A few years ago, when I was first publicly called a neoconservative, I had only a vague notion of what it was. Yes, I had heard they were former lefties, some Trotskyites or Trotskyists (another distinction that continues to confuse me), who had switched over to the conservative side and that they favored the promotion of democracy by militant means, when necessary. But that was about it.
At that point I tried reading a bit of the supposed founding father of the neocons, Leo Strauss, but found him heavy going. Maybe you had to have been there. (University of Chicago circa 1952). In any case, I was not excited to be identified with them. If there was one thing I loathed being called, it was “conservative,” neo, paleo or any other kind. This was not my self-image from the time I bought my first copy of Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” somewhere around its release in February 1957. I was thirteen then and eager to try my first marijuana cigarette. You get the picture – being “conservative” was not my thing.
Still, I had been categorized. But it wasn’t until quite recently when I read Joshua Muravchik’s fine essay “The Past, Present and Future of Neoconservatism” that – despite actually knowing several people regarded as leaders of the movement – I got a simple, clear picture of what neoconservatism was. According to Muravchik, it was divided into two schools: one, via Irving Kristol, centering on a reexamination of the welfare state and the other, led by Norman Podhoretz, focusing on winning the Cold War and now the War on Terror through that democracy promotion.
My chief interest has always been in the latter and I find it ironic the same high school me who was gobbling up “Birth of the Cool” was a devoted reader of Commentary, the magazine Podhoretz then edited and where Muravchik’s essay now appears. Commentary was to me in those times just another part of my adolescent self-definition, like wearing a beret and turtleneck, listening to Mulligan and Monk and going to beatnik poetry readings in the Village. I didn’t know I was in the hands of the neocons. They just sounded smart and wrote well.
Those “Cool-School” days were a half decade before many things changed in our society with the advent of the civil rights movement (by far the left’s finest hour) and the anti-Vietnam war movement, both of which I participated in heavily. (I never questioned the latter for many years and even now hold much ambivalence about it.)
So I am a typical product of my generation. I apologize for taking so long to get to my point about “Why They Hate the Neocons,” but this is a Just So Story of a sort, as in “How the Neocons Got Their Trunk”, so please be patient because this is where it begins to intersect.
As is well known, by the end of the Vietnam War, many of us came to the conclusion there was something seriously wrong with America, largely ignoring the obvious that there will be something wrong with all societies since they are composed of fallible humans. We were the big guys and we were therefore at the greatest fault. And one of the clearest areas of our villainy was that we supported or tolerated right wing dictators like Pinochet, Somoza, the Arab potentates, etc.
Although I didn’t fully realize it then – I considered myself at that point aligned with the New Left – the neocons agreed with that position. They pointed out, however, that in addition, opposition to leftist dictators in China, the Soviet Union and Cuba was justified. Their position against totalitarianism was consistent. Mine, and my friends, was not. We gave a pass to Fidel and company.
Perhaps it was that I got to visit the People’s Republic of China quite early (1979) and later Cuba and the Soviet Union (twice) on cultural exchanges that I began to see those countries as gigantic jails. Still, I lived in a curious twilight zone where many in my generation found themselves, sympathizing, in principle, with the egalitarian socialist ideal while encouraging, even helping, writers and other dissidents to escape those societies. Hello, cognitive dissonance. It was all part of who we were – the way we were, if you will. My trips behind the Iron Curtain were considered “groovy” in Hollywood, where I worked. They gave me panache. We were light years beyond the Blacklist.
And then something happened. Eastern Europe started breaking away from the communist world and the Soviet Union fell. Never mind that the reviled Reagan may have had some responsibility, everyone – or at least most everyone – rejoiced. And it wasn’t just a totalitarian system that was dissolving, socialism as an economic system lay in tatters. To call it “scientific” was laughable.
The Left was left with little to do, little to organize around. (Bill Clinton, recognizing this, essentially deserted his own side by walking back on welfare issues). Of course, there were gay rights to be resolved, but the rapidity with which most of those rights were achieved is astonishing. It has been less than forty years since the Stonewall Riots to the general societal equality of gays on nearly everything but the marriage issue. The Left was the victim of its own deserved success in the social justice area when…
The US suddenly had a common Islamofascist enemy. Something had to be done. But there were no philosophical underpinnings for the confrontation, no groundwork. This was a whole new world. Only one group had been consistently warning of this situation all along – the neoconservatives. And they had a solution – democracy promotion – the elimination of Middle Eastern despots. They would be our gurus.
Soon enough, it appeared the neocons had taken over the government and Bush and Cheney were acting in their behest. As Muravchik points out, since neocon policies were then the clearest common sense response, it’s unlikely B & C needed this prompting, but nevertheless the popular media view is that they were in the neocons’ grip.
So in those slow motion moments when the 767s crashed into the World Trade Center everything switched around. The cool guys in school were no longer the cool guys. One clique – the leftie, hippie into yuppie, liberal media and showbiz alliance – moved out. Some semi-stodgy ex-Scoop Jackson policy wonks moved in.
Idealism had been stolen from the Left. (In truth, as I indicated, they didn’t have much remaining, but that probably made it all the worse.)
This constituted an insult (in the medical and other senses) to a lot of people’s self-images. The neocons were to be hated because they had stolen that idealism. In a sense, they had stolen those same people’s youths. For a very short period, Abbie Hoffman had morphed into Paul Wolfowitz. The neocons were to be envied then. And no doubt they were.
This was indeed a short period because such a deep insult cannot easily be tolerated. The depth of the hatred it evinced is evidenced in the unimaginative lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Neo Con“: You call yourself a Christian/I think that you’re a hypocrite/You say you are a patriot/I think that you’re a crock of shit. Forget that Mick and Keith chose to overlook (or were even unaware) that neocons are normally assumed to be Jewish, their principle point seems to be that all this democracy idealism is bogus. The war is really about corporate greed and we know it. The song contains the usual casual references to Halliburton and Brown & Root, as if it were written on the john while skimming Newsweek and swigging a bottle of Guinness.
But reducing the Iraq War to mere profiteering is unfair reductionism and I wonder if, at other moments, the Stones really believe what they wrote, unless the “Street Fighting Men” have suddenly turned into pacifists in which all wars, including World War II, are not worth fighting, since all wars have profiteers. And whether the particular companies they enumerate are indeed profiteering is open to question. Some say they are having financial difficulties from participating. Moreover, you don’t need to read Victor Davis Hanson’s recent report from Iraq to know that most of our soldiers and even many of our leaders were and are engaged in what is to them an idealistic enterprise. Whether it was the right idealistic enterprise is subject to debate, but the basic impulse of these people – our soldiers and those leaders – should not be. It is the converse of calling someone a traitor for criticizing policy.
So why the anger? Why the willed distortion? Jagger and Richards were of course far from the only ones. You could find this kind of hostile schoolboy name-calling in a Frank Rich column in the New York Times and a Keith Olbermann screed on MSNBC, to name just two of thousands. The attacks began even before the war in Afghanistan, but by the time we were in Iraq, it was a cacophony.
Somebody’s ox had been gored. Idealism is the good guy’s province. When your idealism has been stolen, you are no longer the good guy. You are the bad member of the family. No one wants to be that – a loss of love is involved. But what do you do?
One thing you do is to try desperately to retrieve the moral high ground. Two approaches to this have been employed: running down your competition (in this case saying his project has failed and trying to ensure that it does) and building up your own alternative. This, in part, accounts for the rise of the Global Warming issue as religion. A societal consensus had long been reached on environmental and energy concerns. Conservation and alternative energy promotion were considered to be good things, but now allegiance to them crosses the bounds of science into the devotional sphere. You are on one team or you are on the other team. You are either with us or against us… whoever us is.
From all this we are in a terrible pass and I think many of us feel it. I know I do. We have come to a point where, because the psychological-emotional-personal stakes are so elevated, we routinely deny the other. On both sides of the ideological divide where idealism is so deeply fought over, we refuse to acknowledge our opponents’ humanity – that they, no matter which side they are on, can come from a place of wanting the best for people.
I know I have suffered from that and, I am ashamed to say, have responded in kind on occasion, sometimes also unfairly. Where we go from here in this battle I don’t know. But have some sympathy for the neocons. They may be under attack currently, but if we do actually win in Iraq, as now seems a possibility, for them there will be Hell to pay.
Roger L. Simon is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, novelist and blogger.