In the new issue of National Review, Michael Novak reminisces about student unrest of 1968, when he was a young professor at Stanford. It’s rather striking that Novak doesn’t realize how well his descriptions of the moral and intellectual flaws of the ’60s Left fit the neoconservatives today. “Too little consciousness of the irony, tragedy, and irrepressible sinfulness of human affairs; an unrealistic appraise of the proper role of power and self-interest in all human institutions; and a strong tendency toward rosy, gauzy hope in ‘progress,’ including utopian fantasies about ‘new’ types of human societies.” New types of human societies — but not like turning an authoritarian Middle Eastern state into an placid democracy, right?
There are differences, of course. The student Left had a utopian belief in the ease with which self-interest and power could be overcome. The neocon “center Right” (as Novak calls it) has a utopian belief in the possibilities of power — a belief that bombs and Marines and American administrators can remake traditional societies and authoritarian states without unleashing chaos in the attempt. “Self-interest” is also a telling phrase, since this is another idea in which the Novak Right has put too much faith. Suicide-bombing is not in anyone’s narrow “self-interest.” But as Robert Pape has shown, it’s a predictable response to occupation. Not everyone subscribes to the values of democratic capitalism.
Novak’s piece does have the virtue of showing what perverse incentives the draft could create. “Since we might soon be dying in the jungle of Vietnam, they thought, why not take wild risks at home? Young men experimented with dangerous drugs, took reckless motorcycle drives, drank prodigiously, taunted officers of the law, made occasional forays into criminality … and thus jeopardized any chance they may have had of a life regulated by self-government.” Not that the life of a conscript is “regulated by self-government,” either.
“The lockstep in which many on the left prefer to march, isolated from other points of view, has made them particularly vulnerable to unworkable ideas, and positively allergic to those discomfiting facts that would show that their fundamental narratives–especially those about economics, politics, and culture–are ill-matched to human nature and history.” That’s true. And it’s true of the center Right, too.