August 08, 2005

Are you a Neoconservative?
- Christian Science Monitor

The first time I discovered the term "neoconservatism" was on my way to give an invited bioethics talk (which I had not yet written) almost two years before 9/11, in an on-board magazine on an airplane for which I had forgotten to bring picture identification ... after I had missed the original 6 am flight on the tail end of an all-nighter resolving publishing issues in order to meet the journal deadline. Further papers for the next two issues of the journal took up the greater part of my single carry-on: more items to be resolved before I could even start writing my talk. My travelling partner (an increasing study in anxiety, with some justification) had chosen to miss the flight as well rather than travel without me. The aircraft was a Dash 8-100. In the event of inadvertent discovery of the actual buoyancy of fully loaded Dash 8-100's due to runway overshoot during any of the three stops, seatbelts might not have been strictly needed: the seats themselves clamped us in place.

After that, of course, I was absolutely awake.

I don't remember for certain whether that first article, outlining the perspective and tenets of neoconservatism, had actually been written by Irving Kristol. I do remember that there were elements of the concept that intrigued me; but at that time I had not yet seen them fully placed into practice, and it is in practical application that one sees the core of any applied philosophy. As with so many of the more pervasive concepts I encounter, I found in the descriptions some elements well worth considering -- but also the potential for abuse. (Which, after all, can be said for almost anything.)

(A useful background link, and one which also happens to illustrate just how deeply polarist thought has become entrenched: each and every one of the institutions mentioned is cited automatically and instinctively along with its either-or political affiliation, even those which one would think -- or hope -- apolitical. That such affiliation should exist is taken as a given. The only question is that of specific faction.)

Re-examining this concept at this point in time (in light of something that had suddenly struck me during last week's chat), I find that at this point in time there seem to be two entirely different sets of definitions, with differences sharp enough to suggest that what is considered neoconservatism may in fact be at least two separate entities, not one. Gary North identifies "a major shift in focus", but I suspect he falls far short of the reality, here. As a test example, take Kristol's statement that
Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan
and consider just how many of those termed neoconservative have any use whatsoever for the domestic policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In fact, even now the New Deal still sticks in the throats of almost every United States conservative, including most neoconservatives: but the opposite holds true among ex-liberals-turned-neoconservatives. (Carefully excluding foreign policy and a certain war, here: and thus hopefully sidestepping the entire discussion about how the United States saved Europe.) The especially curious thing, for me, is that the ex-liberals-turned-neoconservatives originally collected around the publication The Public Interest seem to keep trying to focus all discussion of neoconservatism on their version of neoconservatism only, as if no other version exists or could exist. (I honestly don't know if this pattern is a consequence of obliviousness, deliberate ignorance, or deliberate in knowledge.) At the same time, what I would identify as the dominant faction of neoconservatism, containing those who hold the power and make the policies, circles the patriotic wagons against any form of questioning or critical examination.

This pattern reminds me on a debating tactic I have encountered on far too many boards: where one person belonging to a subgroup sets themself up as the only possible example of [fill in the blank]; and if it does not apply to him or her, then it cannot apply to anyone in the subgroup. A variant on this same theme occurs when the debater seizes on a single part of the other's argument which can be made to fit his or her own position, and then uses that forced similarity to claim that in fact the other person is agreeing with them. Both variants serve to identify membership within the subgroup. The distinction -- the only distinction -- is that the first is an expression of insular-defensiveness (almost invariably against external statements of responsibility, usually phrased as statements of blame, be they active or anticipated); while the second is an expression of inclusionary-defensiveness (which also serves to negate responsibility, this time by diluting it to include anyone who opposes them, ie. "if I am responsible, you must be too, because you are agreeing with me"). The first excludes, opaques, tightens, builds walls for others to keep out. The second includes, "translucifies" (I do not say "makes transparent", because that would imply a determined seeking of clarity rather than the determined conversion of others), loosens barriers such that others can belong to their subgroup ... and in the process obscures the relevant issues sufficiently that any attempt to examine them without having implicitly agreed to them is fore-doomed.

We are in a land of smoke and mirrors here: determined grasping at or rejecting label being substituted for reality ... yet does either eager acceptance or just as eager sidestepping alter in any way the consequences of the actions taken? Examine first, then, those tenets virtually every neoconservative, whether self-defined or other-defined, would accept as self-evident.

#1. Innate superiority of the American model of economics and government

While this one is not unique among United States political factions to the neoconservative perspective (in fact, only the more extreme liberals might seriously question it), for neoconservatives specifically it is very nearly the defining article of faith upon which all the rest hinges. As such, it is least tolerant of any United States political faction of any suggestion that Americans do not live in the best of all possible worlds -- or would, if the rest of the world did not resent American superiority. ("Why do they hate us?")

#2. Strong government

Kristol suggests that "people have always preferred strong government to weak government," something I myself have found to be true among those who don't wish to be forced to think outside familiar constraints (aka the vast majority). In its visionary ideal, democracy absolutely requires the willingness of the masses not only to educate themselves on a wide variety of issues, but also to think critically about what they have learned. In what might be its practical ideal, democracy reduces to the ability of mass political structures (parties) to convince some significant part of the voting population to endorse its policies as a whole. At some point, in neoconservatism, this seems to have further morphed into an absolute unquestioning of ruling party qua government policies: which frequently uses the language of patriotism to preempt any attempt at critical examination. For a government to be strong, it absolutely must not be questioned or second-guessed ("stay the course"): which flows naturally into a distrust and ultimately rejection of any institution that might undermine its ability to act on its power, be it domestic or an attempted global umbrella or watchdog agency. Thus:

#3. Exercise of hegemonic power for (global) self-defence and to promote American values
Liberal foreign policy officially has always been "butter and guns." Guns have always followed butter, but this has been seen as the unfortunate result of unexpected complications. Neoconservative foreign policy officially is "guns and butter." Butter always follows guns, but this is regarded as the inescapable price of American regional presence abroad.
- Gary North
Neoconservatives are the unabashed empire-builders of the modern age, seeking the absolute security of state which can only be found by converting the entire world to American values. Because the inherent superiority of the American model is taken as a tenet of faith, there can be no further questioning and consequently no reluctance to force regime change and reshape hostile states in the American image: friends exist by American values, enemies do not, and extremism in the defense of liberty is always justifiable. (Early reverberations of this attitude can be seen in the dedicated direct confrontation, no compromise [a word usually now replaced by "appeasement"], by Reagan of the Soviet Union.) It follows that a strong military is absolutely necessary to Pax Americana. Benevolence is implicit in the desired outcome: who in their right mind would not wish peace? in the innately superior model of American-style government and economics?

Now we shift to those parts no longer held in common. North identifies four core points about neoconservatism:
  1. Neoconservatism is not a broadly-based grass roots movement; rather, it is a movement of institutionally-subsidised professors and essayists

  2. its founding members had spent their formative years as Democrats or (in some cases) as Trotskyites

  3. they had gained tenured positions at America's premier universities [I would add in the social sciences, especially history and politics] before they entered politics

  4. they gained access to influence in the Reagan years as "standard" conservatives
Yet almost none of these hold true outside the self-defined intellectual faction ... whose more in-depth writings the other factions of neoconservatism may not even have read, let alone studied at advanced academic levels. In those parts of the neoconservative movement that are grassroots, there even seems to be a general distrust of and even backlash against the "liberal" academic community; with a consequent rejection of ivory tower isolation and education without practical, hard-nosed experience.

(So now I am up to at least three discernible neoconservative factions: the founding academics; the young professionals who quickly enter the political "real world" after gaining their academic credentials; and the grassroots working people who have learned to identify most of the United States' ills as the result of either foreign influence or intellectual self-sabotage, and who are thus marginally suspicious of book-learning without real-world common sense.)

The apparent internal contradiction may exist at least in part perhaps because one of the definable distinctions between the founding faction and especially the young professionals is age difference, with younger neoconservatives (too young to personally remember the Vietnam years, let alone Hiroshima) only having discovered their political wings for the first time under the Reagan administration. Per the second tenet noted above, both sets of neoconservatives are intensely pro-military, the American military being seen as one of the primary tools to mould and enforce Pax Americana: yet the relative percentage of actual military service among neoconservatives (let alone in an active combat zone) generally is among the lowest of any United States political faction, even lower than isolationists. Older neoconservatives are more likely to have been draft dodgers, younger neoconservatives simply avoid military service entirely, attaining almost all their knowledge of what war means through the mass media. (Nowhere in the world are as many documentaries created about various wars, and especially World War II, as in the United States.)

The approach both to economic management and social network too is divided: and in this context I encounter the term "compassionate conservative" for the first time (Michael Savage, 1994 / Marvin Olasky & Myron Magnet, 2000). Again depending upon the faction adopting it, the approach comes from one of two angles: either a more conservatively aligned re-assessment how to approach spending associated with social safety nets (based on a society structured along conservative values being inherently more compassionate); or a determined conservative re-claiming of the existence, management, and financing of such nets from any form of ("liberal") centralised government. (This last is commonly presented as helping the poor to help themselves by tying direct accountability to tangible expressions of compassion, and finds its expression through such programmes as working welfare.) Despite claims of economic prudence, the young professionals especially seem to see no contradiction over heavy deficit spending so long as the funds are applied to military and security issues. Otherwise, tax cuts are the rule of the day.

Leave it there, for now. Attempt any more here, and I never will get any further.

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