First a word about usage. The word "neoconservative" means a very special kind of conservative, one who has arrived at conservatism from the Left, and whose politics are far more politics in the head than in the local precinct or even national political party. Naturally, since neocons are by definition conservatives, the party they are most likely to incline to is the Republican party--though their political-party commitment is hardly either a leading or directing passion for them. I think here I should begin to say "us"--except for one slight embarrassment: I am a neocon no longer. Since I can find in myself no significant difference from the basic views of most serious conservatives, I have come to the conclusion that it is long since time for me to drop my original designation and call myself simply a conservative. How did I get here is the question, and thinking long and hard about the answer, I have come to the perhaps surprising conclusion that the story begins with Zionism.
So let's begin there, very briefly. Facing the twentieth century, a vast number, perhaps a majority, of the leading Jewish intellectuals of Europe were basically divided into two camps. There were those whose backs in the name of Halachah were obdurately turned away from the enlightenment, and there were the socialists, those who were going to bring about that glorious new world in which there would be neither Greek nor Jew but only proletarian man embodying the purest social justice. Within these camps there were, of course, certain divisions and disagreements. And between them, if goes without saying, there was passionate enmity. They would have been shocked at the thought that they had one very basic thing in common: it would turn out, when push came to shove, as it was so bloodily to do, neither of these camps was any part of God's plan for the survival of the Jewish people. Indeed, they had not even the ability to save themselves, women and children included. Who among European Jews were saved? Those who came to America to make their way in the brutal but promising new world, and those who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establishing a Jewish future on a forlorn little piece of land stuck between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. It is, I know, wrong to speak of those people with a catch in one's throat; they were brave and determined people, but with few exceptions they were also considerably less than perfect. But that is beside the point--which is, that it has been hard to remain grateful and loyal to those people, who had obviously been intended by fate--I myself would say God--to insure the future of the Jewish people through the second half of the twentieth century without giving up one's dreams of perfection in favor of a very stark and perpetually endangered material condition on the ground. The existence of and prayer for the survival of the Jewish state was like a kite string that forever kept one from floating away on a passing political breeze. It would take me a long, long time to understand any of this, of course, and before I did, I certainly had my moments of flapping in the wind and mistaking what I was doing for flying.
Now, some of my elders in the neoconservative family--most prominently Irving Kristol--began in one or another kind and degree of leftist radicalism. Having emerged from adolescence at the end of World War II--when we cheered on, and then prayed for, and then joyously celebrated, the victory of the United States over what were without question the forces of evil--I myself was spared all but a nod of acknowledgment toward both Trotskyism and socialism--the two schools of radicalism that had undergone something of a moderating influence in the struggle against totalitarianism. I was spared by two things: as I said, by being an ardent young Zionist and by the passion of my own family and all the other ordinary Jews among whom we lived for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But let me begin at the beginning. I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where my mother was born and where my father had been sent from New York as very little more than a boy to find some way to make a living. By the time I came along, the Jewish community of St. Paul was fairly substantial in size--substantial enough, at least, to provide its children with a whole social world in which they might be protected from straying too far outside the boundaries of Jewish identity. At the time when my mother was born, however--in the late 1890s--the Jewish community was not only far smaller but was made up in very large part of Lithuanian Jews, a number of whom had been urged to come to America and settle in St. Paul by my maternal grandfather: no doubt seeking for company after a few very lonely winters on alien soil. My mother was the youngest of ten, and by the time she herself was an adolescent, Zionism had already reached the American hinterland. A few years ago, we found a sheaf of documents lying in a closet which turned out to be the by-laws and minutes of meetings of an organization called, for some reason, "The Ladies Zionist Society," originally organized in 1906 with a membership by no means exclusive to women. My mother's elder brother seemed to have been its recording secretary. Later, some time in 1916, my father was to meet my mother at a meeting of an organization of Zionist youth, which they had both attended as volunteer youth leaders.
I tell you all this, not because I am sitting on a treasure trove of early American Jewish or Zionist history. I am not. Aside from the documents I mentioned, now reposed with the Minnesota Historical Society, I know very little of my grandparents or the early years of my aunts and uncles and cousins, for curiously, none of them was ever inclined to talk of the past; and perhaps they themselves never asked about their own past: unlike almost everyone I know, for example, I cannot name the village in Lithuania from which my grandparents came, for they either did not tell stories about the old country, or my mother and her siblings were never interested to find out. Perhaps this was not so strange. It may be that many people were like that, wishing to forget Europe and cleave unto America--I do not actually know. But it now seems strange to me.
In any case, what I do know is that Zionism was bred in my bones. My sisters and I were made to study Hebrew four days after school and on Sunday, not in a religious school but in a community Hebrew school, and in our household Palestine was spoken of, contributed to, and worked for, night and day. Why do I tell you all this? Its relevance is that no matter how hot and careless a utopian liberal I was briefly to become in the late 50s and early 60s, I had been well inoculated against radicalism when its day came around in the late 60s and early 70s. (In American life, some decades take up a lot of political and spiritual space.) The only grand posturing of my teens, then, had been a declared intention to die on the barricades in Palestine. In the event, as you can see, I made no such gesture and settled down instead to a more or less ordinary American life--a fact that in itself taught me a good deal about the nature of adolescent gesturing.
Later, in young adulthood, through a series of circumstances I became a member--let us say, in junior standing--of the New York literary community. It is a canard, but one well established by now, that this community was exclusively Jewish. True, there were a number of Jews of different stripes in it--centered primarily around two magazines, Partisan Review and Commentary--but the members of this community were not all Jews, not by a long shot. What they were--what was what you might call "New Yorkish" about them--is that unlike literary communities centered in other places and around other little magazines, they were all intellectuals, even the poets and novelists among them. Now, before World War II, many of these intellectuals had not yet emerged from their radical, mostly Trotskyite youth. In 1941, for example, Partisan Review had given space an ultimately fateful debate among its editors as to whether one should or should not support the Allied side in the war that had officially been raging for nearly two years. The question as it was framed concerned whether this was merely an imperialists' war and to hell with both sides or whether one should support the United States and the Allies on the ground that they were unequivocally the good guys in a fight against the evil Hitler. By the war's end, however, it was agreed by everyone that for all its shortcomings, the United States' side was in the end the side of right.
Another point of agreement among all of the New York intellectuals--anyway at the time; later, in the 1960s, some, urged along by the youth, would rediscover the joys of youthful anti-American radicalism--was their abiding hostility to Communism: which meant, to Stalin and his henchmen in the Soviet Union and its satellites and to the servants of Stalin in the American Communist party.
If being a Zionist had protected me from the kind of radical shenanigans that characterized virtually all of the New York intellectuals in the prewar years, it had on the other hand placed me squarely with them on the issue of anti-Communism. Stalin had been the first to recognize the new state of Israel, but that, we understood, was merely a move against the British empire. Otherwise his murderous anti-Semitism, along with the fact that his country had in general become a combination slaughter-house and prison with all its citizens inmates, and, in time, his clear intention to move into the Middle East and stir the Arab pot, had clearly made him the true successor to Hitler. There were, to be sure, fights in the New York intellectual community--there were, indeed, always fights of one kind or another in the New York intellectual community--over McCarthyism, in which some people were charged with being "soft" n McCarthy, and others were charged with being "soft" on the kind of muddle-headed liberals who failed to grasp the dangers of Stalinism. And there was a special corner of the peace movement, whose members, while holding no brief for the Soviet Union, declared that one day the earth itself might be decimated and that therefore some agreement to destroy both U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons had to be reached. But even so, about the Soviet Union there remained a clear consensus. The place remained crushed under an evil government.
All this meant that, willy nilly, the New York Jewish intellectuals, disputes and all, had made themselves at home in America. And it was about this time, say, in the late 1950s, that this young girl from off the farm, so to speak, came to enjoy a kind of junior membership in their community.
If all this history seems obvious and unnecessary--boring, even--it is nevertheless essential to an understanding of the birth of neoconservatism. For another crisis would overtake the intellectual community in the course of the 1960s, a crisis in its way no less disruptive and consequential than the crisis over World War II and far from unrelated to it; and from this new crisis would emerge an even more profound, and far more permanent, division of alliances.
If the older New York intellectuals had been formed by 1930s radicalism--along with the avant garde in literature and art, the discovery of which had been as essential a part of their formation--the younger generation, of whom I was a part, had naturally arrived with a very different set of experiences.
To begin with, World War II, not the Depression, had been the overarching experience of our adolescence. For us, such a thing as a debate over our primary loyalty would have seemed as alien as some far-off native religious rite. The United States, our country, was the good guy, fighting and winning a great battle against a black villain. Period. Roosevelt was our great leader, and when he died, and the war was over, his doughty successor Mr. Truman embarked on a program of saving Western Europe, and with it Western civilization, we were proud of our country. And as for me, the unswerving Zionist, there was the miracle of the establishment of the Jewish State--a full-throated announcement of Jewish vitality and determination in the teeth of the horrendous wiping-out of Central and East European Jewry.
And culturally, far from being a liberating discovery, modernism in literature and the arts was for us the tradition of our elders. We were totally enwrapped by it, but on the other hand, taking it for granted, we were also able to take it somewhat more lightly and even to assimilate it somehow with the popular culture in which we had grown up.
Our elders in the intellectual community had discovered in the war, perhaps to the surprise of some of them, that they had wanted America to win and that they now believed American strength to be a force for good in the world. This was an enormous discovery for them, and some few of them were in fact never quite able to be psychologically at peace with it. Thus when the new radicalism of the late 1960s exploded into the American air, they dreamed of recapturing their youth and signed on. (Interestingly, most if not all of the members of this particular group of New York intellectuals were not Jews.)
We younger ones, on the other hand, had learned something else from World War II and its aftermath, something that did not in fact feel like a discovery, enormous or not, but only a kind of natural extension of what we had grown up in the midst of. It might have taken us a few years of growing up to give this influence on us conscious, political expression, but it was there, brewing in our spirits. I am speaking of the acquisition of a newfound sense of vast power and unending possibility.
We had, all of us, young and old, learned in a way that was quite new for Americans that there was such a thing lurking in the world as pure and unmitigated evil. But this discovery could not stand for long against the almost overwhelming tide of wealth and innovation and freedom of movement, which left us with the sensation that we were moving toward ... sheer limitlessness.
For Jews in particular it is important to remember that the postwar transition years--the years, say, from 1945 to 1965--were very good years. Despite the shock of discovering just how completely the entire civilized world had averted its gaze from what was happening to their fellow Jews in Europe, they would find not only that they were now being welcomed to hitherto restricted precincts but that all the traditional expressions of hostility to Jews had been banished from polite, and even largely from impolite, society. Beyond this, in some considerable degree as a result of the combination of the primary system and the electoral college, Jews began to exercise a new kind and new degree of political influence. And above all, as I indicated above, Jews were now at ease culturally: not only were they being let in, but what they were being let into was more and more losing any definable character as WASP.
Now, what I referred to just before as the something, the force, just waiting to spring on the American zeitgeist, and on us very much with it, was something best summed up by a phrase that seemed very illuminating to me and that was spoken by Bobby Kennedy in the course of a campaign speech. This was the question "Why not?"
This question, why not?, requires as its first premise great wealth and even greater expectations--both conditions that as the postwar years wore on came to be ever more taken for granted, most especially by the members of the educated American middle class. As we know, this question is and has ever been the introduction to sweet and irresistible seduction. "Why not?" turns out to be the means by which virtuous societies no less than virtuous ladies are led in pleasure down the path of self-destruction.
As it happened, many influences beyond sheer wealth led to this sense of being unshackled, prominent among them a number of ideas and attitudes whose power over the country's culture was being vastly increased by the massive spread of higher education. In addition, the country was beginning to experience a burst of just plain old political restlessness, the outgrowth among other things of simple boredom--ever a possibility in the life of any democracy. This last point requires more space and time than it can be given within the limited purview of this paper, but I have brought it in here in however truncated a fashion because it is so crucial to my story. For it was the sense of open-endedness that I have described which came upon me and, I would say, a decisive number of my contemporaries with the force of a new revelation. Enough of necessity, it whispered in our ears; enough of Sigmund Freud and the tragic sense of life and the limits imposed upon man in a fallen world; life need no longer be constrained.
It is important to point out that we did not actually live our day-to-day lives strictly according to this revelation. Our households and our work proceeded pretty much as they would have had we still been living in the old society in which we had been brought up. We worked hard, for instance, and were for the most part and perforce reasonably prudent. We led what by today's standards, for instance, would have to be accounted very steady lives, and if there were certainly much more libertinism and many more divorces among us than there had been, say, in our parents' generation, they tended still to be very costly and painful and for the most part not light-mindedly undertaken. But when it came to politics, asking ""Why not?" led us to disdain to old-style Rooseveltian liberals among whom we had grown up. For all their declared intention to make the country a more benign and expansive place, we said--and wrote--they were too smug of spirit and too banal of mind to be truly open to the possibility of new adventure. And so it was that a group of us, mostly surrounding and writing for a newly constituted and directed Commentary, declared ourselves to be radicals. Not radicals in the old 1930s way of our elders in the intellectual community, who had been engaged in partisan radical politics, but radicals of the spirit. So rich and promising a country as the United States, we said, should not be home to so many people living with sorrows of one kind or another, nor should it as a polity need any longer to be so restricting.
It is important to point out that despite a few very feeble efforts in the direction of play-acting at social transformation, our radicalism was not actually to be found in our lives, not even our political lives, but in our heads. And in our heads was precisely the place where the radicalism driven by the question "Why not?" could, and did, do the maximum amount of damage, primarily to our own children. For if our World War II nervous systems (enriched in my case by a still passionate Zionism) did not permit us, as they say, to "act out" the liberation of our minds, our children were to become its perfect foils. One of the things that to this day few people understand about the famous young of the 1960s is that far from rebelling, most of them were in fact being deeply obedient to the demands and expectations of their elders. That these demands and expectations were largely unspoken is little to the point. The inordinate youthful self-regard of the famous "kids" of the 60s and 70s; their demand to be given, without having to strive for it, all the goodies their society had to offer, including, of course, easy sex; their recourse to the instant and unearned sense of power and comfort supplied by drugs; their refusal to serve their country; their general ingratitude, expressed most of all in their declared intention to lead lives in no respect like those of their forbears--all these were simply translations of the hubris that, partly unconsciously but entirely influentially, was poured into the basic underpinning of their upbringing.
If "why not?" turned out to be more than anything else an invitation to sin against one's children--not to speak of an invitation to one's children to do some further considerable sinning against themselves--this question carried in its wake a second even more lethal, one. That second question was, "So what?"--two words that in combination have the power to wither growing things on the vine. In our own day, this question is the intellectual and spiritual shrug that lies behind the institution of multicultural education, the social shrug that lies behind a race-based double standard of conduct, and the moral shrug that lies behind the permission to teach techniques of anal and oral sex to schoolchildren. These two questions--why not? and so what?--would in the end prove to be among the most lasting legacies of my and my friends' dream of escaping from the bounded and limiting view of life that had been our natural birthright as Jews (and certainly also as Christians). "Why not?" in its arrogance, and "So what?" in its nihilism set the stage for a kind of nation-wide drama of moral paralysis.
To return to my own story, there is no more efficient way to recover from the temptations of radicalism than to become conscious of the traps it has set for one's own children. If we self-styled radicals still had moral and emotional capital to draw on from the world of assumptions and ideas in which we had grown up, our kids had only our will to be freed of those assumptions and ideas to depend on. Is there a need after all this time to set down in detail the effect of that will? Without going into all the grim and sorry particulars of that effect, which are well known to everyone, I can just sum it up by reminding you of the fact that from, say, 1965 to 1975, there was a sudden and marked increase--increase is hardly the word; we are talking of a rise of something like 250%!--in the adolescent suicide rate.
In any case, there were basically two ways to respond to the admission, harder each year to evade, that the young were in deep trouble--and with them, naturally, several of the basic structures of this society. The first of these ways, the leftist way, was to declare that all the troubles of the young arose from the fact that the social revolution they sought had not yet been completed. Their demands for freedom and justice were still a long way from being met: there was as yet, for example, no justice for blacks or women or homosexuals; and as for freedom, regardless of how much of it was being wrested from courts and legislatures, no one had yet succeeded in putting an end to the continuing pressure from a group of troglodytes who wished to return the country to the dark ages of intolerance and censorship: mainly small-town Christians and a few possibly dangerous ex-radicals who were beginning to make suspicious noises and for whom, though they called themselves the true liberals, Michael Harrington invented the term "neoconservatives." Not to mention the persistence of a different group of "troglodytes," in this case perhaps more sophisticated ones, who with their invention of the Cold War were constantly endangering the country and its young citizens with their longing to engaged in jingoistic military exercises. No wonder, ran this explanation, that "the kids" were restless and unhappy.
The second way to respond to the idea that there was something amiss with the young was the one that came, not without considerable resistance, to surrender to Michael Harrington's nomenclature. Neoconservatives were people who came to see--though to be sure, not all of them at once--that it was the revolution itself and not the basically just and free country against which this putative revolution was being made that was responsible for the social ill-health of the young. Responsible in two senses: responsible in one for the indisposition of the privileged among them and in another, far more permanently damaging, way for the ever more inescapable pathology of young blacks in the inner cities.
As you can see, what we had here was no mere difference of opinion but rather a deep, and to this day ever deepening, schism. The intellectual community was now split asunder; indeed, the metaphor of civil war would not an entirely exaggerated one. In any case, the people who had grown ever more cheerful about calling themselves neoconservatives believed that justice and freedom as defined by the young and their middle-aged camp followers were at best caricatures and at worst outright perversions of those terms, properly understood.
There's the rub. From whence, in the end, does such proper understanding derive? Lenin once taught that he who says A must say B, and despite the murderous nature of his own A and the even more murderous B that followed from it, Lenin was of course right. The new recognition of the meaning of freedom among the neoconservatives(1) had, for the reasons I have cited and others as well, ceased to be the ersatz liberation of "why not?" and had become rather the freedom meant by the term "free will"--which is to say, the taking of responsibility for what one does and what one is.
Here you have the essential neoconservative A. And the B? The B--where else can one arrive from the A of free will and personal responsibility?--the B is God. For Jews, of course, the real question about God is not, does He exist, or what is He, but rather what does He want of us? He has answered this question, not only in His scripture--about which decent and serious people can and do differ--but in the very constitution of our natures: to choose life, to be fruitful and multiply, and to walk in his ways, which means among other things to know in one's bones that life makes sense and that human fulfillment resides in resisting the ever-present temptation to return to the void, tohu vavohu. (I am certain, too, that what He wants from us is something else as well, and that is to fight for and sustain the twentieth century miracle He has defiantly wrought in the teeth of the destruction of European Jewry, that is, the restoration of His people Israel in the land of Israel and in its eternal capital, the city of Jerusalem. But that is really a discussion for a different day--except for me to point out that in the American Jewish community there are no more steadfast and determined supporters of Israel than the neocons, which as the Communists used to say, is no accident, comrade.)
Such an understanding, of course, goes beyond politics and can never be satisfied by politics, but it does inevitably have a political dimension. And that is, it requires one to renounce the arrogant rejection of God's world that many liberals, particularly young ones, call by the name of idealism. What follows from this is one's commitment to a whole host of ideas and proposals which, despite the fact that they represent a major departure from what has been the dominant American ethos for more than half a century, are called conservative. (Curiously, so far have things gone that many of the things that conservatives say they wish to conserve have to be rebuilt from scratch.)
The slowly dawning process of realization that brought the neoconservatives from A to B was to bring us into a new and quite unfamiliar community of conservative fellows. And it would be hard to say who was more surprised, perhaps nonplused, and perhaps to some extent also amused, by this new association, the old conservatives or their new neoconservative allies.
In the end, the new Jewish conservatives have come to understand that any alienation they may have felt as children in an unquestionably Christian America is as nothing compared with the danger they sense to themselves and their progeny, along with their uncomprehending liberal co-religionists, in the bright new atheist America. They know that even less than others can America's Jews afford the reckless endangerment of the various movements that have swept unresisted through liberal society. I am referring to such movements as that advocating a woman's right not to be a woman; the movement for homosexuals to be considered merely heterosexuals with a somewhat different erotic taste; the movement to dehumanize blacks by exempting them from ordinary moral demands. In some ways the most depressing movement is the overwhelmingly Jewish movement to keep prayers or any mention or symbol of God out of the schools. This is certainly one of the issues that find the Jewish neocons and plain conservatives at loggerheads with much of organized Jewry. As it happens I am no serious advocate of school prayer, because I think it is a distraction rather than a way into the truly weighty issues this society must find the courage to face and deal with. Nevertheless, there is something, if you will forgive the pun, unholy in the Jewish argument that the reintroduction of the acknowledgment of God into the schools will in some way be discriminatory of and psychologically harmful to their children when these schools represent so many genuine dangers to them: the danger of coarsening their sensibilities, for one, and of snuffing out their normal youthful longing to grow up as well as leaving them utterly cynical about their society and their country and the rightful demands on them of both. (Prayer, indeed; it is the American Jewish Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union who should be doing the praying.)
The late Lucy Dawidowicz, distinguished historian of the fate of East European Jewry in the twentieth century conflagration, declared that there should be a moratorium on the use of the word "Holocaust"--that it has become a crutch and an excuse and a cheapener of memory--and what she said is undeniably right and healthy. Nevertheless, the Jewish members of my generation are bound to feel testy about our security, even in the United States and of course, in the ever-threatened Israel, testy in a way that others perhaps fail to understand. The "why not?" and "so what?" of present-day liberalism are thus all the more a temptation to Jews, who can use them to entertain themselves with the hope that they can now escape forever what has for so long been God's seemingly difficult, and often unbearably cruel, decree. And these questions are if anything proving to be more dangerous to Jews than to anyone else, undermining as they do the foundation of the kind of free society on which the 20th century has taught them that they must depend for their very survival.
The story, of course, is not over for the neocons. For they have children and grandchildren a growing number of whom seem to be ending up Orthodox--in other words, telling them to put their money where their mouth is--and what will be the end of it is bound to be fascinating to keep an eye on.
Meanwhile, whenever life takes me back to St. Paul, Minnesota--which it seldom does any more, since both my parents are dead--I find myself dreading all the old arguments in which I was engaged with my friends in the 1970s and that persist today among the affluent, comfortable, and stiff-necked liberal Jews I grew up with so many years ago.
Yet Chabad is very active and flourishing in the old home town these days, and it always gives me extreme pleasure to answer my old classmates' inevitable aggressive challenges to my position by saying to them, "Watch out, watch out, Chabad will get your children if you don't watch out."
(1) I do not mean to leave the impression that I think this idea of freedom was theirs alone--for of course, that would be absurd. It's just that this is their story I am telling.
Midge Decter is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and is the author of three books. She has also served as an editor of Harper's and First Things, among other publications, and at Basic Books. From 1980-90 she was the executive director of the Committee for the Free World.
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1999|
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