Irving Kristol, who died last week at the age of 89, is routinely described as the “godfather of modern conservatism”—though why he is called godfather rather than father is a mystery: He created neoconservatism, he didn’t watch over it. But the description is imprecise in a deeper sense. Kristol was the father of modern conservative nihilism.
More than one of Kristol’s eulogists has contrasted him with Beck, Limbaugh et al. as a cosmopolitan and “humane” intellectual who had—though no one can say for sure—no truck with irrational extremists. This is nonsense. Kristol created Beck, Limbaugh et al.
More than one of Kristol’s eulogists has contrasted him with Beck, Limbaugh et al. as a cosmopolitan and “humane” intellectual who had—though no one can say for sure—no truck with irrational extremists. This is nonsense. He created Beck, Limbaugh et al.
An intellectual who constantly put down the vocation of being an intellectual, a gifted wisecracker who reduced complex social problems to glib one-liners—“a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality”—a circular reasoner who seemed to care more about the motions of his mind than the moral or political conclusions he reached, Kristol used thinking to discredit the act of thinking.
It’s not just that he elaborately argued in June 1968 that Hubert Humphrey should be president, and then just several years later capitalized on his abrupt turn to the right and enjoyed Nixon’s hospitality and attention at the White House. It’s the ease with which Kristol came to a conclusion that was the moral antithesis of his argument for what he referred to as Humphrey’s superior “liberal pragmatism.” In the 1968 Humphrey essay, he wrote:
“The prospect of electing Mr. Nixon depresses me. Suffice it to say that he appeals to the wrong majority to govern the United States in these times—a majority whose dominant temper will be sullenly resentful of the social changes we have been experiencing and impulsively reactionary toward the crises we shall inevitably be enduring.“
• The Daily Beast’s Samuel P. Jacobs: Morning Joe vs. Glenn BeckFour years later, Nixon’s landslide victory perhaps convinced Kristol that this sullenly resentful majority had much to recommend it—principally the fact that they held all the power. It was perhaps the same practical consideration that impelled him to defend McCarthy in 1952, at the height of HUAC’s persecutions, when intellectuals, and especially Jewish intellectuals, were generally vilified. For all his caustic polemics, Kristol had an abhorrence of finding himself in the minority. His definition of pragmatism turned out to be “liberal” in the extreme.
Power, not ideology or creed, was what Kristol respected above all. In a brilliant essay that he published on Nazism in 1948—Kristol was indeed brilliant, and his pellucid prose style was on par with Orwell’s—he eloquently despaired of the workings of the human mind itself.
After pronouncing rational analysis impotent to explain the Nazi mentality, he concludes about Rudolf Hess that “Hess’s psychic processes were not different in kind from those which might be discovered among French barbers, Mid-Western university professors, or composers of letters-from-the-lovelorn in all lands. His unconscious faithfully adhered to the rules of the universal human unconscious, and we see that we are not entirely strangers to the twistings of his mind.”
“The rules of the universal human unconscious.” The phrase might smack of naïve Freudianism, but Kristol seemed never to stop believing that an implacable chaos lay behind the intellect’s most rational and ethically sophisticated constructions. As a result, he gave up on principled thinking and became a kind of intellectual tummler—the Yiddish term for a mischief-maker, whose power lies in creating prankish distractions. But Kristol had a motive for his tummling: the acquisition of power unavailable to intellectuals.
The specter that haunted Jewish intellectuals of Kristol’s generation was the luftmensch, another Yiddish word meaning, literally, a person who lives in the air: specifically, the intellectual who eats and drinks ideas but who has no real power in the world outside his own mental capacities. Kristol turned this image upside down. He became a cosmopolitan nihilist who enjoyed watching the effects of his ideas on powerful men—Nixon, Reagan—without having any investment in the consequences of his ideas.
When, for example, Kristol mouthed allegiance to New Deal principles and criticized capitalism’s soulless aspects, he was executing a Dada performance, playing to his liberal friends as well as playing them like salmon. No intelligent man who advocated the types of ruthless tax cuts that Kristol did could possibly expect New Deal commitments to social welfare to survive intact. And they didn’t.
(A liberal bromide now is that Reagan actually raised taxes. This shocker is meant to prove that the most orthodox Republican tax-cutter is an impractial hypocrite. But Reagan cut taxes on the upper bracket by one-third. He raised Social Security and Medicare taxes. Thus he only raised taxes on the middle class. But, then, the same liberal purveyors of the fiction of Reagan the closet New-Dealer are the same ones who report with self-congratulatory bliss—we respect the other side’s point of view!—that Kristol was “delighted” to find that he and Reagan shared an affection for FDR. Even as they were dismantling much of the New Deal’s safety net.)
Kristol’s much-publicized affection for working-class values and for the Christian right is in the same vein of toying with ideas without conviction. It was well known that this defender of Christian fundamentalism and Jewish core principles possessed no religious feeling or belief himself. “I’ve always been a believer,” he once said with his usual tummler’s facileness. “Don’t ask me in what.” As for the working class, they had become, for this former Marxist, pure abstraction. If the universal human unconscious ruled existence, what did it matter whether you conceived of a barber as a monster or a saint? The important thing was to use your conceptions as ladders to a level of power that would keep the working class and mugging reality at a good safe distance. After all, this is a man who, in 1988, listed as one of his reasons for leaving New York City the “public transportation that is a daily trauma.”
In that same bizarre 1988 essay on why he was moving from New York to Washington D.C., Kristol created an imaginary New York in which no one any longer talked about ideas, culture had disappeared, and only people with $40 million or more could be considered “rich.” Washington, on the other hand, was a place where the “ruling passon” was not money but “pursuit of power.” It was here that an intellectual could become “influential.” The essay is a vivid example of how Kristol could use the power of his mind to warp reality into the type of comfortable abstraction that would support his “pragmatism.”
One of Kristol’s most original and memorable essays is one he published about Jewish humor in 1951. It is also his most revealing. At the end of this dazzling reflection, Kristol concludes that: “Jewish humor dances along a knife-edge that separates religious faith from sheer nihilism.” But, he continues, in the modern era, faith in God has become impossible. Thus Jewish humor is dead: “The modern situation, dissolving into murderous nihilism, robs Jewish humor of its victory.
Convinced of the powerlessness of humor and intellect, Kristol spent his life using both as playful vehicles in the pursuit of power. He turned modernity’s murderous nihilism into a more comfortable nihilistic game. His most famous quips are outwardly brilliant but inwardly empty travesties of both humor and intellect: “In the United States today, the law insists that an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie — but only if she is paid the minimum wage.”
The truth is that the issue of minimum wages and free expression could not be further apart, and the question of balancing freedom, decency and morality could not be less frivolous than Kristol made it out to be in his cute one-liner. His joke is, essentially, nonsense. But it is the kind of profoundly ambitious and disenchanted nonsense that makes a pointed mockery of rational and moral thought. It creates an intellectual and ethical vacuum.
Into this vacuum, enter the Becks, and the Limbaughs, and the Hannitys. In their world, Kristol’s nihilistic wisecracks have become cracked nihilistic slanders and lies. Having used intellect to discredit intellect, Kristol threw open the door to pure irrationality. I am all for making trouble, and my heart is with the true tummlers of the world. The bombast of liberal sanctimony needs to be periodically exposed by means of the tummler’s antic rationality. But these people are a whole other story. Today’s conservative is a product of the universal human unconscious who has been hugged by neoconservative nihilism. Thanks to the jaded intellectual japes of Irving Kristol.
Lee Siegel has written 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 a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.