Jewish World Review
Sept. 30, 2009
/ 9 Tishrei 5770
The Intellectual Talent Scout
There must still be places like the all-night cafes and cafeterias I remember on the Lower East side, where students could sit till all hours nursing a cup of coffee or maybe a glass of tea -- a glesele tay, to lapse into my childhood Yiddish -- while solving all the problems of the world, or maybe just stirring them up. Or at least making the kind of obscure ideological distinctions that seemed all-important at the time.
Intellectually, the New York of the 1930s may have been the liveliest part of the Soviet Union. Name your own opiate of the intellectuals. It would surely be represented during those all-nighters. And fiercely debated. With any luck over a good piece of strudel, which would be the only connection with the real world.
A visiting rabbi circuit-riding here in Arkansas once recalled his seminary days in New York when he was trying to study a page of Talmud in such a setting -- an assignment that can be a week's if not a lifetime's work -- when he realized an old man was looking over his shoulder. "Nu," asked the stooped figure, "you want an argument?"
By which the old Jew meant a discussion full of Talmudic citations, philosophical/ theological tangents, rapid-fire volleys (called pilpul, from the Hebrew for pepper), and mutual challenging exchanges over some observation by a rabbi in ancient Babylon that may have been mined for 2,500 years, but might still have some rich ore left to unearth.
This was the milieu into which Irving William Kristol would be born January 22, 1920, the son of one of the innumerable luftmenschen (airy dreamers) in the garment trade. The boy would lose his mother to cancer when he was only 16, and his father would go broke more than once, but, what th' heck, when everybody's poor, who notices?
His was not a religiously observant household, but the habit of Talmudic argumentation persists in the ethnic culture. Like an afterglow of revelation. So it was only natural that, when young Kristol enrolled in City College, he would enlist in one of the two ideological camps represented there in the depths of the Depression -- both of them on the left, of course. The political perception of that generation of New Yorkers ended well short of center, the way New Yorkers' geographical perception may still end at the Hudson River.
The two antagonistic camps on campus back then might be summed up as (a) the party-line Stalinists, among them a young Julius Rosenberg, who would go on to a prominent career in treason, and (b) all the other lefties, including a Trotskyist like Irving Kristol, who would soon enough outgrow it.
And how. For once you see through Marxism at a young age, there's no telling how many other panaceas for the human condition you may come to doubt. Especially if you settle on a simple test for any political proposition: "The legitimate question to ask about any program," Irving Kristol would decide, is the ultimately pragmatic, very American one: "Will it work?"
That test led an older Irving Kristol, good liberal that he had become by the 1960s, to look around and notice that the liberalism of his time wasn't working, No matter how many intellectuals claimed it was. So he gathered a roster of like spirits and decided to start his own plain-spoken little magazine, one that would be free of scholarly cant and ideological politics. They called it "The Public Interest" and, if its articles could be dull, they were also realistic. Recognizing reality isn't always exciting, just sensible. That is its great virtue.
It would be hard to recall a journal that attracted so many scholars who would prove enduring fonts of common sense, as opposed -- very much opposed -- to the glitzy theorists in the social "sciences" who would come and go like comets burning out.
Irving Kristol brought a whole constellation of sane voices into his hospitable stable: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was anything but dull, along with luminaries like Robert Nisbet, Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, James Coleman, Peter Drucker, Edward Banfield, James Q. Wilson, Thomas Sowell, Abigail Thernstrom, Leon Kass, Diane Ravitch ... and so refreshingly on.
The other day, a New York Times type was at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock touting his book and thesis, "The Death of Conservatism." Clearly, he hadn't looked around lately and noticed all those lively thinkers Irving Kristol had nurtured, and how through them his influence continues to spread in ever widening circles. Even among liberals, at least those susceptible to reason.
The thinkers Irving Kristol cultivated might have their theories, too, but what set them apart was their willingness to reconsider their ideas by the harsh light of reality. They also might have their differences, but this much they all had in common: They were ideologically unreliable. They cleaved to no party line. They could even change their minds on occasion. As they became truly daring, they might even embrace ideas that had been around through the ages, like the importance of family and work to a society. And their tribe increased mightily, thanks in great part to Irving Kristol's tender loving care.
He would be tagged the godfather of neo-conservatism. His most famous observation -- it was just about his trademark -- was made when he was asked to define a neo-conservative, and replied, "a liberal who has been mugged by reality." Neo-conservatism, he would claim, isn't an ideology but an anti-ideology. It was anti-utopian, too. Irving Kristol and company were too grown-up to believe in some sort of paradise man could engineer for himself.
In the course of a long life, which has ended at the age of 89, Irving Kristol made many a memorable and still prescient observation. But much like William F. Buckley Jr., whose own conservatism had nothing neo- about it, Irving Kristol's greatest contribution to American thought may not have been anything he himself said, however trenchant, but the array of other thinkers and leaders he befriended, sponsored and urged on.
He made no ideological demands on his many proteges, asking only that they have something of use and value to add to the national conversation. And with impressive regularity, they did. For he had the eye of an intellectual talent scout. If you seek Irving Kristol's monument, just look around -- at all the thoughtful, articulate, incisive thinkers he raised up around him. That is his great legacy.
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