TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

“Neo-Con” as Renegade

In recent public debates, no label has carried more denunciatory power than “neo-con,” and no discussion has been more confused. In a recent essay, Peter Berkowitz has shed some welcome light on the misunderstandings around the term, reminding us of the principles of neo-conservatism and their origins in the thinking of Daniel Moynihan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick. But that was a long time ago, and, as the saying goes, what have you done for me lately? Critics of the Iraq War regularly blame it on mysterious neo-cons, hiding in the wings, working their conspiracies, although none of the political leaders—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell—has any neo-con credentials. Why then the direction of ire against neo-conservatives, rather than against conservatives? Why is “neo-con” such an attractive epithet for those who enjoy slinging mud?

Beyond the questions of political principle, which Berkowitz clarifies so well, the term “neo-con” has been able to convey opprobrium for the past few years. It touches some rhetorical nerve, in a unique way. Consider a competing term: many of those hostile to neo-conservatism are also likely to be hostile to “neo-liberalism,” but that word itself has retained a fairly accurate usefulness as a designation of an economic theory and set of policies. Rarely is “neo-liberal” reduced to the diminutive “neo-lib” (although there is a conservative rhetoric of attacking “libs,” which is clearly intended to carry mockery and animosity). When someone is dubbed “neo-liberal,” that speech act is a specific designation rather than an abusive denunciation—no matter how hostile the speaker may be to the policies associated with neo-liberalism.

“Neo-con” as epithet works differently. People throw the term around with disgust (and often with no knowledge of the real principles at stake). While traditional conservatives may sometimes attack “neo-cons,” this emotional and pejorative usage of the term is primarily a symptomatic problem of the left-liberal public sphere, in which “neo-con” is the current version of the “renegade” of older generations. The “neo” indicates a lack of authenticity: something like “faux cons.” Not that the liberals have any particular appreciation for genuine conservatives, but “neo-cons,” as “neo,” are more contemptible. Why is that? What makes the novelty of their putative conservatism particularly offensive? It’s all in the word. “Neo-cons” are a target of attack precisely because they are seen as having come newly to conservatism, which means they have newly come to conservatism from somewhere else. Today they are on the right only because—this is the implication—they were yesterday on the left, and they have abandoned the one and only true position. A “neo-con” therefore is a traitor to the cause, and therefore worse than a conservative. Hence the vitriol. Liberals attack “neo-cons” today with some rhetorical gestures that Communists used to attack “renegades.”

For the liberal public sphere, conservatives are wrong-headed, but “neo-cons” are con men, faithless and untrustworthy. Just as they were not true to the conservative movement (as if liberals cared about that), they become figures of ambivalent loyalty in general. This rhetorical slide explains the way the critique of neo-conservatism has sometimes taken on an antisemitic tone, one rhetorical point where the nativist right and the antiwar left too often converge. This allegation of betrayal is multidimensional: because “neo-cons” departed from liberalism to become conservative, and because their conservatism was only “neo,” lacking in authenticity, the insinuation of insufficient patriotism always lingers in the air, the accusation of dual loyalty.

Ultimately though the real scandal in “neo-con” is the “neo”—not the specific principles or the doctrines, with which one might agree or disagree, but the very fact that someone might rethink and come to a new position. The guardians of regimented mind-sets, across the political spectrum, fear nothing more than the haunting specter of creative thoughts.

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