My advice to those aspiring pundits yearning for membership in the Neo-Conservative Cognitive Elite Club: embrace the Establishment, avoid "hot" Buchananesque statements, and keep God and Christianity out of your public lexicon. And never, ever talk about fearing your government, which is a Neo-Con no-no. Once you’re labeled "extremist" and "conspiratorial," there is no turning back. Remember, the goal of a Neo-Con upstart is not only to be on as many talk shows as possible, but to be invited to as many Beltway cocktail parties as well, so don’t even think about revealing any isolationist streak (translation: be kind about the UN, extol NAFTA and GATT, and avoid all phrases of the "America First" kind). Speak global-ese and say with conviction that Communism is dead, even if you really believe otherwise. Who knows, if your wardrobe is deemed acceptable, maybe you’ll even be courted by the "Neo-Con chic" crowd of Arianna Huffington. But remember, TV is the thing, even if it takes away from your writing. Don’t worry. Your TV commentary need only include speculation and predictions. Research and analytical strain not required.
The Neo-Conservative movement is alive and well. With the emergence of glitzy cable news stations, it has never been easier for a Neo-Con pundit to market his mainstream wisdom on a seemingly endless number of political talk shows on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, the FOX News Channel, and other TV venues. And I’m sure that the younger Neo-Cons are hoping that they will one day be as sought after as William Bennett or Fred Barnes, ubiquitous role models indeed. For those seeking political office, New Deal Republican Jack Kemp, despite his recent national setback, epitomizes Neo-Con genteelness. Yes, you too can have a fetish for big government and still be called conservative.
It is not that Neo-Cons haven’t contributed anything positive to the genuine conservative cause. As a graduate student at New York University, where Jacques Derrida and his hermeneutic mafia were force-fed to all English majors, I found solace in the likes of Roger Kimball and Dinesh D’Souza and their brilliant indictments of deconstructive literary criticism. To this day, Kimball’s Tenured Radicals and D’Souza’s Illiberal Education are the most incisive spankings of Derrida, Paul de Man, Stanley Fish, and their snobbish circle of obfuscating nihilists. In addition, there’s Commentary’s scathing critiques of affirmative action in the 1970s, with Neo-Con guru Norman Podhoretz teaching paleo-conservatives a thing or two. Give credit where credit is due.
However . . .
Watching William Bennett, the self-anointed education authority of Neo-Conservatism, spew nebulous school reforms on Meet the Press, truly captures the Left-leaning Neo-Con mentality. As Secretary of Education, he bloated what was then an already out-of-control U. S. Department of Education, while laying firm foundation for Richard Riley’s current Outcome-Based Education initiatives at the Department. Rather than acknowledging the intrinsic dangers of government schooling and its welfare system, Bennett always plays it safe with banal chatter about parental involvement, school choice, and, of course, "virtues." Never will you hear him utter any significant indictment of whole language or school-to-work, and never will you see him rallying behind the homeschool movement, clearly the great education revolution of today. The same could be said for another former Education Secretary and influential Neo-Con "outsider," Lamar Alexander.
Bill Bennett, following an unwritten tenet of Neo-Conservatism, is uncontroversial in his controversy, appearing reform-minded when in fact his reforms are hardly ground-breaking. With his pie-in-the-sky Establishment belief that government schools are reformable if we "empower" parents and make Washington more "pro-active" than it already is, Bennett is in fact embracing the destructive welfare system which is our nation’s public schools. Perhaps too enthralled by his acceptance from the Weekly Standard crowd, or suffering from myopia, Bennett fails to see that his belabored angst about the lack of virtues in our schools has contributed nothing to reshaping America’s educational landscape for the better. To the mainstream press, William Bennett, like Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and the ever-present Fred Barnes, is considered a conservative, yet the reality is that the Neo-Con cabal has little in common with genuine conservatism and its Jeffersonian distrust of expansive government.
To use education as an example, Neo-Con leaders smugly dismiss the notion of removing government from the education business as the brainchild of Religious Right "kooks." Neo-Cons, instead, have done everything to promote a centralized, hyper-regulatory Education Department in Washington, tacitly approving increased funding for the Department every year as it continues to dictate its brazenly humanist agenda to the states.
The Neo-Con cocktail party circuit, in its Establishment elitism, does not welcome iconoclasm, especially when such iconoclasm casts a harsh light on the dubious legacies of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, or JFK. Whether it be promoting the public school welfare state, or advocating world regulatory institutions that threaten our sovereignty, Neo-Cons lack the conviction to dismantle destructive institutions and Faustian alliances.
With Neo-Conservatism owing its existence to New Deal anti-Communists of the 1960s such as Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, one should not be surprised by the liberal penchant of William Kristol or Fred Barnes, and how they toe the Establishment line on such issues as education and world trade or how they critique — with kid gloves — the far-reaching and dangerous tentacles of our federal government and the United Nations.
Yet paleo-conservatives must not allow such neo-cons to monopolize the public forum. Unfortunately, the media-savvy Neo-Con operatives are successfully bringing their ravenous pack of big-government Republicans to the forefront, and they are skillfully redefining the essence of conservatism and manipulating the psyche of the American electorate.
Since the Republican Revolution, which was clearly more a victory for the neos than for the paleos, the battle of ideas in Washington D. C. favors the Neo-Cons, with true conservatives appearing to have undergone a tracheotomy. Rarely does one see a conservative firebrand even on C-Span express outrage over President Clinton’s cozy rapport with the oppressive Chinese Communists or his ozone hysteria that will tighten the noose on our already suffocating industries. When a Ralph Nader or Dick Gephardt is carrying our Washington media water on the NAFTA issue, and when a William Bennett is viewed as a hard-line Right-winger by the mainstream press, it becomes abundantly clear that genuine conservatism needs to regroup fast.
- Carlo DiNota
Carlo DiNota holds a B. A. from Villanova University and an MA in English from New York University. He is executive director of Literacy Unlimited, Inc. and is a former Roman Catholic high school English teacher and Yonkers (NY) city councilman. He resides in Boston and can be reached at [email protected].