The Low Standard: Pseudo-Intellectualism in Neo-conservative Thought

In the book, When Empire Meets Nationalism,[1]the authors expressed their hope for a ‘intellectual alternative’ to the neo-conservative worldview. The problem with this expression, in my opinion, is not its basic sentiment but its wording. It implies that the neoconservative worldview is intellectual. Whatever else might be said about neoconservative pronouncements, they are most definitely not intellectual. A case in point can be found in the introduction of the book, which tells of a political controversy that arose in 2005 surrounding George Lucas’s comments about his Episode III of Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith.

The director declared he had developed his saga in reference to the Vietnam War and felt there was a disturbing parallel between this event and the invasion of Iraq. By comparing the ‘philosophy’ behind his work to the current political situation, he was stating that ‘most bad people think they are good people, they are doing it for the right reasons and, as if to underline the polemical aspect of his declaration, he added to the parallel between the American political context and the leitmotiv of his Episode III that ‘In terms of evil, one of the original concepts was how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship’, in other words, how a prosperous Republic, albeit in a crisis, becomes a moralistic and militarist dictatorship. A process which some, on the political left, would use to define George W. Bush’s policy-making.

Naturally, right-wing American groups felt themselves personally attacked by Lucas’s comments. One group, the pro-republican group, the Patriotic Americans Boycotting Anti-American Hollywood, (PABAAH), called for a US boycott of Lucas’s latest film. What did surprise the authors however, was the fact that conservatives and neoconservatives did not reject the right-wing position outright. Or at least they did not echo the PABAAH’s call for a boycott. The neoconservatives agreed with Lucas in principle, arguing that he ‘was simply mistaken in his definition of Good and Evil. Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader, chose, according to them, the good side, the Empire’.

I would explain Americans’ failure to develop an intellectual alternative to neo-conservatism in this way: one assumes the neocons are either making a sick joke, or that they are completely mad. Given this understanding common decency dictates one of two things: a cynical guffaw, or a discrete silence. (Note that an intellectual answer is not on the list of possible responses.) This leads me to suspect method in the neo-conservative madness.

It is difficult to recognize the implicit challenge in their tactics because their remarks are more like a slap in the face than political discourse. However, since I agree that it’s important to confront this particular comment in a coherent way I’ll answer it, in kind.

With the Darth Vader comment the neo-conservatives made a mockery of everyone and everything, including neo-conservatism itself. The first thing to be understood is that this was a defensive maneuver in response to George Lucas’s criticism of neoconservative policies. In this light, it’s important to assert that not even the neoconservatives could believe that switching the roles of villain and hero in another writer’s work is a respectable course of action. Then why would they take this course of action? I would answer that with another question: what else could they say? The best they could hope for was to divert attention from Lucas’s criticism. And they no doubt also considered it a bonus that they were able to show contempt for the conventions of civil society. Outrageousness is their way of attacking collective confidence and corrupting political rhetoric. What else would you expect from a bunch of Gnostics?

[1] Didier Chaudet, Florent Parmentier and Benoît Pélopidas, When Empire Meets Nationalism: Power Politics in the US and Russia. Ashgate Publishing, Burlington, VT, 2009

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