“We’re liberals,” the neocons keep saying, but no one believes them

As recently reported in The New York Sun:

The 25th anniversary season of the New Criterion, a monthly journal devoted to the arts and intellectual life, was the occasion for a dinner in honor of its founder, Hilton Kramer.

“More than any other critic of our time—more energetically, more relentlessly, more brilliantly, more courageously—Hilton has stood out against the degradation of modernism in the arts and the symbiotic degradation of liberalism in politics and culture,” Commentary magazine editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz said at the dinner.

There’s the neocon creed for you. What do the neocons believe in? They believe in … modernism and liberalism.

I hasten to add that I myself am not against all aspects of liberalism and modernism (I have certain friendly critics who are like the gravedigger in Hamlet, I must speak by the card with them, or equivocation will undo me), but the bottom line is that liberalism and modernism are what neocons believe in, and what neoconservatism came into existence to defend.

* * *

But did I misinterpret Podhoretz’s remark? Dean E. writes:

That sentence, “Hilton has stood out against the degradation of modernism in the arts and the symbiotic degradation of liberalism in politics and culture,” could also be read as meaning that modernism itself constitutes the degradation in the arts, and that liberalism constitutes the degradation in politics. That reading seems more likely than one in which Hilton Kramer is being lauded as a relentless, energetic and brilliant champion of modernism and liberalism. No?

I replied:

A plausible point, but I don’t agree. The reason I interpreted it as I did is that I happen to know that the New Criterion is devoted to modernism, namely the “high modernist” tradition of the mid 20th century that the post-modernists set about attacking. (An example of high modernism would be I.M. Pei’s annex to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) Since I’m sure that Podhoretz did not mean that modernism itself constitutes the degradation, therefore the “degradation of modernism” of which he speaks must mean that which has degraded modernism. Further, since Podhoretz then used the same phrase to refer to liberalism, “the degradation of liberalism,” it is fair to conclude that he is not saying that liberalism constitutes the degradation, but rather that he is attacking that which has degraded liberalism.

Another reader writes:

This thing is mystifying me. I would like to get Podhoretz’s exact meaning. Remember, Kramer LOVES modernism, the abstract expressionists especially. He didn’t like POST modernism. So if Podhoretz was saying Kramer resisted the degradation of modernism, that is, the degradation that IS modernism, he was wrong about Kramer. If he meant the degrading of modernism, that is, the degrading of modernism into POSTmodernism, that is more like it. But to be so ambiguous about such a central point seems odd. Same thing with liberalism. Is it only the degradation of liberalism that Kramer would deplore, and not liberalism itself? Are the neocons still holding onto some idea of classical liberalism? Or don’t they see how liberalism has gradually corroded everything? It might be worth looking through their writings a little to see how they use the word liberal. Don’t forget definition of neocon, liberal mugged by reality. That implies they see that liberalism, at least as it has come to be, is the problem.

LA replies:

Re your last point, not necessarily. Ed Koch called himself a “liberal with sanity.” He was not against liberalism, only “extreme” and “irrational” forms of liberalism. So being a liberal mugged by reality could mean that you recognize how liberalism can go to irrational extremes, not that you give up liberalism.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 10, 2006 12:13 PM | Send

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