The Neo­con­ser­v­a­tive Per­sua­sion: Select­ed Essays 1942 – 2009

Irv­ing Kris­tol; Gertrude Him­mel­farb, ed.; William Kris­tol, fwd.
  • Review
By – February 20, 2014

Irv­ing Kris­tol was born in 1920 into a tradi­tional Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Brook­lyn and died in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. in 2009, thus hav­ing lived through and expe­ri­enced most of the water­shed moments of the past hun­dred years from the Great Depres­sion through 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This col­lec­tion of essays, edit­ed by his wife, gives the read­er not only an insight into Kristol’s mind, but helps us to under­stand the much mis­un­der­stood con­cept of neo-con­ser­vatism” and why he believes it to be a per­sua­sion” rather than a move­ment… an ide­ol­o­gy, let alone a party…”

As a young man in Brook­lyn and through­out his under­grad­u­ate years at CCNY, Kris­tol was a Trot­sky­ist as well as a nonob­ser­vant Jew, but not a non­re­li­gious one.” Dur­ing World War II he saw com­bat in Europe, where he remained after the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties, first with the army of occu­pa­tion in Ger­many and then in France, where he was prepar­ing to be shipped to the Pacif­ic but was spared by Japan’s surrender.

After return­ing to New York, he mar­ried his girl­friend Gertrude Bea” Him­mel­farb and soon left for Eng­land where Bea” had received a fel­low­ship at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge. While there, Irv­ing wrote a nov­el (nev­er pub­lished) and learned that he had nei­ther the pas­sion nor the patience to become a nov­el­ist and began to write free­lance arti­cles for Com­men­tary which led to a junior editor­ship on their return to Amer­i­ca. Thus began his remark­able career, which intro­duced him to some of the fore­most authors and thinkers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In his fas­ci­nat­ing au­tobiographical mem­oir toward the end of the vol­ume, he shares with his read­ers a num­ber of his per­son­al encoun­ters, among which is one at a par­ty host­ed by William Phillips, co-edi­tor of Par­ti­san Review where Mary Mc­Carthy sat down on my right, Han­nah Arendt on my left, and then Diana Trilling pulled up a chair and sat direct­ly oppo­site me” as they argued about Freud for the next hour.

That was also the peri­od when McCar­thyism was the issue of the day” and while he con­sid­ered the sen­a­tor to be a vul­gar dem­a­gogue” Kris­tol also became estranged from most main­line” lib­er­als and progres­sives, many of whom he con­sid­ered to be fel­low-trav­el­ers” who failed to rec­og­nize the threat of Com­mu­nism and open­ly sup­port­ed the North in the Kore­an War. Kristol’s shift away from his youth­ful lib­er­al lean­ing became ever more pro­nounced dur­ing the 60s and the rise of the coun­ter­cul­ture with its mes­sian­ic expec­ta­tions and its apoc­a­lyp­tic fears.”

This vol­ume is orga­nized chrono­log­i­cal­ly and divid­ed into eight sec­tions, each deal­ing with a dif­fer­ent top­ic includ­ing Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca”; The Cul­ture and Coun­ter­cul­ture”; Cap­i­tal­ism, Con­ser­vatism and Neoconserva­tism”; For­eign Pol­i­cy and Ide­ol­o­gy”; Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty” and final­ly, three autobio­graphic memoirs.

These essays are bound to res­onate with any­one who has lived through, or wants to know more about, the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Whether you agree with Kris­tol or not, the essays with titles such as What’s Bug­ging the Stu­dents,” No Cheers for the Prof­it Motive,” and How Basic is Basic Judaism’?, a Com­fort­able Reli­gion for an Uncom­fort­able World” they are crisply writ­ten and thor­ough­ly engaging.

Peter L. Roth­holz head­ed his own Man­hat­tan-based pub­lic rela­tions agency and taught at the Busi­ness and Lib­er­al Arts (BALA) pro­gram at Queens Col­lege. He lives in East Hamp­ton, NY and San­ta Mon­i­ca, CA and is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Jew­ish publications.

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