Roger’s Rules

Irving Kristol, 1920-2009

I just heard the sad news that Irving Kristol, “the godfather of Neoconservatism,” died today. I will have more to say about this remarkable man elsewhere, but I wanted to take a moment now to register my sorrow at the passing of a friend whom I greatly admired and a man whose intellectual labors did so much to preserve and nurture the vital traditions of American conservatism. Irving was a man of remarkable literary and political judgment. He was also a draught of good cheer. I never saw him without a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He positively radiated benignity.

Editor, essayist, instigator of numberless intellectual initiatives (including The New Criterion, which Irving helped to start), he possessed in a very high degree two complementary gifts. He had an uncanny knack for ferreting out talent in others. He was a superb editor, by which I do not just mean that he was a dab hand at strengthening your prose, but also–a much rarer gift — that he was a dab hand at strengthening your ideas. He instantly saw what was at stake in a controversy or battle of ideas, and he’d quietly, cheerfully help his writers seize that golden core.

That instinct for the pertinent was something his own writing exhibited with unfailing clarity. Most of Irving’s essays were quite short — an exception was a superlative, and lengthy, reflection on Tacitus and nihilism first published in Encounter, the English monthly that Irving edited in the 1950s with Stephen Spender. His favored form, though, was the literary surgical strike. Irving could pack an extraordinary amount in 1200 – 1500 words. Whether the topic was the welfare state, foreign policy, the totalitarian temptation, or the terrible legacy of the 1960s, Irving always articulated exactly what was at stake in the subject under discussion. He was a practical man, consummately attuned to what, for lack of a more elegant term, I will call the “policy implications” of ideas. But he saw with unusual perspicacity that ideas mattered. In a 1973 essay called “On Capitalism and the Democratic Idea,” he put it thus:

For two centuries, the very important people who managed the affairs of this society could not believe in the importance of ideas — until one day they were shocked to discover that their children, having been captured and shaped by certain ideas, were either rebelling against their authority or seceding from their society. The truth is that ideas are all-important. The massive and seemingly solid institutions of any society — the economic institutions, the political institutions, the religious institutions — are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions. The leverage of ideas is so immense that a slight change in the intellectual climate can and will — perhaps slowly but nevertheless inexorably — twist a familiar institution into an unrecognizable shape.

Well put, is it not? And how often we need to remind ourselves of that weighty moral.

Probably Irving’s most frequently quoted mot concerned neoconservatism, the intellectual-political movement with which he is indelibly identified. “A neo-conservative,” he said, “is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” That was the great gift Irving gave to his, to our, generation: an unforgettable reminder that ideas mattered because of the realities they nurtured or discouraged. He saw with a kindly but unflinching clarity what mischief the seductive lullabies of utopian fantasy had prepared for its acolytes. His passing is a sad loss not only to conservatives to but also to the nation: those eloquent reminders seem fewer and farther between these days, yet are ever more needful. RIP.