The Interminable Goldberg

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by Paul Gottfried

Having forced myself, for the sake of understanding the "conservative movement," to read the statement on the midterm election drafted by NR editors and made available online on November 6, I came away, like neoconservative publicist David Frum, struck by the "restrained" character of the new conservative wish list. Beyond the "first priority for Republicans, "to ensure that Bush has the ability to fire and reassign people in anti-terrorism agencies" and that "national security" should "trump the unions’ demands," it was thin pickings indeed. Unless there was something I missed, all that conservatives are supposed push Republicans to do is "pave the way for a reform of Social Security based on private investment," that is, introduce a new layer of forced savings on top of the largest federal redistribution program, and to link "prescription drugs subsidies [if possible] to a reform of Medicare."

Needless to say nothing as deeply divisive or as rightwing as moving against affirmative action or protesting against the continued invasion across our Southern border is allowed to enter the picture, letting alone cutting the scope and reach of the government. These are not issues that conservatives should even be tempted to raise, after voting for an administration that NR considers, in some generic or structural sense, to be conservative.

On the other hand, NR does not hide what it really expects the Bush administration to do, which is to create a global empire under a different name. A recent commentary on September 24, by Jonah Goldberg, illustrates the way this empire is to be presented. In his rambling column Goldberg browbeats certain bad guys for "not getting America." Before ending with the childish phrase, "Hopefully, we’ll teach it how to pass the same test," a reference to a new Iran that had received instruction in global democratic tenets, Goldberg sets out to explain when empires are not empires.

He tries to make the point that the US only looks and smells like an empire to those who "don’t believe in freedom and democracy and free markets" or who have trouble grasping that the US, when given the "moral choice" and "power" to be an empire, "has chosen not to be one." Now it is altogether possible to believe in freedom and our original constitutional framework, and nonetheless believe that the US is an empire. What we are discussing is not Jonah’s neocon social preferences but how one defines an empire.

If the would-be conservative pope had bothered to read After Liberalism, a copy of which was wastefully sent to his adolescent home base at NR, Goldberg might have encountered the argument that not all empires are driven by "material gain." In what may be a reference to my view, he speaks about explaining American internationalism by "pressing it into an ideological category." Here he is pointing to a truth that he would also like to obscure.

Those of us who try to understand American imperialism by bringing up ideology are certainly not material reductionists. Indeed, I wish American imperial overreach could be adequately explained by a Naderite honing-in on the machinations of oil investors. (I won’t bother to bring up the thoroughly discredited gripe that those who turn their backs on the global democratic imperative are really anti-Semites. In this reading, not wishing to set up American imperial vice-regencies in Asia is tantamount to hating Jews.)

But the reality in this case is much more troubling. Oil companies openly and persistently opposed putting sanctions on Iraq; like most capitalists they are looking for profit rather than war, situations that are not necessarily connected (except for the munitions manufacturers). But there are frenzied political players, e.g., the global democrats at National Review and New Republic, who are on the cutting edge of American imperialism. Unfortunately those who talk up this ideologically driven imperialism do not dare speak its name. Thus we persist in claiming that the Germans were "reeducated’ and "rehabilitated" after the Second World War, when we have occupied their country since 1945 and have put totalitarian features into their post-war constitution to make sure they elect people we like and throw into jail those we don’t. Perhaps we did turn our backs on a more brutal imperialism in the German case because, after having leveled their cities and smiled kindly while our Soviet allies raped and murdered their way through Eastern and Central Germany, we desisted from killing all of our defeated enemies.

Note: I never claim that the US is nastier than other imperial powers. It is only more ideologically motivated than some of them, and in that sense closer to medieval papal imperialism, the Islamic caliphate, or the Communists than to such Victorian empires as the British or Austro-Hungarian. While the last two believed in Christian standards of conduct, as long as that didn’t interfere with reasons of state, their statesmen were certainly more level-headed and more salonsfaehig (sorry Jonah about resorting to a language that, according to your columns, only anti-Semites use, to spit at each other) than are the present batch of neocon-neoliberal imperialists, who find hypocritical circumlocutions for pushing around other countries and for denying their sovereignty.

In my view, and in that of foreign policy analysts Walter McDougall and James Kurth, it may be too late to undo American imperialism. It is a fact of international life that has resulted from the history of the last hundred years. What remains to be addressed is how we deal with the superabundance of our power, prudentially or like zealots being driven by ideological fixations and/or ethnic passions.

Another consideration that must be addressed is what impetuous imperialism does to the constitutional design of our country. Murray Rothbard and Robert Higgs were both right to stress a general incompatibility between limited constitutional government and expanding empires. Imperial crusades make it harder to counteract consolidated managerial government and push forward the cumulative process by which a once self-restrained regime based on checks and balances is turned into a unified engine of foreign expansion. The American statesman who made this argument best in the twentieth century was the classical liberal Robert Taft, who, unlike Goldberg, never described himself as a "conservative." I too am not a conservative since I have no idea what a conservative would mean in today’s post-conservative and by now post-liberal society. But if Goldberg and his social democratic globalist companions are the "conservatives," then the political world has been deconstructed beyond my recognition.

Having seen Jonah Goldberg’s references to me in his Blog scribbling (October 2) and having learned that my friends and writing do not enjoy his respect, it has dawned on me that there is no way that Goldberg and I can understand each other. He is so swamped by activities, from TV appearances and syndicated columns to the management of his estate in Northwest Washington, that it must be hard for him to find even the time to read his Chinese fortune cookies. (Neocons, as my Israeli friend Leon Hadar once explained to me, love to eat in Chinese restaurants on Washington’s Connecticut Ave., where they plot wars against Arab dictators, in which they personally won’t have to fight.)

Moreover, as my young correspondent Sam Karnik at the Hudson Institute perceptively observes, Jonah and I speak past each other because, to use a postmodernist term (the phrase is mine, not Sam’s), we live in incommensurable universes. I’ve no idea what Jonah and his pals mean when they describe themselves as "conservatives." What they sound like are badly educated Jacobins or incoherent Trotskyists, recycling the slogans of the French or Bolshevik revolution.

Jonah notes with reference to me that "Elizabethtown’s Harvey Mansfield he ain’t." I am at Elizabethtown, for those who are planning to do a biography of me, because Jonah’s academic paradigm of political thinking smeared me to the dean of humanities at Catholic University of America, after the relevant faculty had chosen me thirteen years ago for a graduate professorship in classical political theory. Because of this, I was forced to take my present job in circumstances, including a terminally ill wife, which it pains me to go into. But what I have to ask is whether Jonah has read Mansfield on Bolingbroke or Machiavelli — or my own voluminous writings that Robert Nisbet praised in National Review in 1987, before the change at the helm of that once conservative publication.

It is doubtful that Jonah could understand my theoretical tracts or those of Mansfield, i.e., whether he has the conceptual framework to grasp intricate arguments in political theory based on repeated references to pre-neocon thinkers. I would also imagine that Jonah quotes Mansfield because he’s been told he’s someone thick with the right sort of people. Besides, Mansfield is at Harvard, having inherited academic connections from his dad and namesake, a liberal political scientist at Columbia University; my own dad, by contrast, was a fire commissioner in Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose no-crap personality and loathing of the Left were the things that he left me. And this may be one further reason Goldberg and his pals are drawn to the guy that I "ain’t." They’re insupportable snobs pretending to be "democrats."

November 21, 2002

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, the highly recommended Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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