"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)
Thursday, April 28, 2005
The piece is essentially a review of Shadia B. Drury's Leo Strauss and the American Right, a book I have yet to read myself (but if one of my readers would like to purchase a copy for me, I promise to devour it immediately). Billmon writes:
Know thy enemy is always good advice, and while I had some minor dealings with a few of the neocon leading lights during my days as a reporter, I’ve never really taken the time to study their philosophy, or to learn more about Strauss, their intellectual capo di tutti capo.
Drury, on the other hand, appears to have made an academic career out of it. What’s more, she has the distinct advantage of being able to argue Plato and Aristotle with the best of them, while most of what I know about the classics comes from watching old Ray Harryhausen movies. Seriously, though, moral philosophy wasn’t one of my academic strong suits, and while I’m a little better versed in the political dead white guys that mattered to Strauss (such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Machiavelli) I’d never try to play the expert -- not in front of a live audience anyway....
What strikes me most about the Straussians – and by extension, the neocons – is that they’ve pushed the traditional liberal/conservative dichotomy of American politics back about 150 years, and moved it roughly 4,000 miles to the east, to the far side of the Rhine River. Their grand existential struggle isn’t with the likes of Teddy Kennedy or even Franklin D. Roosevelt, it’s with the liberalism of Voltaire, John Locke and John Stuart Mill – not to mention the author of the Declaration of the Independence.
Strauss, in other words, wasn’t a neo anything. He was a conservative in the original European sense – fond of hierarchy, tradition and religious orthodoxy; deeply suspicious of newfangled ideas like egalitarianism, rationalism and a political theory based on enlightened self interest and the social contract. Nor was he impressed by Mill’s utilitarian adding machine – constantly calculating the greatest good for the greatest number.
To the Straussians, rationality does not provide an adequate basis for a stable social order. To the contrary, the Age of Enlightenment has ushered in the crisis of modernity, in which nihilism – the moral vacuum left behind by the death of God – inevitably leads to decadence, decline and, ultimately, genocide.
That logical leap from Jefferson to Hitler might seem like the intellectual equivalent of Evel Knieval’s outlandish attempt to jump the Snake River canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle. But it’s essential to the Straussian world view – just as it provides the crucial angst that gives neo-conservatism such sharp political edges.
When Newt Gingrich equated feminism with the destruction of Western civ, he was echoing (in his dumbed-down way) Strauss’s lurking fear that the liberal American state would steer the same course as the Weimar Republic – a political Titanic on a collision course with a totalitarian iceberg. Deprived of the moral certainty provided by religion and tradition, the masses are vulnerable to crazed political adventurers who would fill the nihilistic void with their own crackpot ideas – like, say, the international conspiracy of Communists and Freemasons. They might even be worse than Tom DeLay. Or, as Drury laconically puts it:Strauss . . . does not disagree with Marx that religion is the opium of the masses, he just thinks that people need their opium.
What gives Straussian thought its special flavor – a bitter blend of hypocrisy and cynicism – is the fact that Strauss himself didn’t believe in the eternal “truths” he championed. He was a nihilist, in other words – but one who believed only the philosophical elite could be trusted to indulge in such a dangerous vice. In exchange for this privilege, the elite has a special obligation to uphold the “noble lies” the ignorant masses must live by if society is to survive.
What’s more, Strauss not only thought this – he believed the ancient philosophers agreed with him, which is why their texts shouldn’t be read literally – at least not by the privileged elite. It seems that Strauss, like Madonna, had a thing for Kabbalism. He believed his Greek role models had endowed their Great Books with two very different meanings: one for the elect and one for the masses (like first class and coach, in other words, but with extra frequent flyer miles for the PhDs.) But these secret meanings had been carefully concealed, so as not to scare the children with the awful truth – or, more accurately, the awful lack of truth. They could, however, be deciphered by wise and virtuous philosophers who understood and shared the classical world view – by Leo Strauss, in other words.
Here's more about the "Straussian text" and about the Straussian philosophy, from Wikipedia (internal links omitted):
A fundamental concept in Strauss's political ideology is the "Straussian text." This is a piece of philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one ("exoteric") thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real ("esoteric") meaning. Because Strauss holds that philosophy is dangerous: it calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends; it also reveals ugly truths that weaken men's attachment to their societies.
Strauss not only believed that the great philosophers of classical antiquity wrote Straussian texts, he approved of this. It represented a kind of class system of the intellect, paralleling those which governed the relationships between rulers and ruled, owners and workers, creators and audiences, which exist in politics, economics, and culture. Strauss believed that modern political philosophy tried to abolish this distinction, and he considered it as a kind of "Bolshevism" of the mind.
Strauss argued that contemporary liberalism was the logical outcome of the philosophical principles of modernity, as practiced in the advanced nations of the Western world in the 20th century. He believed that contemporary liberalism contained within it an intrinsic tendency towards relativism, which in turn led to the nihilism that he saw as permeating contemporary American society. As Strauss saw it, "good politicians" need to reassert the absolute moral values that unite society and this would overcome the moral relativism that liberalism had created. To do so, they needed to propagate myths necessary to give ordinary people meaning and purpose as to ensure a stable society. Modern liberalism had stressed the pursuit of individual liberty as its highest goal, and Strauss wanted government to take a more active role in promoting morality. Perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical in Strauss's view because the populace needs to be led; they need strong rulers to tell them what is good for them.
In other words, while traditional conservatives have long whined about the forced infantilization of the body politic which they see as inherent in "nanny state" liberalism, the Straussian neocons have adopted the same rhetorical posture while, sub rosa, embracing their own scheme for treating the unwashed masses like toddlers. Worse, they find intellectual justification for their actions in their occult interpretations of philosophical texts which, to anyone but a Straussian, say exactly the opposite of what they are presumed to really mean. To most of us, for example, Aristotle seems to have been talking about democracy, more or less, but that's just because we don't have Leo's secret decoder ring. Neat!
But philosophers don't rule a nation - politicians do. The ravings of an old egghead at the University of Chicago were unlikely to remake a nation, until they were adopted by a generation of ambitious men infused with the will to power. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened. Billmon again:
All this would be just another academic exercise – so to speak – if some of the Straussians hadn’t turned his philosophical fixations into a political crusade to “save” America from the horrors of modernity. Whether this was originally Strauss’s project or something his followers dreamed up later isn’t clear, at least not from Drury’s book. What is clear is that Strauss took great pains to recruit disciples who could transmit his ideas to future generations of impressionable young philosophers. And some of these apostles, such as political scientist Willmoore Kendall, sought to extend his influence to the political as well as the intellectual elite – positioning Strauss as the philosopher behind the philosopher kings.
Through these channels, Straussian ideas have thoroughly penetrated the modern GOP – and not only its avowedly neocon wing. Kendall was William F. Buckley Jr.’s mentor at Yale; Irving Kristol has cited Strauss as a primary influence; Newt Gingrich cribbed heavily from Straussian theory (and tactics) in drafting the Contract On America. Rove and his crew are born Straussians – even if they can’t spell the word philosophy, much less pronounce it.
One of the Straussians’ most important innovations has been to reconcile their brand of elite conservatism with Southern fried demagogic populism ala Huey Long and George Wallace. That’s a pretty radical concession for a movement with its mind (or at least its heart) planted firmly in the fifth century BC. But it's solved the traditional dilemma of old-style conservatives in America: How to win power in a society that has no landed gentry, no nobility, no established church – none of Europe’s archaic feudal institutions and loyalties.
The rationale – or rationalization – for the populist ploy is that the common folk are a hell of a lot less liberal (again, using the Enlightenment definition of the word) than what the Straussians like to call America’s “parchment regime” – that is, the ideas and principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The masses want their opium, in other words, and with the right guidance, will happily sweep away the liberal elites who have been denying it to them.
Yesterday, I linked in snarky passing to this speech that California supreme court justice and current nominee to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (confirmation subject to the Republicans pulling the nuclear trigger) Janice Rogers Brown delivered a few years ago before the Federalist Society at the University of Chicago (!) School of Law:
It was a quite opposite notion of humanity, of its fundamental nature and capacities, that animated the great concurrent event in the West in 1789 — the revolution in France. Out of that revolutionary holocaust — intellectually an improbable melding of Rousseau with Descartes — the powerful notion of abstract human rights was born. At the risk of being skewered by historians of ideas, I want to suggest that the belief in and the impulse toward human perfection, at least in the political life of a nation, is an idea whose arc can be traced from the Enlightenment, through the Terror, to Marx and Engels, to the Revolutions of 1917 and 1937. The latter date marks the triumph of our own socialist revolution. All of these events were manifestations of a particularly skewed view of human nature and the nature of human reason. To the extent the Enlightenment sought to substitute the paradigm of reason for faith, custom or tradition, it failed to provide rational explanation of the significance of human life. It thus led, in a sort of ultimate irony, to the repudiation of reason and to a full-fledged flight from truth — what [Jean Francois] Revel describes as "an almost pathological indifference to the truth."
In case you missed that triple-play combination, let's look at the replay - Enlightenment, to the Terror, to Soviet Communism, to the New Deal. Ol' Leo would be proud.
As you know, there are two kinds of people in the world - those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't. I am firmly in the former category. Years ago, I went to a Continuing Legal Education symposium about the constitutionality of the "no-protest" zones established here in Seattle during the WTO dust-up (yeah, it was boring, but free CLE credits are free CLE credits!). Listening to the excruciatingly fair and balanced selection of panelists, I realized for the first time how striking is the contrast between those who value order above all else, and those who value freedom above all else. I'm all for order, myself - I have a home and a young son that I would prefer not to lose to mob violence - but I take seriously the constitutional solution: Freedom is sloppy and dangerous, but it is really the only path to security. Similarly, Enlightenment notions like science and reason can be sloppy and dangerous, too, but if you want to understand how the physical world really works (a notion which Karl Rove no doubt finds quaint), they beat hell out of taking marching orders from hick preachers who honestly believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old.
Of course, America's neocon occupiers are not the only enemies of modernity at play these days. When pondering Straussian concepts, one must be struck by the close parallels with Islamic fundamentalism just as surely as one might think of Pat Robertson. Our enemies are just as hostile to Enlightenment notions as any Straussian - one is tempted to say that "they hate us for our freedoms," but the temptation should be avoided for obvious reasons - and it is not hard to imagine that Osama bin Laden has a dog-earred copy of The City and Man laying around somewhere.
I've been dancing around the elephant in the room - the "f word," fascism. Strauss was a German Jew who fled the Reich; it is unlikely that he would have been flattered by any comparison between his political philosophy and that of the Nazis. Likewise, it is highly irresponsible to compare the reign of the American Junta to Hitler's abominable rise. Don't worry, Godwin's Law is still in full effect, at least around these parts. But Billmon doesn't compare our Straussians to the brownshirts; rather, he suggests an even more ominous possibility. Consider his opening epigraph, from Heinrich Heine (1834):
There will be played in Germany a drama compared to which the French revolution will seem but an innocent idyll. At present everything is quiet; though here and there a few men create a stir, do not imagine them to be the real actors in the piece. They are only the little curs who chase each other round the arena, until the appointed hour when the gladiators appear to fight for life and death. And the hour will come.
Which, to me, implies that we might expect things to get a whole lot worse, before they get better. The band plays on, and we're dancing as fast as we can.