In the year 2000, I was invited to review a new book about Lord Alfred Douglas, who had been Oscar Wilde’s toxic and eventually fatal choice of boyfriend.
I was simultaneously impressed and depressed by the assignment, because the work turned out to be (a) masterly and (b) written by someone who turned out to be only a few years older than my son. (Mr. Murray was born in 1979, which meant that he had finished the biography while he was still at college.)
There are not many occasions when a grizzled hack like myself can mark the emergence of a fresh new author who bears watching, but thiswas indubitably one of them.
To the frequently-asked question: "Neocons? Who needs ’em?" this same author has now given a sprightly reply. The words "young conservative" will always have, for me, a slightly doom-laden tone to them.
But Murray evades the pseudo-gravitas that waited to entrap many of his predecessors, and writes with energy and wit about the need for a radical Toryism that can transcend the ossified party that now bears the name.
In his native England, the debate that Americans have been having about "the war on terrorism" is in many ways conducted in reverse.
A good bit of the Left, whether pro-Blair or otherwise, is strongly in favor of removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and relying on both military and moral force to do so.
While on the Right, a significant part of the old Establishment has given vent to long-buried anti-American instincts, and even blames Blair for attracting or motivating Islamist killers.
This tension offers a huge opportunity for anyone who is capable of thinking for himself.
Of course, the most flagrant offenders against morality and common sense are still the nihilistic pseudo-leftists, who claim to see no real difference between Western democracy and those who desire to murder its voters at random. (Murray selects a fairly renowned academic literary theorist named Terry Eagleton, who wrote that there was no real difference between suicide bombers and those who leaped to their death in flames from the upper floors of the World Trade Center. Neither group, you see, had any real "choice" … .)
Cretinism of this kind is more common than you might suppose in the British press, where cultural contempt for the United States is widespread.
So Murray has a harder task than his American counterparts, in making the case that America deserves European gratitude, and that the current ingratitude — toput it mildly — is the result of something like self-hatred.
He sets about it with a nice combination of reason and irony, exploding such consoling European illusions as the integrity or authority of the United Nations, and subjecting various "ethnic" criticisms of Blair and Bush to a very cool but devastating analysis of the tribalism and sectarianism that underlie them.
The word "neoconservative" is itself a joke that has gone too far: coined by my late socialist comrade Michael Harrington as a satirical remark to be deployed against his former radical friends.
Quite plainly, a political faction that advocates the subversion of the status quo cannot reasonably be termed "conservative" in any sense, and if I have a criticism of Murray’s approach, it is that he doesn’t quite see how this irony is at the expense of the Tories most of all.
Much of the criticism of the "neocon" policy is that it has been "destabilizing": How often has that charge been historically leveled at Republicans and Thatcherites?
However, in his account of the intellectual origins of the neocon school, so far as I can check it, Murray is both very exact and very informative.
He offers quite a succinct précis of the life and work of the fantastically misrepresented scholar Leo Strauss, and of his highly discrepant and various "school" of disciples, while simultaneously maintaining that confrontations with Milosevic, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein would have been inescapable whether Strauss had written a line or not.
There were those, after the end of the Cold War, who thought it was time to relax.
And there were those who thought that the times might turn very dangerous again, and that it would be wise to be prepared. Whatever the vicissitudes of the resulting ghastly conflicts may be, who can doubt that those who warned us were being both useful and virtuous?
Some of my criticisms of this book are themselves conservative: I am too old to see the word "equivalence" being deployed as a verb, as in "equivalenced," and I wince to read of sanctions against Iraq being described as "unanimously unsatisfactory," when those words could only describe a general opinion of same.
Murray’s opinions on social policy, by contrast, are to the right of my own. But this is a period when tough-mindedness and clarity are at a discount, and it is highly encouraging to find someone youthful, defiant and principled who can both write and think at the same time.
Excerpt: From Douglas Murray’s ‘Neoconservatism: Why We Need It’
Having leapt to public prominence in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, the word "neocon" is now firmly embedded in our language, or at least in our lexicon of political insults. Usually conflated with "hawk," "neocon" has become a popular catch-all word to identify anything tough or seemingly sinister that emanates from Washington … .
But it is not just the American public who assume knowledge of neoconservatism while failing to begin to grasp the concept — America’s media and politicians have also often failed to engage the issue, too often satisfying themselves with fanciful clichés and grotesque simplifications … .
There are times when even the most alert citizen can come to the conclusion that there is no particular point in voting at a given election. Many millions of people feel this way semi-permanently. Many of these are partly right in thinking that their vote won’t make a difference because they sense that there is no big difference left to make — too little, not too much, is at stake. The big ideas often seem either to have been accomplished or else appear tainted beyond use. One might feel justified in such circumstances in declaring America a post-historical state: the grand battles won, with only skirmishes remaining.
But this is not the case — and we should be alert to that fact. When politicians restrict themselves to discussing the small issues, the big issues have a tendency to come creeping silently back. In the wake of the terrorist assaults on America of 2001, and the conflicts that have resulted from those assaults, large questions, which had long lain dormant, surfaced again. …
It is my contention throughout this book that neoconservatism provides answers to many of the problems facing America and the world today. On all these matters, not just the war on terror, I am aware that not everyone sees that these problems even exist. Among other things, there is always the easy expedient of avoiding a threat by pretending that it is not there … .
But equally, there are many people who, while they agree on the nature of the threats before us, will not agree with the answers I put forward. If that is the case, then opponents of the neoconservative approach must come up with answers of their own. I say this not as a hollow challenge or taunt, but because of a genuine concern. We must continue to ask — and argue — the big questions, not only because we need answers to current predicaments, but because, if we do not pre-empt the argument and if the big questions are not out in the open, the consensus all too innocently leaves the door open for true extremism.
In a free society nothing should be incapable of being said: the scandal in a society as free as America’s is that so much is not even being asked.Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America."