Henry Fairlie On Irving Kristol

Another classic Tory shot across the bow of neoconservatism - back in 1984:

It is not at all surprising that Kristol, whom I regard as by far the most intelligent and interesting of those who are trying to work out an American conservative philosophy, begins by disowning the past. He may raise his eyebrows and say that he has not done so. But here we come close to a distinction that has to be made between conservatism and Reaganism, and one must ask what meaning can be attached to these words of Kristol’s to which he deliberately gives weight. ‘‘What is ‘neo’ (‘new’) about this conservatism is that it is resolutely free of nostalgia. It, too, claims the future.’’

That ‘‘nostalgia’’ is one of Kristol’s many escape words: the hatch in a submarine or the bay in a spacecraft through which an idea can escape without any harm to the body of ideas left within. One’s mind glides over it even as one reads: How right to be ‘‘resolutely free of nostalgia.’’ But whenever has a true conservatism been informed by nostalgia? Far from yearning for the past or wishing to recover it or live in it, the conservative cares so much for the past that he wants only to leave it alone. 

The past is itself, or, as the English conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott would have said without wincing, the past is herself. Do not touch her. Do not think to rebuke her. Thou art so beautifulthose haunting words of Fauststay as thou art.

With his disavowal of nostalgia, Kristol seems to shake the past from him, like a dog coming out of a river; and in this he is representative not only of the neoconservatives but of most American conservatives. When he does reach to the past, which he often does to make his argument, it is to plunder it. The past is usable to himan especially American notionand is interesting for its prescriptions. From the past he will, no less, ‘‘claim the future.’’ The idea of any true conservative ‘‘claiming the future’’ is so wrongheaded that one can only suggest that Kristol go back to City College with his fellow Trotskyite students and begin plotting the future again on the back of a greasy frankfurter wrapper.

-- "If Pooh Were President: A Tory's Riposte to Reaganism," Harper's, 1984, collected in Jeremy McCarter's superb new collection, "Bite The Hand That Feeds You."