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).
Via Brad DeLong, I found a nice tribute by Bruce Bartlett to Kristol’s editorial work at 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.
7 thoughts on “Irving Kristol, RIP”
I would like to see these videos reviewed.
Buckley as “baneful”…what a joke! The problem with those of your ilk is you hate what made this country great and superior over the rest in the world! You hate true capitalism, you hate real competition, you hate a real military…the problem is in order to be truely free requires a nation with ALL of the above 3.
You who do nothing more than feed on the minority votes are only eroding them and this nation, rather than supporting policies that would strengthen the whole nation.
Say what you will about Buckley and others…anyone with any intellectual honesty and common sense knows who really has done more to help minorities…the Buckley’s of the world who encourage the minorities to lift themselves or you who simply sit there and buy their votes with broken promises leaving them to rot in the sess pools of the inner cities you created!
“The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
—William F. Buckley, National Review, August 24, 1957
As you can see from the context of the article (http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2005-3_archives/001467.html), Buckley is NOT giving his opinion but rather relaying the reality of the times where the Democratic Whites in the South claimed civilization superseded universal suffrage of the Blacks…btw, a position the Southern Democrats had in common with the British. So, this is merely a case where Buckley is agreeing with Al Gore’s Democratic Party…yet somehow you consider this an arguement against him?
On September 15, 1963 a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 4 black girls and injuring many more children. (Those killed were Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair; McNair had been a classmate of the young Condoleezza Rice). The bomb was set by members of the Klu Klux Klan, as part of a wave of terror designed to intimidate the civil rights movement. Here is how National Review commented on the bombing in the October 1, 1963 issue of their biweekly Bulletin: “The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away form the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.”
So there you have: barely a whit of sympathy for the murdered and a quick desire to exonerate “the cause of the white people” and to shift the blame elsewhere, to a suppositious “communist”, to an imaginary “crazed Negro” and to the Supreme Court (guilty of ruling that segregation was unconstitutional). The real perversity of this editorial is worth dwelling on. The church bombing was not an isolated incident; it was part of a long tradition of extra-judicial white supremacist violence that goes back centuries, a pattern anyone familiar with American history knows well. Therefore, in trying to argue that the bombing couldn’t have been done by a white person, the editors were being wilfully obtuse. The purpose of the editorial is to obfuscate the question of guilt and blame the victims of a slaughter for their temerity in standing up for their rights.
It appears your grudge is of the early Buckley which I can not defend and apparently his views similar to that of Al Gore’s father. Yet, you don’t acknowledge his views during the late 60’s and beyond.
According to wikipedia “By the late 1960s, Buckley disagreed strenuously with segregationist George Wallace, and Buckley later said it was a mistake for National Review to have opposed the civil rights legislation of 1964-65. He later grew to admire Martin Luther King, Jr. and supported creation of a national holiday for him. In 2004, he explained a past statement pertaining to ‘cultural superiority, saying, “the point I made about white cultural supremacy was sociological and linking his usage of the word “Advancement” to its usage in the name NAACP, continuing, “The call for the ‘advancement’ of colored people presupposes they are behind. Which they were, in 1958, by any standards of measurement.” During the 1950s, Buckley had worked to remove anti-Semitism from the conservative movement and barred holders of those views from working for National Review.”
It seems to me that buckley’s organization of data was so orderly that most can never hope to surpass or even refute his level of thought. He was an intelligence so intense that no one could best or offer any logical response to any of his arguments.
It would be like Phil Donahue trying to teach Milton Friedman a lesson on economics…you can’t, see for yourself – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWsx1X8PV_A
Even in the face of pure logic, I’m sure to this day Donahue opposes Capitalism in favor of Socialism or worse.
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