Monday, November 10, 2008

Inquisitions

At the NYRB, David Bromwich has a wonderfully Burkean piece about Dick Cheney (note, especially, his use of the units of the sentence and paragraph, as well as the style of thought):
Never before, in the history of the United States, has there been an ideological camp so fully formed and equipped to extend itself as neoconservatism in the year 1999. It was, and remains, a sect that has some of the properties of a party. There are mentors now in the generation of the fathers as well as the grandfathers, summer internships for young enthusiasts, semiofficial platforms of programmed reactions to breaking news. But to grasp their collective character, one must think of a party that does not run for office at election time. They can therefore evade responsibility for botched policies and the leaders who promote those policies. Donald Rumsfeld had his first and warmest partisans among the neoconservatives, but they were also the first, with the solitary apparent exception of Cheney, to identify him as a scapegoat for the Iraq war and to call for his firing when the insurgency tore the country apart in 2006.

With the peculiar tightness of its loyalties and the convenience of its immunities, neoconservatism in the United States now has something of the consistency of an alternative culture. Its success in penetrating the mainstream culture is evident in the pundit shows on most of the networks and cable TV, and in the columns of The Washington Post and The New York Times. In the years between 1983 and 1986, and again, more potently, in 2001–2006, the neoconservatives went far to dislocate the boundaries of respectable opinion in America. The idea that wars are to be avoided except in cases of self-defense suffered an eclipse from which it has not yet returned, largely owing to the persistence of respected opinion makers in urging the spread of freedom and markets by force of arms. More particularly, and to confine ourselves to recent events, the nomination of Samuel Alito and the drafting and legitimation of the "surge" strategy by Retired General Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan of the AEI could not have succeeded as they did without the early and organized advocacy of the neoconservative camp.

How did they get so close to Dick Cheney? The answer lies in the fact that Cheney has an inquisitive mind, but from the accidents of his career and placement, he was for a long time a thinker deprived of intellectual society. Neoconservatism, as it developed in the 1980s, came to have its own heroes (Robert Bork), its canon of revered texts (Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind), and a set of prejudices delivered in a reasonable tone: hostile to individual liberty, appreciative of modern technology, friendly to religion as a guide to morals and an engine of state power. It was, to repeat, a substitute culture of satisfying density. The AEI along with journals like Commentary and, more recently, The Weekly Standard offer, for those who take the full course, a total environment, an idiom of managerial-intellectual judgment that blends the rapidity of journalism with the weightier pretensions of an academy.
I take this opportunity to note that David (who was one of my dissertation advisors, and a huge & ongoing influence in my intellectual life) is giving the Irving Howe Memorial Lecture this Tuesday at 6:30pm at the CUNY Graduate Center; his subject is "What Shakespeare's Heroes Learn."

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