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Understanding the Neocons

Adam Fuller’s Taking the Fight to the Enemy: Neoconservatism and the Age of Ideology is a book so weak that it ought never to have seen the light of day.  This book is poorly argued, carelessly written, and badly edited.   The author and the press are equally culpable and should share responsibility.

It is not easy to grasp the author’s argument.  Fuller asks whether neoconservatism is a unified ideology with clearly defined boundaries, or merely a cluster of loosely related ideas shared by a crowd of influential writers over the last half century.  His answer seems to be that it is sometimes one, sometimes the other.  He then summarizes the lives and works of six representative figures: Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Gertrude Himmelfarb.  Much of what he says is true but none of it is original; this ground has already been covered thoroughly by more than a dozen other historians.  Sometimes he is wrong, as with the assertion that Lionel Trilling was “the first Jew to be hired to the faculty at Columbia University.”  Edwin Seligman, an economist, was actually the first (in 1885).

Subsequent chapters address influential issues and people in the early lives of these six: the threat of nuclear war, anti-communism, the New York intellectuals, Leon Trotsky, Lionel Trilling, Leo Strauss, and others.  Fuller introduces them one by one but does not integrate them into a general argument; instead they feel like half-digested lumps filling up the pages.  They too, like the central figures, get the summary biographical treatment, followed by a few examples of how their ideas correspond to those of the neoconservatives.

Fuller’s organizing principle is thematic rather than chronological.  Histories don’t have to be chronological but there’s a lot to be said for describing first what happened first, then going on to what happened later and showing how X influenced Y.  There is no better way of creating dramatic tension than to carry the reader through the decades as they happened.  Big events like Vietnam, the Reagan Revolution, and 9/11 will then come as major turning points, giving shape to the whole narrative.  Fuller scants this approach by dodging back and forth through the decades, sometimes describing the same event several times, from different writers’ vantage points.  He thinks nothing of mentioning events of the early 2000s side by side with those of the 1950s, so that his elderly protagonists are momentarily rejuvenated.

The book lacks all historical feeling.  Even the most seismic event of the whole era, the end of the Cold War, is treated as no more and no less significant than ephemeral matters.  Readers gain no sense of how the neoconservatives adjusted to a transformed world in which their principal adversary, Soviet Communism, had been vanquished.  Tellingly, Fuller sometimes speaks of the neoconservatives in the present tense even though several of them are no longer alive, as if he believed they continue to exist through time as a disembodied essence.  (“What the neoconservatives principally learn from Trilling . . . are the contradictions inherent to [sic] modern liberalism” [116]).  Time does not seem to pass at all in Fuller’s world, and does not seem to matter.  Jarring changes of verb tense within sentences are common (“The neoconservatives believed that the moral crisis is intrinsically linked to all other major political issues” [201]).

Just as the book lacks history, so it lacks judgment.  The author falls in with his subjects’ views on nearly all matters rather than evaluating their strengths and weaknesses.  Norman Podhoretz, for example, is notorious for describing as “fascist” whatever political trends he dislikes.  Fuller, so long as he is writing about Podhoretz, does it too, passing along the claim that Communists were really fascists and that Islamic militants can best be understood as . . . fascists.  When he refers to Midge Decter’s claim that Hollywood movies of the 1960s were nihilistic, he accepts the claim without comment.  Readers will get no sense from the book as to which of these writers is the more deserving of respect, the more judicious, creative, intelligent, or sensible.  Neither will they feel that they are in the hands of a trustworthy guide who is able to make necessary clarifications and to discriminate between fine shades of meaning.

If the content of the book is bad, however, the presentation is a great deal worse.  The author struggles to find the right words, resorts often to “very unique,” “therein,” “the latter,” and “aforementioned,” and sometimes loses his way altogether.  Some of his sentences are not sentences at all.

According to Rossiter, it could be concluded that, whereas the extent to which a liberal is radical or temperate in his ideology depends on how persecuted he understands people to be and thus the degree to which he believes freedom needs to be enlarged (157).

Singular and plural are often jumbled together in the same sentence, as when he tells us that “Eisenhower and most Republicans threw its support behind it” (239) or when he claims that “it is justifiable to limits freedoms” (158).

Fuller writes “deep-seeded” when he means “deep-seated” (39).  He tells us that Whittaker Chambers “walked a fine line into a certain kind totalitarianism” (171).  So many things are wrong with that fragment it’s hard to know where to start.  I don’t think he means that totalitarianism is sometimes kind!  Presumably he forgot to write the word “of” between “kind” and “totalitarianism.”  (He often forgets to include crucial words, as when he states that Sidney Hook “proposed vigilance and a willingness to take the offensive in defeat the communist threat” [97]).  Quite apart from the missing word problem, “walking a fine line” should surely mean that the metaphorical line is drawn between two awkward alternatives, rather than that it leads the walker into one of them.

Fuller is an ardent mixer of metaphors, perhaps because he does not always realize that he is using metaphors.  He writes, for example, that President Carter “had given the Soviets a window of opportunity to step up their militant posture” (40) and that “the third option is a fulcrum point that will eventually swing in one direction or the other” (103).  He knows a lot of words but often misuses them.  We learn that “Podhoretz grew distasteful of the youth counterculture movement of the fifties and predicted a culture war would be afoot” (37).  I don’t suppose I’m the only person who finds accidental comedy in the idea of Podhoretz becoming distasteful, or in the deliciously inappropriate use of “afoot.”  Two pages later Fuller adds that “he never quite reversed that idea from his consciousness.”  My favorite unintentionally comical sentence from the whole book appears on page 175, during a summary of Oswald Spengler’s theory of civilization: “Every once in a while in history there is a moment when man unintentionally opens himself into a new age; this moment is called twilight.”

Spelling and vocabulary mistakes abound.  Fuller writes “alluded” when he means “asserted” (“Bourgeois liberals, he alluded, were not aware of the real depth of the dilemma” [39]).   He writes “Ignazio Stone” when he means “Ignazio Silone” (8), “disinterested” when he means “uninterested” (18), “shtetyl” when he means “shtetl” (63), “exemplar” when he means “example” (85), “proletariat” when he means “proletarian,” (93), “exoteric” when he means “esoteric” (147), “wearier” when he means “warier” (105 and 162),  “now-partisan” when he means “non-partisan” (173), “predominately” when he means “predominantly” (265), and many, many more.  Sometimes he uses a word whose meaning is the opposite of what he intends (“replete” when he means “devoid” [104]), and he is not too sure about the apostrophe rules either; in a passage about the old Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, he writes of “Deb’s speech” (26). (He also claims that Daniel Bell campaigned for Debs in the presidential election of 1932, apparently unaware that his favored candidate had died back in 1926!)

Lexington’s editors seemingly did almost nothing to turn  a weak manuscript into a serviceable book.  Where Fuller wanted to use the italicized phrase “deus absconditus,” the editors changed (or maybe neglected to change) the spelling of the first word and then forgot to italicize half of the phrase, so that it comes out as “dues absconditus” (168).  They apparently had no suggestions to offer to Fuller when he presented them with this bundle of words:

“What the older generation has written about immigration, however, is that it has added to a larger cultural problem in America, which, as Decter has said, ‘the fault lies with us,’ as multiculturalism and moral relativism have relegated the idea of an American cultural standard a racist and intolerant point of view of the past” (202).

Having agreed to publish the book, they should at least have employed a first-rate copy editor to get rid of the hundreds of spelling and grammatical mistakes.  As it is, they give the impression of having done nothing at all, apart from accepting an inadequate manuscript and sending it straight along to the printer.

If this book was peer-reviewed, the peer reviewers were negligent.  If it was not peer-reviewed, the acquisitions editor should have drawn the obvious conclusion.  He or she should have realized: here is an author who has read lots of books and articles and written summaries of them all, but who has not created a coherent or powerful argument, has not broken any new ground, and has not mastered the elements of writing in English to the necessary standard.  Readers who want to know about the history of neoconservatism should turn not to this book but to George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, Peter Steinfels’s The Neoconservatives, Garry Dorrien’s The Neoconservative Mind, and John Ehrman’s The Rise of Neoconservatism.

Reader Discussion

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on September 24, 2012 at 19:02:05 pm

I am appreciative of Patrick Allitt’s copyediting and I take responsibility for the final version. I will focus on the substance of the book, which he also found lacking.

Allitt seems to miss my book’s intention and therefore overlooks its argument and the ways in which it is original. Unlike Allitt, I am not a historian, but rather a political theorist. The neoconservatives have had a wide range of influences that helped shape its evolution.

The book’s central thesis identifies and describes neoconservatism as an “ideology,” distinguishing it from other forms of conservatism that emphasize the preservation of customs and traditions and a restoration of “first principles.” Like other ideologies, neoconservatism, or at least its first generation, identifies an oppressive ruling class and has emphasized a fight against this power elite on its own turf, thus my title, Taking the Fight to the Enemy: Neoconservatism and the Age of Ideology.

I discuss important debates that arose within the general conservative movement after the neoconservatives arrived on the scene. Much attention is focused on the neoconservatives’ debate with the “Old Right,” on libertarian opposition to neoconservative cultural criticism and its mild acceptance of the welfare state, and on Harry Jaffa’s lengthy disagreements with Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol about Abraham Lincoln and the nature of the American Founding.

Using an “alcove” approach, I devote a chapter to each figure who had a major influence on neoconservative thinking. Although not neoconservatives themselves, they could be seen as sitting inside their anti-communist campus alcove (to use a City College of New York metaphor) and engaging them in an ongoing, sometimes posthumous discourse about politics, economics, and culture.

While the significance of Leo Strauss has already been richly, although not always accurately explored in other books, I thought it needed to be reformulated given the many misconceptions. In addition, there has been very little, beyond the neoconservatives’ own writings, about Lionel Trilling’s influence and the special importance of his novel, The Middle of the Journey. Even less has been written about Sidney Hook’s connection to the neoconservatives, yet he is perhaps the single most important influence of all. Moreover, Elliot Cohen, Joseph Schumpeter, and Raymond Aron have received practically no attention at all in the previous literature on neoconservatism, but I devote considerable effort to explaining their importance to it.
--Adam Fuller

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Adam L. Fuller

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