My Norman Problem—and Ours

A correspondent has reminded me that the increasingly common neoconservative betrayal of anything resembling traditional social order was not initiated by the younger neocons such as David Brooks and Dinesh D’Souza with their recent rash of books celebrating “bourgeois bohemianism,” but by the neoconservative capo di tutti capi himself, Norman Podhoretz. He writes:

Remember N. Podhoretz’s book a couple of years ago, My Love Affair with America: Memoirs of a Cheerful Conservative? It’s not just the younger ones. Remember Podhoretz’s writings in the 80’s? Not very “cheerful” in those days. Commentary was filled with pessimism.

… Again, the neocons were VERY gloomy about the American scene a few years ago. Sometimes you wonder if what we have now, is what they wanted all along.

The reader raises an interesting question: Why did neoconservatives such as Podhoretz, who were famous for being gloomy, turn cheerful?

Here’s one theory. They were gloomy as long as the things that they feared were threatening to take over. But once those things had actually taken over and become the accepted norm, then the small “c” instincts of the neoconservatives (which is to defend the stability of the existing social order, whatever the social order might be) took over and they began to defend the very things they had opposed.

The classic text on this point is Podhoretz’s 1996 Commentary article “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy,” in which he spoke of the demise of neoconservatism (but by which he really meant the victory of neoconservatism, by which he really meant the takeover of conservatism by neoconservatism, but that’s another story). In that article he gave as an example of the supposed victory of conservatism the fact that homosexuals now wanted to alter the institution of marriage to include single-sex relationships. One wondered how Podhoretz could see this inconceivably radical innovation as a conservative triumph. The answer was that for Podhoretz conservatism meant the absence of mobs in the street trying to tear down the society. But (one realized in dismay) if the mobs quietly took over the the basic institutions of society and changed them from within, that would be fine with Pope Norman. Having had his world view formed in the ferment of the ‘60s, what he feared most was social disruption; therefore he didn’t have any particular objection to the left as long as it was not grossly disruptive.

Along with the triumph of the left which made the left respectable, the other thing that made Podhoretz and other neocons switch sides was the appearance of vigorous conservative opposition to the prevailing left. Such opposition made conservatives now seem like the disruptive force. Thus Podhoretz writes in My Love Affair with America about the First Things “End of Democracy?” symposium which had discussed the grave problem of judicial usurpation:

In the mid-1990s there unexpectedly came an outburst of anti-Americanism even among some of the very conservatives I thought had been permanently immunized against it…I was already pushing seventy, and it made me a little tired to think of going back into combat over a phenomenon that I had fondly imagined I would never have to deal with again, and certainly not on the Right.
Podhoretz’s absurd equation between the nihilistic manifestations of the Sixties and a symposium of articles that had thoughtfully addressed one of the most serious and troubling issues of our time showed that to his mind, any serious criticism of the status quo, no matter how bad the status quo had become, was simply “anti-American” and had to be banned. As I wrote in a letter to First Things at the time of the controversy:

[T]he extreme distress of leading establishment conservatives over the First Things “End of Democracy” symposium spectacularly confirms the suspicion, long held by some on the right, that these conservatives’ opposition to liberalism is at bottom only an intellectual game. They don’t want to face the truth of how corrupt and illegitimate our regime has become, because that would require them to challenge it seriously. As their indignant denunciations of the “End of Democracy” symposium suggest, the only thing these conservatives really want to conserve is the existing left/liberal system, and their own comfortable, if essentially powerless, places within it. It is as though they had a conservative salon aboard the Titanic, and were doing everything they could to avoid rocking the boat.
Looking backward to the “End of Democracy” controversy, we can see that the betrayal by leading neocons of traditional values, moral truth, and minimal decency—culminating in Dinesh D’Souza’s defense of young people wearing metal rings in their tongues, and in the celebration of D’Souza’s book by other conservatives—had its genesis in the mid-1990s, when the left’s long march through the institutions had triumphed, and principled conservatives, forced into the role of dissidents, began to be portrayed by the neoconservatives as disrupters of the social order rather than as its defenders.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 01, 2002 10:55 PM | Send

It is not at all clear that all neocons have given up on traditional morality.

Gertrude Himmelfarb has not in “One Nation, Two Cultures”

The Weekly Standard is otspokenly against Gay Marriage and leftist co-opting of institutions. Speaking of which, I’m sure that Roger Kimball would disagree with you. This says nothing of Father Neuhaus and the writers in First Things.

Posted by: Ron Lewenberg on June 2, 2002 2:14 AM

Let me wander off the farm somewhat:
Sometimes I wonder what politics in the US would look like if the Congress was aligned along proportional representational lines like many democracies in Europe and elsewhere. Where would the neo-cons sit? Would they be centrists? Its often hard to exactly pin down where these people stand on any given issue due to a lack of explicit articulation of a platform of neocon principles. The platform of Bill Clinton or Blair’s NuLabour in Britian seems to be closest to where they stand except for, perhaps, a more aggressive foreign policy (which can cross all party lines, depending on the times) and reservations about affirmative action.

Politics in this country has a long tradition of being non-ideological and more regional or issue oriented. So, murky political stances are to be expected but that doesn’t make the neocons any less confusing. The end of the Cold War also probably helped to disentangle whatever unity that movement has had in the past.

Posted by: John on June 2, 2002 7:04 AM

In addition to the symposium in First Things, 1996 was also the year in which Robert Bork published “Slouching Towards Gomorrah”. Judge Bork was no “cheerful conservative” in that text. Not having read NP’s “Love Affair”, I don’t know if he’s critical of Bork. My impression is that Bork has remained loyally “gloomy”, although in any confrontation between neocons and paleocons, he will stand with the former. I recall that presidential candidate Bush, in 1999 or early 2000, denounced those who think we are “slouching towards Gomorrah”.

Amusingly, Richard Brookhiser, in his generally disparaging review of PJB’s “Death of the West” for National Review, refers to Buchanan as a “Nixonian gloomster”.


Posted by: William Wleklinski on June 2, 2002 8:30 AM

Ron Lewenberg’s point is well taken. I didn’t mean all and have revised my original statement to reflect that.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on June 2, 2002 10:06 AM
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