Dec 29, 2005

Disraeli the neocon

David Gelernter pays tribute to Disraeli as the founder of modern conservatism.
Marx and Disraeli are perfect countertypes--partly the same, partly opposite (like particle and anti-particle in nuclear physics; when they meet, they destroy each other). Marx and Disraeli are the principal creators of the modern left and right respectively--two 19th-century Jews whose fathers had them baptized, who worked mainly in London, who counted on British power to protect the world from a dangerous Czarist Russia, who died within two years of each other, in 1881 (Disraeli) and '83 (Marx). They were both obsessed with Jews and Judaism, but Marx (the atheist left-winger) hated Jews, Judaism, and religion in general; Disraeli (the devout right-winger) felt differently.

Marx says, "Workers of the world, unite!" Disraeli says, Peoples of Britain, unite! Marx foresees one class united around the world. Disraeli envisions all classes united throughout the nation. Socialists had "internationals," but conservatives never felt any need to blend their national parties into transnational organizations.

Yet Marx-to-Disraeli is not finally a left-to-right spectrum. Marx gave birth not only to the modern left but to totalitarianism. Marx's end of the spectrum is the "shame end," Disraeli's the "pride end." Shame was a powerful force in Marx's life; witness his self-hating anti-Semitism. Twentieth-century totalitarianism was created (not only but in large part) by shame. Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany were born out of humiliating defeat in the First World War: Germany beat Russia (Russian communism followed); the allies beat Germany (Nazism followed). Defeat and shame were not the only forces at work, but we can't understand the 20th century without them. Nor can we understand today's radical Islamic terrorism and totalitarianism (totalitarians being terrorists who have already got what they want) without understanding the central role of defeat and shame.

Modern liberals are nothing like Bolsheviks or Nazis. They are closer to Disraeli's end of the spectrum than Marx's. Yet American liberals are more likely than conservatives to focus on the shameful in American history, conservatives on the things that make them proud.

Disraeli also had a gift for aphorism that rivals Oscar Wilde's. Some great quotes here. One of my favorites: "Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel." This motto served him well in his dealings with Queen Victoria.
From the beginning Disraeli set out to woo and flatter her with an infallible instinct for the phrase, the gesture, the compliment, the overture that would most delight her. He was later to tell a colleague who had asked for advice how to handle the Queen, 'First of all, remember she is woman'.

He never forgot this himself. 'The present man will do well', she told her eldest daughter. 'He is very peculiar, thoroughly Jewish looking ... but very clever and sensible ... He is full of poetry, romance and chivalry. When he knelt down to kiss my hand, he said "In loving loyalty and faith."'

All this was in marked contrast to Disraeli's great rival, the Liberal, WE Gladstone, who, she said, addressed her as though she were a public meeting.

More on Disraeli and Gladstone here.

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