Irving Shrugged, remembered

The recently deceased Irving Kristol made high level contributions to conservatism for which he deserves lasting credit. But ultimately—that is, when it came to ultimate matters such as turning back liberalism and preserving our civilization—he wasn’t serious. His lack of seriousness is shown in an exchange he had at a 1994 National Review conference, which I’ve previously recounted.

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Kristor writes:

I don’t know. I think there is some wisdom in keeping both perspectives constantly in mind. That will keep us from being chiliastic Pelasgian Gnostics, like our adversaries. On the one hand, we are in a fight that matters, a fight to the death for everything we love, and everything that is good; victory will bring real, lasting benefits, and we can make a difference for the Good; so that what we do is serious, and important. On the other hand, we are in ourselves powerless to do any good, for all our help is in the Name of the Lord, who made Heaven and Earth; and, in the end, Heaven and Earth shall flee away, when He comes to reign. I am reminded of something Tolkien said: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic; so that I have no choice but to look upon history as a long defeat.”

The Rohirrim muster and assault the enemy with faultless courage. And their battle cry is, “Death!”

It’s rather like football. We work like hell and fight our hearts out to win the championship, and when we succeed, well, we still have to do the very same thing all over again the next year. So we should love the game as we play.

I am totally confident that if we were to crush liberalism and Islam under our heel, some new version of the same old foe would arise to contest our victory.

LA replies:

I was criticizing Irving Kristol, not because he said that all earthly things must ultimately fail, but because, in the midst of a discussion of a war to save our culture, in response to a questioner who was looking for leadership from Kristol, Kristol turned the whole thing into a joke and showed that he wasn’t committed to anything. And this was egregious and unforgivable because, as I’ve pointed out before, Kristol’s jokey colloquy at the 1994 NR Conservative Summit took place just one year after he declared that the culture war was his Cold War and that it was a war that would go on for generations, a war that his children and grandchildren would wage after he was gone.

Here’s what he said in 1993 in The National Interest:

It is a cold war that, for the last twenty-five years, has engaged my attention and energy, and continues to do so. There is no ‘after the Cold War’ for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. It cannot win, but it can make us all losers. We have, I do believe, reached a critical turning point in the history of the American democracy. Now that the other ‘Cold War’ is over, the real cold war has begun. We are far less prepared for this cold war, far more vulnerable to our enemy, than was the case with our victorious war against a global Communist threat. We are, I sometimes feel, starting from ground zero, and it 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.

Could anyone compare Kristol’s stirring declaration of a generations-long culture war in 1993 with what he said one year later, and conclude that my criticism of him is misplaced?

Kristor replies:

OK, I can see now what you were saying. By gosh, that was a stirring quote from Kristol. Imagine if King Harry, right after his pep talk at Agincourt, had said, “On the other hand, we’ll probably lose, because we’re outnumbered so badly. And anyway, there’s no way we can keep France over the long run, even if we did win today. Let’s have a beer instead.” That’s a little different from what Theoden said to his men on Pelennor Field, isn’t it? “Ride now! Ride for ruin, and the world’s ending! Death! Death! Death!”

LA replies:

Yes. And if Henry had made his Agincourt speech, and then made a joke about it and chuckled dismissively about it and showed that he hadn’t meant it at all, would you ever take him seriously again?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 13, 2009 11:45 AM | Send

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