Brian Morton, a fine novelist and engaging public intellectual, recently tweeted: “Leftists should stop sneering at @ezraklein. If we’d had liberal policy wonks as solid as Klein in the 1970s neoconservatism would never have attained the stature that it did. It would have been intellectually checkmated.” These tweets elicited some responses from me and a few other interested parties but my thoughts on this are a bit more complex than can easily be fitted into 140 characters, so I’m posting a longer argument here.
I understand the impulse behind Brian’s tweets. One of the most heartening developments in recent American politics is the emergence of a generation of passionate young left and liberal writers who have been very effective in challenging the lazy hegemony of conservatism that has dominated elite opinion since the 1970s. Ezra Klein is a convenient synecdoche for this generation. To see him go after blowhards like David Brooks or Bob Woodward is a rare example of a witnessing a salutary public service that is also bracing and delightful.
In my previous posting, I noted that Irving Kristol had a utilitarian attitude towards religion, viewing it as a necessary instrument of social control. For readers who might want more detail, I recommend this review of Kristol’s book Neoconservatism by Steve Vieux in New Politics.
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).