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the saint of modern conservatism, summer in the city, a smug relativist points finger

Wikipedia is kind enough to call Leo Strauss a political philosopher. I guess if you mix some classical Greek philosophy, mixed mostly with some Heidegger, peppered with some quixotic political thoughts that does meet the bare minimum for such a classification. It is probably an unspoken  understanding in the media and scholars that even if one is a cynical quasi-misanthrope, if they publish enough books and essays at some point people can no longer dismiss them as a crank and has to extend some courteous designation. Why is Strauss important. Mainly because he has had such a big influence on conservatism in the U.S. he is sometimes referred to as the father of neoconservatism. Though for some mysterious reason odd reason very few of the actual neocons will own up to being a follower. Some of the more well known and influential neocons include Vice President Dick Cheney, former SOD Donald Rumsfeld, former AG John Ashcroft, Gary Bauer,  televangelist Pat Robertson, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Iraq invasion architect Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, David Wurmser, William Kristol (son of Irving Kristol), Elliott Abrams (son-in-law to Norman Podhoretz) and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Jay Feith ( who also ran a special department( CPEG) at the Pentagon that manufactured intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq). Some organizations closely associated with Straussianism include the American Enterprise Institute, Project for the New American Century and JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs). These people brought us many things. The most obvious was the $3 trillion dollar disaster known as the invasion of Iraq. Kenneth B. McIntyre recently reviewed a new book about Strauss ( he has become a cottage industry) called Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, Paul Gottfried, Cambridge University Press. In The Right’s False Prophet, McIntyre writes,

Finally, there was the political situation in Germany, especially after the disastrous end of World War I. The attractions of fascism to someone like Strauss, whose early inclinations were in a more social-democratic direction, would have been obvious, given the instability of Weimar. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Strauss’s admiration for Mussolini outlasted the mid-1930s. Instead, the lesson that Strauss took from the fall of the Weimar government and the rise of Hitler and National Socialism was that liberalism was not capable of withstanding the onslaught of historicism, positivism, and moral relativism without solid quasi-religious and quasi-mythical foundations—and that he would be the one to provide those. Gottfried is certainly correct in arguing that for Strauss and his acolytes it is always September 1938 and we are always in Munich.

[  ]….For Gottfried, the primary effect that both neoconservatives and Straussians have had on the American conservative movement is to suck all the air out of it and ensure that there is no one to the right of them, while their primary effect on American politics generally has been to reinforce the ideologically charged notion that America is some sort of propositional nation constituted like a vast pseudo-religion by a set of tenets needing constant promulgation. It is a story of America as armed doctrine, and Gottfried is assuredly right in arguing that there is nothing conservative about it.

Gottfried argues, not for the first time, that Strauss and the neocons were Cold War liberals. The only fragment of justification for that is that Strauss was anti-communist. Some of the modern neocons argue they are not neocons or Straussians because they did not follow Strauss to the letter. If you poll most conservatives you’ll find that on individual issues like saving Medicare or having public universities, they poll liberal. That does not mean they are not conservatives. Few individuals subscribe purely to someone else’s thoughts. Gottfried and McIntyre both have some interesting and true enough things to say in their view of Strauss, but I think they are mistaken about some details. Scott Horton did a better critique of Strauss in 2006. Struass has a couple of basic core thought about democrat and government. Everything outside of that core is just so much noise. Because Strauss knows some Latin and some classical philosophy some of that noise – or bullsh*t impresses some people 9 see comments at the link). I give him credit for being well read, but most of the people I went to school with were well read. That doesn’t mean they are intellectual giants whose thoughts are worth losing 4000 lives over. The Letter

(1) Strauss rejects the fundamental liberal idea that wide-open, uncensored public disagreement is a creative force, mobilizing decentralized knowledge and bringing it to bear on issues of public importance. Liberalism, above all, insists that the factual premises of the use of force must be tested in an open adversarial process, but Strauss’s entire philosophical posture is a sarcastic rejection of this idea. For Strauss, knowledge belongs to a few – we know ahead of time who can and who cannot contribute something serious to a discussion. This “closed club” view of knowledge and debate with its essentially anti-democratic premise contributed to the atmospherics of the Bush drive to war against Iraq.

(2) Strauss believed that the liberal-Enlightenment tradition was naïve, and in particular the notion of Enlightenment thinkers that “revelation” (religious myths and dreams) could be banned from politics (as noted below, this was the crux of Strauss’ dissertation done under the great Neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer). For Strauss, this is impossible; the repressed will return; hence it is crucial for the secular few, the men of science, to bring religion into politics on their own terms. The American Neocons’ bizarre alliance with America’s Religious Right follows directly from this analysis.

(3) One of the pillars of liberal democracy is the embrace of the Rule of Law, and the notion that no one, even the king or Executive, stands above the law. For Strauss this idea was foolishness. Strauss’ critique can be seen in his writings on Plato and Xenophon, but their origin clearly lies with the Nietzschean criticism of Christianity as a slave morality designed to trick and “tie down” the natural geniuses. Strauss applies this criticism to law; law spells weakness; law is a trick of the weak to tie down the strong. Hence, Strauss applauds the decisive leader who acts outside of the law to achieve his goals. Nevertheless, the consequences of Strauss’ dismissive attitude towards the Rule of Law can be seen today in the Neocon advocacy of jettisoning traditional norms of the law of armed conflict and in allowing the president to operate outside of clear criminal statutes (like FISA) as an aspect of his war-making powers.

The Letter Horton refers to is below. It might not be fair to judge someone but one letter. Yet this is one of those times when in a brief space one’s warning system, one’s sense of the extreme should alert the reader that this guy has walnut storage disease,

“There is in this case just one solution. We must repeat: we, “men of science,” – as our predecessors in the Arab Middle Ages called themselves – non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus… And, what concerns this matter: the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme to protest against the shabby abomination. I am reading Caesar’s Commentaries with deep understanding, and I think of Virgil’s Tu regere imperio… parcere subjectis et debellare superbos. There is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of the Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I’ll take the ghetto.” -  Leo Strauss. Paris, May 19, 1933. It has been said that Strauss was anti-Nazi by accident. Only the Nazi’s antisemtism kept him from being a supporter.

Strauss’s principles: fascism, authoritarian, imperialism. Strauss has become important because of an influence that is far outsized anything he has to contribute to political thought. But he is not just a historical figure who logic and plans put into action have been utter failures. The neocons are the foreign policy zombies of conservationism in the way that supply-side economics is the zombie that lives on in the plans of Paul Ryan(R-WI) and conservative economic theory. The neocons are back – Mitt Romney’s Neocon War Cabinet.

black and white summer in the city

Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, chasing butterflies, Ithaca, New York, September 1958.

A conservative right-wing Catholic writes about President Obama’s Commencement Address at Notre Dame. Gerard V. Bradley writes about Obama, “The message of this complex of ideas (passion, self-righteousness, and humility in the context of a “world of competing claims about [the] right and [the] true”) is unmistakable. It is the familiar rationalistic argument that, only if believers internalize the relativism (“doubt”) of which the President spoke at Notre Dame, can we avoid the intolerance, oppression, and even slaughter that history teaches are the perennial tendency of religion.” Bradley accuses the President of relativism when talking about faith because, well, people do in fact internalize and personalize their beliefs. There are several hundred, what are termed major religions in the U.S. with about 14% not identifying with any organized religion. Would a president that is supposed to represent all the people going to stake out some very specific dogma in a public speech and declare it the one and only truth? Ironically Bradley gives us all the answer in an earlier part of his tirade: “But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.” Bradley probably did a grammar check, though obviously not a consistent logic check.If Bradley is genuinely concerned about making the world a better place how about not looking the other way when priests abuse children.

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  1. Pingback: the multifaceted faces of the cultural divide, chipped dishes, big rewards for not much « inkbluesky

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