On the Democratic Idea in America
By reading this book one discovers what Spiro Agnew would sound like if he had gone to CCNY in the Thirties. Irving Kristol’s villains, like Agnew’s, are drugs, pornography, “youth,” the “adversary culture,” “intellectuals” (professors in particular), those who criticize the war, those on welfare and others who share “unreasonable” expectations of material well-being, “urban mobs,” and so forth. His primary method of exposition, like Agnew’s, is the sweeping undocumented assertion. It is therefore no surprise to learn, from the Wall Street Journal, that Kristol is the academic writer most frequently cited by the Nixon Administration.
A few sample pronouncements will show us why. Consider the following:
“An adult’s ‘normal’ political instincts should be conservative.”
“Men take it as an insult when they are asked to be reasonable in their desires and demands.”
“A liberal…ought to favor a liberal form of censorship.”
“The salaries of professors compare favorably with the salaries of bank executives.”
“Those same young radicals who are infuriated by trivial inequalities in the American economic system….”
The last two points are characteristic cheap shots. Some bank executives do make salaries comparable to some professors, but the over-all salary range is not at all comparable; thus the May 15, 1972, issue of Forbes Magazine said of “banking salaries” that there is a big cluster of them in the $200,000-$250,000 range. As for the “trivial inequalities,” according to the economist Lester Thurow, 2.5 percent of the population of the United States owns 45 percent of the country’s privately held assets. The book is littered with such assertions, some outright falsehoods, some misleading, some cleverly tendentious, some quite possibly accurate, but all without supporting authority or any hint (unless we count a motive as a reason) of their derivation.
One of Kristol’s favorite targets is “the intellectual,” whom he defines as a man “…with general authority about a subject on which he has no particular competence.” Intellectuals, among other things, never get their priorities right. They have an overoptimistic sense of human perfectibility or an underdeveloped sense of evil. They are given to “extreme dissatisfaction, sometimes extremist dissatisfaction.” By contrast, “the common people” tend to support the initiatives of the state. “The war in Vietnam has been borne with greater patience than might have been expected…. The general feeling was that it had to be endured.” Elsewhere Kristol calls these same “common people” a “mob”; they apparently acquire virtue as they acquiesce in their government’s policy. Perspicacious, dogged, wise, they stand firm against the seditions of intellectuals who want to create “a domestic climate of ideological dissent that will enfeeble the resolution of our statesmen and diminish the credibility of their policies abroad.” As if our credibility were otherwise undiminished!
Another of Kristol’s whipping boys is “the University,” whose administrators lead a “charmed life,” “never get much criticism,” and preserve their jobs by truckling to student fads and fancies. “Quite a few of our universities…decided that the only way to avoid on-campus riots is to give students academic credit for off-campus rioting (‘fieldwork’ in the ghettos, among migrant workers, etc.).” Kristol does not specify further what he means, yet apparently he feels entitled to call fieldwork among the poor “rioting.” So much for the late Oscar Lewis and for Robert Coles. Again, “A fair portion of the academic community would surely look more benevolently on a new college whose curriculum made ample provision for instruction in the theory of guerrilla warfare than one that made a knowledge of classical political philosophy compulsory.” Teach about guerrilla warfare or advocate it?
Kristol is ostensibly concerned with political theory, yet he fulfills neither the role of the original political thinker nor that of the intelligent, educated journalist. Unlike a good journalist, he repeatedly fails to supply evidence, or reasons, for what he says, or to point to some kind of supporting authority. He claims a commitment to reason but writes as if there were no connection between “reason” and the giving of “reasons.” He makes great historical generalizations and then quickly leaves us, climbing all branches at once.
On the other hand, unlike a political philosopher, he ignores the established tradition of argumentation (e.g., again the giving of reasons), never questions his presuppositions, and shows only the dimmest grasp of the tradition and principal texts of political philosophy. Thus, he characteristically helps himself to parts of two incompatible philosophical traditions. (One springs from Plato and gives full emphasis to what the people are thought to need; the other, including Hobbes and the classical English economists, acts on what the people in fact want.) Further, Kristol says, “For the idea of progress in the modern era has always signified that the quality of life would inevitably be improved by material enrichment.” That is simply false. Kristol means by “modern” something like “after Machiavelli.” But Rousseau, for example, who was drawn to asceticism, hardly pursued “material enrichment.” And Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill had the most serious reservations about the probable effects of “material enrichment.”
One wonders whether Kristol’s shoddy arguments can even be dignified by the name of conservatism. Certainly they are not conservative in the sense of Michael Oakeshott’s Burkean distrust of the possibility of applying rationalistic intelligent solutions to social problems; or Reinhold Niebuhr’s stress on the inevitable bias that results from a finite human viewpoint; or Hannah Arendt’s complex analysis of totalitarianism emphasizing ressentiment in modern mass society, as opposed to Marxist and other analyses based on class; or the preference of Leo Strauss, who Kristol says influenced him, for “certain crucial ancient political conceptions” over certain basic modern ones. It is not even the conservatism of a professional wise guy like William Buckley, who is at least honest in acknowledging his debts to those who worked out the basic presuppositions and philosophical bases of his position. It is more the conservatism of Reagan or Poujade, barely covered with a gloss from a philosophy textbook: bitter, arrogant, and appalled by change.
The general pattern of each of Kristol’s high-toned essays is much the same. First, he locates his subject within traditional political philosophy. Then, after allusions to the opinions of eminent philosophers, he states his own in the form of a misleading factual assertion. Finally, he bashes a nearby target bearing only the most dubious relevance to his ostensible subject.
One representative example will suffice: “Urban Civilization and Its Discontents,” Kristol’s inaugural lecture as Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University, an appointment for all the world like putting W. C. Fields in charge of a children’s day care center. Crude images embellish a familiar litany about city life: “But the wisdom of the ages had reached an unequivocal conclusion…about large…cosmopolitan cities: the anonymous creatures massed in such a place, clawing one another in a sordid scramble for survival…their frantic lives reflecting no piety toward nature, God, or the political order—such people were not of the stuff of which a free-standing, self-governing republic could be created;…if self-government…means the willingness of people to permit their baser selves to be directed by their better selves, then this precondition…is least likely to be discovered among the turbulent and impassioned masses of big cities.”
Yet “urban habits [have] …become the common mentality and way of life for everyone.” The “urban mob” has conquered even “that America which was calmly philistine and so very, very solid in its certainties—that America is now part and parcel of urban civilization.” Are there no longer Rotarians, then, no “silent majority,” no one for Nixon to talk to? Has Des Moines or Atlanta succumbed to the “sordid clawing” (an image falling somewhere between Hogarth and Bosch) of Manhattan cabbies? One thinks of Allen Ginsberg: “The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from our garages. / Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our filling stations,” etc. Except that instead of short-haired commissars, Kristol sees long-haired dope fiends.
Having thus deftly identified the problem, Kristol zeroes in on what he calls the “nub.” This is—honest to God—marijuana. He specifies that he has no interest in its literal (i.e., medical) harmfulness; he cares only about its “ultimate” threat to “our society.” Alcohol and cigarettes are no problem; they are integral parts of “our society,” rather like football or boxing or Christmas office parties, with their inevitable but only peripherally significant injuries. Smoking marijuana, by contrast, “has become a mass habit—among our young masses especially—whose purpose is to secede from our society and our civilization; and such a declaration requires a moral answer, not a medical one.” Meaning what? What is the society for which Kristol speaks? Is it represented by the young or the old, by Nixon or McGovern, by Manhattan or Des Moines? In fact, of course, it is simply the kind of society he ideally prefers; but to acknowledge as much would require him to put forward reasoned arguments for that society, and this he will not or cannot do.
But he is not yet finished. He attributes the “ultimate” evidence of our sudden moral collapse to the absence of reasoned moral arguments about “drugs.” (It must be remembered that his subject is not heroin but marijuana.) The prohibition movement was better; its members “knew why it was bad for a citizen to destroy himself in this way.” To the marijuana problem, by contrast, America responds only with “tedious…medical reports.” But the very opposite seems true. We know rather little about the medical consequences of marijuana, let alone other “drugs,” and respond with real legal penalties and various “moralistic” reactions like making horror movies about LSD, the drug culture, and heroin. In a word, the one identifiable aspect of our response to marijuana is precisely the moral aspect that Kristol says is missing.
Kristol urges us to discuss marijuana as part of “the ultimate subversive question: Why not?” We can only rub our eyes. Where in this formulation, with its aura of kindergarten Nietzsche, is there any hint that he is discussing a widespread practice that is criminal in every state but is penalized only capriciously, i.e., unjustly? Or that we have turned over a widely consumed product to criminal organizations, just as we would if we outlawed Coca-Cola? Or even—a point that one would expect a “neoconservative” to care about—that we excite disrespect for the law when we ask policemen to enforce the middle-class morality of a waning era rather than to protect people endangered by physical harm and theft?
But all arguments aside, how is one to understand a view of our present condition that singles out smoking marijuana as the symptom “perfectly signifying” what he calls “a civilization in trouble”? How does an obviously intelligent and well-informed person acquire such a grotesquely disproportionate sense of priorities? The answer lies not so much in what he says as in what targets he savages: e.g., not only marijuana but also the rising and insatiable expectations of the poor, pornography, and the protests of “intellectuals” against the war. Kristol, alas, rarely cares about his ostensible subject. His concern is with the emblems, practically the battle flags, of what has come to seem a conflict between “two cultures,” a conflict that has riven the country more deeply than perhaps any division since the Civil War. Once one realizes that the book has been generated by this underlying conflict, Kristol begins to make a certain kind of sense. Only from this perspective can one understand his obsession with marijuana.
To be sure, Kristol nowhere offers such a clarification. He shows no interest in a careful characterization of any deep division in the country, or in considering its causes or possible consequences, or in assessing the accuracy or the merits of the assertions and the grievances put forward by either side. Kristol does not consider whether “the young” (to him “rebels without a cause” and “without a hope of accomplishing anything except mischief and ruin”) justifiably should protest the war, racism, an unjust society, etc. Specific analysis is not his business. He knows his enemies when he sees them, and his instrument for dealing with them is the journalistic equivalent of a shotgun. Let someone else describe or analyze the war; Kristol is fighting it.
The persistence of any society can be said to depend on “the young” not asking certain questions. Kristol speaks of the ultimately subversive question “Why not?” but the more subversive question is “Why?” Why, for example, should I go to school, or acquire a certain skill; why, for that matter, should I postpone gratification of any kind? “Why?”—ultimately Oblomov’s “Why should I get out of bed?” Whenever such questions seem omnipresent, a society is undergoing a crisis about its nature and purposes; and since the answers to these questions constitute social reality, a change in their perceived exigency means a change in the nature of a society. This is what Kristol calls the “threat” to “our” society.
A threat it is, as every new politics or youth movement or counterculture is a threat to the establishment’s hold on power. For large groups of Americans to become internal emigrants may indeed be undesirable. But what is singular is Kristol’s ability to speak of estrangement as if it were uncaused, a tendency somehow spontaneously originating within those groups. Are “the young” suffering only from self-inflicted wounds? Kristol never gets to that question. Nor does he tell us what kind of “threat” they constitute; how important to whom in what way. All we learn is that it is terribly, terribly important to him. And that is not enough.