Neo-Confusion

Further to my partner in thought crime’s excellent post, I would say that the term “neoconservative” has become essentially meaningless in political and intellectual discourse. It is now merely a pejorative, encompassing the unhelpful categories of “hawk” and “dumbass.” I do, however, think there are a few common aspects of thought that unite those who would self-identify or have been branded as neoconservatives. The first would be anti-totalitarianism, or a perpetual battle with what they perceive to be totalitarian forces – Communism, Baathism and so forth. This as opposed to straightforward anti-authoritarianism. As is clear from some of the dealings in Latin America in the 1980’s by Reaganite officials who could be considered neocons , bolstering authoritarian dictators or vicious right-wing paramilitary organizations is considered preferable, even necessary, to counter (or contra) the perceived totalitarian threat.

The second aspect would be a fundamental mistrust of international institutions and their ability to safeguard international peace and security. These only enmesh the forces of anti-totalitarianism in procedural boondoggles and bureaucratic cowardice, allowing illegitimate (or “evil”) actors to constrain them in the name of an illusory and fraudulent notion of legitimacy.

The third would be a belief in the moral superiority of an anti-totalitarian power such as America, not by dint of perfection or divine providence, but by default. A misperception of neocons is that they are Utopian dreamers or rose-tinted tipplers. The neocon worldview is considerably darker than that. Theirs is a world in which freedom and enlightenment are constantly under threat, their survival, let alone their victory, far from assured. In fact, a fundamental precept of this type of thinking would seem to be that freedom and decency face an ongoing existential crisis. Totalitarian evil is the ever-present threat, the fight against it the source of moral legitimacy. Any challenge to the power and legitimacy of the anti-totalitarian force is therefore an existential threat, which is why Saddam Hussein’s defiance and belligerence towards America were cause for preemptive action, however remote the actual danger he posed. Totalitarians cannot be trusted, cannot be bargained with. We are already at war with them and any weakness on our part will mean our defeat.

Pretty grim, but then given the history of the 20th century, not entirely unreasonable. Forget Leon Trotsky, this is more about Stalin, his murderer. And given the Jewish background of many prominent neocons, it is also decidedly about Hitler (fealty to Israel being more about a physical and ideological beachhead against an implacable eradicationist foe, not a thirst for Palestinian blood or a grand imperial design as some would charge). Where the neocons go from the ashes of Iraq is hard to imagine, but searching for their intellectual roots in the volumes of Leo Strauss or the annals of City College betrays a naive belief that by tearing them root and branch from our thinking and politics our troubles will all be over.

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