Irving Kristol Did Not Die
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Sep 25, 2009 at 05:32:25 PM EST
This past September 17th, "neoconservative godfather" Irving Kristol passed away at age 89.  While his passing demands condolences for his family, his philosophical legacy does not, especially when it comes to matters of faith.
This past week we have seen the inevitable laurels from fellow neocons like David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer. Even  E. J. Dionne has joined in on the complimentary remembrances.

Dionne's column is important because he is not a neoconservative such as Brooks or Krauthammer. Like me he is instead a Catholic who is liberal in both his approach to faith as well as politics. And while couching his column as an ode to a loyal opponent, Dionne fails to acknowledge a more pernicious side of Kristol's view of Catholicism and of faith in general.

In fact, Kristol wrote of faith as it were nothing more than a political tool.

Like many of his neocon fellow travelers of his generation - Robert H. Bork and Bill Bennett come to mind - he severely overreacted to the 1960s. Instead of properly viewing them as being events naturally of their time and place in history, he ascribed changing morals as systemic cultural rot. Even though he was an atheist himself, he ascribed these changes to the lack of religious orthodoxy. To that end, he was extremely hostile to changes of the Second Vatican Council, going so far as to argue that the Church should return to mindset of the Middle Ages. In the late 1979 he famously lectured:

Go tell the young people that the message of the [Catholic] church is to wear sackcloth and ashes and to walk on nails to Rome, and they would do it. The church turned the wrong way. It went to modernity at the very moment when modernity was being challenged, when the secular gnostic impulse was already in the process of dissolution.

There it is: the self-proclaimed non-believer telling Catholics to leap backwards, to become less enlightened. It should be noted that part of the Church's "turn towards modernity" was Nostra Aetate, the long overdue renunciation of libeling Jews with the charge of deicide.

He specifically praised the Syllabus of Errors by Pope Pius IX an encyclical that included attacks on reason, Protestantism, and the separation of church and state.

Pius IX (like Kristol) evolved from being a reformer as a young man who became more reactionary with age. He was a well-known authoritarian who led a virtual one-man war on modern science and democracy.

But Pius IX is perhaps best known for his kidnapping and raising of a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, from a Jewish family in Bologna (before Italian reunification curbed the Vatican's power to do such things) and raised the child to become a priest - doing so in the face of protestations from the child's parents and European leaders.  As a Catholic I find such behavior abhorrent; I cannot understand how Kristol -- someone who strongly identified with his Jewish heritage -- saw this pontiff as being worthy of citation and praise.  

A New York Times report on Kristol's passing is illuminating. During the Second World War, Kristol was still a Trotskyite. It was, however during his wartime experience serving as an infantryman in Europe where Kristol seemed to have reached a turning point. As the Times noted:

Drafted into the Army with a number of Midwesterners who were street-tough and often anti-Semitic, he found himself shedding his youthful radical optimism. "I can't build socialism with these people," he concluded. "They'll probably take it over and make a racket out of it."

In his opinion, his fellow GI's were inclined to loot, rape and murder, and only Army discipline held them in check. It was a perception about human nature that would stay with him for the rest of his life, creating a tension with his alternative view that ordinary people were to be trusted more than intellectuals to do the right thing.

Kristol went on to observe:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.

There it is, Irving Kristol the platonic egotist, the man constantly in search of a revolution to lead. When he couldn't find it on the left, he found it on the right.

Over the course of his adult lifetime he followed an all-too-common neocon trajectory going from a Trotskyite-Communist to Rightwing hawk. While his views changed, his sense of strident self-importance did not.  And the legacy of neconservative religion for thee, but not for me, lives on.




Display:
As a student of the Second World War, I find his remark of American GIs being prone to raping sprees utterly repugnant. Historical accounts tell a very different story.

But what that remark shows is that Kristol had a mindset of believing himself to be better than others and that the rules of society -- the rules he wanted ordinary good folks to live by -- didn't apply to him.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Sep 25, 2009 at 05:39:07 PM EST


I find it a very fascinating trend that many progressive Catholic bloggers have been posting about Pius IX and/or Cardinal Newman. I think this is a good thing, because sometimes it is best to understand the past before we blindly repeat it. As to Cardinal Newman we need to get the truth of his theology out in the blogosphere before he and his theology are 'adopted' into the Catholic right. Newman could very well be this Vatican's version of Edgardo Mortaro.

by colkoch on Mon Sep 28, 2009 at 11:34:27 AM EST

Very much worth reading. Just click right here.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Sep 28, 2009 at 01:45:47 PM EST

People like Kristol and the Christian Right don't think the rules should apply to them. Also, I think Kristol managed to build his own racket and prosper quite nicely too.

About the Mortara case, I recommend David I. Kertzer's book "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," which details the whole abominable episode, and it's to this mindset the Catholic theocons want to return the Church? Among other things, Kertzer details the Mortara family never recovered from Edgardo's loss.

by khughes1963 on Fri Sep 25, 2009 at 10:53:24 PM EST


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