Reading the Weekly Standard reader

In the introduction to The Weekly Standard: A Reader: 1995-2005, Bill Kristol announces that in his selection he attempts to communicate the magazine’s “essential history and its spirit.” Judged by this standard, Kristol, editor of the magazine, has succeeded. This collection does the job admirably. Alternately brilliant and maddening, hungry for blood and glory, funny, obsessed with Israel, provocative and snide, the book, like the Weekly Standard itself, swerves between jocularity and sanctimony with the invincible confidence of a drunk driver.

The best pieces are true gems of magazine writing. Tucker Carlson’s John McCain campaign travel journal shows his prodigious talent at writing cheeky WASP-on-the-wall reports. Christopher Caldwell, a refugee from the formerly defunct American Spectator, would be a credit to any publication. Then there is Andrew Ferguson, whose contributions do the most to recommend both this book and a subscription to the magazine. He lifts up a slighted George Washington with his right hand, casts down an over-revered Edward R. Murrow and broadcast journalism with his left. Then there is the rest of the lot.

The book is divided into five sections: Appreciations (obits), Politics and Society, Peace and War at Home and Abroad, Books and Arts, and Miniatures — a collection of the short, eccentric essays for which the Standard is frequently applauded. Where are domestic politics in this? The section Politics and Society deals with only one wonky domestic policy issue — estate taxes (they’re for them). Other than that, there is an odd collection of instant hagiography (Karl Rove and Rudolph Guliani), pseudo-political issues like suburban sprawl (for it), and hairless man-chests (thankfully against them), and some harmless Canada bashing by Matt Labash.

The Books and Arts section is varied and surprising. John Podhoretz opens the section with an insightful essay about the decaying corpse of Broadway theatre. And Joseph Bottum does an excellent job parsing the poetic career of Robert Lowell, “America’s Last Public Poet.” In her review of Trilling, Gertrude Himmelfarb exhibits a bit of nostalgia for the Trotskyite glory days before neo-conservatives became “conservative,” when they read radical publications like Partisan Review. Bob Dylan receives treatment from Christopher Hitchens, another big-fish ex-Trotskyite hooked by the Standard.

Of course war, rather, WAR! is the calling card neoconservatives have been dealing to dinner guests over the past decade. For neoconservatives, war reduces everyone to one of three categories: democratic revolutionaries, evil, or Neville Chamberlain (also evil). Compelling reading perhaps, but a little pat. Peace makes a cameo brief enough to be denounced and shoved offstage. Name an intervention and I’ll show you the preponderance of neoconservatives were for it, and said so. Helping the KLA in Bosnia? –Yes. Oust Saddam? On record since 1997 (see page 218). For further reading and targets, see Present Dangers (1999) and An End to Evil (2003).

Most perverse among the war essays (and it was a strong field) is David Gelertner’s “The Holocaust Shrug.” The catalogue of Saddam’s crimes and the fact that we could stop him from committing them is argument enough for intervention. To not exult in our victory is morally equivalent to shrugging at the Holocaust. What is one to say about Gelertner, who talks about the morality of the war in Iraq ignoring entirely the predicted chaos that followed? But Gelertner presses on into theology. The Holocaust has put man “under a cloud of sin and shame” and America’s war in Iraq may be “the largest step” ever taken toward the “act of selfless national goodness that might fix the broken moral balance of the cosmos.” I would love Gelertner to explain this blasphemous formulation to an American soldier. Not for your nation’s defense do you fight and die in the sun-scorched desert, but rather to redeem history from Hitler. Thanks.

He’s certainly not alone in giving woolly justifications for shedding the blood of non-democrats. David Brooks dismisses the left’s admittedly confused hesitations about the war: “Almost nobody in the peace camp will stand up and say that Saddam Hussein is not a fundamental problem for the world.” This is the abstruse language to which neoconservatives frequently retreat when justifying the workaday details of “benevolent global hegemony.” Reuel Marc Gerecht jostles at the imperial elbow, “Are we a great power or not?” Intervention in Bosnia is not about justice, or even bald national interest but rather “a yea or nay question concerning America’s continued engagement with the rest of the world.” Whatever that means.

This is the result of separating America’s foreign policy from the American nation as it is — a place and a polity which is ours to love, enjoy and yes, defend. To neoconservatives America is a nation “whose identity is ideological like the Soviet Union of yesteryear” (Irving Kristol, page 168). Troops aren’t for defending a nation — they are for spreading ideas — Napoleon style.

You won’t find the watchwords of traditional conservatism anywhere in The Weekly Standard Reader other than a single reference to America’s “patrimony” uttered by Ferguson (of course). Words like “tradition,” “particularity,” “localism,” and other bread and butter subjects of conservative pamphleteering are conspicuously absent. But that is because, they admit, neo-conservatism’s “historical task and political purpose is to convert the Republican party and American conservatism in general against their wills [always against their wills] into a new kind of conservative politics. . .” Twice in this collection, neo-conservatism is contrasted with the traditional conservatism of Russell Kirk. Neo-conservatism is optimistic and ambitious (Jeffrey Bell) and comfortable with modernity (Irving Kristol). Kirk and traditional conservatives are “nostalgic” Tories, “pessimistic” and “quasi aristocratic.”

These generalities don’t say much. The pessimism of traditional conservatives was directed at ideologues, politicians, and the Leviathan state. Neo-conservatism is optimistic about the ambitious — democratic crusades and the politicians who lead them. What is the pessimism of the paleos regarding the depredations of Washington compared to the relished apocalypticism of neo-conservative foreign policy?

The Weekly Standard has been, as the Vanity Fair jacket blurb asserts, “the capital’s most influential journal of opinion.” It has seen neo-conservatism emerge from relative obscurity to national prominence — no mean feat. With Rupert Murdoch showing no fatigue in investing millions each year in this “Beltway publication,” it is probable the Standard will shepherd neo-conservatism through an inevitable backlash. The original neo-conservatives, disillusioned with the New Left and the failure of the Great Society, turned to the Right. If “democratic revolution” fails to take hold in Iraq, if the people grow tired of “big government Conservatism” (Barnes) or “national greatness Conservatism” (Brooks), if Fukuyama’s recent dissent is a sign of the future — will the neo-conservatives find another ideological niche? I’m not the only one wondering where these ideological nomads will travel in their next ten years.

Michael Brendan Dougherty writes from New York and keeps his weblog, Surfeited by Dainties, at www.michaelbrendan.com.

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