U.S. Intellectual History Blog

great review of Irving Kristol’s life

Irving Kristol
In my intellectual life, there is a very long list of people about whom I know a little and would like to learn more, but who fall outside my primary research areas. Since there is an endless amount of reading to be done in those subjects alone, the people on the “B list” never quite get my full attention. I never read their biographies or anthologies, and they inevitably remain on that list for long periods of time, or, in far too many cases, permanently.

One of those people is Irving Kristol. (Maybe that’s not true for you, dear reader, but I am certain you have your own B list.) Now, thanks to the New Republic, I will be able to shrink the B list by one. The current issue of that magazine features a lengthy article by Franklin Foer about Kristol. Ostensibly a review of Kristol’s posthumous essay collection, the piece actually features Foer instead offering an overview of Kristol’s background and biography, charting his major positions and their shifts in time, and assessing his most lasting contributions. The essay is thoughtful, well-informed and articulate, and I cannot recommend it enough.

The piece is behind a paywall, but it is in the current issue. In my opinion, the article alone is worth the price of the magazine.

Behind the paywall is also a quote from Kristol that I thought was particularly relevant to a group of intellectual historians, occasionally besieged by the perception that ideas themselves are of less value than other sorts of things. “What communists call the theoretical organs always end up through a filtering process influencing a lot of people who don’t even know they’re being influenced. In the end, ideas rule the world because even interests are defined by ideas.”

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If information wants to be free, TNR must not be information.

    I will seek this article out, Mike, but that journal’s essentially universal paywall is an extraordinary annoyance.

  2. I hope you enjoy the article, Ben, and I’m sorry that you don’t like the policy at the New Republic. But I’m not sure I share what sound like your cyberlibertarian leanings. I can’t see any reason why people shouldn’t have to pay for an article that the magazine had to pay someone to write. Why would anyone subscribe to the magazine if the current articles were available immediately and free online?

    The future of journalism, of course, raises a large number of complicated issues. But it often seems to me that it is those with the most enthusiasm for and interest in new technologies who seem seem least willing to acknowledge that the new universe will create losers as well as winners, and in addressing these disparities. Even the quote that you reference, so much loved by the digerati, is more nuanced than many realize or remember. Stewart Brand said that “[i]nformation wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive.” It was not a manifesto, but the description of a problem as a paradox. It is fashionable among Silicon Valley types to say that “we mean free like speech, not free like beer,” but many do, in fact, bristle at being expected to pay for something. I cannot imagine that the solution to the problems facing the media organizations as they confront a digital future could be as simple as the idea that everything I happen to want to read should be made available to me for free.

  3. Don’t take my snark so seriously, Mike!

    My university library subscribes to the TNR digital archive, so in fact I can access the article online for free.

    But I suppose there is a serious point here.

    TNR is a once-proud journal that over the last three decades has pissed away a lot of its cultural capital. Now a lot of things have contributed to this, many of which have to do with Marty Peretz, his opinions and management style (it will be interesting to see what will happen to the journal now that we’ve entered the post-Peretz era). But one way or another, fewer and fewer people are reading it. As recently as 2000, it had over 100k circulation. Now it’s around 50k.

    Any magazine (well, most magazines) are about making profit (at least in theory). And I totally agree with you that how do to this in a digital age is a very tricky thing. Certainly there aren’t easy answers to the future of journalism. And I don’t believe that providing content for free online is necessarily the answer.

    But the life of an opinion journal is not just about making money (actually, in the case of TNR I believe it was about losing wads of money long before the digital revolution). The goal of an opinion journal is also about getting the magazine’s opinions into the public sphere. Successful opinion journals are read and talked about. Obviously fewer and fewer people are reading TNR. And their paywall doesn’t help. So, in fact, in the case of TNR, I think the paywall probably is a mistake.

  4. I like your idea of the “B list.” And as for interests being defined by ideas, isn’t the opposite also true?

    Corporate greed is an interest: many political “ideas” follow from that, I think.

  5. Here’s the full quote from Stewart Brand: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”


    I linked to this Foer piece on this blog a few days ago before it went behind the paywall. If you accessed my link then, you would have gotten it for free ; ).

    Foer’s piece goes out with a bang:

    “Of course, this enemy of the intellectuals was an intellectual to his core. More than any intellectual of his era, he reshaped the spirit of his time. He pushed certain ideas—as an essayist and an impresario—from the fringes of obscure think tanks into the mainstream. By insisting on the government’s role in promoting virtue, and by treating liberals as agents of stealth radicalism, he created the conditions for the culture war of the 1990s and the climate that culminated in welfare reform. Even Bill Clinton, as well as the editors of this magazine, came to accept some of these tenets, and to agree upon the necessity of bucking up the bourgeois values.

    We are still living in the world of total ideological combat that Irving Kristol created (or re-created, since it was also the world into which he was born) in the course of renovating conservatism—where every shred of academic research, and the epistemological underpinnings of that research, is fiercely contested and happily politicized. He was the intellectual who ended the end-of-ideology, who knocked the expert off the throne from which he had governed for nearly half a century. In the course of his departure from liberalism, he dealt it a blow from which it has yet to fully recover.”

    This is Sam Tanenhaus’s thesis (I think it was originally Mike Lind’s?), and I’ve seen it stated or at least hinted at in about a dozen places now.

    The problem is largely with the ex communists. They weren’t really conservative, but with the brand of conservative populism around now, they really got baked into the movement’s architecture. Here’s Tanenhaus being introduced by Lind and talking about the subject at the New America foundation about a year and a half ago:


  6. Damon Linker had a TNR article on Kristol a while back:


    I forgot which one it was, but one of Kristol’s fellow New York Intellectuals said in a review that Kristol was unique among them in getting obsessed about retail, electoral politics, regional voting patterns, candidates, etc.

    I could just imagine Kristol excitedly going over electoral maps with Nixon’s advisor Kevin Phillips, strategizing with him, etc. I wonder if that ever happened? It would be interesting to find out how much Phillips and Kristol’s ideas cross pollinated. When I read E J Dionne’s book *Souled Out,* he seemed to imply that Phillips’ ideas of cultural class struggle and Kristol’s New Class were related…

    Someone ought to talk to Phillips about these things some time while we still have him (he’s now about 70). Looks like he doesn’t have a lot of loyalty to today’s movement, so he might feel free to talk.

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