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They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons Hardcover – January 15, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
News of neoconservatism's demise has been greatly exaggerated, according to prolific journalist Heilbrunn, who profiles the largely (though by no means exclusively) Jewish makeup of the movement. Heilbrunn roots his interpretation of neoconservatism's Jewish character in the American immigrant experience, the persistent memory of the Holocaust and Western appeasement of Hitler, among other phenomena. Charting the movement's philosophy from its inception through the foreign policy vision crafted in the 1970s and the culture wars of the 1980s and '90s, Heilbrunn employs a quasi-biblical spin echoed in Old Testament-inspired chapter headings. With the exception of his grasp of neoconservatism's right-wing Christian contingent, Heilbrunn displays an innate understanding of the movement. He argues persuasively that though these self-styled prophets embrace an outsider stance, and though he believes they are happiest when viewed as the opposition, they will remain a formidable influence for the foreseeable future. Heilbrunn's analysis lacks rigor concerning foreign policy assumptions and ideological and economic motives, thus unintentionally leaving his subjects more historically isolated than they really are. His proximity to the conservative movement brings benefits and limitations to this historical analysis. (Jan.)
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“A fast-paced, edgy profile of the intellectuals whose views about Islam and the Middle East came to dominate foreign policy after 9/11.” —Chicago Tribune“Persuasive, wide-ranging. . . . Heilbrunn takes a long, nuanced measure of the neocon policy revolution.” —The New York Observer“Excellent. . . . Heilbrunn adroitly surveys the movement's history from the Trotskyist alcoves of the City College cafeteria up to the present day.” —The New York Review of Books“Thorough . . . fair. . . . They Knew They Were Right will fit nicely on the rapidly expanding shelf explaining Iraq.” —The Washington Post --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
The last contention is best expressed by the following quote from an old-school conservative describing the neoconservatism menace: "It has always struck me as odd, even perverse, that former Marxists have been permitted, yes invited, to play such a leading role in the Conservative movement of the twentieth century. It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far."
Jacob Heilbrunn then offers his own, provocative interpretation of the movement as "an uneasy, controversial, and tempestuous drama of Jewish immigrant assimilation (...), an unresolved civil war between a belligerent, upstart ethnic group and a staid, cautious American foreign policy establishment that lost its way after the Vietnam war." For the author, neoconservatism is as much a reflection of Jewish immigrant social resentments and status anxiety as a legitimate movement of ideas. Stating that "the neoconservatives are less intellectuals than prophets", he introduces an ingenious ploy to order his narrative along biblical lines, following the neocons tribe from exodus to the wilderness years and to redemption leading to the promised land, followed by a return to exile.
Then suddenly, after only fifteen pages, the story turns into confession, and the book loses track. "I myself was once attracted to neoconservatism", testifies the author, who then goes through a long list of deeds, encounters and publications that proclaim his erstwhile affiliation to the movement. Self-described as a "baby neocon", he doesn't describe how he became estranged from the neoconservative creed. Neither claiming nor denying for himself the labels applied to the neocons--heroes, renegades, or traitors--, he poses as the dispassionate chronicler of the movement, but lacks the critical distance and intellectual rigor of a professional historian.
His main criticism focuses on the neocons' belief in the rightness of their own ideas, as well as on their inherent need to be in opposition in order to proclaim the purity of their dogma. The neocon temperament betrays the origins of the movement in Trotskyism. A combative temperament, a penchant for sweeping assertions and grandiose ideas, and a tendency to split into factions or to turn against one's former friends: these are all traits inherited from the radical left, echoing the "slugfests that took place at the City College cafeteria between the Trotskyists in the horseshoe-shaped Alcove 1 and the Stalinists in Alcove 2." For while they became ostensibly anticommunists and ex-radicals, the neoconservatives never really ceased to be radicals in temperament and style. They remained zealots.
Neoconservatism was turned into an actual movement by Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. Even today, the neoconservative phenomenon is best described as an extended family based largely on the informal social networks patiently forged by these two patriarchs. The neoconservatism movement itself became professionalized in the 1990s, forming a self-sustaining network of think tanks, magazines, and foundations that is now part of the Washington establishment. The book therefore concludes that neoconservatism is here to stay, and that it will remain an enduring force in the American political landscape.
Heilbrunn's neoconservatism saga is more legend than history, and lacks the depth that a social science perspective would have provided. The challenge of immigrant integration, the transition from one generation to the next, the institutionalization of charisma, the unresolved tension between participating in government and commenting from the outside, the condemnation of a culture of relativism that rejects the Western canon as inherently racist and corrupt, the maintenance of intellectual social networks: these are all issues that are best addressed by sociologists or social historians, who have a long tradition of studying intellectual movements.
Indeed, it would have been interesting to draw a parallel between those young Jewish radicals who sought their fortune in politics by challenging the establishment, and the cohort of Jewish writers--Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth--originating from the same places, New York City College and the University of Chicago, who went on to recreate the great American novel. Although Heilbrunn gave it a good shot, the definitive history of neoconservatism remains to be written.
The primary problem with this book is the lack of rigor, as noted in the Publisher's Weekly review (on this Amazon page). I have no doubt that Heilbrunn is very familiar with what he's writing about, but often the book ends up just being one journalist's long thoughts on the subject, rather than a well-crafted argument. Obviously this book is not supposed to be an academic monograph, but more documented sources would have helped immensely. Too often I just had to take Heilbrunn's word for claims he was making, which meant that for much of the book I wasn't sure how much to believe. At other points, the author fails to develop important arguments, giving more space to the personalities and mind-set of his subjects. Finally, I don't think Heilbrunn gives enough space to key arguments of critics outside the neocon movement (as opposed to critics who were former friends or associates of key neocons - we do get to hear from them).
So, read the book for Heilbrunn's insights, gained from extensive face-to-face exposure with the key players, but don't expect this to be a rigorous book of political analysis.