Calling the neocons’ bluff, 1996

In the 1990s, neoconservatives led by Irving Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb were boldly calling for a generations-long “culture war” aimed at the “remoralization of society.” In reality, as I pointed out to Himmelfarb in the below letter written in 1996, such remoralization would have required the dismantling of the entire modern liberal American system of which those same neocons were firm supporters. Naturally she did not reply to the letter, but afterwards it seemed to me that I didn’t hear much from her any more about the remoralization of society. In fact, during those years, as though realizing that they did not believe in their previous rhetoric about a culture war after all, the neocons abandoned the culture war and embraced the leftist culture of permissiveness (see my article, “The Neocons go left”).

The neocons’ move to the left reached its culmination with John Podhoretz’s grossly celebratory remark in 2001 that the 9/11 attack had made the culture war unnecessary (freeing him to spend his leisure moments writing about his real cultural interest, tv shows), and it was later underscored by Irving Kristol’s 2003 article, “The Neoconservative Persuasion” (see my discussion), in which he stated with affable ingenuousness that the real neoconservative mission was to spread the American democratic ideology abroad while “[converting] the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy,” i.e., into a political movement not concerned about the growth of the state, and not concerned about morality and culture either. (Notwithstanding Kristol’s brief nod to the culture war in that article, the full context makes it clear he doesn’t mean it.) This was the same Irving Kristol who had written in Churchillian tones in 1993:

Now that the other “Cold War” is over, the real cold war [the culture war] has begun…. [I]t is a conflict I shall be passing on to my children and grandchildren. But it is a far more interesting cold war—intellectually interesting, spiritually interesting—than the war we have so recently won, and I rather envy those young enough for the opportunities they will have to participate in it.

Here then is my letter to Himmelfarb.

September 5, 1996
Gertrude Himmelfarb
c/o American Enterprise Institute
1150 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036

Dear Professor Himmelfarb:

I agree with your argument in the September 9th Weekly Standard that the call for a restoration of civil society is empty rhetoric unless it is accompanied by the determination to remoralize society, i.e., by the determination to endow civil society (and government) with actual authority to censure bad behavior and reward good behavior.

But I’m afraid the argument for the remoralizing of society may also add up to mere rhetoric, if it fails to recognize the vast obstacles standing in the way of that desirable goal, as well as the revolutionary changes, indeed the all-out political warfare, that would be necessary to achieve it. The blunt fact is that the remoralizing of society would require nothing less than overturning massive components of 20th century federal law and judicial decisions, as well as the whole body of social practices and public opinion based on them.

For example, according to long-established (mis)interpretations of the 14th Amendment, local government is effectively barred from legitimizing or illegitimizing those behaviors it sees fit. California sought to illegitimize illegal immigration by barring illegal immigrants from receiving public assistance; the Supreme Court said that violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection. Colorado sought to illegitimize the movement to give special civil rights protections to homosexuals; that also was found to violate the Constitutional guarantee of equal protection. The Virginia Military Institute, virtually the last institution in America to transmit a traditional ethos of manly honor and stoicism, has been effectively destroyed by the equal protection-based mandate that it must admit women. Then there is the Incorporation Doctrine, which, by applying the bar against the establishment of religion to the states, has banished any hint of traditional Western religion from the public schools, even as it has barred local governments from outlawing such alien religious practices as animal sacrifice (a practice now also protected by a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was supported by conservatives). As a result of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its various regulatory appendages (widely supported by today’s Republicans), businesses are forced to hire—and are afraid to discipline or fire—incompetent or surly employees. Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (which was supported by virtually all Congressional Republicans), businesses have been fined for firing employees because of alcoholism or chronic lateness, which are classified as protected disabilities. And this is just scratching the surface. There is no end of examples of the federal government—not through mere arbitrary acts but through well-established laws, court decisions and powers—preventing local governments and private institutions from enforcing traditional and common-sense notions of what is legitimate and illegitimate, desirable and undesirable.

Underlying these unconstitutional (but by now historically rooted) usurpations is the deeper cultural problem, which is that the dominant belief system of contemporary America is devoted, not to moral behavior in the traditional sense, but to the new gods of equality, tolerance and sensitivity. Even America’s “conservative” party has now gotten with the program. As one political commentator noted, the message of the 1996 Republican convention “was that Republicans are tolerant and inclusive, and that didn’t leave much space for the values agenda.” Precisely. And what is true for the GOP is true for America as a whole. You cannot meaningfully invoke or enforce traditional moral norms (which necessarily involve those harsh, “absolutist” determinations of right and wrong) if your overriding concern is “tolerance” and “inclusion.” The two sets of values—the moral and the inclusive—are mutually exclusive.

Therefore, to remoralize society, it would be necessary, at the very least, (1) to dismantle or radically amend the 14th Amendment and the Incorporation Doctrine, as well as the vast accumulated body of laws, institutions and practices based on them; and (2) to reject the post-60s civic religion of equality and tolerance, and overturn the laws and agencies (such as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) that enforce it. In other words, it would require Counterrevolution. Is this something that you (and other establishment conservatives) would even remotely contemplate? Somehow I suspect not. But if not, how can the remoralization of society that you support be anything more than rhetoric?

Lawrence Auster

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 19, 2007 01:31 AM | Send

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