Fox News reports it’s entirely legal in many jurisdictions for criminals to change their names, citing the case of an Oklahoma man convicted of impersonating a police officer – as well as a would-be school bus driver who is a convicted sex offender. It’s a problem in Australia, too, where rapists, murderers, and "fraudsters" simply reinvent themselves in order to escape scrutiny once out of prison. This practice is now spreading to the political sphere, where the ideological fraudsters formerly known as neoconservatives are trying to transform themselves into "Freedom Conservatives."
Ben Smith, writing in Buzzfeed – the neocons’ latest journalistic front – makes the case for the name-change in a piece claiming that the old categories – neocon, libertarian, tea party, hawks, etc. – are "outdated," representing "overlapping categories drawn from different eras." "Buzzfeed Ben," always in the vanguard of the New & Shiny, says "these terms don’t really fit." Why not? Well, because "there are multiple strands of antigovernment conservatism that predate the tea party movement," as well as ‘kinds of hawkishness that have little to do with the neoconservative movement."
Well, er, yes – there are indeed strands of antigovernment conservatism that predate the so-called Tea Party movement: the problem for Smith, however, is that none of them are extant. The Old Right of the pre-World War II era went out of existence sometime in the mid-1950s, while the "New Right" of William F. Buckley, Jr., is no longer "new" and is arguably just a memory, gone with the days when one could turn to National Review and find elegant prose. And as far as interventionist foreign policy "hawks" are concerned, the neocons have had a virtual monopoly on that corner of the spectrum since the cold war: even some of the same names crop up today – Kristol, Podhoretz – that were prominent back in the cold war era, the progeny of yesterday’s warmongers having taken on the jobs once assigned to their parents.
But facts don’t matter if you’re on a mission, and Smith ploughs ahead, oblivious to both history and the integrity of the English language:
"I propose replacing the messy old terminology with a simple new vocabulary, one that has evolved organically, which has deep and consistent intellectual roots, no pejorative implications, and which political leaders use effortlessly and without reflecting. The division that will define the Republican Party for the next decade is the split between Liberty Conservatives and Freedom Conservatives."
Note the magisterial tone: the online publication that gave us the "listicle" is now presuming to define the American political lexicon for the next decade! Aside from the sheer presumptuousness, however, the key phrases in this edict are bolded for your convenience.
We mustn’t have any "pejorative implications," and we had best not reflect on where these implications come from – because they come from the historical record of these tendencies in American politics, and in the case of the neocons this isn’t anything to be proud of. The term "neoconservative" (or neocon, for short) has pejorative implications precisely because of the utter wrongness of the policies advocated – and implemented – by these folks.
Who lied us into war in Iraq? The neocons.
Who confidently predicted we’d be greeted with showers of rose petals? The neocons.
Who said the war wouldn’t cost us a dime because it would be paid for with the profits from Iraqi oil? The neocons.
Who escaped responsibility for said disaster? The neocons.
Who are now all over the media urging us to re-invade Iraq – and bomb Iran for good measure? The neocons – i.e. the same Wolfowitzes, Perles, Feiths, and Kristols who bamboozled the nation into launching what Gen. William E. Odom rightly called the worst military disaster in American military history.
Names are important: they tell us who and what we are dealing with. Names identify not only individuals but families – which, translated into political-ideological terms, signifies allegiance to a given party or movement. This re-branding effort, then, is designed to wipe out the disgraceful history of the neoconservative movement, effectively removing the stigma attached to the name and enabling these all-too-familiar warmongers to start their latest agitations with a clean slate. Like any garden variety criminal who seeks to mask his dark past, the neocons want to wipe out their own history – and who can blame them for that?
There are some real howlers in Smith’s piece: "The divide over Liberty and Freedom," we are told, "has a good linguistic pedigree." Really? I don’t know what dictionary Smith is consulting, but in mine the words liberty and freedom are synonyms. Smith’s reinvention of the English language makes for some linguistic Orwellianisms, such as his description of "Freedom conservatives" backing "aggressive security measures" (i.e. the Surveillance State). This is true only in two places: in Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, where "freedom is slavery," and Bizarro World, where water flows uphill.
The icing on the cake is Smith’s citing of leftist historian Eric Foner, who avers that freedom doesn’t mean the absence of coercion, but rather "the exercise of power of some sort." You’re scratching your head, but if we translate this into Bizarro-speak Smith’s meaning is all too clear: in the case of the neocons, this can only mean the freedom to kill large numbers of people – preferably Arabs – and destroy entire nations, as they did in Iraq.
George Orwell nailed Smith’s (and Foner’s) linguistic legerdemain in his classic essay on "Politics and the English Language" (1946), in which he pointed to the subterfuges ideologues of the day used to deceive their audience:
"The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive."
Likewise, the phrase "Dick Cheney is a ‘Freedom Conservative’" has a distinctly Orwellian ring.
So whose bright idea was it to revise the political lexicon in a way that benefits neocons? Why, a neocon, of course:
"’You’re seeing skirmishes all over the place, people testing each other,’ Michael Goldfarb, a Freedom Conservative (and indeed, the guy who coined that phrase), told my colleague Rosie Gray.… Meanwhile the two sides are also using language to define each other. Liberty Conservatives call their enemies ‘neocons.’ Freedom Conservatives sling the word ‘isolationists.’ Those of us trying to write about them without taking sides need a new vocabulary."
I love the pretense of objectivity: an attempt to wipe the historical slate clean and erase the criminal past of that noisy little sect known as the neoconservatives is here described as an attempt "to write about them without taking sides." Which brings me to my own bright idea: instead of calling them "freedom conservatives," why not define them by their most glaringly salient characteristic and call them Chutzpah Conservatives? Because they certainly have a lot of that….
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.