Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and professor of political science at Boston College.
One reason to lament the passing of Irving Kristol is that we will never know what this acerbic and witty critic of the New Left’s most romantic and hare-brained ideas really thought of the even more preposterously absurd thoughts of the contemporary conservatism that Kristol himself did so much to launch. It is all but forgotten, except among those who remember Irving Kristol before the Fox News era, that this quintessential American man of letters defended what he called in his 1972 essay “About Equality” the “middling” nature of bourgeois society. The intelligentsia of those years--a decidedly left-leaning one--simply could not bear how prosaic capitalism had become and had let themselves become attracted to the craziness of the counter-culture, if not outright support for totalitarianism. Kristol may have been an American, but he had a fine sense of the dangers of what the French call resentiment.
What better word could be used to characterize the mad ravings of today’s birthers and tenthers? I only met Kristol a few times, and had far more intellectual exchanges with his wife and son. I never agreed with his political views and found myself continuously disappointed by his preference for ideology over intellectual consistency. But I never had any doubt that he was someone one could always read with profit. He was never--absolutely never--as mean-spirited as his fellow neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz. The gleam of humor I saw in his eyes the few times we met, the same one that is on constant display in the wonderful film Arguing the World, was easily transferred to the page. (The fact that Kristol was even willing to be featured in a film primarily intended for leftist audiences says something about his generosity). He loved literature and it showed. The Public Interest, which he co-founded and co-edited with Daniel Bell, was a breakthrough publication that is sorely missed. A critic of the wayward tendencies of the intellectuals, he was a model intellectual himself.
It is for all these reasons that a life cut short, even at 89, is a cause for remorse. Intellectuals are constantly trying to make sense of the world even as it changes around them. The world that fashioned the ideas of Irving Kristol, one in which the left had grown tired and the right had seen its chance, no longer exists. What a shame he will not be around to watch how Sarah Palin, and her like-minded coterie of paranoiacs, make total fools of themselves in the years ahead.