Did you pay attention to the Maureen Dowd-Paul Wolfowitz-“slithering neocon” controversy? If you have read this blog over the years you know I am particularly attuned to the sort of antisemitism that poses as anti-Zionism and anti-neoconservatism, but I have sort of reached the end of my rope on the latter.
One matter that I more or less avoid discussing with non-academics at this point is neoconservatism. There is so much wrapped up in the popular political imagination it is not at all clear what people mean when they use it. One safe assumption is when someone uses the term “neoconservative” or especially “neocon” in conversation at a social event, there is a strong negative association. After that, things get blurry. It can mean internationalist, as opposed to isolationist. It can mean Jewish. It can mean hawk. It can mean pro-Israel and/or Zionist.
To make things more complicated, some talk about the first wave of neoconservatives (Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz) and the second or contemporary wave of neoconservatives (Wolfowitz, Muravchik). Most think Dick Cheney or even John Bolton are neoconservatives. And to further muddy the waters, some refer to Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and the rest of the conservative media echo-chamber as neocons.
One thing absent in most of these discussions is the neo element, which contains two primary dimensions. First, neoconservatism represented something new and important in realm of conservative ideas. Second, the neoconservatives brought a diversity in terms of ethnic background, to a primarily white, Anglo, foreign policy establishment.
One of the most important elements that originally made neoconservatives and neoconservatism such a challenge to post-World War II conservatism was the neoconservatives were not born and bred on the right. Similar to most of the influential anticommunists, there was a movement from left to right. It isn’t always from the radical left. Yes, some were Trots, others were FDR liberals, Muravchik was a social democrat. All were dismayed by the Democratic Party’s weakening defense posture in the 1970s. Another missing element is the neocons were neo because they were new and different, at that time. New to conservatism themselves. But also new for their insights. New for being white ethnics–especially Jews–rather than WASPS.
The people who are called neocons today–William Kristol, Max Boot, etc.–never went through that transition. They also are not saying anything particularly new when it comes to the mainstream conservative worldview (2012). If anything, neoconservative ideas about foreign policy–less about democracy promotion and more about the need for a projection of military strength–are the status-quo for the Republicans at this point.
I suspect at the core of the contemporary dislike of so-called neocons is this hawkishness. Despite what others may think about Americans, the notion that we might actually have to kill someone to maintain our security and way of life is not something we like to think about. We are socialized to dislike combat and war. Again, I know we have violent movies, video games, and all the rest. But the message we receive as we grow older–and especially after college–is war solves very little and it mostly leads to human suffering. In this context, use of the word “neocon”–especially the association with the supposedly failed policies of President George W. Bush–is a quick and fairly effective way for liberals to challenge hawkish foreign policy, broadly speaking. With this phraseology, President Obama is continuing neoconservative policies in the AfPak region.
Antisemitism is often involved as well. When someone goes into a tirade about supposed “neocon” influence and all the names they provide are Jewish, it is pretty obvious. It is one of those areas where the far-left and paleoconservatives, the old-guard isolationists and Nativists find common ground. However, unlike some of my conservative friends, I do not think this anti-Jewish sentiment is at the heart of liberal opposition to neoconservatism.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that a dislike of Israel, in particular Likud and any other party or project associated with the right, is a sacred cow of the progressive and radical left at this point and intense dislike of Israel can dovetail with anti-Semitic tropes.
One example was the prevalence of the term “Likudnik” in the vocabulary of critics of the Iraq War. Anyone who supported President Bush’s policy was a “neocon” and if they were a vocal supporter of Israel, “Likudnik” was added for good measure. So when someone refers to Paul Wolfowitz as a “Likudnik” is that:
1) an anti-Jewish statement?
2) an anti-Israel statement?
3) an anti-right-wing politics statement?
All three or perhaps just one or two?
How can we be sure? How do we know? Does it depend on who is saying it? We run into the problem of self-identification and how we evaluate others.
At heart it is a inaccurate statement because Wolfowitz said he is not a supporter of the Likud and that he supported the two-state solution and peace with the Palestinians. I heard him say this with my own ears in front of an audience of hundreds of people in Manhattan, mostly Leftists. But this never gets brought up in relation to Wolfowitz.
Another important thing to consider is a perusal of Israeli sources at the time knows the actual Likudniks did not support the war in Iraq nor did they support the democracy promotion agenda in general. Their eyes then, as now, were on Iran.
On a peripherally related topic, I recently became aware of a supposedly anti-Semitic graffiti production in the Brick Lane neighborhood of London’s East End. The East End in the early twentieth century had a large working-class Jewish population, many involved in the needletrades, and a reputation for working-class radicalism. Rudolph Rocker, the so-called “anarchist rabbi”—who was not Jewish—was particularly influential.
Today the neighborhood is home to large South Asian and predominately Muslim population. It is also the epicenter of London’s “street art” scene and well in the middle of a gentrification process. While some describe the area as edgy, it seemed more hipster to me. Comrade Bob from Brockley gave me a tour earlier this year.
The piece, by MEAR1, depicts fairly standard New World Order conspiracy theory imagery including a group of old white men (The Illuminati?) assembled around a Monopoly board that is sitting on the backs of group of faceless people of color. In the background are ominous nuclear power plants and the gears of industrial capitalism.
What the piece lacks are the often obvious anti-Semitic trappings one associates with these conspiracy theories. So is this an anti-Jewish mural? I do not think so. Mainly because, in my experience with artists in general and graf writers in particular, if they want to make a controversial or even hateful image, they will. Another important thing to consider is what the artist has to say about the painting. In this case, MEAR states:
My mural is about class & privilege. The banker group is made up of Jewish & white Anglos. For some reason they are saying I am anti semetic. This I am most defenatly not. I believe in equality and brother & sisterhood on a global scale. What I am against is class. Ruling class, this is a problem and we need humanization.
As far as the “New World Order” fixation, I find it extremely problematic but I have known people who think like this for a long time. Some of them went down the road of seeing “Zionists” behind all the world’s problems and from there it is a short step to blaming “the Jews”. I get it. But there were many more people who did not undergo the same process. Instead they blame the Bilderbergs or the Council on Foreign Relations, or some other shadowy or not so shadowy group. In any event, not “Zionists” or Jews. Elites, yes. Old white men behind the scenes, yes. But Jews? No.
[Schematic New World Order]
The reason it is problematic is it is a political dead end. So you now have this supposedly secret knowledge about the Illuminati or whoever controlling the world. What is your next step? Does it lead to political mobilization and organization? Of course not. It is an excuse to disengage from the real difficult work of politics. After all, if these nefarious forces have always been around manipulating things what chance does someone like me have against the Leviathan? Like all forms of extremism, it also leads to a degree of distance between the person who has the inside knowledge and the mainstream supposedly clueless “sheeple”. In other words, the “New World Order” framework and those who adhere to it need to be challenged, but not via censorship.