Now a law student at Yale University, Mark Gerson has devoted several years of his young life to a lucrative task: gilding the lily for neoconservative patrons. As a contributor to Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic, he has spoken out on behalf of the harmless persuasion and is now about to bring out an anthology in conjunction with the present book, The Essential Neoconservative Reader. But his comments on the "neoconservative vision" never move beyond tasteless panegyric, and for anyone hoping to find here even a modicum of critical insight, Gerson's book can only bring frustration.
Though organized chronologically, it fails to give the slightest hint of motion, beginning and ending at the same point, the glorification of those Zionist Cold War liberals who came to be known as "neoconservatives." Perhaps Gerson is imitating the example of Procopius of Caesarea, who left behind a tell-all history about his imperial patron after having written an official chronicle of the wars of Justinian; for now, however, we must assume that what we see is what Gerson wishes (or is allowed) to reveal.
What value his book has is entirely accidental. After all, it does carry its nihil obstat in the form of blurbs from Christopher DeMuth, Fred Barnes, Robert Bork, and David Frum, all true believers who praise this book as "the most complete history" and "compelling account" of their movement. In several instances, however, the received neoconservative account is used to obfuscate a complex or embarrassing truth. At least ten pages are devoted to stressing the neoconservative belief in the "free market." Gerson credits his group with the insight that "the plausible alternative to the free market" is "a large and powerful government in some kind of socialist system." lie also expresses as a foundational neoconservative belief that "affirmative action is pernicious" because of its explicit and implicit support of racial discrimination and the "undemocratic way in which it was established."
Unfortunately, both positions are gross overstatements. The neoconservative disapproval of affirmative action was instantly suspended when Bill Kristol and others at the Weekly Standard came out in support of presidential hopeful Colin Powell. This was done because of Powell's supposed usefulness as a black role model, despite his open endorsement of government-enforced affirmative action. Obviously the neoconservatives' quest for public favors in Washington, which would benefit from a Powell presidency, took precedence here over what Gerson presents as unshakable principle. As for the neoconservative devotion to the free market, it is clear that Gerson is following his mentors in confusing capitalism with the cultivation of corporate executives. Neoconservatives have done the second brilliantly, while expressing support for a "democratic welfare state." It is surprising (or is it?) that Gerson, who quotes from Michael Novak's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, does not notice the obvious: namely, that Novak and other neoconservatives fail to recognize the similarities between "democratic capitalism" and social democracy. What they want is a combination of big business and big government from which they can jointly benefit. And so far they have milked both sides, while managing to enjoy journalistic respectability.
Gerson serves up platitudes about the "Catholic-Jewish" alliance in his camp being based on "genuine respect for the other religion." Moreover, "Jewish neoconservatives genuinely like Christianity and the Christian neoconservatives genuinely like Judaism," even if "theological differences do remain." The only thing "genuine" about this observation is its utter silliness. The "Jewish-Catholic alliance" to which Gerson refers has little to do with theological agreement or disagreement. It is a feudal arrangement whereby influential and well-heeled Jewish Zionist journalists and foundation mavens deputize, among others, pliant goyim to front for them. There is some theological dialogue that goes on intermittently in the pages of that quirky little newsletter First Things, where Richard Neuhaus incessantly repudiates anti- Semitism while David Novak stresses the nonnegotiable differences between us and them. But such exchanges are not the most significant feature of the "Jewish-Catholic alliance" to which Gerson alludes. Nor is the defense of "Judeo-Christian values," an activity that almost all Jewish organizations lament as a Christian conspiracy to control the American state. It is also clear that Gerson has not read back issues of Commentary, which feature multiple tirades against the irrational and anti-Semitic sources of Christianity. I cite as cases in point the voluminous attacks on the "Crucifixion myth" and the Pauline Epistles, published in Commentary in the early 1980's. But the crucial point here is that Gerson is misdescribing a power relationship. Jews and Catholics who are financially and professionally dependent on neoconservative leadership do and say what they are told. They praise movement supporters and those who take ultranationalist positions on Israeli politics as pro-democratic and philo-Semitic; they also anathematize those on the other side as racist, anti-Semitic, or whatever other smear will play well with their journalistic colleagues.
Finally, it might be useful to note Gerson's account of the thunderous rupture between Richard Neuhaus and The Rockford Institute, which began the latest phase of the American conservative wars. Since Gerson's received version is put up against my own, it behooves me to defend my account, which is attributed to a "paleoconservative promoter." Unlike Gerson's version, which ascribes the break to Neuhaus's anguished response to anti-Semitism, my own explanation in The Conservative Movement (second edition) stresses the irrepressible conflict between opposed worldviews. Though The Rockford Institute has shown absolutely no sign of anti-Semitism, it does present a deeply traditionalist understanding of the human condition and of political life. It has frontally assaulted the root assumptions of the left, particularly those regarding the universalization of political models, the doctrine of human rights, and the use of public administration to achieve social change. It has also challenged the neoconservative position—embraced by Neuhaus—that there have been two civil rights movements, a moderate Christian one followed by a derailed and radicalized one. In fact, Neuhaus's public fulminations against the Institute were aimed at Chronicles' position on immigration, a position that has been adopted by National Review and many other centrist conservative groups that remain in communion with the neoconservative empire. Gerson is wrong on the facts of the case, but ultimately he may not care.
[The Neoconservative Vision From the Cold War to the Culture Wars, by Mark Gerson (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books) 368 pp., $27.95]