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Monday, September 21, 2009

Irving Kristol, 1920-2009

And so we lose another giant. A self-identified liberal "mugged by reality", Irving Kristol, commonly heralded as the godfather of 'neo'-conservatism, has died. Hillel Italie gives an account of his life for
A Trotskyist in the 1930s, Kristol would soon sour on socialism, break from liberalism after the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and in the 1970s commit the unthinkable — support the Republican Party, once as "foreign to me as attending a Catholic Mass."

He was a New York intellectual who left home, first politically, then physically, moving to Washington in 1988. ... his turn to the right joined by countless others, including such future GOP Cabinet officials as Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Bennett and another neoconservative founder, Norman Podhoretz.

"The influence of Irving Kristol's ideas has been one of the most important factors in reshaping the American climate of opinion over the past 40 years," Podhoretz said.

Among the host of publications he is credited as founding and/or editing was Commentary magazine (from 1947 to 1952); The Public Interest (from 1965 to 2002) and The National Interest from 1985 to 2002.

Kristol's life, along with that of his fellow "New York intellectuals" Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer, was the subject of the 1998 documentary, "Arguing the World". In July 2002 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Since the advent of the Iraq war, 'neo-conservatism' has become something of a derogatory term and indicative of those who supported the foreign policies of the Bush administration. Those who favor to this stereotype might be surprised to learn that Kristol himself took issue with it. Writing in the final issue of The Public Interest, he asserted:

“Foreign policy was no part of early neoconservatism: Had it been, there would have been additional bases of division among the early neoconservatives. How the term ‘neoconservatism' morphed from a political tendency that dealt almost entirely with domestic social policy to one that deals almost entirely—indeed, entirely—with foreign policy is an interesting question, which I will not explore further here. There is very little overlap between those who promoted the neoconservatism of the 1970s and those committed to its latter-day manifestation.”

As to what "neoconservatism" was, Kristol identified it as not so much a "movement" as a "persuasion" -- "one that manifests itself over time, but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect." He explored the subject in "The Neoconservative Persuasion" (Weekly Standard August 25, 2003) and in Neo-conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, a compilation of his writings on politics and economics.

(I recommend as well Jonah Goldberg's three-part series on the use, and abuse, of the term itself -- "State of Confusion"; "The Neoconservative Invention" and The End of Neoconservatism).

Though the son of non-observant Jewish immigrants, and not overtly religious himself, Kristol recognized mutual concerns and pursued strategic alliances with religious conservatives in his battle with secular humanism.

In his "farewell to the godfather", Christopher Hitchens joked:

The very word neoconservative, which was used, if not coined, by socialist Michael Harrington to describe his lapsed former comrades, was eschewed or ignored by most of its targets until Irving Kristol said, in effect, the hell with it, that's what we are, let's adopt the title for ourselves. I used to enjoy embarrassing secular Jewish Reaganites by taunting them for their alliance with the so-called Christian Coalition; I could have guessed that it would be Kristol who would write the essay saying that on many critical questions, from the family to Israel, these religious right-wing types had much to recommend them.

Indeed, Wilfred McClay observes that Kristol [had] been preoccupied with questions of religious faith, and the inadequacy of the liberal and secular understanding of things, from the very beginning of his writing career.

* * *

Kristol leaves behind his wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfard and son, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard.

Archives of Kristol's work are available online at The Public Interest, Commentary and The New Republic.


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