[Paleopsych] Salon: The ideas that conquered the world: The NeoCon Reader

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The ideas that conquered the world: The NeoCon Reader

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

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 João 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 

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 

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 

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.

Ann Marlowe is the author of "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" and is 
working on a book about love and sex in America.

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