Sunday, November 06, 2005

What makes a 'Neocon'?

The term 'neoconservative' was originally identified with a group of early (predominantly Jewish) liberals "mugged by reality": former Trotskyites who had become disillusioned with Communism and the increasing radicalism and anti-Americanism of the Left. Some of the more recognizable of these are Irving Kristol (editor of the now-defunct The Public Interest), Norman Podhoretz (Commentary) and William Kristol (The Weekly Standard). (A good documentary on the early years of Irving Kristol is PBS' "Arguing The World, covering the 'New York Intellectuals' Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer).

In a very loose sense, Catholics like Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak might be described as 'neoconservative' in that they were likewise active on the left during the 60's, and experienced profound reorientations in their perspectives on certain political issues over the years (Fr. Neuhaus worked with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights era, and in 1965, joined Heschel and John Bennett in founding "Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam"; Michael Novak describes his break from the Left in "Controversial Engagements" First Things 92 April 1999: 21-29).

Over the course of recent decades and especially in the 90's, the term 'neocon' has come to be used by the left and especially the "antiwar" movement to refer to practically anybody and everybody supportive of the foreign policy of the Bush administration in Iraq, or stretched even further -- as in the contension of Dr. J.P. Hubert that "virtually all of the "hot-button" issues of our day are either significantly impacted or controlled by neoconservative ideology including American foreign and domestic policy" ("The New Stealth World View").

Given the twists and turns in the understanding of 'neocon' over the decades, it is my contention that when the 'neocon' label is liberally applied without proper clarification or qualification, it easily becomes an impediment to the discussion and only adds to readers' confusion.

This is especially the case when whole groups of individuals, publications, or organizations are lumped together, as when the Zwicks issue a mass-condemnation of "Neuhaus, Weigel, Novak, Sirico, The American Enterprise Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Acton Institute and First Things Magazine" in their article "Pope John Paul II condemns neoliberalism in Ecclesia in America, as social sin that cries to heaven" (Houston Catholic Worker Vol. XIX, No. 2, Mar.-Apr. 1999). (The Zwicks furthermore assert that "Neoliberalism is known in the United States as neoconservatism," a spurious charge addressed by Michael Therrien in his essay John Paul II’s Use of the Term Neo-Liberalism in Ecclesia in America").

I hope my readers will pardon this lengthy preface, because I am concerned here by David Jone's use of the term "neocon" in a recent post to Nouvelle Theologie, linking to the latest piece by Italian journalist and 'Vatican specialist' Sandro Magister on Italian Catholic philosopher Dario Antiseri(Disputed Questions. A Catholic Philosopher Argues for Relativism Nov. 3, 2005). David's post is titled "An Italian Neocon", with the following remarks:

[Antiseri] is criticizing, at bottom, Benedict XVI's positions on relativism, nihilism, and the natural law. In this article, it cites his affinity with American thinkers like Novak, Sirico and Neuhaus. Does this surprise anyone? It shouldn't considering this American camp of Whig Thomists have contradicted the last two Holy Fathers on many, many points.

David is well aware that I've criticized the use of the label 'neocon' in the past. Addressing Dr. Hubert's use of the term 'neocon' and his reference to a 'Straussianl' cabal allegedly pulling the strings of the Bush administration, I remarked that:

would be beneficial to "tighten up" his case (as well as a guide to further discussion) by coming to a more concise definition -- that is to say, laying out specific criteria by which one can accurately identify a "neoconservative" and/or a "Catholic neoconservative" -- including a substantiated list of "neoconservative principles" operative in U.S. economic/foreign policy.
So, it should come as no suprise to David that lumping Antiseri and Novak, Neuhaus and Weigel together as "neocons" would bug me to no end. =)

Magister alleges that Antiseri's writings are "read and appreciated in the United States, where he is in the company of Catholic thinkers like Michael Novak, Robert Sirico, and Richard J. Neuhaus." I find this curious, as a specific Google query for his name reveals total of 455 English results in Google). While he is compared to Neuhaus, Novak, a search of First Things' entire online archive for the author comes up with nary a mention. A search of the website for the Acton Institute comes up with a great deal more results, most in Italian.

Antiseri is, however, cited favorably on Lew Rockwell's blog, which purports to be "anti war, pro-market" and is quite fond of the Austrian (or Vienna) school of economics.

Antiseri was also involved in a panel discussion/presentation of book by Luigi Guissiani (L’io, il potere, le opere [The Self, Power, Works]). And back in September 2003, Antiseri reported on the research of scholars like Oreste Bazzichi and Alejandro A. Chafuen (Faith and Liberty. The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics), questioning the thesis of Max Weber that the spirit of capitalism originated in Reformation-era Calvinism, and which rather can be traced to various works of thought and practices in the Middle Ages (especially that of the Franciscans [!]).

But does all or any of this make Antiseri a "neocon"? -- and given the lack of qualification, is it in any way helpful to the discussion? If Antiseri is a neocon, and if Neuhaus, Sirico and Novak are likewise neocons, should we then impute the dissenting philosophical critique of Antiseri to the rest of them? On the contrary, it seems that the very application of the label obfuscates the content of Antiseri's article and the positions of Fr. Neuhaus, Sirico and company themselves.

I think if David Jones were to honor my recommmendation in coming up with a clear and comprehensible list of 'defining characteristics' or indicators of neoconservatism, it would be a greater challenge than he had anticipated.

* * *

On a side note, perhaps it was the translation, but I found Antiseri's piece rather abstract -- thus far, with the exception of this brief discussion on BrothersJudd, it's gotten precious little attention in blogland (I guess John Allen Jr. is the greater draw among religious bloggers).

Perhaps in time Neuhaus, Novak and Sirico will rush to the defense of their neoconservative comrades-in-arms.