The Magazine

Against Relativism

A British way of looking at neoconservatism.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Why We Need It

by Douglas Murray

Encounter, 200 pp., $25.95

Never much admired in the academy, in literary circles, or among fashionable journalists since its emergence in the 1960s and '70s, neoconservatism in the post-9/11 world has, particularly in polite society, come into especially ill repute. For allegedly enabling George W. Bush to drag the nation into a misbegotten and catastrophically harmful war in Iraq, neoconservatives have been subject to relentless vilification. They are cowards, "chickenhawks," who clamor to send other people's children to fight and fall in faraway lands. They are illiberal and antidemocratic followers of Leo Strauss; in accordance with their master's teaching, they dream of, and may be perilously well advanced in establishing, a secret elite to rule the nation and, through the nation's empire, the world. And they flirt with dual loyalty by serving as spear carriers in America for the expansionist policies of Israel's right-wing Likud party.

Of course, anyone who enters the public square with the intention to influence public opinion must be prepared to endure criticism, unfair as well as fair. If you don't have a thick skin and a strong stomach, you shouldn't join the democratic fray. This is not to say that culpable ignorance, malicious distortion, and vulgar accusation should go unanswered. But in a free society, targets of obloquy confront a choice: They can ignore the vicious among their critics, and so risk allowing the smears to fester in the public's imagination. Or they can risk dignifying the vicious by addressing their charges directly.

Douglas Murray, a young Oxford-educated writer, has chosen the more direct approach. Avid and unabashed, he takes on neoconservatism's harshest critics and does not yield an inch. Indeed, contrary to the many critics who have announced that the neoconservative moment has passed, Murray contends that neoconservatism is just getting started. And the future beckons brightly. In the opening pages, Murray declares his "belief that the solution to many, if not all, of our problems lies in neoconservatism--not just because it provides an optimistic and emboldened conservatism, but because neoconservatism provides a conservatism that is specifically attuned, and attractive, to people today."

His own optimism and boldness, it must be said, sometimes lead him to overstate his case or gloss over difficulties, not least in his estimate of neoconservatism's contemporary appeal. In fact, such appeal is hard to reconcile with the very demonization, springing from the right as well as the left, that has, in significant measure, called forth his efforts on neoconservatism's behalf. Yet one should not be deterred by this and other occasionally exuberant opinions that pop up in Murray's brief, invigorating book. Amid the clutter of calumnies that fill the airwaves, cyberspace, and newsprint, it provides a refreshing introduction to neoconservatism's intellectual origins, leading ideas, and guiding aims.

Murray emphasizes that neoconservatism, being neither a creed nor a school but rather a sensibility and style of thought, has a complex lineage. Sensibly, he chooses to begin his account from the most common misunderstanding, which absurdly traces the U.S. decision to invade Iraq to the teachings of Leo Strauss. It's not that Strauss, a lifelong scholar and teacher of the history of political philosophy, has not been a critical influence in shaping the neoconservative mind. But he did not promulgate a political program or advocate particular policies.

Strauss breathed new life into the idea of a liberal education, which he saw as an opportunity to liberate the mind from prejudices and to expose it to the treasures of human achievement in politics and thought. This liberation involved, among other things, acquiring an understanding of the weaknesses and disadvantages of liberal democracy, the better to grasp the remarkable benefits that liberal democracy confers, the enduring justice of its cause, and the institutions and ideas that sustain it. Murray emphasizes that, among the debilitating prejudices fostered by liberal democracy, was one that Strauss called relativism, and which consisted of the belief that the diversity of human views about right and wrong, and morality and immorality, were rooted in the diversity of cultures, and were all equally valid. Strauss diagnosed relativism as a decayed form of the admirable liberal doctrine of tolerance, and warned that it led to nihilism, or the belief that nothing is true and everything is permitted.