Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Learning

In a fascinating and challenging interview with C. Bradley Thompson, political science professor and author of Neoconservativism; An Obituary for an Idea, I was struck by several things he says about neo-conservatives and their particular -ism. These, the guys who got us into Iraq:

The single greatest threat to America, according to many neocons, is not communism or radical Islam but nihilism, and they see nihilism as the inevitable outcome of Enlightenment liberalism and America’s founding principles. The real problem with liberal-capitalist society for Strauss, Kristol, and Brooks is that individuals do not sacrifice themselves to anything higher than themselves and their petty self-interest. What America needs, therefore, is a two-step antidote for its cultural malaise: the inculcation of public virtue and the promotion of nationalism. The neocons seek to restore a public philosophy that promotes sacrifice as the great moral ideal and patriotism as the great political ideal.

The American people need something greater than themselves to live for. They need to learn the virtue of sacrifice, which means war. War–perpetual war–is the ultimate means by which the neocons can fight creeping nihilism and promote sacrifice and nationalistic patriotism. An aggressive, proactive foreign policy therefore serves a greater purpose–to raise ordinary Americans above their daily, selfish concerns. Nation building also provides neoconservative statesmen with a grand theatre on which to practice their statesmanlike virtues.

War as sacrifice by society. Not paying for the things we need, not actually serving, as in a draft. Just perpetual war, as if it raises our moral consciousness. How strange. How contrary to what we can observe in the ashes of Bush's and his neocon advisers' two wars.

And from the book itself:

The neoconservative vision of a good America is one in which ordinary people work hard, read the Bible, go to church on Sunday, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, practice homespun virtues, sacrifice themselves to the “common good,” obey the commands of the government, fight wars, and die for the State. . . . In summary, the neoconservatives are the advocates of a new managerial State—a State controlled and regulated by a new mandarin class of conservative virtucrats who think the American people are incapable of governing themselves without the help of the neocons’ special, a priori wisdom.


....the neocons share important core values with the principles of fascism. They make us feel comfortable with certain fascist principles by Americanizing them. . . ...They have seduced the American people into believing that a free and virtuous society is somehow compatible with government controls over all aspects of man’s economic and spiritual endeavors. This is not the fascism of Nazi Germany or fascist Italy, but instead something rather different. It points toward what we might call fascism-lite—a fascism that is moderate, defanged, and well-suited to the smiley-face optimism of America’s Ronald McDonald culture
Rings true. The long-time reader of this blog will be familiar with the concept that it's they who are fascists, with their constant propaganda stream, lying, distractions, corporatism; not Obama -- not by any stretch of the imagination. It's a more erudite and studied form of what I've been saying. Getting all misty-eyed about war as patriotism is easy, especially for the neocons, essentially none of whom ever served. It's a smokescreen, a diversion, a substitute for the real sacrifices required of a democratic and pluralistic society, were it actually to focus on its own. How easy it makes it to ignore the hard stuff. How convenient to use war as a hammer to nail down their selfish aims, while calling it country-love.

That they see liberalism as leading to unwillingness to sacrifice for the common good is quite remarkable, given who is arguing for what nowadays. I'd laugh out loud, were I not sobbing into my soup. The neocon definition of sacrifice, evidently, is expecting someone else to fight their wars, someone else to address the life-long effects on those who come home, someone else to pay for them, someone else to suffer the effects of their failed economic policies. Who, and what, exactly, is being sacrificed?

My only tiny teeny quibble: I don't see the death of the idea at all. I see it renaming itself as teabaggerism, and becoming even more dishonest and pervasive, even more thoughtless and self-centered.


  1. Good catch. That is the the most cohesive explanation of neoconservatism that I've seen. For instance I've honestly never understood Bush's rationale for invading Iraq. Obviously his reasoning involved oil, some psychological issues with his father, and some disingenuous advisors, but it seemed there must be another ingredient too. Perhaps the crusade against nihilism does explain it.

    It is outrageous that Jonah Goldberg is granted any credence whatsoever for equating liberalism with fascism.

    Actually the point of this comment is the weird role religion plays in neoconservatism. It is perpetually odd to see religious Jews and Christians colluding. Fundamentalist Christians talk out of one side of their mouths about Jews being the chosen people, but at the same time they earnestly believe that Jews will forever bear a stain for killing Jesus. Jewish (and Islamic) holy writings similarly contain ugly and violent ideas. Really, this is a strong argument against religion. How do you trust any theist, knowing that at some level they must believe that you are inferior?

    I've convinced that the term "Judeo-Christian" doesn't mean anything other than "acceptable religions, that is, not Islam." I was going to quote the passage where Pilate washes his hands in the paragraph above, and in searching for it I ran across this, in which a Rabbi tries to make nice by saying it's only a handful of bad egg Jews who bear the stain. The passage in Matthews looks clear enough to me. Really, Islam derives from Judaism nearly as much as Christianity does. The New Testament precludes the Old Testament, except where Christians can't abide the ancient tribal law which orthodox Jews go to such lengths to respect. So, "Judeo-Christian" is ultimately an exclusive term, not an inclusive one.

    All this is just to say that a Judeo-Christian underpinning for a political movement. From the point of view of the actual religions it just doesn't make sense. Atheists are now, as ever, the group most worthy of trust. Israel is also in danger of being overrun by fundamentalists, but at least there they don't have to pretend that Christianity and Judaism are somehow mutually amenable.

  2. Well said, Sam, and agreed to. Until you mentioned it, I'd not articulated but have felt the same weird disconnect in hearing the term Judeo-Christian. I always saw it as a sort of grudging acknowledgment of the unpleasant fact that the Bible pre-dated Jesus, even as they'd rather -- and generally do -- ignore that fact.

  3. Bother, my link died. The above should read: "I was going to quote the passage where Pilate washes his hands in the paragraph above, and in searching for it I ran across this."

  4. When I learned about Mormonism in high school, I chuckled a bit that they should have the chutzpah to add another book to the Bible. That prepared me nicely for a moment of enlightenment.

    Earlier on, a Sunday school teacher arrived at the point where she was to instruct us about how the trinity are one and the same entity. She took a deep breath and warned us, "Okay, this is hard to understand..." And it was.

  5. think Mormonism is an excellent talking point: first and foremost, the idea of a guy being shown by an angel a piece of rock interpretable only with special glasses, all of which then disappeared, is a pretty classic scenario for the vision of a paranoid schizophrenic (or, as in the case of Elron) a very clever huckster.

    I've wondered -- and asked -- many times in what way, say, Mr Smith, or Jesus, or Mohammed, or Jim Jones or David Koresh differ from the guy on the street corner, around whom people choose to walk a far path, other than the fact that somehow they got more folk to listen.

    I had the same thought at JazzFest in New Orleans, where every street corner had a musician or group, many of which sounded just as good as the ones at the Fest, performing in front of tens of thousands of people.

    So, as to Mormonism: it's interesting that it has millions and millions of followers around the planet, and tons of money, and yet most other Christians reject them out of hand, considering them a cult at best. Without a second thought, see their beliefs and their book as crazy, or unworthy. They can't see that there's no psychological difference between them, in terms of accepting as gospel words written long ago by people unmet, and rejecting those of others who believe just as firmly and, in terms of followers and cash, just as successfully. More, in fact, than all other denominations except Catholicism, if memory serves.

  6. Oh yes, well into my teens, even though I was an atheist, I still perceived Christianity as somehow reasonable or normal, or at least not risible like the others. Who knows what else I believe for absolutely no reason.

    I may well have mentioned this to you before, but there's compelling reason to believe the schizophrenia and OCD are linked to religion. I must have read that essay 15 times, and it still amuses and intrigues me, especially the part about the monk Louder.

    Incidentally Joseph Smith seems to have been a huckster in the same mold as Elron rather than an honest schizophrenic. His father was a water diviner. There's an extant newspaper reporting that Joseph Smith was convicted of fraud for acting as a medium. He amended his holy book to allow for polygamy because to convince his original wife to allow him to marry their maid. As with Elron, the more one reads about Smith the more astounded one becomes.


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