Wednesday, January 07, 2004

It appears that David Brooks has touched a few raw nerves in the blogosphere, with his column bemoaning "all these articles....about how Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Bill Kristol and a bunch of 'neoconservatives'....had taken over U.S. foreign policy." Joshua Micah Marshall, Matthew Yglesias, and Crooked Timber's Daniel Davies have all responded with righteous fury, claiming that Brooks is attempting to silence critics of neocons by dismissing them as conspiracy theorists, and worse, anti-Semites ("con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish'," writes Brooks). Marshall and Davies then go even further, vaguely intimating that there is, in a sense, a neocon conspiracy to take over U.S. foreign policy, and that Brooks is attempting to deflect legitimate criticism of their efforts.

Now, criticism of neoconservative foreign policy is certainly not necessarily conspiracy-theory-mongering (although occasionally it is, as Brooks is right to point out). And the anti-Semitism charge is a particularly tricky one, because it can be taken (although it obviously shouldn't) as implying guilt by association. But it takes a special kind of chutzpah to deride Brooks for accusing neocon critics of being conspiracy theorists, while simultaneously lending encouragement to conspiracy theories about neocons. And the "silencing" charge is strictly projection, in the Freudian sense. The conspiracy theorists appear to have exactly the intention they attribute to Brooks himself: to silence their opponents through inflammatory labelling.

For the people they lump together as "neocons" are not some shadowy cabal of master manipulators at all. They write articles and give lectures, trying to explain their point of view; they participate in the political process, supporting candidates of their choice; and they work in a democratically elected government, helping to formulate and communicate that government's foreign policy. Like that other "right-wing conspiracy" of the '90's (though perhaps not as "vast"), they are a "conspiracy" chiefly in the eyes of their virulent opponents, who label them as such not because they are in any sense inordinately powerful or conspiratorial, but only to paint them as evil and illegitimate.

It would be easy to write an article to the effect that the particular group of prominent public figures known as "neocons" espouse foreign policy views that are profoundly mistaken. (In fact, I've criticized those foreign policy views myself. And Marshall once managed to write an article on the subject that mostly sticks to serious, thoughtful critique--despite its inflammatory title and occasional forays into conspiracy theorizing.) Many of the neocons' critics, though, suffer from such muddled, incoherent thinking about international affairs that a clear, convincing critical analysis is utterly beyond them. That, I believe, is why they resort to coy insinuations--ranging, at the far end, all the way into unhinged ranting--about evil neocon conspiracies.

UPDATE: Mark Kleiman joins the ranks of the rankled, complaining that Brooks unfairly impugns everyone who "thinks that the prophets of a new Amerian empire (1) have a collective screw loose and (2) have too much influence in the Bush II administraiton." [sic] Now, as I mentioned, Brooks never claimed that anyone criticizing neocon foreign policy is automatically "a kook and an anti-Semite" (Kleiman's words). Nevertheless, the complainers--including Kleiman--who have protested being lumped with the nutcases, haven't exactly been going out of their way to portray themselves as the very souls of moderation. I'm reminded of a Woody Allen character whose Jewish mother accuses him of dating a shiksa: "Mom, to you every girl who's not Jewish is a shiksa."

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