Neocon Vampires Sink Their Fangs Into the Tea Parties
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Neocons, like military leaders, have always relied on the same old trick: Create a fictional caricature of your opponent as a threat to your very existence and rally the troops to fight against it. That’s how the neocons first came to prominence. Though their movement has diffuse roots that go back to the 1940s, it really crystallized (pardon the pun) in the late 1960s under the tutelage of Irving Kristol, who led the intellectual counter-attack against the cultural radicalism of the era.
“If there is any one thing that neoconservatives are unanimous about, it is their dislike of the counterculture,” Kristol once wrote. The movement’s other godfather, Norman Podhoretz, agreed: “Revulsion against the counterculture accounted for more converts to neoconservativism than any other single factor.”
Why revulsion? Because of the hippies’ supposed “hedonism” and irresponsible self-indulgence. Neocons, on the other hand, believed in original sin: People are inherently selfish; if they won’t restrain their desires and follow traditional rules, society will degenerate into “moral anarchy.” That’s what Kristol feared was happening in the late ‘60s: Because the radicals would not “control their appetites,” America was engulfed in “confusion and disorientation, all embellished with a veneer of ‘equality.’” “Nobody was in charge,” Podhoretz complained; the counterculture was “a vulgar plot to undermine Western civilization itself.”
The ‘60s neocons did worry that liberal Democrats wanted too much government regulation of the free market. But for them that was merely a symbol of the larger issue of “hippie hedonism” versus old-fashioned bourgeois self-restraint. Free enterprise capitalists channel their selfish desires into the marketplace, according to Kristol. They accept conventional moral rules and “the merits of deferred gratification.” That makes them “a people of firm moral convictions, a people of self-reliance and self-discipline.”
The essential issues were moral, not economic. “If you delegitimate the bourgeois society,” Kristol wrote, “the market economy—almost incidentally—is also deligitimated.”
Ever since, the neocons have been fighting the same war: self-restraint against self-expression, traditional rules against individual freedom. For them, it was a “culture war” -- a term they largely created. In fact, a raft of careful studies have shown that there is no real culture war in the U.S. because few people consistently hold either all liberal or all conservative views. Most pick and choose, depending on the issue, and end up somewhere in the middle.
But neocons have found it useful to promote the simplistic idea of a left-versus-right “culture war” to rally their troops against the left. And the belief in a clear-cut dividing line between good and evil made their followers feel more secure, convinced that they were “the good guys.”
To keep their war going, though, the neocons had to keep shifting the issue focus. By the mid-‘70s the counterculture no longer seemed like much of a threat to anyone, much less to civilization itself. So the neocons whipped up renewed cold war fervor to fend off “the commies.” They hoped to revive a post-Vietnam nation’s belief in traditional values -- absolute good against absolute evil -- and a willingness to accept authority, follow orders, and sacrifice oneself for the values handed down from above.
After the cold war ended, Irving Kristol’s son William still called for the U.S. to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy” and gain a permanent “benevolent global hegemony.” Thus the neocons wrote the script for the Bush-Cheney “war on terror.”
The neocons, like Bush himself, were not concerned chiefly to protect the nation from foreign “terrorists.” They urged a return to the fighting spirit, above all, to revive what Bill Kristol called “a clear moral purpose,” to “restore a sense of the heroic” by making sacrifices for “the defense of the nation and its principles.” They were using the “war on terror” to continue their war on the ‘60s counterculture.