Monday, March 07, 2005

Neoconservatives: What Went Wrong, Take II 

When I was in Costa Rica two weeks ago, it was summer time. The sun was so intense that I discovered that I could get sunburnt even hiding in the shade of a beachside tree. I envied the iguanas who would perch themselves on a rock and sit for hours in the sun. I had to ration my exposure, which was unfortunate since I knew it would be winter when I got back to New York.

It was winter on Saturday night. The wind cracked around the corners of the old brownstone buildings and through the labyrinth streets of the west village, chilling us as we made our way across the two blocks from misshapes to the Village Tavern. January and February are typically the slowest months in the bar business, and the crowd at the Tavern was still thin in the first week in March. Despite the cold outside, however, there was a perceptible warmness of spirit among the patrons and the staff. We knew the worst of winter was behind us, and that was a reason to celebrate.

I recognized an old acquaintance, Robert, hunched over a class of whiskey the bar. I said hello he remarked on my new coat. I had recently picked it up from a retailer who was pushing his winter wear out the door at heavily discounted prices. The coat reminded him of an English hunting coat, which I’ll have to take his word on since I have no experience in such matters. He told me that there was a connection between English clothiers and the phrase “in the pink.” I’d heard all sorts of explanations for the origin of this phrase but I was willing to entertain another.

According to Robert, the phrase originates from the tailor Thomas Pink, who was said to make the best hunting coats. A man was doing well in life if he could afford a Thomas Pink coat, if he was “in the Pink.” I have no idea if this is true—indeed it sounds as if something the Thomas Pink marketing department might have concocted—but it was interesting enough that I decided to write it down in my moleskin. Also, I had been drinking enough that night that I wasn’t confident I would remember the story the next morning.

As I was writing a girl in a pleated skirt that came down to mid-calf (apparently we are going to be burdened with long skirts this spring) set her hand on my book. She was smiling and had bright blue eyes. “I’m in that book,” she said. “Near the front.”

Her hair was pulled back from her face and tied in some sort of knot on the back of her head. She was very pretty—so pretty that I was sure I would remember her if I had put her in my book. Searching my memory, however, I couldn’t remember her. The whiskey was making an honest man out of me, and so I told her I this.

She was undeterred. “Let me have a look,” she said. I handed her the moleskin and she flipped through it’s early pages. “Here. See.”

There it was. Her name. Her phone number. Her email address. A brief description—blonde, fashion student, attractive—and some notes on things she had said. “I remember you because I’ve never met a man in bar who was so interested in what I had to say that he wanted to write it down,” she said. I smiled and resisted the whiskey inspired impulse to tell her that I compulsively write down things that even the truly repulsive say to me. Especially the truly repulsive.

She remembered that I did some writing and wanted to know what I was working on. I produced a copy of Peter Steinfel’s book the neoconservatives and told her I was working on an essay about how a group of social science oriented policy skeptics had become the biggest enthusiasts for the policy of re-making the middle east. Surprisingly she did not walk away. I bought us each a drink and explained my theory.

“Not very long ago there were a group of liberals who realized something had gone wrong with liberalism,” I said. “It had become resistant to analysis and evidence—refusing to accept unorthodox conclusions that challenged liberal positions on social change, welfare policy and communism. The neoconservatives kept coming up with the evidence, and found themselves under attack by liberals who transformed what should have been a policy debate into a debate over the motives of the participants. In fact, the label ‘neoconservative’ was originally intended as a smear word to rule the critique of liberalism outside the pale of decent discussion.”

I think I had her willing participation up until the point. Her attention was starting to wane—I saw her eyes shift over my shoulders looking for someone who might be less enthusiastic about discussing politics and drinking whiskey. But I was on a roll and drinking and talking very fast at that point.

“They figured out that the reason they weren’t getting anywhere is that their arguments threatened the class interests of the liberal intellectuals. They called them the New Class,” I said.

“Their class interests? What does that mean?” she asked. I think she was starting to suspect I was some sort of Marxist.

“Well, hold on. I’ll have another whiskey, and another vodka-soda for the lady,” I said. “Basically, the intellectuals of the period were attached to the program of expanding the public sphere because it increased their power and prestige. It gave them an important role in society. At the same time, they wanted to break down other sphere’s of public authority, competing sources of power and prestige. They wanted a monopoly on social authority, and the neocons were saying that this monopoly was having bad effects.”

“Mmm. Okay. Thanks for the drink,” she said. I had purchased her attention for at least a few more moments.

“So the mystery is how had these hard-headed social science types gone from being skeptics about the ability of government to transform life for the better to being enthusiasts for the Bush administration’s policy of remaking the middle east?”

“Isn’t it because they want oil?” she said.

“Well, here’s what I think it is. I think that they won the battle against big government. Communism fell. Civilization survived the sixties and the seventies. The neocons found themselves without a project—without something to give them the power and prestige they desired.”

“It’s cute the way you say 'powerandprestige.' As if it’s one word,” she said. “You’re drinking that whiskey awfully fast though.”

“Yeah. Try not to watch too closely. So basically, they got behind the project to remake the world as a new project. And like the New Class before them they’ve become attached to project in a way that makes them resistant to evidence and arguments against it.”

“So history is repeating itself, with the ones who were once history’s tragedians now histories comedians—expecting everything to end happily every after,” she said. She had a strand of her hair twirling in her fingers, and was smiling again.

“Fucking brilliant,” I told her. It’s probably not quite right to call someone brilliant simply because they understand your own theory so well. “Look, do you remember that show Star Trek? Well, Bill Kauffman once wrote that it reminded him of the Kennedy administration in space—lots of talk about universal brotherhood, and hey get the colored lady to answer the phone. The project to remake the middle east is simply the Great Society for the Persian Gulf—lots of talk about moral aspirations and no one paying attention while everything goes to shit.”

“I don’t think you can say ‘colored’ anymore,” she said.

“I know. It was a historical allusion. What they would have said, then. You know? Never mind. Want to go outside for a smoke?”

“I thought you’d never ask. Can I wear that coat?”