gulf war ended with a formal ceasefire agreement, the terms of which Saddam steadily began violating. After the breakdown of the ceasefire, Saddam’s forces started firing on American aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone. Then came the worries over WMD.

The timeline is crucial to understanding the thought process taking place inside the Bush administration on how to handle Saddam and what to do about Iraq. In the event Saddam was to be overthrown by an American-led effort, what should replace him? Here I’ll quote from Doug Feith’s memoir, War and Decision, about the various alternatives being proffered and their merits, including replacing Saddam without a wholesale transfer of institutional power, referred to as “Saddamism without Saddam”:

Suppose we could bring about Saddam’s replacement by Iraqis who would preserve Sunni control—the most likely candidates, given their predominance in the Baathist regime. Even aside from whether the American people would tolerate their government’s installing a new dictatorship in Iraq, the deck would be stacked against that new regime. The Kurds and the Shia are 80 to 85 percent of the Iraqi population. What if one or both of those groups seized the opportunity to rebel? What would be America’s responsibility and response? In the hope of achieving stability, could we support the dictatorship in crushing a rebellion for majority rule? It was not America’s proudest moment when we watched Saddam crush the Shiites after Desert Storm in 1991. Now we would be standing by in favor of leaders we had helped install.

Saddamism without Saddam was rejected, and rightfully so. Now, you can use this information to argue that the war should have been avoided and Saddam left in power, if you’re so inclined. But it’s incorrect to suggest that neoconservative supporters of the Iraq war chose to spread democracy by the sword and then fixed their target, or that the Iraq war demonstrates that neoconservatives believe the cause of spreading democracy is sufficient to justify the invasion and occupation of another country.

In 1976, Irving Kristol attempted to define a “neoconservative” worldview. Kristol famously thought of neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” and he didn’t particularly care what it was called. (He said he would not have been surprised had the term given to his worldview changed over time.) “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system,” he wrote.

How we help foster a world that isn’t overwhelmingly hostile to American values is a complex question that requires an array of policy choices, but isn’t well served by deep retrenchment, which is what Salam appears to be warning against most of all. Neoconservatism’s critics would benefit greatly from exploring more of those policy choices than just massive demonstrations of military force.

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In Defense of Social Justice

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written an excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. It lays out a conservative social justice agenda aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. The pillars of this agenda include personal moral transformation, material relief, and opportunity.

Specific polices are of course crucial, and what Brooks lays out is commendable. For now, though, I want to focus on the underlying case for a social justice agenda.

The term itself is not one you often hear from conservatives, perhaps in part because of the brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s distaste for it. Hayek believed the idea of social justice was a mirage, an “empty formula” and “hollow incantation,” and impossible to define.  (You might enjoy watching this 1977 Firing Line conversation between William F. Buckley Jr. and Hayek on social justice.)

On the matter of social justice, Hayek had in mind distributive justice. “There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes,” Hayek put it. “Considerations of justice provide no justification for ‘correcting’ the results of the market,” he said elsewhere. “Only human conduct can be called just and unjust,” Hayek argued. (Hayek himself did not oppose a comprehensive system of social insurance and favored a guaranteed minimum income. His fear was that the concept of social justice would lead to “centrally planned distribution according to merit,” in the words of the philosopher David Schmidtz. “He thinks a merit czar would be intolerable.”)

Professor Hayek’s insights about spontaneous order, the virtues of dispersed decision making, the dangers of collectivism and centralized planning, and the limits of social knowledge are tremendous contributions. But I do think that the term “social justice,” as defined by Hayek, is too constricted and incomplete; that it’s a term conservatives should not only refuse to cede to the left but one they should embrace.

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Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written an excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. It lays out a conservative social justice agenda aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. The pillars of this agenda include personal moral transformation, material relief, and opportunity.

Specific polices are of course crucial, and what Brooks lays out is commendable. For now, though, I want to focus on the underlying case for a social justice agenda.

The term itself is not one you often hear from conservatives, perhaps in part because of the brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s distaste for it. Hayek believed the idea of social justice was a mirage, an “empty formula” and “hollow incantation,” and impossible to define.  (You might enjoy watching this 1977 Firing Line conversation between William F. Buckley Jr. and Hayek on social justice.)

On the matter of social justice, Hayek had in mind distributive justice. “There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes,” Hayek put it. “Considerations of justice provide no justification for ‘correcting’ the results of the market,” he said elsewhere. “Only human conduct can be called just and unjust,” Hayek argued. (Hayek himself did not oppose a comprehensive system of social insurance and favored a guaranteed minimum income. His fear was that the concept of social justice would lead to “centrally planned distribution according to merit,” in the words of the philosopher David Schmidtz. “He thinks a merit czar would be intolerable.”)

Professor Hayek’s insights about spontaneous order, the virtues of dispersed decision making, the dangers of collectivism and centralized planning, and the limits of social knowledge are tremendous contributions. But I do think that the term “social justice,” as defined by Hayek, is too constricted and incomplete; that it’s a term conservatives should not only refuse to cede to the left but one they should embrace.

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin reminded me of Irving Kristol’s rejection of Hayek’s denial of the idea of social justice in his 1970 essay “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness.” Kristol pointed out that Hayek, for whom Kristol had great respect, preferred a free society to a just society “because, [Hayek] says, while we know what freedom is, we have no generally accepted knowledge of what justice is.”

“Can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe it is also a just society?” Kristol asked. “I do not think so. My reading of history is that, in the same way as men cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.”

Kristol praised American society when it was

still permeated by the Puritan ethic, the Protestant ethic, the capitalist ethic – call it what you will. It was a society in which it was agreed that there was a strong correlation between certain personal virtues – frugality, industry, sobriety, reliability, piety – and the way in which power, privilege, and property were distributed. And this correlation was taken to be the sign of a just society, not merely of a free one. 

So denying the possibility of a common idea of justice is not one I’m prepared to accept. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament don’t seem to accept it, either. In his book Generous Justice, Timothy J. Keller writes that the words “social justice” appear more than three dozen times in the Bible. (Dr. Keller argues that “social justice” is the best English expression we have for the relevant Hebrew words. The most accurate translated text for Psalm 33:5, for example, would be, “The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.”)

Whether or not one finds this persuasive, social injustice exists; so, I would argue, does the concept of social justice–and any society that fails to dispense some measure of sympathy and solicitude to others, particularly those living in the shadows and who are most vulnerable to injustice, cannot really be a good society. A decent civilization needs to have something to say to them. So should the conservative movement. Which brings me back to the essay by Arthur Brooks.

“The conservative creed should be fighting for people, especially vulnerable people, whether or not they vote as we do,” Brooks writes. “This is our fight, and it is a happy one. After all, as Proverbs 14:21 reminds us, ‘He that despiseth his neighbor, sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he’.”

Whether this effort travels under the banner of social justice or some other name, to do justice and to love mercy is what is required of us, as individuals and as a society. Or so it seems to me.

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Ignored GOP “Strategists” Vent to Media

The Wall Street Journal takes aim at the “bedwetter caucus,” its term for the anonymous “Republican strategists and campaign operatives” who were fretting over the Ryan pick in a Politico article yesterday:

Republicans who believe in something can console themselves in knowing that these “pros” are reflecting the Washington conventional wisdom. Nearly everyone in the Beltway thinks it’s impossible to reform entitlements like Medicare, and or even to restrain the size of government, so why would a candidate be foolish enough to try?

This crowd is good at forecasting the political future as a repetition of the past and present, but as Irving Kristol used to say, they aren’t very good at predicting the turns. We’ll see if this year is one of those turns.

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The Wall Street Journal takes aim at the “bedwetter caucus,” its term for the anonymous “Republican strategists and campaign operatives” who were fretting over the Ryan pick in a Politico article yesterday:

Republicans who believe in something can console themselves in knowing that these “pros” are reflecting the Washington conventional wisdom. Nearly everyone in the Beltway thinks it’s impossible to reform entitlements like Medicare, and or even to restrain the size of government, so why would a candidate be foolish enough to try?

This crowd is good at forecasting the political future as a repetition of the past and present, but as Irving Kristol used to say, they aren’t very good at predicting the turns. We’ll see if this year is one of those turns.

I’d also add that stories like the one in Politico are a hallmark of Washington. After any major political decision, there’s always a losing side, and the losing side is almost always willing to talk. Obviously not every Republican “strategist” (a ridiculously vague term that could encompass half the city) in Washington supported Paul Ryan for VP. Some actively supported other VP options, and believed their favored candidate was the smartest choice for whatever reason. So they spilled their guts to Politico when someone else was chosen. You can bet some version of this story would have run no matter who Romney picked, just with different sources voicing slightly different complaints.

In a way, this is good for Romney. He’s been criticized as a play-it-safe candidate without a political core, who bases his decisions on what the latest polls say. Even if it just looks like he’s going against “conventional wisdom” in Washington, that can only help his image.

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The Year’s Best Jewish Books

My second annual roll call of the year’s best Jewish books is the main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. Not to leave you in any suspense, I think the posthumous selection of Irving Kristol’s essays published in February as The Neoconservative Persuasion was the most distinguished Jewish title of 2011.

I began rereading Kristol shortly after his death on September 18, 2009. On Yom Kippur that year I took his Reflections of a Neoconservative to shul with me — reading in shul is almost as traditional as fasting on Yom Kippur — and was particularly struck by the book’s concluding essay, “Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” which was not included in The Neoconservative Persuasion for some reason.

Looking back, I realize now that Kristol was largely responsible for both of my own “right turns.” I quit the Left in disgust upon its widespread condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Kristol’s Reflections, published the next year (in the nick of time), gave a name to my discontent and reset my political compass, keeping me from drifting into a sterile resentment. What is more, his description of his religious leanings as “neo-Orthodox” (not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy”) pushed me down the road toward my own “return” to Orthodox Judaism several years later.

Quite apart from my autobiographical debt to him, I have always been impressed by Kristol’s “persuasion” — both his conviction and his rhetoric, his thoroughness in giving the reasons for thinking as he thinks. The late Christopher Hitchens was also a master of rhetoric, but a more different writer could not be imagined. Hitchens’s prose is red hot; justice and the denunciation of lies are Hitchens’s passions. Kristol’s prose is not cool, though: it is warm. In his essays, Kristol is the perfect host, setting things out for the reader and radiating cordiality, even toward enemies. Here he is, for example, in “Notes on the Yom Kippur War” (originally published in the Wall Street Journal in 1973):

I have said that I find it hard to be angry at the Arabs, and that is the truth. Unfortunately, when I try to explain what I mean, people think I am being frivolous. That is because we in the West, most of us anyway, have so little sense of history, cannot take religious beliefs seriously, and are so resolutely inattentive to the ways in which history and religion shape national character. Indeed, the use of that term, “national character,” is distinctly frowned upon these days. There isn’t supposed to be any such thing, every one of us presumably born into “one world.” What nonsense. The Arabs are an extraordinarily proud people, in some ways a quite noble people, whose religion assures them that they have been chosen for a superior destiny. . . . For Arabs, the glories of medieval empire are like yesterday; the intervening centuries are a lamentable hiatus, of no intrinsic significance or even of much interest, and “soon” to be annulled by foredestined triumph.

In one passage, Kristol demolishes a current fallacy and fully explains a lack of hatred for a mortal enemy, while inviting the reader to consider whether he might not be right on both scores. Add to this that Kristol is always informative and always surprising, and you can see why I believe that even those who are filled with scorn for us neocons would probably enjoy The Neoconservative Persuasion.

There were other good Jewish books published last year — especially Lucette Lagnado’s beautiful memoir The Arrogant Years and John J. Clayton’s delightful Mitzvah Man, reviewed in this month’s COMMENTARY and probably the best Jewish novel of the year. But the writer to read, whether or not you’ve ever read him before, is the great and inimitable Irving Kristol.

My second annual roll call of the year’s best Jewish books is the main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. Not to leave you in any suspense, I think the posthumous selection of Irving Kristol’s essays published in February as The Neoconservative Persuasion was the most distinguished Jewish title of 2011.

I began rereading Kristol shortly after his death on September 18, 2009. On Yom Kippur that year I took his Reflections of a Neoconservative to shul with me — reading in shul is almost as traditional as fasting on Yom Kippur — and was particularly struck by the book’s concluding essay, “Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” which was not included in The Neoconservative Persuasion for some reason.

Looking back, I realize now that Kristol was largely responsible for both of my own “right turns.” I quit the Left in disgust upon its widespread condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Kristol’s Reflections, published the next year (in the nick of time), gave a name to my discontent and reset my political compass, keeping me from drifting into a sterile resentment. What is more, his description of his religious leanings as “neo-Orthodox” (not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy”) pushed me down the road toward my own “return” to Orthodox Judaism several years later.

Quite apart from my autobiographical debt to him, I have always been impressed by Kristol’s “persuasion” — both his conviction and his rhetoric, his thoroughness in giving the reasons for thinking as he thinks. The late Christopher Hitchens was also a master of rhetoric, but a more different writer could not be imagined. Hitchens’s prose is red hot; justice and the denunciation of lies are Hitchens’s passions. Kristol’s prose is not cool, though: it is warm. In his essays, Kristol is the perfect host, setting things out for the reader and radiating cordiality, even toward enemies. Here he is, for example, in “Notes on the Yom Kippur War” (originally published in the Wall Street Journal in 1973):

I have said that I find it hard to be angry at the Arabs, and that is the truth. Unfortunately, when I try to explain what I mean, people think I am being frivolous. That is because we in the West, most of us anyway, have so little sense of history, cannot take religious beliefs seriously, and are so resolutely inattentive to the ways in which history and religion shape national character. Indeed, the use of that term, “national character,” is distinctly frowned upon these days. There isn’t supposed to be any such thing, every one of us presumably born into “one world.” What nonsense. The Arabs are an extraordinarily proud people, in some ways a quite noble people, whose religion assures them that they have been chosen for a superior destiny. . . . For Arabs, the glories of medieval empire are like yesterday; the intervening centuries are a lamentable hiatus, of no intrinsic significance or even of much interest, and “soon” to be annulled by foredestined triumph.

In one passage, Kristol demolishes a current fallacy and fully explains a lack of hatred for a mortal enemy, while inviting the reader to consider whether he might not be right on both scores. Add to this that Kristol is always informative and always surprising, and you can see why I believe that even those who are filled with scorn for us neocons would probably enjoy The Neoconservative Persuasion.

There were other good Jewish books published last year — especially Lucette Lagnado’s beautiful memoir The Arrogant Years and John J. Clayton’s delightful Mitzvah Man, reviewed in this month’s COMMENTARY and probably the best Jewish novel of the year. But the writer to read, whether or not you’ve ever read him before, is the great and inimitable Irving Kristol.

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Irving Kristol and Republican Virtue

On C-SPAN’s series After Words, David Brooks hosted an engaging and wide-ranging interview with William Kristol on The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays 1942-2009, a collection of essays by Bill’s father, the late Irving Kristol. They are reprinted in this book for the first time since their initial publication.

The Neoconservative Persuasion is a wonderful collection assembled by Irving’s wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. The essays discuss Tacitus, W.H. Auden, Leo Strauss, James Burnham, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Ronald Reagan, as well as Judaism and Christianity, Jacksonian democracy, the Constitution, conservatism and neoconservatism, liberalism (ancient and modern), human nature and social reform, and supply-side economics.

There is, however, one address, originally delivered in May 1974 at Indiana University’s The Poynter Center, to which I wanted to draw attention: “Republican Virtue versus Servile Institutions.” It is quite an important essay, providing as it does an important corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism.

Kristol writes that he has faith in the common people, of which he counted himself one, but just not very much faith in them. Further, he argues, the common man, being wise, only invests modest faith in himself. “That it is possible to corrupt a citizenry — or for a citizenry to corrupt itself — is something the Founders understood but which we seem to have forgotten,” according to Kristol.

His essay goes on to reflect on the ideas of “republican virtues,” which asks of people a certain public-spiritedness, which is a form of self-control, which is itself an exercise in self-government. Kristol goes on to write about the main point that emerged from the American democratic experience. “People do not have respect for institutions which, instead of making demands upon them, are completely subservient to their whims,” Kristol wrote. “In short, a people will not respect a polity that has so low an opinion of them that it thinks it absurd to insist that people become better than they are. Not simply more democratic; not simply more free; not simply more affluent; but, in some clear sense, better.”

This conception of republican virtue has been largely lost in modern times. And while a peaceful populist uprising can be a very good thing from time to time, there is something deeply wise and true in Kristol’s warning. There is a “democratic dogma” that insists our institutions should in every instance conform themselves to the whims and will of the people — a belief the Founders themselves rejected in both their writings and in their form for government (they were horrified by the notion of a “direct democracy” rather than a representative one, believing government should mediate, not mirror, popular views).

Irving Kristol’s reputation as a leading 20th-century public intellectual was secured long ago. This new collection of essays merely fortifies it.

On C-SPAN’s series After Words, David Brooks hosted an engaging and wide-ranging interview with William Kristol on The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays 1942-2009, a collection of essays by Bill’s father, the late Irving Kristol. They are reprinted in this book for the first time since their initial publication.

The Neoconservative Persuasion is a wonderful collection assembled by Irving’s wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. The essays discuss Tacitus, W.H. Auden, Leo Strauss, James Burnham, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Ronald Reagan, as well as Judaism and Christianity, Jacksonian democracy, the Constitution, conservatism and neoconservatism, liberalism (ancient and modern), human nature and social reform, and supply-side economics.

There is, however, one address, originally delivered in May 1974 at Indiana University’s The Poynter Center, to which I wanted to draw attention: “Republican Virtue versus Servile Institutions.” It is quite an important essay, providing as it does an important corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism.

Kristol writes that he has faith in the common people, of which he counted himself one, but just not very much faith in them. Further, he argues, the common man, being wise, only invests modest faith in himself. “That it is possible to corrupt a citizenry — or for a citizenry to corrupt itself — is something the Founders understood but which we seem to have forgotten,” according to Kristol.

His essay goes on to reflect on the ideas of “republican virtues,” which asks of people a certain public-spiritedness, which is a form of self-control, which is itself an exercise in self-government. Kristol goes on to write about the main point that emerged from the American democratic experience. “People do not have respect for institutions which, instead of making demands upon them, are completely subservient to their whims,” Kristol wrote. “In short, a people will not respect a polity that has so low an opinion of them that it thinks it absurd to insist that people become better than they are. Not simply more democratic; not simply more free; not simply more affluent; but, in some clear sense, better.”

This conception of republican virtue has been largely lost in modern times. And while a peaceful populist uprising can be a very good thing from time to time, there is something deeply wise and true in Kristol’s warning. There is a “democratic dogma” that insists our institutions should in every instance conform themselves to the whims and will of the people — a belief the Founders themselves rejected in both their writings and in their form for government (they were horrified by the notion of a “direct democracy” rather than a representative one, believing government should mediate, not mirror, popular views).

Irving Kristol’s reputation as a leading 20th-century public intellectual was secured long ago. This new collection of essays merely fortifies it.

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Some Thoughts on Civility

There is a lot of talk about civility in public discourse these days. This is a matter on which Michael Gerson and I have written about before, including in COMMENTARY (see the end of this essay) and in City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (see chapter 6, “Persuasion and the Public Square”).

On this topic, then, I would make several points.

First, there are eminently practical reasons for public figures to use reasonably civil language. After all, they are engaged in efforts to persuade people, not browbeat them. Language that is reasonable, judicious, and sober tends to be preferred to language that is abrasive and abusive. People tend to be drawn to political movements and political parties whose representatives are winsome rather than enraged, who radiate a sense of self-possession and good cheer rather than what Nietzsche, in On The Genealogy of Morals, called ressentiment, or resentment.

Lincoln put it as well as anyone when he said:

When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and true maxim “that a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what you will, is the great high road to reason.

Among the gifts that political figures like Ronald Reagan and intellectual figures like Irving Kristol gave to conservatism was help in shedding its attitude of defensiveness toward the world. That is not a place to which conservatism wants to return.

In addition, treating people with civility is connected to a view of human beings and their inherent dignity. Making bad arguments obviously doesn’t make someone a bad person; and even when one is on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks (as many people in politics have been), there are still standards one ought to adhere to.

Now, I wouldn’t pretend for a moment this is easy or that I myself haven’t edged up to, or even at times crossed, the line separating spirited debate from inappropriate remarks. Readers of CONTENTIONS are free to review my exchanges with Joe Klein, Jonathan Chait, John Derbyshire, and others and decide for themselves. Suffice it to say that what St. Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — are not in oversupply in politics. And for those of us who are engaged in politics and the philosophies and ideas behind it, the temptation to be drawn into the mud pit is a strong one. Read More

There is a lot of talk about civility in public discourse these days. This is a matter on which Michael Gerson and I have written about before, including in COMMENTARY (see the end of this essay) and in City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (see chapter 6, “Persuasion and the Public Square”).

On this topic, then, I would make several points.

First, there are eminently practical reasons for public figures to use reasonably civil language. After all, they are engaged in efforts to persuade people, not browbeat them. Language that is reasonable, judicious, and sober tends to be preferred to language that is abrasive and abusive. People tend to be drawn to political movements and political parties whose representatives are winsome rather than enraged, who radiate a sense of self-possession and good cheer rather than what Nietzsche, in On The Genealogy of Morals, called ressentiment, or resentment.

Lincoln put it as well as anyone when he said:

When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and true maxim “that a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what you will, is the great high road to reason.

Among the gifts that political figures like Ronald Reagan and intellectual figures like Irving Kristol gave to conservatism was help in shedding its attitude of defensiveness toward the world. That is not a place to which conservatism wants to return.

In addition, treating people with civility is connected to a view of human beings and their inherent dignity. Making bad arguments obviously doesn’t make someone a bad person; and even when one is on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks (as many people in politics have been), there are still standards one ought to adhere to.

Now, I wouldn’t pretend for a moment this is easy or that I myself haven’t edged up to, or even at times crossed, the line separating spirited debate from inappropriate remarks. Readers of CONTENTIONS are free to review my exchanges with Joe Klein, Jonathan Chait, John Derbyshire, and others and decide for themselves. Suffice it to say that what St. Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — are not in oversupply in politics. And for those of us who are engaged in politics and the philosophies and ideas behind it, the temptation to be drawn into the mud pit is a strong one.

Still, it’s not self-evident, at least to me, how one should respond when on the receiving end of unfairly personal, and even slanderous, attacks. I imagine the answer lies somewhere on the continuum between silence and a seething, equally libelous rejoinder.

A few other caveats are in order. Among them is that too often, civility is itself used cynically, as a conversation stopper, as a means to end debate. For others, civility is a synonym for lack of principles, for hollowed-out convictions, for those who believe in nothing and are unwilling to fight for anything. And still others make the mistake in believing that civility is the antithesis of passionately held principles, passionately expressed.

In fact, forceful arguments (like witty ones) are often the best arguments. Rhetorical tough-mindedness is not only appropriate but welcomed. Clarity often emerges in the wake of conflicting views. Too often, those who tell us to “tone down the arguments” simply want the arguments themselves to go away. But politics is, in its deepest and best sense, a series of ongoing arguments about perennially important matters like justice. (See the debate between Thrasymachus and Socrates for more.)

There is, in the end, no neat or easy prescription on how to conduct oneself in public life at any given moment. As a general matter, though, grace and generosity of spirit are to be prized. And if we’re lucky, they can even move us several steps away from a political culture based on enmity to one based on greater understanding and even, from time to time, a measure of respect and forgiveness.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

A sharp observer has figured out how to cut through the Palestinian-Israel impasse.

Someone else has figured out that George Mitchell was fibbing when he extolled all that progress in the non-peace talks. “What was your reaction last month when you heard how well the talks had gone between Israel and the ‘Palestinians’? Did you flinch? Did you snicker? Did you doubt the reports? Whatever your reaction was, I have what should be unsurprising news for you. The talks did not go well. … Five Israeli and foreign diplomats, who were briefed about the Netanyahu-Abbas meetings by one of the parties or by senior American officials, said prospects for progress in the talks remained gloomy, even if the construction crisis were solved.”

The AP has figured out that ObamaCare is a bust. “It’s a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s health care remake, a lifeline available right now to vulnerable people whose medical problems have made them uninsurable. But the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan started this summer isn’t living up to expectations. Enrollment lags in many parts of the country. People who could benefit may not be able to afford the premiums. Some state officials who run their own “high-risk pools” have pointed out potential problems.”

The Democrats have figured out that the Senate seats in North Dakota, Indiana, and Arkansas are lost.

Mara Liasson has figured out that it is a “bad, bad landscape” for the Democrats.

I don’t suppose the Democrats have figured out that Robert Gibbs’s sneering demeanor and contempt for ordinary Americans are unattractive. They now want to make him the face of the Democratic Party. In a way, it’s appropriate.

David Aaron Miller has figured out that direct negotiations aren’t the key to peace in the Middle East, settlements aren’t the stumbling block to a peace deal, and pressuring Israel isn’t the way to get one either. What’s more, he says: “Arab-Israeli peace will not stabilize Afghanistan or facilitate an extrication of U.S. forces from there. It will not create a viable political contract among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It will not stop Iran from acquiring enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon. It will not force Arab states to respect human rights.” With apologies to the late and great Irving Kristol, I suppose a neocon is a peace processor who’s been mugged by reality.

By now, you’d think that ABC execs would have figured out what an unmitigated disaster Christiane Amanpour is as host of This Week.

Yuval Levin explains that once younger voters have fully figured out Obamanomics, they won’t be just apathetic; they’ll be angry. “[I]t is precisely younger Americans who should be most distressed by Obama’s agenda and governing choices as president: Their future is at stake, and they are on the losing end of his key policies. … The fact is that the implicit ideal of the left—the European-style social-democratic welfare state—is hostile to the young and to future generations. It prioritizes present benefits over future growth, present retirees over productive workers, and the present generation over those to come. No society can remain wealthy and strong with such distorted priorities.”

A sharp observer has figured out how to cut through the Palestinian-Israel impasse.

Someone else has figured out that George Mitchell was fibbing when he extolled all that progress in the non-peace talks. “What was your reaction last month when you heard how well the talks had gone between Israel and the ‘Palestinians’? Did you flinch? Did you snicker? Did you doubt the reports? Whatever your reaction was, I have what should be unsurprising news for you. The talks did not go well. … Five Israeli and foreign diplomats, who were briefed about the Netanyahu-Abbas meetings by one of the parties or by senior American officials, said prospects for progress in the talks remained gloomy, even if the construction crisis were solved.”

The AP has figured out that ObamaCare is a bust. “It’s a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s health care remake, a lifeline available right now to vulnerable people whose medical problems have made them uninsurable. But the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan started this summer isn’t living up to expectations. Enrollment lags in many parts of the country. People who could benefit may not be able to afford the premiums. Some state officials who run their own “high-risk pools” have pointed out potential problems.”

The Democrats have figured out that the Senate seats in North Dakota, Indiana, and Arkansas are lost.

Mara Liasson has figured out that it is a “bad, bad landscape” for the Democrats.

I don’t suppose the Democrats have figured out that Robert Gibbs’s sneering demeanor and contempt for ordinary Americans are unattractive. They now want to make him the face of the Democratic Party. In a way, it’s appropriate.

David Aaron Miller has figured out that direct negotiations aren’t the key to peace in the Middle East, settlements aren’t the stumbling block to a peace deal, and pressuring Israel isn’t the way to get one either. What’s more, he says: “Arab-Israeli peace will not stabilize Afghanistan or facilitate an extrication of U.S. forces from there. It will not create a viable political contract among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It will not stop Iran from acquiring enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon. It will not force Arab states to respect human rights.” With apologies to the late and great Irving Kristol, I suppose a neocon is a peace processor who’s been mugged by reality.

By now, you’d think that ABC execs would have figured out what an unmitigated disaster Christiane Amanpour is as host of This Week.

Yuval Levin explains that once younger voters have fully figured out Obamanomics, they won’t be just apathetic; they’ll be angry. “[I]t is precisely younger Americans who should be most distressed by Obama’s agenda and governing choices as president: Their future is at stake, and they are on the losing end of his key policies. … The fact is that the implicit ideal of the left—the European-style social-democratic welfare state—is hostile to the young and to future generations. It prioritizes present benefits over future growth, present retirees over productive workers, and the present generation over those to come. No society can remain wealthy and strong with such distorted priorities.”

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Where’s the Good Will?

Has Barack Obama lost the liberal elite? To hear Matt Damon tell it, yes. “I’m disappointed in the health care plan and in the troop buildup in Afghanistan. Everyone feels a little let down because, on some level, people expected all their problems to go away,” he said.

Matt Damon has problems? Sorry to hear it. He should get in touch with Nancy Pelosi. Next time she’s in front of a microphone pitching the government annexation of a fifth of the economy, she can relay the sad tale of Matt from Los Angeles, who needs this bill to pass immediately because the success of the Bourne franchise depends upon it. After all, the workaday folks at the center of the Democrats’ standard sob stories are now more fearful of — than desperate for — a health-care takeover. A majority of average Americans believe the federal government is so big it poses an immediate threat to their rights, so the Democrats are pretty much left with the Hollywood A-list as their support base. (Just imagine the procedures that will be covered by this health-care bill, should it pass.)

This is not a surprise. Progressivism is nothing if not the natural consequence of outsized prosperity. As Irving Kristol put it, “Those who benefit most from capitalism — and their children, especially — experience a withering away of the acquisitive impulse.”

Because progressives still want universal health care, they are, as Damon articulates, upset with Obama. He was supposed to make it happen. Left academia, like its showbiz counterpart, is disillusioned. The late Howard Zinn, weighing in at the Nation on Obama’s first year, suggested that “people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president — which means, in our time, a dangerous president — unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

Therein lies the progressives’ mistake. Obama’s direction has remained the same.  He’s still with them. His real problem is two-fold: he’s too incompetent and arrogant to make anything happen; and the country remains stubbornly Center-Right. What the Left considers some sort of ideological betrayal is really a combination of failed leadership strategy and the exceptional continuity of the American polity. Does Matt Damon really think the President is trying to intravenously force universal health care on an unwilling nation because he’s gone soft? Is the President watching his approval ratings and political capital nosedive because he’s a cynical compromiser?

After all Obama’s interregnum talk about how America was not a speedboat but an oceanliner whose course-changes required only incremental adjustments at the helm, he grabbed the wheel and plunged Left. In so doing, he sent the moderates and independents overboard. Whoever remains has been asked to walk the plank and let the captain take the ship into uncharted waters.

The policy traffic jam that has resulted has caused the pro-health-care crowd to declare America “ungovernable.” What they really mean is that America is undictatable. And they are deeply upset about it. Let’s not forget that Obama’s crestfallen celebrity groupies also constitute the Hollywood chapter of the Hugo Chavez fan club. The country doesn’t want universal health care? Well, what would Hugo do? For progressives, “ramming it through” is a far more noble process than all that messy checks-and-balances nonsense.

The Afghanistan complaint is even more baffling. The single unambiguous foreign-policy talking point of Obama’s campaign was that he planned to refocus the war effort on Afghanistan and Pakistan. If he failed to do that once in office, one could see how Damon and others who campaigned for Obama would be “disappointed.” But this is one of those rare political instances when an elected official has done exactly as promised during the campaign. Yet Michael Moore, who endorsed the “exceptional man” during the campaign, is now also “very disappointed” in Obama’s Afghanistan decision.

While the far-Left cries itself to sleep over the breakup with its soul mate, the rest of the country has come to its senses about what Obama really represented: a rebound relationship — a relationship in which, according to the gods of pop psychology, “you spend a significant amount of time focusing on your previous one.” Goodness knows we’ve done plenty of that.  What’s the problem in falling for Obama because he’s not George W. Bush? “The biggest danger of being in a rebound relationship is that you might commit to it when your partner really isn’t suitable for you. In any relationship in the early romantic stages there’s a danger that you’re going to think this is the best relationship you’ve ever had and you’ll want to commit too early.” As polls since last spring demonstrate: danger averted. And the truth is the Damons, Zinns, and Moores don’t know how good they have it.  If Obama had the nationwide support to institute the progressive policies they want, they’d first understand what disappointment really is.

Has Barack Obama lost the liberal elite? To hear Matt Damon tell it, yes. “I’m disappointed in the health care plan and in the troop buildup in Afghanistan. Everyone feels a little let down because, on some level, people expected all their problems to go away,” he said.

Matt Damon has problems? Sorry to hear it. He should get in touch with Nancy Pelosi. Next time she’s in front of a microphone pitching the government annexation of a fifth of the economy, she can relay the sad tale of Matt from Los Angeles, who needs this bill to pass immediately because the success of the Bourne franchise depends upon it. After all, the workaday folks at the center of the Democrats’ standard sob stories are now more fearful of — than desperate for — a health-care takeover. A majority of average Americans believe the federal government is so big it poses an immediate threat to their rights, so the Democrats are pretty much left with the Hollywood A-list as their support base. (Just imagine the procedures that will be covered by this health-care bill, should it pass.)

This is not a surprise. Progressivism is nothing if not the natural consequence of outsized prosperity. As Irving Kristol put it, “Those who benefit most from capitalism — and their children, especially — experience a withering away of the acquisitive impulse.”

Because progressives still want universal health care, they are, as Damon articulates, upset with Obama. He was supposed to make it happen. Left academia, like its showbiz counterpart, is disillusioned. The late Howard Zinn, weighing in at the Nation on Obama’s first year, suggested that “people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president — which means, in our time, a dangerous president — unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

Therein lies the progressives’ mistake. Obama’s direction has remained the same.  He’s still with them. His real problem is two-fold: he’s too incompetent and arrogant to make anything happen; and the country remains stubbornly Center-Right. What the Left considers some sort of ideological betrayal is really a combination of failed leadership strategy and the exceptional continuity of the American polity. Does Matt Damon really think the President is trying to intravenously force universal health care on an unwilling nation because he’s gone soft? Is the President watching his approval ratings and political capital nosedive because he’s a cynical compromiser?

After all Obama’s interregnum talk about how America was not a speedboat but an oceanliner whose course-changes required only incremental adjustments at the helm, he grabbed the wheel and plunged Left. In so doing, he sent the moderates and independents overboard. Whoever remains has been asked to walk the plank and let the captain take the ship into uncharted waters.

The policy traffic jam that has resulted has caused the pro-health-care crowd to declare America “ungovernable.” What they really mean is that America is undictatable. And they are deeply upset about it. Let’s not forget that Obama’s crestfallen celebrity groupies also constitute the Hollywood chapter of the Hugo Chavez fan club. The country doesn’t want universal health care? Well, what would Hugo do? For progressives, “ramming it through” is a far more noble process than all that messy checks-and-balances nonsense.

The Afghanistan complaint is even more baffling. The single unambiguous foreign-policy talking point of Obama’s campaign was that he planned to refocus the war effort on Afghanistan and Pakistan. If he failed to do that once in office, one could see how Damon and others who campaigned for Obama would be “disappointed.” But this is one of those rare political instances when an elected official has done exactly as promised during the campaign. Yet Michael Moore, who endorsed the “exceptional man” during the campaign, is now also “very disappointed” in Obama’s Afghanistan decision.

While the far-Left cries itself to sleep over the breakup with its soul mate, the rest of the country has come to its senses about what Obama really represented: a rebound relationship — a relationship in which, according to the gods of pop psychology, “you spend a significant amount of time focusing on your previous one.” Goodness knows we’ve done plenty of that.  What’s the problem in falling for Obama because he’s not George W. Bush? “The biggest danger of being in a rebound relationship is that you might commit to it when your partner really isn’t suitable for you. In any relationship in the early romantic stages there’s a danger that you’re going to think this is the best relationship you’ve ever had and you’ll want to commit too early.” As polls since last spring demonstrate: danger averted. And the truth is the Damons, Zinns, and Moores don’t know how good they have it.  If Obama had the nationwide support to institute the progressive policies they want, they’d first understand what disappointment really is.

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Crime Going Extinct?

In one of the more hopeful and underreported stories in recent months, we learned that for the first half of 2009 — a period of considerable economic distress in our country — crime fell by 4.4 percent nationwide, with the murder rate dropping by a staggering 10 percent, according to statistics recently released by the FBI (see links here and here). The decline in murders from one year to another is one of the more significant decreases we have ever experienced. (All four of the offenses that make up violent crime — murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — decreased nationwide. In addition to the murder rate declining by 10 percent, robbery also fell by 6.5 percent, forcible rape decreased by 3.3 percent, and aggravated assault declined by 3.2 percent.)

In disaggregating this data, we see that violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities of over 1 million residents, dropping by 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Crime in America’s largest city, New York, has fallen by 11 percent from last year and by 35 percent since 2001. New York, with 461 murders through December 27, is on track for the lowest number of homicides since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963.

In Los Angeles the murder rate for the first half of 2009 was down by almost 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., the murder rate fell by 26 percent from a comparable period last year, to its lowest in the last two decades. The first half of 2009 also witnessed a 14 percent decrease in homicides in Atlanta and a 10 percent drop in Boston. (It should be pointed out that some cities, like Baltimore and Detroit, saw their murder rate climb.)

The Washington Post summarized things well in its January 2 editorial:

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence — then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this “Great Crime Decline” could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

The reasons for the drop we have witnessed in violent crime since the 1990s are multiple, probably including higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing; advances in policing (including targeting repeat offenders and high-crime areas, utilizing technology such as crime mapping and gunfire-detection systems, which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents, and identifying criminal patterns more effectively); the passing of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the aging of the population; an enormous investment in private security measures; a proliferation of surveillance cameras; more effective intervention and prevention; and more.

It is impossible to ascribe with precision the exact reasons that have led to the progress we have witnessed; they vary depending on cities and circumstances. But the moral of the story is clear enough: problems that at one time seemed intractable can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Fatalism and despair are not options. And the capacity of American ingenuity to address the challenges we face is remarkable. As Irving Kristol put it more than three decades ago, “One of the least appreciated virtues of this society is its natural recuperative powers — its capacity to change, as we say, but also its capacity to preserve itself, to adapt and survive. The strength of these powers always astonishes us, as we anticipate (even proclaim) an imminent apocalypse that somehow never comes.”

It is not terribly fashionable to focus on the progress we experience, whether it has to do with a drop in violent crime rates here at home or a more pacified situation in Iraq. We are prone to focus our attention on the problems we face and the things that are going wrong. But sometimes, to paraphrase James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, cheerfulness does break in.

In one of the more hopeful and underreported stories in recent months, we learned that for the first half of 2009 — a period of considerable economic distress in our country — crime fell by 4.4 percent nationwide, with the murder rate dropping by a staggering 10 percent, according to statistics recently released by the FBI (see links here and here). The decline in murders from one year to another is one of the more significant decreases we have ever experienced. (All four of the offenses that make up violent crime — murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — decreased nationwide. In addition to the murder rate declining by 10 percent, robbery also fell by 6.5 percent, forcible rape decreased by 3.3 percent, and aggravated assault declined by 3.2 percent.)

In disaggregating this data, we see that violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities of over 1 million residents, dropping by 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Crime in America’s largest city, New York, has fallen by 11 percent from last year and by 35 percent since 2001. New York, with 461 murders through December 27, is on track for the lowest number of homicides since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963.

In Los Angeles the murder rate for the first half of 2009 was down by almost 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., the murder rate fell by 26 percent from a comparable period last year, to its lowest in the last two decades. The first half of 2009 also witnessed a 14 percent decrease in homicides in Atlanta and a 10 percent drop in Boston. (It should be pointed out that some cities, like Baltimore and Detroit, saw their murder rate climb.)

The Washington Post summarized things well in its January 2 editorial:

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence — then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this “Great Crime Decline” could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

The reasons for the drop we have witnessed in violent crime since the 1990s are multiple, probably including higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing; advances in policing (including targeting repeat offenders and high-crime areas, utilizing technology such as crime mapping and gunfire-detection systems, which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents, and identifying criminal patterns more effectively); the passing of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the aging of the population; an enormous investment in private security measures; a proliferation of surveillance cameras; more effective intervention and prevention; and more.

It is impossible to ascribe with precision the exact reasons that have led to the progress we have witnessed; they vary depending on cities and circumstances. But the moral of the story is clear enough: problems that at one time seemed intractable can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Fatalism and despair are not options. And the capacity of American ingenuity to address the challenges we face is remarkable. As Irving Kristol put it more than three decades ago, “One of the least appreciated virtues of this society is its natural recuperative powers — its capacity to change, as we say, but also its capacity to preserve itself, to adapt and survive. The strength of these powers always astonishes us, as we anticipate (even proclaim) an imminent apocalypse that somehow never comes.”

It is not terribly fashionable to focus on the progress we experience, whether it has to do with a drop in violent crime rates here at home or a more pacified situation in Iraq. We are prone to focus our attention on the problems we face and the things that are going wrong. But sometimes, to paraphrase James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, cheerfulness does break in.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

What comes from a commander in chief who sends mixed messages? “Nearly a month after Obama unveiled his revised Afghanistan strategy, military and civilian leaders have come away with differing views of several fundamental aspects of the president’s new approach, according to more than a dozen senior administration and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.”

Matthew Continetti: “There really are two Americas. There’s the America of the ‘expert’ schemers, planners, and centralizers inside the Beltway, who think they know what’s good for the people, whether the people like it or not. And there’s the America of just about everyone else. They are no doubt the ones Irving Kristol had in mind when he wrote, ‘The common people in such a democracy are not uncommonly wise, but their experience tends to make them uncommonly sensible.’” It is a good thing indeed that there are more of the latter.

David Axelrod says we will learn to love ObamaCare: “When people focus on what this bill is and not what it isn’t and recognize what an enormous landmark achievement it is, progressive achievement, you’ll see folks rallying around this and not running away from it.” Notice how they assume the public will be awed by the “landmark” quality of the bill. That’s how politicians think; ordinary people tend to focus on what legislation is actually going to do for or to them.

The Washington Post editors blast the Obami’s human-rights policy, seeking to mix economic progress with fundamental rights as “standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc, which used to argue at every East-West conference that human rights in Czechoslovakia were superior to those in the United States, because one provided government health care that the other lacked.” Ouch. The editors rightly condemn this as a sly effort to downplay democracy, especially in the Middle East: “If the Obama administration believes that liberty is urgently needed in the homelands of al-Qaeda, Ms. Clinton still has offered no sign of it.”

Yes, in the end, all Democrats on health-care “reform” turned out to be liberals in favor of a big government power grab: “We trust voters in Nebraska, Louisiana, Indiana, Virginia and elsewhere noticed that these votes ultimately ensured the passage of a bill that will increase insurance costs, retard medical innovation and sorely damage the country’s fiscal position.” Judging from the polls, I think they are noticing.

Looks like our fellow citizens are our best defense: “Despite the billions spent since 2001 on intelligence and counterterrorism programs, sophisticated airport scanners and elaborate watch lists, it was something simpler that averted disaster on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit: alert and courageous passengers and crew members.”

New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau on the Obami’s Iran engagement policy: “The president is smoking pot or something if he thinks that being nice to these guys is going to get him anywhere.”

Respected legal scholar Randy Barnett makes the argument that the individual mandate to buy health insurance is unconstitutional: “A mandate requiring all individuals to purchase health insurance would be an unprecedented form of federal action. The government has never required people to buy any good or service as a condition of lawful residence in the United States. . . First, it would impose a duty on individuals as members of society. Second, it would require people to purchase a specific service that would be heavily regulated by the federal government.” And if not unconstitutional, it is at the very least, enormously objectionable to a great number of Americans on both the Right and the Left.

What comes from a commander in chief who sends mixed messages? “Nearly a month after Obama unveiled his revised Afghanistan strategy, military and civilian leaders have come away with differing views of several fundamental aspects of the president’s new approach, according to more than a dozen senior administration and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.”

Matthew Continetti: “There really are two Americas. There’s the America of the ‘expert’ schemers, planners, and centralizers inside the Beltway, who think they know what’s good for the people, whether the people like it or not. And there’s the America of just about everyone else. They are no doubt the ones Irving Kristol had in mind when he wrote, ‘The common people in such a democracy are not uncommonly wise, but their experience tends to make them uncommonly sensible.’” It is a good thing indeed that there are more of the latter.

David Axelrod says we will learn to love ObamaCare: “When people focus on what this bill is and not what it isn’t and recognize what an enormous landmark achievement it is, progressive achievement, you’ll see folks rallying around this and not running away from it.” Notice how they assume the public will be awed by the “landmark” quality of the bill. That’s how politicians think; ordinary people tend to focus on what legislation is actually going to do for or to them.

The Washington Post editors blast the Obami’s human-rights policy, seeking to mix economic progress with fundamental rights as “standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc, which used to argue at every East-West conference that human rights in Czechoslovakia were superior to those in the United States, because one provided government health care that the other lacked.” Ouch. The editors rightly condemn this as a sly effort to downplay democracy, especially in the Middle East: “If the Obama administration believes that liberty is urgently needed in the homelands of al-Qaeda, Ms. Clinton still has offered no sign of it.”

Yes, in the end, all Democrats on health-care “reform” turned out to be liberals in favor of a big government power grab: “We trust voters in Nebraska, Louisiana, Indiana, Virginia and elsewhere noticed that these votes ultimately ensured the passage of a bill that will increase insurance costs, retard medical innovation and sorely damage the country’s fiscal position.” Judging from the polls, I think they are noticing.

Looks like our fellow citizens are our best defense: “Despite the billions spent since 2001 on intelligence and counterterrorism programs, sophisticated airport scanners and elaborate watch lists, it was something simpler that averted disaster on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit: alert and courageous passengers and crew members.”

New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau on the Obami’s Iran engagement policy: “The president is smoking pot or something if he thinks that being nice to these guys is going to get him anywhere.”

Respected legal scholar Randy Barnett makes the argument that the individual mandate to buy health insurance is unconstitutional: “A mandate requiring all individuals to purchase health insurance would be an unprecedented form of federal action. The government has never required people to buy any good or service as a condition of lawful residence in the United States. . . First, it would impose a duty on individuals as members of society. Second, it would require people to purchase a specific service that would be heavily regulated by the federal government.” And if not unconstitutional, it is at the very least, enormously objectionable to a great number of Americans on both the Right and the Left.

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Weekend Reading

One of COMMENTARY’s signature forms is the written symposium: a convocation of intellectuals drawn from all realms of human knowledge—critics, scholars, artists, philosophers, political scientists—and asked to comment on questions of great public import. The magazine has played host to a number of these throughout its history; today we want to offer you one of the most valuable—and one of those lying closest to COMMENTARY’s philosophical purpose. What Is a Liberal, Who Is a Conservative? was published in September 1976. Today, it remains one of the most intensive and illuminating examinations of a question that has beset American politics for the better part of a century—a question that has only regained significance in recent months. The list of participants includes Robert L. Bartley, Midge Decter, Eugene Genovese, Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Richard John Neuhaus, Edward Shils, Thomas Sowell, James Q. Wilson, Tom Wolfe, and many, many more. Enjoy.

One of COMMENTARY’s signature forms is the written symposium: a convocation of intellectuals drawn from all realms of human knowledge—critics, scholars, artists, philosophers, political scientists—and asked to comment on questions of great public import. The magazine has played host to a number of these throughout its history; today we want to offer you one of the most valuable—and one of those lying closest to COMMENTARY’s philosophical purpose. What Is a Liberal, Who Is a Conservative? was published in September 1976. Today, it remains one of the most intensive and illuminating examinations of a question that has beset American politics for the better part of a century—a question that has only regained significance in recent months. The list of participants includes Robert L. Bartley, Midge Decter, Eugene Genovese, Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Richard John Neuhaus, Edward Shils, Thomas Sowell, James Q. Wilson, Tom Wolfe, and many, many more. Enjoy.

Read Less




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