Wither conservatism? Not necessarily.
So much original and illuminating analysis is being written about the death of intellectual conservatism that it’s easy to overlook a simple fact: The opposition is a good, safe place to be right now. It seems that no president, regardless of his gifts, will be able to ride this domestic and foreign tiger without experiencing hugely exploitable failures. His inevitable setbacks will consecrate any idea that feasts on them.
In Commentary’s apocalyptic neediness, a raving lunatic like Ahmadinejad has the weird status of both hated demon and welcome “frequent contributor.”
Then, too, opposition tends to focus the marginalized mind, undistracted as it is by the chastening realities of power. The father of modern conservatism, Russell Kirk, gestated his influential book, The Conservative Mind, during the long Democratic reign from 1933 to 1953. The neoconservatives, picking up where Kirk left off, cut their adversarial teeth on Johnson’s Great Society, on the countercultural triumph under Nixon, and on Carter’s foreign policy. Obama’s Reformation could well be the dawn of a conservative Renaissance.
So are conservative intellectuals, in fact, on the brink of a surge, rather than tottering at the edge of extinction?
Not if the current issue of Commentary magazine is any guide. Long the flagship of the neoconservative movement, Commentary itself is in the throes of change, having just published the first issue under its new editor, John Podhoretz. Founded in 1945, Commentary is the oldest of the country’s four most-influential conservative journals, the other three being The National Review, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard—though Commentary didn’t actually become conservative until the late 1960s. It has the most distinguished history, too, including among its contributors the likes of Hannah Arendt, Sidney Hook, Gershom Scholem, Norman Mailer, Lionel Trilling, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell—and its most legendary editor, and father of the current helmsman, Norman Podhoretz. In its left, liberal, and conservative stages, Commentary has often been a stellar, even thrilling, read.
Yet the magazine has always been both buoyed and burdened by its origins. It was started by the American Jewish Committee in the shadow of the Holocaust. That is to say, it was started in an apocalyptic state of mind. But different times require fresh perspectives, and especially after Bush’s various fiascos, the last thing conservatism needs is to find itself in an even deeper intellectual rut than it has been stuck in during recent years. Unfortunately, for all John Podhoretz’s attempts at clarifying his magazine’s purpose in a new era, his debut issue reads like a case study in conservative stasis and dysfunction.
In his editor’s note, Podhoretz quotes from a mission statement that Eliot E. Cohen, the magazine’s founder and first editor, published in Commentary’s inaugural issue: “In the search for light on the basic issues of peace and freedom and human destiny which challenge all mankind,” Cohen wrote, “Commentary hopes to be of service.” Podhoretz excitedly continues, quoting snatches from Cohen:
Cohen was writing only weeks after the surrender of Japan, when the world was still reeling from the destructive power of the atom bomb and the haunting possibility that now a “single blow” could “end the human race.” Worse still was the inescapable fact of the Holocaust, with its revelation of an evil “force that, in the political and social scene, can wreak destruction comparable to the atom bomb itself.”
Cohen, Podhoretz concludes, conceived of Commentary as an “‘act of affirmation’” in what Podhoretz calls “the process of intellection itself.” And the caretakers of this precious process were, specifically, the magazine’s Jewish publishers and readers. As Cohen put it: “we who, after all these centuries, remain, in spite of all temptation, the people of the Book. We believe in the Word. We believe in study—as a guide to life, for the wisdom it brings to the counsels of men, and for its own sake.”
It’s understandable that such a haunted mentality should have dominated a serious intellectual journal at a time when the Holocaust’s ovens were still burning in people’s stunned imaginations, and when the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki had barely dissipated. It would have been frivolous not to take on, again and again, issues of peace, freedom, and human destiny.
And it was only natural that American Jews, who had seen their European kin nearly vanish from the face of the earth, should have sought to reaffirm their identity, even by reasserting their historical specialness.
But as apocalypse receded into memory, Commentary would not let apocalypse go. If an essay was not animated by “the basic issues of peace and freedom and human destiny which challenge all mankind,” the Commentary crowd considered the writer to be playing for trivially low stakes.
So the Cold War became elevated in Commentary’s pages to Armageddon, the multicultural debate in the 1990s was transmogrified into a Day of Reckoning for civilized values, and the attacks on September 11 were—forgive the sarcasm—an absolute godsend. During historical lulls here and there, the editors could always resort to the hardy perennials of the Destructive 60s, and the Wasteful/Paternalistic/Socialistic/Deviancy-Challenged Liberals.
What steroids are to athletes, historical crisis became to Commentary. This type of adrenalin-publishing worked in the hands of writers who could, as John Podhoretz puts it, create a “carefully crafted and highly nuanced argument that seeks to engage the reader not viscerally but intellectually, not by provoking unreasoning anger but by stimulating sober reflection.” But lacking a Daniel Bell or an Irving Kristol or a Gertrude Himmelfarb at her best, a Commentary essay that tried for nuance and detachment got editorially accelerated into the thrill of emergency.
That “visceral” tendency has now become so entrenched at the magazine that you wonder whether Podhoretz’s declared disdain for “unreasoning” anger is not an unconscious tribute to it.
His debut issue has got to be the only published venue in America where “alarm” is spelled “alarum,” as if this word were so sacred to the editors that it had to be conveyed into print like an untouched relic from the past. Visitors to Commentary’s website are promised an article that will show how “Israel's incursion into Gaza raises new alarums about the ultimate goal of the Iran-Hamas alliance.”
As for the article itself, you can forget about carefully crafted nuances like a consideration of the way Israel’s aggression might have strengthened Hamas’s hand in the past, or of the possibility that Ahmadinejad’s bluster has no credibility among large segments of the Iranian population. The article builds with a kind of masochistic pleasure to an explicit statement of the obsession behind it: “Iran’s dogged determination to see Israel (in the phrase of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) ‘wiped off the face of the earth.’” In Commentary’s apocalyptic neediness, a raving lunatic like Ahmadinejad has the weird status of both hated demon and welcome “frequent contributor.”
And so it goes, from article to article. An essay about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai careens from point to point until it ends, so to speak, on its apocalyptic premise: “India has had its day of reckoning,” which will force the United States into a medieval choice between India and “the devil it knows in Pakistan.”
An essay that promises to divulge “the meaning of Sarah Palin” plummets from accurate observation—“the Republican party has been the party of cultural populism and economic elitism, and the Democrats have been the party of cultural elitism and economic populism”—to Commentary boilerplate—Palin’s failure as a candidate was due to “deep and intense cultural paranoia on the Left”—to the most peculiar defense of Palin’s intelligence I have read: “Palin never actually boasted of ignorance.”
What’s more, Palin’s “inability in interviews to offer coherent answers about the Bush Doctrine, regulatory reform, and the Supreme Court’s case history, together with her unexceptional academic record and the fact that she had spent almost no time abroad” are not regarded as problems by this writer because they raised an “alarum” in every person possessed of common sense. No, the real problem with these startling deficiencies was that they offended the snobbish “American cultural elite,” as if ignorance and stupidity were not qualities of character but a pair of orthopedic shoes.
The essay’s conclusion could well be the splintered product of the new editor’s descending hand. After provocatively venturing that Palin’s cultural populism illustrated “the ultimate inadequacy of a conservatism grounded solely in cultural populism,” the writer does a Galilean about-face and concludes that the root cause of Palin’s flameout was “the unfortunate and unattractive propensity of the American cultural elite to treat those who are not deemed part of the elect with condescension and contumely.” Yes, contumely.
As former addicts know, patterns of behavior can take a lifetime to change. The strongest reality is helpless before a habit of mind shaped by an irresistible need. For the current Commentary regime, Christopher Hitchens is still “left-leaning.” An article lamenting the large Jewish vote for Obama concedes that only “8 percent” of Jewish voters cared about Israel as a campaign issue, and then goes on to assert—with that same mechanical about-face—that Obama won the Jewish vote because he “spun” and “blurred” the question of his support for Israel.
You could argue that there are two types of Jewish intellectuals left: the Mosaic and the Freudian. The former mistake their obsessions for principles, while the latter are more likely to examine their certitudes in the light of their personal qualities. The Freudians are often considered weak by the Mosaics, but one mark of intellectual maturity is to realize that at a certain point, pursuing your aversions is really a way of chasing your demons. That’s the time to stop trying to be right, and to start trying to be happy (a hated word for the Mosaics).
So when John Podhoretz writes that “the civilizational tradition of the West requires taking up polemical arms against many of the flippancies of the present moment,” you don’t just scratch your head and wonder why mere flippancies call for the verbal equivalent of an armed response. You fear that when “civilizational” is being used as an adjective, the noun is, as they like to say at Commentary, in grave peril.
Lee Siegel writes about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism.