Saturday, April 30, 2005


Publius/Strauss Comment, for pity's sake


"The object of philosophy is to prove that you are right in doing what you want." O. W. Holmes

(Publius): "Correlation is not causation"

I think you're right to point out that too much can be made of the Straussians' influence on the current GOP coalition. It's easy to get to pat about this stuff, and it's easy to SEEM too pat when you're trying to be blog-brief, as I think Billmon might have been doing. But correlation doesn't exclude causation, either. Correlation is correlation.

It's not very easy to empirically 'pinpoint' this kind of influence, and as I said in an earlier comment, philosophical concepts can get pretty muddied or corrupted by the time they get to the political realm. And furthermore, neocons aren't identical with Straussians. But I think the more familier you get with Strauss and some of his students (like Bloom of 'The Closing of the American Mind' and 'Ravelstein' fame), you have to wonder if the closeness with which the current political order often tracks Strauss & Co.'s ideas can really be just happenstance. I think it's a symbiotic relationship. The two correlate for a reason.

Drury has been aware of the Strauss cult for a long time (she is a philosophy prof), and notes in several places that most of the Straussian acolytes had ended up not in academia, but in 'think tanks' and other politically subsidized 'foundations' and the like. That is probably changing lately, but formally (according to her), the acolytes were often found to be well trained in Straussism but not so well trained in actual philosophy, and hence were sometimes not hired by universities.

Xenos, in the article linked above, also says:

The Straussian network is really an amazing thing. Any political theorist or anyone who has been around political science departments has seen it at work. Long before attaining public attention, the Straussians were often ridiculed for their cult-like qualities: they speak and write the same way, they write the same books on the same themes over and over again, they dress alike, they are almost all men, they went to the same schools—those sorts of things. It thus comes as a shock to discover that Leo Strauss may turn out to be the most influential political theorist of the last fifty years in the United States with respect to the exercise of political power. the mid-1980s some commentators ....noticed that something strange was going on in the Reagan administration. The first sign of this was in an article by Stephen Toulmin, a historian of science, in the New York Review of Books in 1984, in the middle of a review of a book on Margaret Mead. Toulmin used Mead as an example to which he compared the then-current State Department policy planning staff, where, he said, they had more people who were acquainted with the writings of Leo Strauss than they were with the cultures that the State Department has to deal with.

(emphasis mine. Xenos goes into greater detail, of course). That doesn't 'prove' anything, exactly, but it's crazy to think Strauss' influence means nothing.

(pub) it just doesn’t follow that Strauss has been the source of all this. Perhaps this my own bias, but I tend to favor material explanations to ideological ones.

Of course he isn't The Source. He plays his (considerable) ideological role and materialist factors play theirs. Materialist vs Ideology doesn't make sense; it's not an 'either/or' situation. When is it ever?

..let’s assume that the war was not about democracy promotion, but was about something else. My point is that even if it is about “something else,” that doesn’t make it “Straussian.”

The Straussian idea is that it makes no difference what you say the war is about, or what it indeed IS about. War qua war is a value. I have to admit that I never got all the way through 'The End of History', but from what I did read, and have since read by Fukuyama, he doesn't seem to be the quintessential 'Straussian'. For Strauss, the End of History is a major (not minor) crisis - it is The Crisis. General prosperity, peace, widespread leisure, mass entertainment, etc. were anathema to him. Without constant struggle, the spirit of man dies. The Iraq war, and indeed an open-ended global war on something is exactly, precisely, what the doctor ordered. Endless war 'ennobles' us.

Yes, it's easy to get too facile about the 'noble lie' business, but you can't ignore Strauss' conception, or rather his transformation of Plato's conception (Strauss thought he was just finding Plato's 'esoteric meaning', in other words, revealing - albeit also esoterically - what Plato 'really' meant). Plato's noble lie was a lie which tells the truth; Strauss' is a lie for our own good. I'm not going to argue about how to designate the WMD lie, except to say that that it could be seen as a little of both: I think a lot of Americans kind of knew that there might be another reason or reasons for the war, aside from blood lust: oil, vaguely 'doing something' about the middle east, you name it. The whole acquiescence was extremely dysfunctional. I know there are people who seem to really still believe that there WERE WMD, or that Saddam really WAS involved in 9/11, but I don't think either brainwashing nor simple denial can explain the relative lack of broad outrage over there not having been WMD found. I think Bush really is a Leader - a profoundly BAD leader, but a leader nonetheless. He knows his audience.

One final thing. I think your likening Strauss to Burke is right as far as it goes, but it's sort of barking up the wrong tree. Burke was a traditionalist and a conservative, but he wasn't a reactionary. He feared too-rapid change, but he didn't fear ALL change (and he certainly believed in his OWN power of reasoning). In his letter about the French Revolution, he compares England's slow, relatively orderly liberalization (there is no other word for it) favorably to what was happening in France. That makes him a very conservative person in an at least proto-liberal context. Strauss is reactionary. His favored 'tradition' is to be found WAY before the 18th century - probably before the middle ages. I'm positive there are LF readers who know a lot more about Burke than I do, but I think it's pretty clear that favoring 'gradual change' is very different from the brittle resistence to change altogether you'd find in a real medieval stalwart, for instance. You may be right, ultimately, that 'Liberalism replaced god with human reason', but functionally, I'd say it's more like 'liberalism replaced god's supposed earthly political representitives and institutions with reason'. Strauss replaces god with reason altogether (he was an atheist), but only with the 'reason' of a very very tiny elite (people like him, naturally).

To sum up: I tend to have a pretty materialist POV myself, but first principles DO matter - everything flows from them. And just as important, while I don't know that I would be as sweeping as Holmes, ideology/philosophy obviously do have a vital function in politics. In the present case, we may be talking about Straussism being an intellectual fillip (or excuse), but that's not cause for discounting it. Did Marx 'cause' the Russian Revolution? No. Would it have been the same kind of revolution at the same time without him? Also no, IMO.

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