Sunday, September 21, 2003

A brief clarification of the term "neoconservative"

"Neoconservative" was originally a pejorative term applied to the original band of New York Jewish intellectuals, liberals critical of communism who believed themselves to be increasingly alienated from the anti-American counterculture of the 60's. As Michael Novak recalls:

Virtually all [of the "neoconservatives"] had a history as men and women of the left, indeed to the left of the Democratic party . . . Then at some point their more and more frequently expressed critique of left-wing excesses, especially in domestic policy, involved a direct rejection of socialist categories of thought. Since the left had few counterarguments to wheel into the battle, the Left turned to name-calling. It was the Socialist Michael Harrington, indeed, who coined the term "neoconservative" for this small band and their friends, intending it as an insult.

In those days (the mid-1970s), it was thought that there was really no genuinely conservative movement in the United States as there always had been in Europe. In America, it was said, there is only one variant or another of liberalism — the old fuddy-duddy liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, or some blend of European socialism/social democracy.

Thus, to call a foe who had long been identified with the Left a "conservative" was thought to be a lonely literary ostracism. To prefix that with "neo" was to suggest something like "pseudo" or "not even genuine." No historical tradition or cultural movement called by that name could be decried anywhere in sight. Just a tiny band, cast out into the darkness of intellectual isolation.

The neoconservatives rose to a position of influence during the Cold War and the Reagan Administration. Their role in determining policy diminished during the Bush (Sr.) and Clinton administrations and has been resurrected with the election of George Bush Jr. As Joe Hagan notes, "After the Cold War ended, neoconservatism came to be associated with an aggressive foreign policy. . . 'neoconservatism' has since become the fast-and-loose, catch-all term for hawks," defending the current Bush Administration's "war on terrorism" and campaign in Iraq.

The intent of this website is not to examine the meaning of neoconservatisim per se, but rather the question of the Church's reconciliation with classic notion of liberalism (democracy, human rights, and free markets). Those making the argument in support of this proposition are sometimes referred to as "neoconservatives." The Houston Catholic Worker, for example, commonly refers to Richard J. Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel as neoconservatives in their editorials -- and tend to group Avery Dulles under this category as well. I am not sure whether these authors would define themselves as such, but for those who are curious I am making use of the term simply for lack of a better one.

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