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Radical good-sense neo-Conservatism! The West Wing! Psychopathology! Gardening! Facile Puns standing in for hard analysis!
[NB: may not contain singing / dancing / or anything identifiably Basra-rooted or routed… ]

A BIG birthday treat today for readers who’ve made it with us to the end of the Pill Box’s first working month – something not written by me!

Concurrent with the creation of the P.B. U.S. Politics Desk, we publish the autobiography of a downtown down & elegant neo-Conservative. . . but seriously, correspondent B. Anderson’s elegant precis of his & US neo-Conservatism’s politics (which I requested from him, NB, this wasn’t some kind of strident take-over bid!) reminded me how much I’ve missed the sweet astringency of well-expressed right-wing cut n thrust since that inordinately pretty woman who played a whip smart Republican transferred from the West Wing to CSI Miami – I mean, put her and the Mary Louise Parker character both in the prog and who cares if that clothes horse slickhead Rob Lowe leaves, he was always my least favourite and their least interesting character anyway – the only one whose (narcissistic) way of delivering Sorkin’s lines made them SOUND like cocktail party round table lines … give me Leo, Toby (Toby especially – he may well be the person I most want to be when I, uh, grow up), the Prez, MLP & Smart n Sassy Neo-Con and I’d be in perma grin hog heaven speaking just for myself … where else on television do you see people thinking, just . . . thinking ?

Which brings us to our guest speaker, Brian Anderson from U.S. neo-Conservative mag City Journal.

As Prof Derrida sez, hospitality must be our key note.
And I’m more than happy to open the Box up to other POVs; the world doesn’t turn, after all, around my 8.58 am mental ricochets.
There is indeed much to be said about the failings of left discourse, the creation of non-aligned future concepts, so forth (I’m especially taken here, by Brian’s reminder that Foucault/D&G were very much ANTI-institutional, ANTI-power, and given e.g. what we’ve seen become of the Labour Party I don’t think anyone would disagree that such tactics/criticisms apply equally to Left as to Right; see also Naomi Klein in yesterday’s Guardian, writing about how self-patrolling autonomist movements in Argentina have been overtaken by the same old “heavy ghosts” of dull dead bureaucratic Leftism…), but for now, we proudly open our stuffy doors to someone we’re delighted to call our American Friend…


Dear Ian:

What is a neo-conservative? The question has a clear historical answer, and a fuzzier conceptual one. Let me take a swift stab at both, and then give you a little more detail on my own move right.

Historical first.
The neo-conservatives emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a distinct group of (mostly) New York-based liberal/leftist intellectuals, many of them, though certainly not all of them, Jewish, who had come to question key elements of the 1960s cultural upheavals in the U.S. - especially the New Left's growing irrationalist and utopian tendencies (read: Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse), its rampant anti-Americanism, its refusal to recognize some of the unintended consequences of its favored policies, etc. The predecessors of the neo-conservatives include the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, the theologian Reinhold Neihbuhr, and anti-communist liberal thinkers like Raymond Aron and Isaiah Berlin.

There are several major figures in the neo-conservative movement itself, the most important probably being Irving Kristol, until this year the long-time co-editor (with Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer) of The Public Interest, a high-brow social science/political theory quarterly. Kristol and otherformer liberals "mugged by reality," as he put it, were initially uneasy allies with the conservatives and libertarians gathered around William F. Buckley's National Review (in fact most of the neo-cons remained Democrats until well into the 80s); but as time went on, the differences between the neo-cons and other conservatives blurred somewhat-the neo-cons came to embrace free-market economics, for example-so that the very term "neo-conservative" has for some observers become meaningless.

I think the term does retain some meaning, however, as one can see by making some conceptual distinctions on the American right. Neo-cons are not libertarians. They believe, unlike the libertarians who write for Reason magazine or who toil away at The Cato Institute, that government does have social welfare and regulatory responsibilities, and that the U.S. should have a muscular foreign policy (libertarians mostly opposed the war in Iraq, for instance, while the neo-cons pushed for it and supported it). Another distinction: the neo-cons are not moral relativists, as are many libertarians. An area where this distinction becomes evident is in bio-ethics, where neo-cons often raise "Brave New World" concerns about recent scientific/technological developments in genetics while libertarians celebrate the Promethean possibilities of modern science.

But if neo-cons aren't libertarians, nor are they "paleo-conservatives," the very disgruntled folks who look to Patrick Buchanan as their standard-bearer and read Chronicles magazine. The paleo-cons despise the neo-cons, who they see as promoting a basically leftist agenda in conservative guise, entangling the U.S. in foreign conflicts to protect Israel and to pursue what they deem utopian goals such as "building democracy." The paleo-cons also distrust free-market economics and globalization, which they believe undermine American sovereignty, and are broadly opposed to immigration, which the neo-cons tend to favor.

The paleo-cons also think America's whole effort to bring blacks into the mainstream was misguided. Many show nostalgia for the pre-civil rights South and "agrarianism" in political theory. And they virtually all despise Lincoln as a proto-totalitarian. The neo-cons, by contrast, are very critical of affirmative action but strong supporters of the integrationist spirit of the original civil rights movement. One of the big missions of the Manhattan Institute, City Journal's publisher, for example, is to get as many struggling black kids out of the crappy public schools and into private scholarship programs and-we hope-into publicly funded voucher programs that will enable them to attend private schools.

Are the neo-cons the mainstream conservatives these days?
Perhaps, but there is still a sensibility, I think, that marks them out. Though there are notable exceptions (such as the Catholic social thinker Michael Novak), the neo-cons inhabit a spiritual universe more Freud and Partisan Review than Aquinas or Luther, more social-science-and literature-oriented than religious, more urban than middle-American. You'll find this sensibility in City Journal, Commentary, and other neo-conservative journals and magazines, even when they write (almost always sympathetically) about religious topics.

As for my (somewhat a-typical) intellectual journey away from youthful radicalism, it resulted primarily from reading and personal observation. There was no Road-to-Damascus moment. Instead, a steady continuum of perceptions and encounters.
I was very much on the left as a college undergraduate - I tried to make my way through Capital, pretended to admire various left icons and to be some kind of socialist, etc. But in grad school, first at Boston College, where I was lucky enough to take courses with Habermas and Gadamer, as I mentioned, I began to question my politics.

Political thought should combine the normative and the feasible - and leftist thinkers were just ignoring questions of feasibility, or at least it seemed to me. What would be the concrete, real-world effects, I began to ask myself, of putting into practice the vision of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason or of Raymond Williams's socialism or even of John Rawls's theory of justice? Economic misery, social violence, resentment - it was increasingly hard to see what good could come from any concrete politics on offer by the left's leading lights.

I began to read the French post-structuralist thinkers, who were on the left, but critical of the Soviet Union and supportive of eastern-bloc dissident movements. Is there a politics in Foucault? The message of his work - or at least the message I took from it - is suspicion of institutionalized power, not celebration of an emancipatory political project. Deleuze's schizo-analysis seemed more compatible with American pragmatism than with socialist politics, as you suggest in PB.

These thinkers in turn put me on the path to more conservative writers - Bernard-Henri Levy and Andre Glucksmann, Pascal Bruckner, Luc Ferry, and then Raymond Aron, Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott, Solzhenitsyn, and others, whose work seemed so much more in tune with the way the world worked, with human nature, with man's capacity for evil, with the fragility of free societies. I began devouring conservative intellectual journals - Commentary, First Things, the Public Interest - which were livelier, more imaginative, and better written, I found, than most of what I was finding on the left. (This is truer, I think, in the U.S. than in England.)
In writing my dissertation (at the University of Ottawa) on Aron, I wound up doing research at the American Enterprise Institute, where several of the fellows had actually known the man, and that was it - I had officially gone over to the dark side! I even sat across a lunch table from Richard Perle once, if memory serves.
The AEI intellectuals were a forbiddingly serious bunch - real thinkers, not cardboard polemicists, as the left ridiculously portrays them as being. There were personal experiences too: some leftist profs I came into contact with were - to put it bluntly-hypocrites, as full of shit as you can be. I recall attending a lecture by one reasonably well-known "male feminist," who argued that once technology made it possible, men should give birth on an equal basis with women, etc. Fine, but meanwhile, he was trying to seduce -with all of his energy - any female student who he could get his hands on. Hypocrisy is a human trait, shared across the political spectrum, of course, but in my experience, it has often been those who loudly profess their affinity with the downtrodden and excluded who've been the most spiteful and destructive.

Also - and this will probably horrify you-my move right came partly thanks to Ian Penman and Paul Morley at NME! Your rejection of overly politicized agitprop in music back in the late seventies made intuitive sense to me - I disliked the didacticism of Billy Bragg or Crass, and could stomach even less the critics who pretended to be revolutionaries, etc. There was far more truth in an August Darnell ballad, I came to believe, than in the entire socialist posturing of, say, the Gang of Four or Robert Christgau.

I've already rambled on far too long, but one last point.
Today's American left is utterly, bleakly humorless-offering up a steady diet of argument by invective, resentment, and the worst kind of PC identity politics. It's not a healthy, joyous worldview, to say the least. It is profoundly reactionary. It sees John Ashcroft as a bigger threat than al-Queda, as Christopher Hitchens memorably noted in his farewell to The Nation. You mention the ethos of South Park, and you are right on target - the best humor in American popular culture today is, if not on the right, then definitely anti-liberal, in a kind of Peter Sloterdijk, cynical way (Dennis Miller's hilarious new HBO special, for example). Andrew Sullivan (I think) has even coined a phrase - South Park conservatives - to describe the attitude. I think you'll see more and more of it.

Brian Anderson


Observer Magazine: US artist Paul McCarthy.
I LIKE THIS, I think, not knowing exactly why.
Not knowing WHY I feel a spark with him and not with a dozen other artists who don't even piss me off, I just look at their work and go, oh THEM again, inoffensive, dainty little career shock artists, who cares… and turn the page.

But with McCarthy, I GET something, something is GOING ON here.

Am I completely off base here [perhaps this could be a subset of Is It Just Me – the artier version, that uses terms like unheimlich too much], or, no matter how hard they try, don’t Brit artists like hirst emin noble&webster et al, don’t they just end up feeling HOMELY to you? Do they EVER get within a GRIMM-tailed mile of the genuine creepiness of, inter alia, mccarthy, cindy sherman, serrano. . .genuine creepiness, but also, intimations of the Sublime. . .{our lot, they’re like some cheapskate cut-rate brit tv version of The Simpsons. . .}

- ----- +


NOW THIS is worrying. . .leafing thru old magazine. . .

‘what is a psychopath?’

psychiatrists use a checklist to determine whether someone is a psychopath.

This includes:

superficial charm;
grandiose sense of self-worth;
pathological lying;
lack of guilt;
lack of empathy;
parasitic lifestyle;
promiscuous sexual behaviour;
lack of realistic long term goals;
juvenile delinquency;
criminal versatility.

Well, let’s for now ignore the fact that one of my long term goals as things stand right now is to actually one time sometime maybe leave the BUNKER here and go outside again and maybe even mingle with {uh-uh, shiver}. . .people. So that kind of limits my promiscuous sexual behaviour and criminal versatility; and it’s hard to be a juvenile deliquent when you’re listening to Innervisions for the tenth time that day on headphones. But still, otherwise, there have been times in my career, uh, life, when 11 out of 13 wouldn’t have been far off the scorecard. I have people who’ll testify as much; the ones who survived my voodoo curses, anyway.

I don’t know what’s more worrying; that there have been times in my life when I WOULD have scored that much; or that a similar checklist would double as my ‘things I look for in my ideal partner’…
(Pretty much Shell Dockley in point of fact. Shell Dockley after an Open University course on Kristeva. “But I don’t like knobbin’ signifiance!” Nurse, the back copies of Screen. . .)

Now I come to think on it. . .
Found recently, in
DREAM BROTHER {the lives and music of jeff and tim buckley}
David Browne [4th Estate 2001]:

“[Throughout the year, such stories became as much a part of Tim’s life as his music.] The signs pointed to a common psychological condition known as borderline-personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, its distinguishing traits included:
“markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self”;
“a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships”;
“impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damagaing (i.e., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)”;
“recurrent suicidal behaviour, gestures or threats”;
“chronic feelings of emptiness”; and
“inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.”

YEP: 5 out of 6!

And N.B., by the by, DREAM BROTHER is I think one of the saddest books I’v ever read.

As witness this opening quote, more in ten lines that that entire con-job Cobain rip-off. . .

My grandfather has a beautiful voice. Irish tenor. Beautiful. Too much of a military hardass to deal with his own and his son’s talents. I wish it were otherwise. I love you, you poor bastards. . . . With a father like this man, it is no wonder that Tim Buckley was afraid to come back to me. So afraid to be my father. Because his only paradigm for fatherhood was a deranged lunatic with a steel plate in his head. . . . I know that he must have been scared shitless to think he might possibly become like his father. Scared shitless of treating me the way his father treated him and his family. Can you imagine the heartbreak? The useless, shitty torture day in, day out?


+ ----- -

Gripping and strangely moving and (unusually for this sort of thing) enlightening documentary on C4 last night: Terror In Moscow.
Badly titled, tho’ - because terror was actually the last thing you remembered here.
Incredible programme, incredibly moving – and how sheerly awful a mismanaged ‘conclusion’ effected by the Russian military, too bloodthirsty busy shooting the already comatose Chechens to provide even basic CPR for their own people. Awful, just awful.

The head Chechen rebel/terrorist:
“I swear to Allah: we desire death more than you want life.”

Now that, my friends, THAT, is something to meditate on. . . whatever your politics.

Here I should also maybe say – in re Brian’s declaration of indepedent thought above – that perhaps what most creeps me out and angers me about Bush (and Blair to a lesser extent but boy is he catching up) is not so much his Republicanism, as the way he sometimes uses it as a cover for a gross confusion of Church and State – in ALL sorts of ways. Sane & intelligent & urbane young thinker-writers on magazines is one thing, but the ‘neo Conservatism’ being pushed as REALPOLITIK by Rumsfeld et. . .but we must return to this. Calmly, rationally, soberly. Un-psychopathically.
I need to put my thinking cap on.
And this is good, no?

posted by Ian 5/13/2003 07:47:00 PM

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