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The New Neocons
In the 1960s and ’70s, a group of disillusioned progressive intellectuals began to move slowly right. Figures who had written for left-of-center magazines or worked in Democratic Party politics—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz, to name a few—started feeling disgust at the activities of the radical left. Two leftist commitments were particularly offensive to them. One was the anti-Americanism that accompanied protests against the Vietnam War (as well as the attendant “anti-anticommunism” that such anti-Americanism frequently entailed). The second was the left-wing assault on academia, often committed in the name of minority populations.
Left activism visited all sorts of disturbances upon the universities in the 1960s. Student revolts sometimes turned into tense confrontations with presidents and administrators; protesters managed to occupy and take over various campuses. All this ferment bred opposition, not just from self-styled conservatives, who predictably opposed the chaos in the name of order, but also from some progressives. As George Nash writes in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945:
As campus after campus exploded . . . the need for order, restraint, and standards of excellence seemed ever more apparent to at least a segment of the academic community. The universities were under radical attack. . . . Professors were forced to choose; some suddenly found themselves in a “conservative” situation. This is not to say, of course, that the defense of elementary order, academic freedom, professional standards, an open university, and sheer human civility were in any sense the exclusive concern of conservatives. Nevertheless, the very act of protecting these values . . . had a profoundly “conservatizing” effect on many [progressive] intellectuals.
Although certain members of the professoriate found themselves in agreement with the right, they did not immediately join the right. Many of them felt rather uncomfortable agreeing with conservative intellectuals: for much of the ’60s, Norman Podhoretz and other writers associated with Commentary magazine insisted that they were the true progressives and that the campus radical left was a grotesque aberration from an otherwise honorable tradition.
Despite the discomfort of Podhoretz et. al, though, the onslaught of left-activism compelled these thinkers to come to the defense of America’s liberal-democratic order—which is partly why they eventually came to be called the “neoconservatives.” Little by little they began to refute the contentions of the far left. The social scientists among them (Moynihan, Glazer, etc.) argued that African Americans were held back not exclusively by racism but also by internal, cultural factors that state interventions in the economy were not capable of easily resolving. The staunch anticommunists among them contended that although capitalism may not be perfect, it is certainly superior to communism, as only the former system has in fact generated prosperity and freedom. In short, their newfound appreciation for America’s positive characteristics led them to take up other conservative-ish positions.
This move to the right among progressive intellectuals opened up some ground for an alliance with elements on the traditional center-right. The neoconservatives and the establishment conservatives of such magazines as National Review did not agree on everything, at least in the 1960s and ’70s, but they agreed on much: the basic virtue of capitalism, the necessity of order and the norms of civility, and, above all, the pathological nature of the radical left.
The Dividing Line
All of which brings me to the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) today, and the parallels between it and neoconservatism. In all the trends mentioned above—the reaction against left-activism, the initial reluctance to fully embrace the right, the defense of standards, the discovery of conservatism’s worth—the IDW resembles its neoconservative predecessor.
There has been much debate about how exactly the IDW’s political position should be characterized. By and large, the IDW’s critics tend to paint the IDW as a movement of the right, or even of the far right. But even within the IDW itself, there is dissension. Uri Harris of Quillette, the IDW’s flagship publication, has suggested that the figures associated with the IDW are united primarily by their opposition to today’s most prominent radical-left movement, namely, the social justice movement. Harris’s argument, however, met with fierce backlash from several IDW figures, many of whom insisted—much like Norman Podhoretz before them—that they are not conservatives in any real sense. Harris’s critics pointed out that with the exception of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro, most IDW members support abortion rights, gay marriage, drug legalization, economic measures to combat income inequality, and other policies not typically associated with conservatism. Hence, they concluded, the IDW is politically diverse and united primarily by support for free and open inquiry.
Quillette editor Claire Lehmann seems to sympathize with Harris’s critics; she does not see the IDW as a manifestation of right-wing politics. For example, she has written that the “relevant distinction today in intellectual circles is not one of Left vs Right, but Liberty vs Authority,” and many people, no doubt, would agree with her. (I cannot help but notice that those who insist that some key matter is not an argument of right versus left but of something else tend to be moderate progressives finding themselves aghast at agreeing with the right.) When one considers the dynamics of what is occurring among intellectuals, however, Lehmann’s objection—and that of Harris’s critics—simply will not do.
Harris’s contention that the IDW is united by opposition to the social justice left is basically correct. Yes, it is true that many IDW figures back some center-left policies but, among intellectuals, those are not the most salient issues of our time. As an aggressive left has expanded its influence in the universities and over culture at large, the issues on its agenda—identity, oppression, social justice, etc.—have largely become the dividing line among intellectuals.
Just about every IDW figure voices vehement opposition to the views of the social justice left; one thinks here of Steven Pinker, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Christina Hoff Sommers, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and Douglas Murray. While there may be a wide divergence of views among these thinkers on a variety of issues, not a single one of them can be described as sympathetic to, let alone supportive of, the social justice left.
For the IDW to count as politically diverse, it would have to begin including people who take the far-left position on the issues of our day—in other words, it would have to include in its ranks intersectional feminists, postcolonial theorists, and so on. Such a development is not even conceivable: a far-left feminist such as Kimberlé Crenshaw would never share a platform with an IDWer or declare herself a proud supporter of the movement. Even Camille Paglia—who describes herself as a left-leaning feminist and is perhaps the closest thing the IDW has to a radical feminist—loathes the social justice movement.
The reason why a social justice leftist could not be part of the IDW reveals much about the subtle process by which diverse IDW figures were pushed together in the first place. The social justice left is, in the view of its opponents, advancing a revolutionary challenge to many of the pillars of Western ideology: capitalism, the Enlightenment, objectivity, rationality, political liberalism, colorblindness, individualism, and more. Even if the IDW’s members are not traditionally conservative, this revolutionary challenge has led them to a certain kind of conservatism, at least insofar as defending the basic ideological and institutional features of one’s societal inheritance is conservative—which, under reasonable assumptions, it is. Thus, in the face of the social justice critique, a Burkean sensibility has come online in much of the IDW—a sensibility that stands up for the things one cherishes or takes for granted. Against the social justice tendency to criticize Western institutions for their white supremacist or patriarchal undertones, the IDW cries out for order, dialogue, standards, the value of one’s inheritance: for a (classically) liberal type of conservatism, in a phrase.
The revolutionary challenge of the social justice left, moreover, has pushed many IDWers toward some very conventionally conservative positions indeed, as can be discerned from some of the essays Quillette has published, to generally warm receptions from its readers. How else can one describe the following pieces if not as conservative? “The French Genocide That Has Been Air-Brushed from History”—a scathing critique of the French Revolution (!); “The Bolivarian God that Failed”—a similarly scathing critique of the Venezuelan revolution; “The Clear Case for Capitalism”—what its title implies; “The High Price of Stale Grievances”—an attack on the racially progressive thought of Ta-Nehisi Coates; and the list goes on.
Support for capitalism, revulsion at revolutionary violence, dissent from racial progressivism—none of this stuff would have been out of place at National Review. Nor am I nitpicking: one might find articles at Quillette that part with some traditionally conservative positions, but one will be hard-pressed to find endorsements of revolution, or critiques of political liberalism, or praise for the notion of structural oppression (and all that is related to it). I submit, then, that the counterrevolutionary impulse is at work in the IDW.
As with the initial phases of the original neoconservatism, many figures in the IDW currently feel uncomfortable in their new intellectual surroundings. They have not forged deep ties with the institutional right. They have not allied themselves with right-wing political parties. They still get upset at those who call them conservatives (and so I offer my apologies in advance for doing precisely that!). They diverge from traditional conservatives on some issues—but not on the most salient ones.
And yet, despite all that, they are the new neoconservatives, and their protestations to the contrary cannot obfuscate what is happening. If history is any indication, the links between the IDW and the more established right are likely to strengthen in the coming years, for better or worse—or, indeed, for better and worse.
Christian Alejandro Gonzalez is a political science student at Columbia University and a Research Assistant at Heterodox Academy. His work has appeared in National Review, the American Conservative, Quillette, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @xchrisgonz.
Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.
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