Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Why Paleocons Hate Neocons

The purpose of this blog is to tease out the worldview of the Hebrew Bible, with implications for everything from politics to family life to the history of life’s development on earth. Much of liberalism can be explained as a counter-force to that worldview. There’s an element of the same dynamic at work too in so-called paleoconservatism.

I’m fascinated by the way various political positions gather into distinctive ideological postures — liberal and conservative, broadly, but also sub-varieties of those two. Among conservatives you have neocons (about whom David Brooks jokes that “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish'”), pro-capitalism and pro-military interventionism; and you have paleocons, who are distinguished first and foremost by hating neocons.
I was listening to NPR this morning on the way to work and the local host here in Seattle was interviewing military historian Andrew Bacevich, a prominent paleo whose book reviews I used to edit (and enjoy) at National Review. He’s got a new book out bashing “American exceptionalism.” It’s called The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Bacevich expressed disgust with the Iraq war, with George W. Bush, with neocons, with what he regards as inauthentic conservatism, with free-market economist Milton Friedman. He voiced nostalgic feelings for America’s agrarian past. The liberal host was eating it up. 
Bacevich’s main theme was that America has no business messing around with countries overseas, as in Iraq, projecting force to save foreigners from themselves. He minimized the threat to us from Jihadism and said the Muslim world would simply have to work out for itself the conflict between their faith and modernity. America’s role is to “tend our own garden,” or words to that effect. Bacevich said if God has a plan for the world, He’s keep it to Himself. So seeking to advance civilizing forces in history, such as democracy in the Middle East, is a fool’s errand.
You could write off paleos as being under the sway of a romantic infatuation with a past they never knew — when America was smaller, weaker, more countrified, and therefore more virtuous. But something else that leaps out is the revulsion at “messianism” in politics, the idea that America is somehow special, even divinely appointed, with a job to save the world. “Messianism” is the derogatory term to describe the neocon interventionist impulse.


I’m not going to get into the details of the foreign policy debate. I simply want to observe how at odds the paleo way of thinking is with the Biblical view — which is, of course, literally messianic. Does that observation justify every war America fights to right wrongs overseas? Obviously not. But the Hebrew Bible offers a vision of how the world operates that includes a challenge to humanity to work for man’s betterment. That vision tells us that such betterment is possible and that it’s part of a plan. We’re meant to do something grander than merely tend our own garden.
Just as an incompetent gardner could end up ruining his backyard garden, a country that elects an incompetent leader, committed to advancing freedom in the world, could end up doing the reverse. But the overall point still stands. There could be no book more messianic than the Hebrew Bible.
Exceptionalism, too, is a theme woven through Scripture. A single exceptional family, that of Jacob, a/k/a Israel, is chosen as the primary vehicle for God’s plan in history. People who view exceptional individuals or groups as a threat, who see the world as the arena for a zero-sum game where your advance means my loss rather than an opening for my own advancement, often turn out not to like Jews very much. The infatuation with a small agrarian past, a mediocre America very far from being exceptional, fits in well with this.
Messianism and exceptionalism are Jewish notions, though of course they can be put to wicked ends — which is how you found Jews in the last century disproportionately involved with Communist activity. The Jewishness of these two parallel ideas is the reason you find Jews associated today with neoconservatism. And it’s why paleoconservatism has a weak spot for anti-Semitism.
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posted June 3, 2009 at 9:22 pm

I think this is an interesting and useful post. It is easy to use “conservatism” as a broad term lacking nuance. However, as you point out, there are sharp differences between the neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. There are also other “unconventional” or “renegade” conservatives, such as Rod Dreher and allied “crunchy” cons. The American Conservative is a good source for paleocon writing, one of my favorite writers there being Daniel Larison. Patrick Deneen and Ross Douthat are two others of the less-easily pigeonholed conservatives that I think are always worth reading.
Failure to grasp the real divisions in contemporary conservatism leads to many misconceptions and hampers much dialogue. I got into a bit of a back-and-forth with LazarA over on the “Childlessness and Liberalism” thread in this regard. He insisted that I was trying to conflate too many different things into “conservatism” while doing the exact same thing with the term liberalism. I’m not complaining–just giving that as an example of where it’s important to grasp the overall complexity of the situation.
I consider myself a moderate (my liberal friends think I’m a fascist and my conservative friends think I’m a Commie!). However, I find myself generally in agreement with paleocons much more than with neocons, to the extent that I agree with cons of any stripe.
David: But the Hebrew Bible offers a vision of how the world operates that includes a challenge to humanity to work for man’s betterment. That vision tells us that such betterment is possible and that it’s part of a plan. We’re meant to do something grander than merely tend our own garden.
Well, I think this depends on your faith tradition. The Jewish concept of tikkun ha-olam certainly encourages a betterment of the world, which (if I, as a goy, understand correctly) helps set the stage for the appearance of the Messiah. This view also fits very well into the theology of those Protestant Christians who hold postmillennialist beliefs. Such Christians tend to be in the more liberal mainstream churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC, etc.).
Premillenialists, however, are the exact opposite. They are mostly Evangelicals (think the Left Behind crowd). They believe that the world must become worse before the return of the Messiah (Jesus, for them as for all Christians), and thus tend to see long term improvement of the world as literally a lost cause (remember “there probably won’t be much time left to protect the environment anyway” James Watt?). Many premillenialists in fact think that approaching signs of chaos are a good thing, since they portend the nearness of the Second Coming. This is why many (both Jews and Christians) are uneasy with premillenialist support for the Jewish people and for Israel. Many of us fear that it’s insincere, or at least instrumental–that is, they’re not really interested in the Jews as Jews and they still think the Jews are hellbound if they don’t become Christian; but they believe that support for Israel and the Jews is necessary in order to set the geopolitical stage for the Second Coming. Since that stage involves nuclear and much conventional war in some premil theology, some of us find that really, really creepy and politically dangerous.
Catholics (such as myself) and Orthodox Christians tend to be amillenialists. That is, we see the Book of Revelation as symbolic, and see no particular end-time scenarios in it. That is why these churches tend to strike a balance between strong social outreach with a sort of acceptance of the possibility that the world may or may not get better before the end. Idealism is tempered with realism.
Of course, the perspective one takes will depend on one’s faith, and pending the Messianic Age or the Second Coming, none of us can know for sure. It is important, however, to point out that whether one does in fact read the Old Testament as pointing to striving to improve the world strongly depends on one’s theology; and we talk past each other if we fail to realize that.

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posted June 3, 2009 at 9:49 pm

Judaism doesn’t necessitate a messianic politics. Actually, the parts of the Bible that necessitate political action (other than the mitzvah of setting up courts and so on) largely have to do with conquering bits of land and so on, and most people agree these were time-specific mitzvot that are not obligations today. The message of the Bible is that if you follow all the mitzvot (from saying the blessings to not taking bribes) then things will be good for you, and when the masses return to a holy, observant lifestyle, the messianic age will come, and the Davidic monarchy will be restored. But there is little in the Bible to suggest we should actually start setting up the monarchy now (though there are some in Israel, like the Chabad Kabbalist Yitzchak Ginsburgh, who think that we should). The idea that we should be interfering with other countries and trying to change their policies to be more democratic is miles away from the Biblical worldview, which did not include the concept of democracy, and which does not contain anything resembling and endorsement of an imperialistic foreign policy that tries to coerce or influence other countries into changing their internal policies. I certainly believe we should do everything we can to repair the world, but I’m not so sure this view comes out so clearly from the Tanakh itself (but see Pirkei Avot: “Hillel said, Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all creatures and bringing them closer to the Torah”), and I’m sure it doesn’t see repairing the world as something you do by getting a country’s government to influence another’s.

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posted June 3, 2009 at 9:54 pm

I would say there’s plenty of Biblical support for a paleo con view (though I’m no paleo myself). Are you saying the Haredim, who focus above all on studying the Torah and living a holy life, as opposed to activism and commerce, are anti-Biblical? They’re just as genuine as their more modern and activist coreligionists.
It’s funny that you seem to endorse a politically active Judaism, but don’t endorse the creation of Israel. Usually among the Orthodox, support for activism correlates with support for Israel. Normally it’s non-Orthodox Jews who think of partisan politics (on the left side of course) as being their religious duty.

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posted June 3, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Just because there are lots of Jews among the neocons doesn’t make neoconservatism Jewish, in this sense of being faithful or congruent to the message of the Jewish Bible. It is true that Jews tend to have a messianic streak. But when they’re religious, and based their lives around Torah, as most Jews have done throughout history, until about two or three hundred years ago, they expressed their messianism through religious fervor and belief in the messiah (and that their strivings toward holiness were bringing him closer.)
When Jews abandon the Torah, they have trouble leaving the messianism. Karl Marx was among the first secular Jews to be a politically philosopher, and he created the most messianic possible political philosophy, with tragic consequences. The neocons too are mainly secular, or at least non-Orthodox Jews, and, just like Marx, they’ve expressed their messianism through a politics (also disastrous, if you look at the state of Iraq, Afganistan, or Pakistan). The secular Zionists who founded Israel — well they were messianic in their own way of course, with their kibbutz socialism. Many cults have been founded by Jews with messianic impulses too; one could even see Ayn Randism as messianic, based as it is on the greatness of the selfish hero of her novels. Think of Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman — they were probably the most messianic of all the sixties radicals. The message from all this is that the Bible doesn’t lead to messianic politics — on the contrary, Jews who abandon the Torah end up with newfangled, usually disastrous forms of messianism.

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Daniel A Weiner

posted June 4, 2009 at 1:10 am

A key overlooked ideal: Exceptionalism in Judaism is defined as holiness–the basis of the Israelites’ becoming a Kingdom of Priests (irony). And holiness, as defined by the seminal passage in Lev 19, is a potent combination of self-awareness and empathy–both a regard for self and an empathy for all humanity, not merely in the service of a parochial nationalism.

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posted June 7, 2009 at 2:02 pm

Jacob Frank was the most notable Jewish premillennialist, who taught that the world must become either completely good or completely evil in order to bring Moshiach. Since there obviously wasn’t much likelihood of pulling off the completely-good goal, despite millennia of trying, he felt the best alternative was the completely-evil approach. It did not end well, either for Frank and his followers, or for the Jewish people in general.

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