The ideas that conquered the world

"The Neocon Reader" is must reading for liberal losers who want to get their mojo back.

Published February 5, 2005 2:00AM (EST)

Why should liberal readers dip into this sampling of the other side's ideology? To save themselves. Earnestly, to remind themselves of what it might be like to offer a coherent program again. Cynically, to figure out how the other guys did it. I'm more or less a neocon myself (more libertarian on economic and drug issues, more conservative on some cultural issues) so I find both the substance and the rhetoric of many of the articles here inspiring. But even those who don't might admire the imagination, forthrightness and clarity of most of the contributors.

If you're old enough to have followed politics in the '70s, you'll remember that liberals used to be the exciting ones. They were more open-minded, more imaginative and, well, sexier than conservatives. And one big reason Bush won in 2004 was that many of us who were ambivalent about the man and his politics -- I voted for Gore in 2000 -- found the Democrats and their candidate smugly self-righteous, prissy and joyless. Sure, red-staters can be smug, too, but it's as incongruous in liberals as it is in garage bands. My liberal friends asked how I could support the candidate of the Christian right, but Kerry came off as so plastic and corporate, so backpedaling and two-faced, that by election night I felt that wearing a Bush button was a punk rock gesture.

If not for Christian fundamentalists, after all, we probably wouldn't have punk rock. Or rap, Goth fashion, skateboarding and lots of recent art. Strong art comes from cultural ferment, from the clash of ideas, not from homogeneity. Liberals have failed to recognize that the "diversity" they so celebrate includes people who disagree with them -- churchgoers and mosque-goers, pro-lifers and hunters. And the life has gone out of liberalism as a result. One of the less well-known contributors to "The Neocon Reader," the Portuguese political theorist Joco Carlos Espada, notes that the most successful liberal regimes resulted from "a combination of and a tension between religion and philosophy." "A liberal order," Espada sagely notes, "will be the more successful the less it aims at total supremacy." Those who inveigh against "the religious right" don't consider how dull a country we would have if everyone actually did think like them. A purely blue-stated America would be kind of like Europe (but, alas, without the great food and shoes).

Which brings us to the annoying cult of the Continent. "Europe doesn't have Christian fundamentalists," my liberal friends sneer, but then Europe doesn't have much in the way of a living popular culture either. They import their music, fashion and dance forms either from us or various countries of color, oppression and religiosity. They imitate our streetwear, our body language and our movies, and they'd hardly have any artists at all if they didn't subsidize them. Take Berlin, vaunted as a new boho art capital. The whole city has about the same volume of cultural ferment and creativity as one square block of the East Village in the '80s. It's hard to even find a cool T-shirt there. I had no trouble at all, however, finding young people who were upset that the death penalty was applied in the Nuremberg trials. Not because they were Nazi sympathizers, but because they thought capital punishment was barbaric. And here I'd spent decades believing that the only problem with Nuremberg was that they didn't apply the death sentence to enough of the Nazis.

But this Rumsfeldian moral clarity is exactly what the left now hates and eschews, to the point where no one could figure out what Kerry's policy was on much of anything except getting elected. And when the left becomes mealy-mouthed, trimming its sails to catch the faintest hint of an electoral breeze, it loses its vaunted moral superiority. Listen to Irving Kristol, the former publisher of the National Interest and the Public Interest, supporting Social Security in 1993: "The conservative hostility to social security, derived from a traditional conservative fiscal monomania, leads to political impotence and a bankrupt social policy ... If the American people want to be generous to their elderly, even to the point of some extravagance, I think it is very nice of them ... [The elderly] do not have illegitimate children, they do not commit crimes, they do not riot in the streets." You may disagree with Kristol, but you know where the hell he stands and that he's sincere. A quote beloved of Christian fundamentalists comes to mind, the one from Revelations about God spewing those who are lukewarm out of his mouth. There is nothing lukewarm about neoconservatives, and this makes the Democrats hate them even more.

In fact, the main reason that neocons inspire so much venom, as British journalist Michael Gove explains in his contribution, is that they've stolen the left's thunder. "Because neoconservatism places human rights, democracy, and liberal principles at the heart of its foreign-policy vision, the left have become angered that they no longer have a monopoly on the rhetoric of values. The left cannot abide the twin reverses of losing sole possession of the moral high ground and being proved wrong in the realm of action." What is a liberal to do when a Republican president says, as ours did last week, "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world?" (And what are liberals left to say when 8 million Iraqis risk their lives to show that they love liberty every bit as much as Americans?)

Well, if you're desperate to differentiate your position, you can try to paint reality so that tyranny looks a little better and democracy looks a little worse. In my view, this has been the strategy of the mainstream American press ever since 9/11. Does anyone else remember how in the fall of 2001 numerous mainstream papers, most notably the New York Times and Washington Post, were anxious to bring the hardships of Taliban sympathizers and jihadi prisoners to readers' attention? The lefty pundits hadn't been able to stop the war, and their early predictions of a quagmire and heavy American losses were quickly proven ludicrous. So they switched to looking for "human rights violations" under every rock in Afghanistan.

Which brings us to Iraq. Note that "The Neocon Reader" does not focus on Iraq. But those who oppose the war might profit by tracing its intellectual antecedents in this volume, as far back as Margaret Thatcher's 1996 speech proclaiming "the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction" to be "the single most awesome threat of modern times." Her examples of countries that have acquired them? "Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria." But Thatcher did not imagine the extent of neocon dominance just seven years later: "Given the intellectual climate in the West today, it is probably unrealistic to expect military intervention to remove the source of the threat, as for example against North Korea -- except perhaps when the offender invites us to do so by invading a small neighboring country. Even then, as we now know, our success in destroying Saddam's nuclear and chemical weapons capability was limited." Add to that Condoleezza Rice's October 2002 Manhattan Institute speech (notably blander and flabbier than Thatcher's), Tony Blair's April 1999 speech ("Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men -- Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic") and you have some of the key actors' thoughts. A war for oil? Readers can draw their own conclusions. And although no WMD have been found, politicians and pundits alike have to make choices under imperfect information. The neocons did the best they could with what they had.

In part because politics post-9/11 has mainly meant international politics, neoconservativism is largely perceived as a foreign policy doctrine. This was not always the case, and getting the full flavor of the movement requires understanding that it was born as much in the effort to make sense of the collapse of the inner cities in the '70s and '80s and in the original culture wars of the '60s. The two earliest articles in this anthology are about domestic policy: Irving Kristol's 1971 New York Times Magazine defense of censorship of pornography, and James Q. Wilson's now-legendary 1982 Atlantic Monthly essay on urban decay, "Broken Windows."

This last might be the exemplary piece here, both for its intellectual virtues and for its influence on government policy. Wilson's title refers to a theory that if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the windows in the building will soon be smashed, and his article is frequently credited with sparking the new approaches to urban order that led to the revival of New York under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

What is not so often recalled from Wilson's article is that the novel idea of placing officers on foot patrol did not actually reduce the crime rate; it only reduced citizens' perception of the crime rate. But that was enough. That turned out to be what urban vitality was about. Wilson pointed out that in the mid-20th century, the public began to view the police not as the maintainers of public order they had historically been, but as crime fighters. The problem was that they weren't nearly as good at actually apprehending criminals as they had been, in earlier times, at creating the feeling of public safety that allowed neighborhoods of poor and working-class people to flourish. The two police functions were linked, just not in the way people now thought. It wasn't that fingerprinting more and more burglars reduced burglary; it was that "serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked." But the police had more or less stopped trying to punish or prevent such behavior; doing so was now suspected as unfair, racist, judgmental and so on. And the wish to prevent this, and to decriminalize "victimless crimes" (when was the last time you saw that phrase?), led to the collapse of whole neighborhoods.

Wilson's essay represents neocon thinking at its best -- not only innovative, but honest and practical. Wilson raises the inherent conflict between the desire to live in a place perceived as safe with the equally strong desire for fairness. How can we be sure that "the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry"? He admits that he is "not confident that there is a satisfactory answer." He further suggests that the precise balance between individual rights and community strength can only emerge empirically and on a case-by-case basis. This is the second point: practicality. If something doesn't work, neocons think, try something else. (Old-line conservatives are sometimes inclined to go down in noble defeat instead.) If something works, continue doing it. And don't pretend you know more than that, if you don't.

"Broken Windows" is exemplary of neocon thought in another way, one honored recently as often as it is breached. That is the importance of perceptions. Here the Bush administration has fallen down badly. It doesn't matter if Iraqis are freer than they were under Saddam if they don't feel that way. It doesn't matter if the U.S. has upgraded a lot of the crumbling Iraqi infrastructure if the water and power still don't work well. The Bush administration has often been its own worst enemy in the matter of perceptions, even at the start of the war when Cheney could easily have avoided not only evil but also the appearance of evil, in the form of cronyism. Not to mention the inept handling of Abu Ghraib. Part of having respect for the electorate is having respect for perceptions and sensibilities. While I hope that Democrats will learn from neocons, and some day give us a presidential candidate so interesting and outspoken and creative that even I will think about voting for him, I hope still more strongly that Republicans won't forget why they're winning these days.

By Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe is the author of "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" and "The Book of Trouble," published last month.

MORE FROM Ann Marlowe

Related Topics ------------------------------------------