Irving Kristol died yesterday and I’ve been wrestling with the issue of whether I should write a note on his passing or not. When a political adversary leaves the scene, I’m inclined to follow the principal of “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” (of the dead, speak no ill). The passing of William Buckley, who had much the same baneful impact on the world as Kristol, was met by me with an attempt to capture the impact of his charming literary voice. That’s harder to do in Kristol’s case since his prose was bluntly utilitarian: effective at making a point but rarely memorable.
What good can be said about Kristol? He was by all accounts a genial personality and a good family man. He was smart enough to realize that he wasn’t as intelligent as his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, a respected historian and the real intellectual giant of the family. He was a very gifted editor, with an eye for pressing issues and young writers (as witness his tenure at Encounter in the 1950s and The Public Interest from the mid-1960s until a few years ago). As an editor, he was at his best when he partnered with a co-editor with a more moderate and temperate sensibility (like Stephen Spender at Encounter or Daniel Bell in the early days of The Public Interest).
Kristol’s talent was as an editor, a popularizer, a NGO entrepreneur and a functionary. He was a key figure in reviving the right-wing think tank world in the 1970s, making think tanks much less academic, more media savvy and more closely attuned to the needs of the Republican party.
He always knew where the money was to be found to finance his activities, whether from the CIA in the 1950s (which supported Encounter) or the Olin Foundation in the 1970s.
I think any critique of Kristol would focus on the following failures:
1) Taking CIA money to fund an ostensibly independent magazine was more than just a bad idea: it did material harm to the cause of liberal anti-communism (which Kristol supported at the time) and to the good name of the United States (free nations shouldn’t need covertly-financed apologists).
2) His intellectual dishonesty. As Brad DeLong has often noted, Kristol didn’t care whether Supply Side Economics was true or not; it was politically useful for the Republican party, and therefor worth supporting whether it would lead to deficits or not.
3) His cold-blooded indifference to human rights. In the 1970s and 1980s Kristol supported the military Junta in Argentina that killed and tortured thousands. When Jacobo Timerman wrote a shocking and accurate book describing the tortures he endured in Argentina, Kristol attacked Timerman as a radical stooge (see Kristol’s article, “The Timerman Affair,” The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 1981). For me this issue was all the worse because the Junta was viciously anti-Semitic (not just targeting Jewish radicals but also making sure that the Jewish orphans they created were placed in the homes of Catholic military families, so that that these poor miserable children would grow up in ignorance of their parentage). As the great critic Alfred Kazin noted, “It was not enough for Timerman to have electrodes applied to his private parts; he must also be attacked in the Wall Street Journal by Irving Kristol.” (Alfred Kazin, “The Solitude of Timerman,” The New Republic, June 20, 1981).
4) His Straussian cynicism about religion. I doubt if Kristol had a religious cell in his body, but he knew the fear of God was good for other people, making them into properly servile citizens. Hence his willingness to promote God-talk in public life. Arguably, Kristol’s attitude towards religion was the same as his attitude towards Supply Side Economics. He didn’t really believe in either the Laffer Curve or Jehovah, but thought both of these were useful ideas for getting the rubes to vote Republican.
5) His obsessive, Ahab-like anti-liberalism. Liberalism, particularly in its post-1960s incarnation, really made Kristol unhinged. He seems to have thought that liberals were much worse than communists. For a taste of this blinkered side of his worldview, see his remarkable 1993 essay “My Cold War”, which is available here. The essay ends with this diatribe:
For me, then, “neo-conservatism” was an experience of moral, intellectual, and spiritual liberation. I no longer had to pretend to believe–what in my heart I could no longer believe–that liberals were wrong because they subscribe to this or that erroneous opinion on this or that topic. No–liberals were wrong, liberals are wrong, because they are liberals. What is wrong with liberalism is liberalism–a metaphysics and a mythology that is woefully blind to human and political reality. Becoming a neo-conservative, then, was the high point of my cold war.
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.
I started by saying “of the dead, speak no ill.” I still believe that, but I think we should be honest about Kristol’s politics. The criticisms I’ve made are the ones that any truthful account of Kristol’s career will have to grapple with.