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The New Conservatism

On the Democratic Ideal in America by Irving Kristol Harper Paperback, 149 pp., $2.45

By Sim Johnston

IN THE TWENTY years since Lionel Trilling made his famous comment that, as an intellectual tradition, American conservatism was nothing more than a series of "irritable mental gestures" masquerading as ideas, a considerable body of work by conservative thinkers has appeared to decisively refute that judgment. Indeed, crawling out from under the shambles of many Great Society programs, liberal intellectuals have actually lost the initiative to their conservative counterparts in such crucial areas as urban renewal. Writers like Irving Kristol, James Burnham, and Robert Nisbet are saying things that need to be said at this particular juncture -- that we are putting far too much hope in politics to solve all our problems, that the unanticipated consequences of a social action are always more important, and usually less agreeable, than the intended consequences, and that the American intellectual, by abrogating his traditional role, has become increasingly irresponsible in matters of public policy.

On a higher level of speculation political philosopher Leo Strauss has laid the groundwork for this re-examination of current fashionable dogmas by re-examining, in the most meticulous and scholarly fashion, the entire tradition of modern philosophy that started with Bacon and Hobbes. Strauss's work has encouraged the reconsideration of the prevailing positivist philosophy which locates the noetic center of gravity in the natural sciences and mathematics and which is therefore "value free," independent of ethics. Such a political science, says Strauss, by refusing to make value judgments and distinguish between "great statesmen, mediocrities, and insane impostors" may be good bibliography; it can say nothing relevant about politics. Starting with the principles of the Greek political classics, Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon, and harkening back to the intuitive "common sense" of pre-scientific knowledge, Strauss, who is now in his seventies, has paved the way for the restoration of political philosophy in the original sense of that term, not as a dessicated "science" but as an accumulation of knowledge on political things whose character is that of categorical advice and exhortation.

IRVING KRISTOL is an avowed Straussian. Appropriating his mentor's complete rejection of subjectivist ethics and the standard liberal doctrines of Locke, Bentham, and Mill, he has descended into the intellectual arena with a biting forensic style to do battle with the fashionable sophists and nihilists who monopolize so much of public discussion today. He has become one of our most influential intellectuals as co-editor of the Public Interest, prolific contributor to various periodicals, and frequent advisor in government circles. His essays, eight of which are gathered in On the Democratic Idea in America, cover a wide range of issues, from urban renewal to historiography to pornography; yet, each essay is dominated by the same recurring themes, so much so that one often suspects that the chosen topic is a mere excuse, dealt with in summary fashion, for Kristol to hammer on his favorite ideas.

The crux of Kristol's argument is that America is experiencing a crisis of values in an unprecedented way. There has always been a questioning of basic values in Western society, but this phenomenon was always restricted to what Lionel Trilling calls the "adversary culture," the avant-garde elite. The friction between the elitist culture and the bourgeois society it lived in produced some of Western culture's very greatest art; but so long as the conflict was restricted to an elite, the social consequences were minimal. But it is only relatively recently that this adversary culture has taken over our popular culture. The mass of people have become directly and personally involved in the slow draining away of legitimacy from all traditional values and customs.

In addition to this personal crisis, there is an institutional one. Not only have people become uncertain of their purposes, they don't know where they could turn for answers they could accept as authoritative. Events of the past decades have deprived the value-sustaining institutions of American life -- the family, the church, and the school -- of their authority over morals without providing alternate authorities.

IN Kristol's view, the chief causes of this pervading nihilism have been the spread of higher education and of mass media as well as the long team effect of the secularist, positivist philosophy that emerged in the seventeenth century. Higher education since World War II has created a large class of academics and self-proclaimed intellectuals who readily make authoritative pronouncements in areas of public policy in which they have only marginal competence. This vocal sector has a tendency to judge a specific issue not by its individual merits, but solely in the light of certain fashionable general ideas. The kind of general idea that is most appealing to the intellectual who wants to account for something is the iconoclastic one. Once the more active part of the intellectuals start propagating a set of beliefs, the process by which they become generally accepted is almost automatic. Any mentally undisciplined individual can then assimilate enough of the circulated cliches to become a backyard Che Guevara. This has been amply demonstrated on the campus in recent years.

Kristol, it must be emphasized, is not here discussing the serious scholar, the so-called "expert." He is referring to the mass of individuals who gravitate around the universities and media and expend most of their energy promulgating ideas which they experience only at second hand. Kristol quotes Robert A. Nisbet, a shrewd observer of the academic scene, who has estimated that a majority of all academics in the universities in this country "have so profound a distaste for the classroom and for the pains of genuine scholarship or creative thought that they will seize upon anything... to exempt themselves respectably from each."

KRISTOL IS RIGHT, perhaps, in saying that we probably cannot survive without a revival of the republican virtues on which the founding fathers predicated our system of government. Yet, while the acceptance of the virtues of an "organic moral order" is a fine ideal, it is clearly inapplicable to American society at present with its atomized social structure and schizophrenic life-styles. To read the essays of many of these new conservative writers in conjunction with, say, the entire journalistic opus of Tom Wolfe is to be aware that these conservative writers often inhabit a realm of abstraction penetrated at times by only vague eminences from the real world. Contemporary affluence has unleashed innumerable ego-trips, not the pursuit of virtue. The California electrical worker making $23,000 a year does not read Aristotle and Kant, he merely does weird things and is all too willing to have his ego tickled by the media into pursuing alternate life-styles.

How is Kristol going to instill the republic with the old virtues? Except in the case of the censorship of hard-core pornography, a relatively isolated issue, Kristol is quite evasive when it comes to proposing solutions. In this spring's issue of The Public Interest, he castigates libertarianism by pointing out that the libertarian-capitalistic ethic has permitted large corporations to publish books, make movies, and sponsor television shows which celebrate pornography, denounce the institution of the family, revile the "ethics of acquisitiveness," justify civil insurrections, and so on. The implicit conclusion of his argument is that these things should not be permitted, i.e., as a matter of public policy, they should be banned. In concrete terms, this would lead to the banning of books by Jerry Rubin, of Paul Simon's latest song on A.M. radio, and of most movies produced by Hollywood these days. This is clearly intolerable.

Yet, I don't think Kristol means this to happen, and I wish he would come out and say so. He is merely pointing out the symptoms of the disease and stating that if they do not somehow disappear we will all go the way of Gibbon's Rome. He is exhorting various interests which have a vast influence on the nation's mores to adopt a more sober tone instead of exacerbating an already overheated situation. The particular value of the new conservative writers is that they themselves adopt a moderate and judicial tone of discussion (which Kristol, it must be added, sometimes violates) compared to the daily hysterics of New Left ideologues. Their goal is more often a clarification of choice than polemical victory. The position of serious conservative intellectuals is much like that of Aristotle articulating his own view of the "best" regime: often a speculative matter, a view worth holding in mind, without necessarily being relevant to every contingent circumstance. Even Kristol, for instance, is willing to admit the legitimacy of government action in many areas. This essentially contemplative stance should infuse a much needed civility into the political discourse of all camps; it is one that is sorely needed.

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