The Neocons Go Left

By Lawrence Auster

Over the last couple of years a most curious and significant phenomenon has been at work among the neoconservatives. One after another, prominent, mostly younger, neoconservative authors have been announcing their surrender in the culture wars—the cause which, second to resisting Soviet Communism, had been the raison d’être of neoconservatism in the first place. Consider the following:

David Brooks, in Bobos in Paradise, lauds the “bourgeois bohemian” life style and its indifference to moral truth.

David Frum, in The Seventies, says the Cultural Revolution has really not been that bad, and that in most ways our culture is in better shape than it was in the Fifties.

Francis Fukuyama, in The Great Disruption, pretends to seek ways to reverse the “Great Disruption” of the Cultural Revolution, but then admits that there’s no way to restore the most important single aspect of our disrupted culture—sexual morality and monogamy. Furthermore, Fukuyama makes it clear that this is just fine with him.

Fareed Zakaria of The National Interest, writing in The New Yorker, shockingly announces: “I’ll take Gomorrah” over those awful, repressive Fifties.

Clearly, these leading edge neocons have given up any idea of resisting the moral liberationism that now defines the dominant culture of America and the West. As the eager, sychophantic tone of their writings makes clear, they’ve decided to get along by going along. And now, in an apparent culmination of this neoconserservative betrayal, Dinesh D’Souza in his new book, What’s So Great About America, sets out to define America—and conservatism—in radical secular terms:

“America is a subversive idea,” he writes. “Indeed, it represents a new way to be human.”

We need to put D’Souza’s startling pronouncement in context.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, neoconservatives and mainstream conservatives, resisting what they saw as the twin threats of multiculturalism on one side and of a renewed American particularism on the other, compressed the post World War II universalist liberal view of America into a new, highly polemical formula. They began speaking of America as a “proposition country”—a country that, as they said over and over again, was defined not by any shared historical experience or peoplehood, but solely and exclusively by an “idea.” It is the idea that “all men are created equal,” the idea of freedom and opportunity. Of course the idea was not new, it had always been at the center of America’s self-understanding. What was new and disturbing was the conservatives’ dogmatic denial of any historic, concrete dimension of America apart from the idea, the insistence that America is, in fact, nothing but the idea.

As false and destructive as this view was, all was not lost. Though these influential conservative intellectuals told Americans that they should no longer see themselves as a distinct historical people under God, but only as a subscription list to an idea, the idea still carried the transcendent truth by which the nation had been founded. Thus a vestige of transcendent truth—abstract and attenuated though it was—remained at the core of our national self-concept as conservatives saw it. In a world in which the dominant trends of international politics had become radically secular, this was no small matter, and has been responsible for no little portion of the good that America has been able to do in the world.

But now D’Souza, abandoning this foundation stone of Americanism in general and of modern conservatism in particular, describes America not as an idea, and not as a transcendent idea, but as a subversive idea. Lowell Ponte, writing about D’Souza’s book in FrontPage Magazine, thinks this is just wonderful, and he mocks other countries for hating and fearing us. The question doesn’t seem to occur to Ponte that if America is indeed not a concrete, and therefore delimited, country, but rather a subversive idea, and if America is also seeking global hegemony in order to advance that idea, then isn’t it entirely natural for other countries to hate and fear us? The definition of America as the carrier of a revolutionary ideology valid for all mankind, and at war with every existing culture, is a recipe for the unrestrained and reckless use of power by a global American imperium.

Americans once believed that human nature with its inherent rights proceeds from a higher truth that puts limits on human desire and the will to power. But now D’Souza boasts, in Romantic-Marxian terms, that America represents nothing less than “a new way to be human”—that it is America’s mission to bring about a transformation in the very structure of human nature. Rather than standing for permanent and higher truths about man, and thus maintaining a link with the long continuum of Western civilization and its moral traditions of restraint, America in D’Souza’s view signifies the denial that there are any permanent and higher truths about man. The universe, including human nature itself, is as we want to make it.

It is hard to see any fundamental difference between D’Souza’s “new way to be human” and the ideology of radical personal liberation that has formed our dominant liberal culture. As Ilene Philipson wrote in the utopian leftist journal Tikkun in 1991, “every individual contains at the very core of his or her being a unique, irreducible self” that must be liberated. Or, as the Supreme Court declared in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, echoing Tikkun: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It would thus appear that the lack of internal or external restraints on our burgeoning imperial state is matched by the lack of internal and external restraints on the individual human wills that constitute that state.

To summarize, modern conservatives thought they could universalize America by stripping it of its concrete particularity and viewing it as the incarnation of a transcendent idea. But an “idea-nation,” lacking any cultural/moral substance to ground and restrain it, must end by rejecting the transcendent as well. The stripping away of our moral and cultural particularity has thus opened the way to the unresisted triumph of moral and cultural liberationism. That triumph leaves career-conscious conservatives no practical option but to hop aboard the bandwagon of the contemporary Zeitgeist. And let’s remember whom they are joining. Leftists such as Michael Lind have argued that America’s war on terrorism is really a war on fundamentalism, by which he means a war on all serious religion, namely traditional Christianity. Thus Lind—and he is far from the only one who feels this way—wants to create a new America that is anti-religion, anti-Christianity, anti-transcendence. That is shocking enough. But now it appears that some establishment conservatives are saying essentially the same thing.

[Note January 2, 2007: Five years after saying that America’s mission is to spread radical cultural decadence to the world, D’Souza urged America to return to traditionalism in alliance with traditional Islam, as I discuss here.]

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 28, 2002 12:01 PM | Send

D’Souza made a few stabs at questioning the imperial idolatries in The End of Racism. That almost cost him his career. I doubt he will try that again.

Heck, I remember when D’Souza was a nice Catholic boy, struggling against the PC crowd in college and writing for magazines like “Crisis.”

BTW, Lind and the neocons seem not to like each other. But I can’t figure out why. Lind seems to out-Scoop Jackson even Scoop Jackson in his political views. Perhaps this intramural dispute is more personality than substance.

Posted by: Jim Carver on May 28, 2002 2:08 PM

It is good that someone has pointed out this change. Auster considers D’Souza’s new book, and mentions Brooks, Frum, Fukuyama, and Zakaria by way of context.

A little more context. A couple of years ago, Mark Lilla wrote an interesting piece for (yes) The New York Review of Books. His theme, to simplify, was that by the Nineties it was plain that the Right had won the economic argument and the Left had won the culture wars, and as to the latter, social conservatives had better become accustomed to the new reality. (Lilla specifically criticized a series of essays by Roger Kimball on the cultural revolution of the Sixties then appearing in the New Criterion.) Gertrude Himmelfarb had long fought the good fight on the social issues, and yet, in her “One Nation, Two Cultures” and the article for The Public Interest of which it was an expansion, she said that the spirit of the Sixties now dominated the culture and that conservatives who didn’t like it would just have live with the facts like good Americans. They could constitute a second, minority culture, and with luck, eventually have an ameliorative effect on the larger society. In the summer of ‘99, months after the Senate voted not to convict Clinton, Ramesh Ponnuru wrote an article in National Review about how the American people were “OK”, despite their unstinting support for the Man from Hope throughout the Impeachment year of 1998.

These, I think, were earlier examples of the same pattern.


Posted by: William Wleklinski on May 28, 2002 4:56 PM

This imperial revolutionary mandate goes back, in part, to Jefferson who at first expressed glee at the start of the French Revolution.
But as Maistre explains, the roots of our Republic are inbedded in England’s history. The Revolution, far from being a break from the past was a continuation of the parliamentary struggles in Britain’s history and the geographical location of England. The patriots fought for their rights as Englishmen perhaps with more vigor than for some abstract Enlightenment truth; which were some of the American elite’s justification for the revolt.
Since the Revolution and its aftermath are the ideological and historical roots of the problem are there ways (other than the above) to reclaim or to claim it for traditional conservatives?

Posted by: John on May 28, 2002 5:00 PM

Regarding John’s question, this is far from a complete answer, but we could start by looking at the Revolution as a response to a particular oppression which, finally, left the colonists no choice but independence. Yes, there are all kinds of other, larger statements about the Revolution that were made at the time, but at the most basic level the King had made any reconciliation impossible; he had declared the colonists outside the law; he had waged war against them; he had made it clear that they were all regarded as traitors; and they really had no choice other than to submit or to rebel. Looked out in those terms, the Revolution was not a cry for “universal human equality” but a justified and necessary response to a specific threat based on the universal law of self-preservation. If a man tries to subject me to tyranny, and I resist him, that doesn’t mean I am seeking global democracy. It just means I want to be free of that particular evil.

How’s that for a conservative view of the Revolution?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 28, 2002 6:08 PM

Regarding William Wleklinky’s remarks: Did Ponnuru really say that? Yet another conservative sellout to Clintonism. How many there were.

As for Himmelfarb, it’s hard to regard her as a serious figure. Her “One Nation Two Cultures,” which for some reason got a lot of attention, is so insubstantial, so detached from the problems it purports to discuss, that it almost floats out of your hands as you’re reading it.

Larry Auster

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 28, 2002 6:15 PM

D’Souza’s career got artificially inflated early on as a result of the national attention focused on the Dartmouth Review and its problems with the horrendous Freedman regime there and I don’t think he ever recovered from it.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on May 28, 2002 7:12 PM

I don’t mean to be the skunk at the party by rushing in to defend Neo-cons like Ramesh Ponnuru, but I think there is a difference between his approach and Fukuyama’s (and I suppose D’Souza’s).

The Clinton presidency has done an immenseamount of harm to this country, and the impeachment controversy may have been the unkindest cut of all. I think Ramesh was trying, in a small way, to deflect the kind of destructive anger at the American people that those of us on the right naturally feel when we see our country sink deeper into decadence.

We need thoughful critiques; we need to educate our fellow citizens; but we don’t need more Paul Weyrichs airing their disappointment with America in public. It’s unseemly, unmanly, and does no good. Just my two cents.

Brendan Kenny

Posted by: Brendan Kenny on May 27, 2003 5:33 PM

… a war on fundamentalism, by which he means a war on all serious religion ….

Since when did fundamentalists obtain a monopoly on “serious religion”?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 21, 2004 3:57 AM

In an article publishing the _Los Angeles Times_, another prominent neoconservative has capitulated to the modern amoral, egalitarian culture. Max Boot writes that “gay marriage” (we on the right really need a term for this subversion of a basic institution of human society that does not concede or seem to concede that what is denominated as “marriage” is in some sense “marriage”) is inevitable and ought not be resisted.

“For decades, social conservatives have been fighting and losing culture wars. Contraception and abortion � once taboo topics � have been enshrined into law. The rates of premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births and divorce have soared since the 1950s (though lately most of these indexes have leveled off or declined slightly). In school, prayer is out; sex education is in. On TV, characters used to say “gee whiz” and sleep in twin beds; now they curse as if they had Tourette’s syndrome and flash skin as if they were Gypsy Rose Lee.

“This doesn’t mean that America is in cultural decline; no one who saw the response to 9/11 can think we are soft or decadent. It does mean there is little mystery about how the latest culture war � over gay marriage � will turn out. Opponents of same-sex marriages may have most of the public on their side for now, but they’ve already all but lost this battle…

“Faced with virtually inevitable defeat, Republicans would be wise not to expend too much political capital pushing for a gay marriage amendment to the Constitution. They will only make themselves look “intolerant” to soccer moms whose views on this subject, as on so many others, will soon be as liberal as elite opinion already is.”

Posted by: Joshua on May 25, 2004 12:04 PM

Max Boot actually wrote the last line as follows, but it was edited for space by the L.A. Times:

“They will only make themselves look ‘intolerant’ to soccer moms whose views on this subject, as on so many others, because of the cowardly capitulations of myself and other neocons and Country Club Republicans which create an atmosphere of historical inevitability around every degradation of our culture, will soon be as liberal as elite opinion already is.”

Posted by: Clark Coleman on May 25, 2004 12:10 PM

Given the kinds of arguments Boot is using (for example, he says that slavery is as much a tradition as heterosexual marriage), he cannot even be remotely called an (apostate) conservative. He’s simply a liberal who supports a strong foreign policy.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 25, 2004 12:51 PM

“Contraception and abortion — once taboo topics — have been enshrined into law. The rates of premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births and divorce have soared since the 1950s (though lately most of these indexes have leveled off or declined slightly). In school, prayer is out; sex education is in. On TV, characters used to say “gee whiz” and sleep in twin beds; now they curse as if they had Tourette’s syndrome and flash skin as if they were Gypsy Rose Lee.” Followed immediately by: “This doesn’t mean that America is in cultural decline.”

Boot’s Yale education (if that is what Yale provides) failed to teach him the meaning of “culture” and the meaning of “decline.” Come to think of it, I doubt he has too firm a grasp of the meaning of “America” either. To a refugee from the failed Soviet Union, as I believe Boot is, today’s America may not appear soft or decadent, but to any real American with a memory it appears to be both at best. Give Boot the boot; he and his confrères are worse than useless. HRS

Posted by: Howard Sutherland on May 25, 2004 12:54 PM

Continuing his theme of reducing of all values to desire, D’Souza after Ronald Reagan’s death in June 2004 portrays the meaning of the defeat of Soviet Communism as our enjoyment of “the post-Cold War boom”:

“But it’s only right that we who have enjoyed the benefits of the post-Cold War boom should give Reagan due credit during his lifetime for his prescient statesmanship.”

Can you imagine a journalist writing in 1950 being so crass as to say: “We who have enjoyed the benefits of the post-war boom should thank the allies for defeating Nazi Germany”?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on June 8, 2004 2:50 PM
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