Irving Kristol, RIP

Kristol- Irving-HR

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).

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Great Moments in Selective Quotation

Winston Churchill: we don't need another book about him.
Winston Churchill: we don't need another book about him.

Not too many years ago, Andrew Roberts was a respected historian. He specialized in a very old fashioned sort of history, writing sympathetic biographies of conservative British bigwigs like Lord Halifax and Lord Salisbury. However conventional they might be, these volumes were based on original archival research and graced by a fluid prose style. The Salisbury biography won the prestigious Wolfson History Prize.


But in the last decade Roberts has degenerated into something much worse, a glib tabloid historian who writes vapid books celebrating the British Empire and its American successor. In this incarnation, Roberts has won some worldly success even as his scholarly reputation has been tarnished. Both George Bush and Dick Cheney are said to admire his pop histories, finding in them consoling lessons about how Anglo-American civilization has a duty to bring order to those ungrateful natives who live in faraway lands.


In the August 21 & 28, 2009 number of the Times Literary Supplement, the historian Richard J. Evans has a devastating review of Roberts’ latest book, The Storm of War: A New History of Second World War. As Evans notes, the new book and some of Roberts’ other recent works can be categorized as a “hastily written potboilers, widely criticized by reviewers for their inadequacies and inaccuracies.”

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Betsy McCaughey: Still a Liar

Like Freddy Krueger and Dracula, Betsy McCaughey will always be with us. She first gained fame writing about the health care reform in a notorious 1994 New Republic essay, which was filled with lies but had a wide circulation and influence. Now as health care reform is once again on the table, McCaughey has risen from her undead state and continues to peddle her dubious expertise. She was recently on the Daily Show, and was dishonest as ever (which Canadian viewers can see here; American viewers can find it here).

As long as McCaughey insists on haunting public, I will continue to advise readers that they need to digest and enjoy A.M. Lamey’s definitive dissection of her work, which can be found here as a pdf file. For more of Lamey on this matter, see this earlier post.

George Steiner’s Phony Learning


George Steiner’s new book.

As a literary critic and essayist George Steiner is distinguished by his erudition, which is not just impressive but even intimidating. A quick glance through his books reveals that he’s a writer confident enough to sit in judgement of a vast range of cultural figures ranging from the poets of antiquity to great composers like Bach and Beethoven to the Russian novelists of the 19th century to modern philosophers like Heidegger. “Is he a man or an encyclopedia?” you ask yourself as you read his essays.

Another question worth asking is, how much of Steiner’s erudition is real, based on actual familiarity with the artists and thinkers he’s writing about, and how much is just name-dropping? Is Steiner just the high-end equivalent of a Hollywood hanger on who has tales of chance encounters with “Angelina” and “Bobby DeNiro”.

I’m a great admirer of the poet, short story writer, painter and translator Guy Davenport, who really was a polymath. I’ve always had a soft spot for Steiner because he once lavishly praised Davenport in The New Yorker, a review that did much to bolster Davenport’s reputation and visiblity. “Davenport is among the very few truly original, truly autonomous voices now audible in American letters,” Steiner wrote. (Steiner’s review was recently republished in the essay collection George Steiner at The New Yorker, published by New Directions).

Recently while reading Guy Davenport’s letters to the publisher James Laughlin, I discovered that even Steiner’s commendable act of celebrating Davenport carried with a whiff of fraud.

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Trouble in a Capitalist Paradise


The Dubai Towers.

Dubai, a province of the United Arab Emirates, has been described as  the ideal dream world of neo-liberalism, the place where capitalism is allowed to flourish without the least impediment by government regulation. Those who celebrate corporate capitalism certainly love Dubai, and wish the rest of the world could follow its example.

Take Donna Wiesner Keene, a fellow of the Independent Women’s Forum, a rightwing anti-feminist think tank. Recently in a letter to the New York Times she wrote: “Madrick’s statement, quoted by the reviewer, that ‘there really is no example of small government among rich nations,’ is unsupported nonsense. Think Dubai, free and rich.”

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The Return of a Liar

Like the bad penny of legend, Betsy McCaughey keeps turning up. During the Clinton administration she wrote a very dishonest article on health care for the New Republic, which helped scuttle reform efforts. Now, according to Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly blog, she’s making stuff up about the Obama administration.

Given her renewed prominence, it might be worthwhile to revisit A.M. Lamey’s classic Sans Everything blog post on her, which can be found here. Lamey’s posting (and his accompanying article for the Believer) destroyed nor only McCaughey’s credibility but also any reputation Andrew Sullivan might have as an editor.

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Every Home Should Have One

If you subscribe to to Commentary magazine, you can get a “World Terrorism wall map”.  The JTA  reprinted Commentary‘s sales pitch with very little comment. I’ll do the same: 

To say “Thank You” for your paid subscription to COMMENTARY, we will send you our full-color 39” x 26” World Terrorism wall map. Features include detailed inset maps highlighting countries battling narco-, Maoist, and Islamist terrorism, icons depicting aspects of world terrorism, political and topographical detail, definitions and facts, summaries of terrorist organizations, and sources and web sites recommended for further research. The World Terrorism wall map, an essential resource for anyone wishing to know more about the growing danger facing us, illustrates the global scope of the terrorist menace.

Leo Strauss: Friend of Liberal Democracy?

J Edgar Hoover: a man Leo Strauss approved of.

Leo Strauss liked to describe himself as a “friend” of liberal democracy. It’s a mantra that his students and defenders often repeat. For example, in his book Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (University of Chicago Press), Steven B. Smith, a Yale political scientist, argues that Strauss was a “friend of liberal democracy – one of the best friends democracy has ever had.” Smith also says that he does not “not regard Strauss as a conservative (neo- or otherwise) but rather as a friend of liberal democracy.”

Like all Straussian notions, the catch-phrase “friend of liberal democracy” deserves close and skeptical scrutiny. Notice that Strauss is not claiming that he’s a liberal democrat. Given his elitism and penchant of exalting the wisdom of ancient philosophers like Plato (who were of course not liberal democrats in any meaningful sense) Strauss knew that any such claim would be self-evidently absurd. As Smith admits “To describe Strauss or Plato as any kind of liberal is, of course, deeply counterintuitive. One cannot find in any of their writings an unequivocal defense of such cherished liberal principles as individual rights or human equality.” No rational person would mistake Strauss for a John Dewey or a John Rawls.  But to say that Strauss was a friend of liberal democracy, that was an ambiguous claim that could have some plausibility, at least to the gullible and inattentive.

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Conservative Scholarship, then and now

The dunce cap. 

I’ve been upbraided for dealing with Johan Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism in an elliptical fashion, by talking about National Review‘s history of philo-fascism, rather than directly. But Goldberg’s book is being widely reviewed and commented on. It would be redundant for me to simply echo what smart writers like Dave Neiwert, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have already written. (And in time real historians of fascism will also be tackling the book). My philosophy as a blogger is to always try to make points that aren’t being articulated elsewhere.

Having said that, here is one fresh point that no one, as far as I know, has made about Goldberg. The book is about the relationship between fascism and American politics. Goldberg, on the evidence of the book, can’t read German, Italian or Spanish. These are the main languages you need to possess if you want to read the primary sources and major scholarly literature on fascism. The endnotes in Goldberg’s book are monolithically English.

Imagine writing a book on Shakespeare without knowing a word of English, or a book on the American Constitution while being unable to read Madison and Hamilton without the aid of translators.

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National Review and Terrorism

Victims of the church bombing.

Like all conservative publications, National Review likes to fulminate against terrorism. Terrorism is a serious problem, of course, but I have trouble taking what they say on this matter seriously. Here’s why:

1. 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.”

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