James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute has a brilliant article in the current issue of Commentary , ” Lee Harvey Oswald & the Liberal Crack-Up .” You are readily forgiven if, at first, you wonder if Piereson is not making some improbable connections. Stipulating (as the lawyers say) that there has been a liberal crack-up, can the assassin of JFK have played all that big a part in it? That seems a bit of a stretch.
Pierson writes: “It is one of the ironies of the era that many young people who in 1963 reacted with profound grief to Kennedy’s death would, just a few years later, come to champion a version of the left-wing doctrines that had motivated his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. But why should this have been so? What was it about mid-century liberalism that allowed it to be knocked so badly off balance by a single blow?”
Recall the supreme confidence of the liberalism exemplified by JFK. “Let every nation know,” he declared in his one and only inaugural address, “whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” The liberalism of the time was a pragmatic liberalism that could and did, with considerable justice, take credit for the New Deal, the victory of World War II, and the creation of the post-war international order. Liberalism was the party of continuity and a belief in historical progress.
Though a doctrine of reform and progress, liberalism had thus begun to absorb some of the intellectual characteristics of conservatism: a due regard for tradition and continuity, a sense that progress must be built on the solid achievements of the past. More strikingly, liberals had come to see their most vocal domestic opponents as radicals—individuals and movements bent on undoing the established order. This challenge to the liberal establishment came not from the radical Left, however, but from the Right, in the form of anti-Communism, Christian fundamentalism, and racial and religious bigotry.
There is a marvelous statement of Adlai Stevenson during his 1952 presidential campaign:
The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party in the country—the party dedicated to conserving all that is best and building solidly and safely on these foundations. The Republicans, by contrast, are behaving like the radical party—the party of the reckless and embittered, bent on dismantling institutions which have been built solidly into our social fabric.
Piereson does not, but might have, quoted Lionel Trilling’s observation of the time that conservatism is a composite of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” The Right was the fevered home of conspiracy theorists—e.g., Eisenhower is a Communist agent, the fluoridation of water is a Commy plot—and history’s disgruntled losers. It was the Right that Richard Hofstadter had in mind in his 1964 book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics . And everybody understood that the Right was prone to violence.
When the word came that Kennedy had been shot, the immediate reaction was that it had to be the work of some right-wing kook. Then the revelation that it was Oswald, a radical supporter of Fidel Castro. “Nor,” writes Piereson, “was Oswald just any leftist, playing games with radical ideas in order to shock friends and relatives. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Communist who had defected to the Soviet Union and married a Russian woman before returning to the U.S. the previous year. One of the first of an evolving breed, Oswald had lately rejected the Soviet Union in favor of third-world dictators such as Mao, Ho, and Castro.”
It may be that the crazies are not on the Right but on the Left. That thought was unacceptable to most liberals, and Piereson notes the liberal turn toward evading the thought by blaming the country. From what were then the heights of the New York Times , James Reston wrote, “America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young President, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.”
Something was wrong with the nation over which liberalism had presided with such proud confidence. Within a week of the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy would be constructing the “Camelot” myth with the unwitting help of Theodore H. White. JFK’s favorite lines from the Broadway hit of that name, she told White, were these: “Don’t let it be forgot,/ that once there was a spot,/ for one brief shining moment/ that was Camelot.” This was a dramatic departure from the progressive narrative of history. The best was in the past, the one brief shining moment that would never be again.
Less than five years later, Robert Kennedy was killed. Once again, there was an effusion of commentary on what had gone wrong with America. Ours is a culture of violence and extremism, it was said with increasing dogmatic certainty. Piereson writes: “Yet Senator Kennedy was killed by a Palestinian Arab, Sirhan Sirhan, who had resolved to act when he heard Kennedy express support for Israel . . . Sirhan represented more the hatreds of the world from which he had emigrated than any impulse in American culture.”
For many American liberals, Piereson concludes, these events and others “compromised their faith in the nation itself.” “Against all evidence, they concluded that a violent strain in our national culture was somehow to blame. A confident, practical, and forward-looking philosophy with a heritage of accomplishment was thus turned into a doctrine of pessimism and self-blame, with a decidedly dark view of American society. Such assumptions, far from making a temporary adjustment to the events of the 1960s, have proved remarkably durable.”
Remarkably durable indeed. Piereson’s article rewards reading in its entirety. JFK’s inaugural and statements such as that of Adlai Stevenson help explain where neoconservatism came from. Irving Kristol famously quipped that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, and there is much truth in that. But it might also be said that neoconservatives are those who, unlike other liberals, successfully resisted the mugging of America. They did not accept the proposition that America had suddenly become a violent, corrupt, and imperialist country. In the face of the Communist challenge, they did not think it necessary to put “the free world” in quotes. And they did not hesitate to say that whatever domestic madnesses threatened came more from the Left than from the Right.
There are, of course, changes in public policy specifics, and the divide over abortion created by the Supreme Court has skewed political alignments in surprising ways, but the angry, conspiracy-obsessed Left of today is wrong in thinking that it is contending against the Right. As in the 1960s, so also now, it is raging against liberalism. To put it somewhat differently, the neoconservatism of today is the liberalism of 1960.
In addition to which :
Yes, in the last ten years Congress has passed measures to elevate concern about religious persecution and the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy. But the State Department isn’t much interested, going about its business as usual. So says Thomas Farr, former director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom in “Religion in U.S. Diplomacy.” It’s among the scintillating articles in the May issue of First Things . Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?
Herewith another evaluation of Catholic Matters :
"Neuhaus defends his vision of Christianity with wit and sure-handed confidence. I doubt whether many Catholics of the type he criticizes will be convinced, but he makes an erudite case for the old teachings, while humanizing them in the context of his own biography."
—Patrick Allitt in The New York Times Book Review