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Irving Kristol and the Future of Conservatism

by Christopher Chantrill
September 23, 2009 at 11:29 am

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THEY CALLED him the godfather. That’s because in the 1970s Irving Kristol, who died September 18, 2009 aged 89, seemed to be the conservative at the center of the “family,” pulling the strings.

But he wasn’t making people offers they couldn’t refuse. Billy’s dad was just Mr. Kristol, according to Bill Kristol’s school chum James Warren.

Irving Kristol was first called “neo-conservative” by lefty Michael Harrington, and, as usual with our lefty friends, the epithet was not meant as a compliment. Kristol retorted that a neo-conservative was a liberal mugged by reality.

Kristol’s heyday was the late 1970s when a number of separate political and intellectual ocean currents mysteriously combined into the super El Nino that brought Ronald Reagan to the White House. As editor of the quarterly The Public Interest and as a regular on Bob Bartley’s Wall Street Journal edit page, and as a promoter of young conservative talent, Kristol did as much as anyone to make Ronald Reagan happen.

The conservatism that Kristol championed, I maintain, was a man-centered conservatism. It showed America how to rediscover the manly virtues of liberty and independence in politics and the free economy. But Irving Kristol also knew what had to come next. He articulated it clearly in his last great speech, given at the American Enterprise Institute in 1991:

Bourgeois society is [Adam Smith’s] legacy, for good and ill. For good, in that it has produced, through the market economy, a world prosperous beyond all previous imaginings—including socialist imaginings. For ill, in that this world, with every passing decade, has become ever more spiritually impoverished. That war on poverty is the great unfinished task before us.

The life work of Kristol’s wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, has been to explore and understand this spiritual poverty. In The Demoralization of Society and One Nation, Two Cultures and Poverty and Compassion and many other books she has investigated the cultural inflection point in the modern era. It was the moment when the moral order of the 19th century began its collapse into modern nihilism. It was the social ethos trampled under foot by the march of the welfare state.

The conservatism that Himmelfarb points to, I argue, is a woman-centered conservatism. It would rediscover the womanly virtues of compassion and connection and teach that the social safety net is a web woven by women in their relationships and not by helping professionals in the administrative state.

Man-centered conservatism champions the market economy over socialism. Woman-centered conservatism has a different battle to fight. It champions a fruitful domestic tranquility over barren feminism. It calls the bluff of Simone de Beauvoir’s celebration of the independent woman.

There can be no such thing as an independent woman. The proof is the huge government apparatus that supports single women and their children. Women are born instead for connection and caring, as that liberated woman George Eliot wrote at the end of Middlemarch. She describes how her heroine Dorothea spent her “full nature” not in ardent plans for social improvement but “in channels which had no great name on the earth.”

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book is The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot.

Today, in another century, we live at another inflection point. All of a sudden in the last few months the people of the Anglosphere have turned against ever larger government. Americans are taking to the streets to protest bailouts and deficits and waste. In Britain Prime Minister Gordon Brown has suddenly discovered the need to “cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets.”

President Obama and his Dems-in-a-bubble will be the last to know, but he too will soon be talking cuts. He’ll talk cuts for a simple reason: the American people will be insisting upon it.

But if the great tide of government spending starts to ebb then we must keep the boats afloat in with a flood tide of woman-centered conservatism. We must cherish once again the “unhistoric acts” of women who live faithfully a hidden, yet “incalculably diffusive” life. We must honor them as they reweave the textured web of relationship that has frayed into the government’s squalid safety net.

The great truth of man-centered conservatism over socialism is that men can best thrive on this earth if you surrender yourself and serve your fellow humans in the market. The great truth of woman-centered conservatism over feminism is that women thrive better connecting and caring in a web of relationship than in posing as independent women or repining as government dependents.

Let us call it the Kristol legacy.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


Hugo on Genius

“Tear down theory, poetic systems... No more rules, no more models... Genius conjures up rather than learns... ” —Victor Hugo
César Graña, Bohemian versus Bourgeois


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


Faith & Purpose

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Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990


Conversion

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James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Postmodernism

A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ’merely relative’, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.
Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy


Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006


China and Christianity

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David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


Religion, Property, and Family

But the only religions that have survived are those which support property and the family. Thus the outlook for communism, which is both anti-property and anti-family, (and also anti-religion), is not promising.
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit


Conservatism

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Danny Kruger, On Fraternity


US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


presented by Christopher Chantrill

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