Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
April 28, 2005

Billmon: The Grand Delusion

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.

The Grand Delusion

Posted by b on April 28, 2005 at 7:45 UTC | Permalink

next page »

Billmon - thanks for that piece

Did I understand you correctly when I say that they are reactionary aristocratic-wannabes? And, knowing that they would never get to power as such, they hitched a ride with national-populists and their growing taliborn again wing, at the obvious risk of being dumped on the way?

Actually, they make me think of Chirac, who's had the luck that the taliborn again wing is almost inexistent in France and it is much easier to ride the chauvinistic populist wing. The Neocons would be right at home in France...

Posted by: Jérôme | Apr 28 2005 8:45 utc | 1

I'd throw in a dash of manifest destiny with your aristocracy, Jérôme. These guys don't just want to be in charge: they believe they are God's or Fate's or the Universe's chosen ones. They believe they are aristocrats, its just that the masses haven't (hadn't?) worked it out yet.

I'm always thankful when other people read up on this stuff. I keep contemplating reading both Strauss and Rand, but it seems like both would be a waste of time and intestinal fortitude. Strauss was just plain deluded, while Rand's little Objectivist fantasy seems to break down somewhere in the the first five minutes.

No doubt we're going to have disciples of both wandering around here being insufferable soon. What a lovely idea.

Posted by: Colman | Apr 28 2005 8:58 utc | 2

Maybe Strauss was a structural Calvinist -- new wine in old bottle.

Posted by: anna missed | Apr 28 2005 9:29 utc | 3

Brilliant. This may be one of the most important pieces of political philosophy written in the United States in the last 50 years. Billmon has explained things that I dimly suspected, but lacked either the information or the eloquence to express even to myself. The ramifications of his conclusions are supremely frightening.

Billmon's piece fits in perfectly with what Jerome wrote about sand castles. Our castle of freedom -- a castle whose foundations are built explicitly on the Enlightment values of reason and tolerance -- is indeed under siege from a rising tide of religious fundamentalism. Except our castle, fragile though it may be, is built from ideas much stronger than sand -- and if you mix sand with gravel, and heat it, you get concrete. Nor is the fundamentalist tide inexorable; it's more like the mob of villagers in Frankenstein (the movie), driven by fear to burn something they don't understand. A lot of them are drunk on their own brand of Jesus-juice, and the rest are cowards.

I want to think about Billmon's piece more deeply. My immediate reaction, though, is that he has confirmed a conclusion I have reached only reluctantly: that the leaders of the Republican Party in the United States are inimical to the very idea of true freedom, and that we can keep our freedom only by utterly destroying Republican Fundamentalism as a political force. They are like the right-wing Republican in the Virginia General Assembly who wanted to amend a part of the state constitution written by Jefferson and Madison to allow state support for fundamentalist Protestant Christianity. Even other Republicans shouted the idea down. Jefferson was more perceptive asleep than Strauss was fully conscious. And a hell of a lot smarter.

The Constitution may be parchment, but its ideas aren't. Try to tear it apart, and you'll see how strong it really is. Because if you try to tear it apart, we will tear you apart.

I don't see any alternative.

Posted by: Aigin | Apr 28 2005 9:48 utc | 4

Interesting how Billmon and I drug out those musty quotations of Yeats at around the same time. He's also not kidding about the ironic part at the end. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest prophetic would be a more accurate term for the Neocons today closely resemble the very mindsets of those Israelites - particularly the Pharisees and Saducees - that had crucified Jesus. Those people were so caught up in their traditions, their culture, and their tight communities and often viewed themselves as constantly victimized and misunderstood but yet they couldn't accurately describe why it is they felt they way they did to anyone they considered an "outsider" -- to do so would reveal too much; would unearth too many skeltons in their closet. They were esentially too pius for their own good. Thus it's no surpize that Jesus' preaching sounded liberal as all hell to their ears and they viewed it as a threat. What people don't understand, they fear, and what they fear, they ultimately destroy. Sadly, it's not until the destruction begins when they wake up and realize the disaster they've sown for themselves.

Neocons today are Pharisees/Saducees redeux, in my opinion, for they share the same "we're so misunderstood and victimized; woe is me" kind of mindset and -- just like then -- such things as gay rights, abortion, and freedom of/from religion etc. are threats to them for they preach a Gospel that could truly liberate "those whom have ears". As we all know, truth results in freedom while a subverted and undermined truth results in bondage and it is within these grand subversions of truth that keep people under bondage and thus enslaved. The Pharisees & Saducees of yore depended on it in order to keep the status quo in their favor (much like their modern-day Neocon brethren), which wouldn't happen lest the King of The Jews sort of "went away" somehow (I often sit here and wonder if one of the members of the San Hedrin had remarked to Peter at some point later, "Don't you see? We had to kill him in order to save him from himself!" and ended up getting blasted right between the eyes for it)

The real irony? At least Jesus forgave the Pharisees and Saducees the first time around and - if those prophecy crackpots such as Hal Lindsey and Jack Van Impe are right (or Thomas Jefferson, for that matter) - the modern-day Pharisees and Saducees of yet-to-be-fulfilled endtimes prophecy don't get forgiven at all by the returning Messiah for destroying the world as he know it. On the contrary, they end up getting sodomized by the Lord's foot - the well-deserved punt in the ass that launches them into that Lake of Fire and I can't help but picture Karl Rove snivelling, "But Lord, we had to destroy the world in order to save it from those dirty, abortion-lovin', America-hatin' Liberals," moments before being bodily hurled into everlasting torment.

Couldn't happen to a nicer chap, if you ask me. Too bad it couldn't happen tomorrow! Without all that plagues and pestilences from "Revelation", of course. Alas, this is all just mental masturbation on my part but at least I'm on record in saying that I can't think of a more appropriate form of torment for the Straussians & the Rovians than to languish forever in the bowels of Hell with the knowledge of a returning Jesus possibly being Liberal afterall.

"Much weeping and gnashing of teeth", indeed.

In the meantime, I say we should get a headstart in bringing a proverbial "Hell On Earth" style of torment for the GOP by starting a huge Democratic lovefest for the Sen. Barry Goldwater. I'm talking T-Shirts, hats, and tons of Democrats just gushing over him. Why? For one, the Religious Right loathed Barry Goldwater and I'm sure they danced with joy when he retired not just from politics and from drawing oxygen, too. Secondly, the visage of Barry Goldwater being paraded around by Democrats and Liberals would remind the voters of everthing that conservatism used to stand for (and the GOP of everything they have since forsaken). Sean Hannity would have a goddamned stroke, I guarantee it!

Posted by: Sizemore | Apr 28 2005 9:59 utc | 5

Incredibly chilling.

I've known intutively since the 80s that a dictatorship in America would have to draw upon certain aspects of religion perculiar to the US -- but I never could understand how.

Our dear barkeeper demonstrates here the interlocking of two of the elements: neo-conservatism and the cynical use of a religious populism.

But there is lacking at least one more element -- a crisis of some sort, I suppose, to bring it all together in a trifecta of ugly bad luck.

...& if there ever be dictatorship
in these Arrogant States,
I know, without a doubt, that it will wear
a 'religious' face.

& it will scream a dream of permanence
on a fundament
Of broken glass, and rust, and shattered bricks;
in short -- excrement!

& it will call itself 'holy' and
usurp the Holy's place;
& it will manifest nothing but
a total lack of taste.

Posted by: BarfHead | Apr 28 2005 10:01 utc | 6

What I mean is that a trend that I first saw in Eastern Europe in the 90s has been spreading more and more to the Western world as well: the blurring of the left/right - labor/capital distinctions and their replacement by what I call the social-liberal vs national-populist distinctions, which can also be seen as centrism vs others.

It's quite clear in the French vote on the referendum, the opposition is not between the parties, but within parties between the modernist wings and the more traditional or, dare I say it, reactionary wings. It creates strange alliances at times:

Social-liberalism is the combination of Eisenhower and Clinton (or in Europe: Kohl and Delors): it is broadly pro-market, but not hostile to taxes or a strong State (nor to Unions). It is generally fiscally conservative and socially liberal (with variations). It is open to the world, usually pro-free trade and mostly favorable to globalisation.

National-populism is the combination of Chirac and the communists (same thing, I know), or of Cheney and the NRA. It is focused on protecting, in often simplistic ways, "how things should be", whether the role of the US on the world stage, of men and marriage in society, of blue-collar workers in industry, and religion throughout. It is nationalist, militarist, protectionist, not very open to the rest of the world (in trade or immigration or culture). It likes the State to spend for what it believes in (its jobs, its "values", its pork) but not for other things.

I suppose that from this description, you'll see where I put me in. Maybe I am wrong, or certainly too simplistic, especially about where the middle classes fit in (the above describes a typical bobo vs rednecks fracture, as seen by a bobo...), but I think it is how the neocons see the world - and they see that the "masses" that they like to lead and play with are in the new group, which is more associated with the right rather than the left, so they have turned from troskysts to neocons but are really targetting the same thing (power) by leveraging the same constituencies (traditional male workers).

Posted by: Jérôme | Apr 28 2005 10:26 utc | 7

I have come to the conclusion that George W. Bush is an alien:

I've created a condition ...
in which Gill cannot initiate speech, or any other action,
but he can reply to questions.

Well done, Spock.
They've kept what's left of him as a figure head.

Quite correct. For the last few years,
the real power has been Melakon.

Gill, why did you abandon your mission?
Why did you interfere with this culture?

Planet ...
fragmented ...
Took lesson from Earth history.

Why Nazi Germany?
You studied history. You knew what the Nazis were.

Most efficient state ...
Earth ever knew.

Quite true, captain.
That tiny country -- beaten, bankrupt, defeated,
rose in a few years to stand ...
only one step away from global domination.

But it was brutal, perverted,
had to be destroyed at a terrible cost.
Why that example?

Perhaps Gill felt that such a state, run benignly,
could accomplish its efficiency without sadism.

Why, Gill?

At first ...
it worked.
Then Melakon ...
began to take over.
Used the --
Gave me the drug.

Gill, can you hear me?
You've got to tell those people what happened!
You're the only one who can prevent the slaughter!

Posted by: Franz Moleman | Apr 28 2005 10:48 utc | 8

The Straussians have always been Straussians - but at one time many of the most prominent were Democrats - and what seems to be a defining quality of many "Neocons" is their migration to the Republican party. This article makes me wonder - how was it that these people once felt that the Democratic party was a more comfortable home for their views than the Republican?

Posted by: NickM | Apr 28 2005 11:59 utc | 9

Stunning piece! I lived with a Straussian 40 years ago when we were grad students at Yale. I could never get my mind around the hermeneutics of what he was trying to explain, except the part about how philosophy is to dangerous for the masses.

One often senses things before one can articulate them. I sensed several years ago that the current regime was a throwback to Demaistre and the rest of the Bourbon Restoration crew. I thought it might have come out of corporate culture, where the boss is really and completely boss. It's odd how many strands have come together: Corporate hierarchy, Bush's upbringing -- a kind of Bertie Wooster without the charm -- the Straussian thrust into the Conservative movement; the anti-scientific movement. It is a perfect storm.

Having said all that, I believe the center will hold. The sign that it isn't holding will be the onset of political assassination. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Posted by: Knut Wicksell | Apr 28 2005 12:09 utc | 10

i'm not so sure the centre will hold

a comrade from moon has sent me a 'harpers' with two very substatantial articles on the evangilical ministries in colorado & elsewhere

i know europeans do not completely undersstand the actual political power possessed & utilised by these ministries & the depth of their criminal & sinister theology which is in deep & utter accord with the strausses, schmitts & heideggers

i imagine europe regards these groups as isolated nutcases - not as the avantgarde of an even more horrific politics than we are living today

at he end of the day minor intellectual theorists in their domain are no threat rahter it reflects on the spiritual & philosophic poverty of the elites. strauss is a nincompoop, schmitt is an able but extremely perverse legal scholar & heidegger contrary to being the god of 20th century philosophy is the mediocre meanderings of a mendacious middle class autoritarian who while betraying husserl & stealing from him - thought he was the gods that nietzsche spoke of - but was instead - a mindless rector - of a comprimised german scholarship

the very real threat are the thugs for god & their ministries explosing all over the world with their evil works & their very real thoughtlessness which is quite capable of leading us into catastrophe

because the worst act of elite theorists is that they believe what they say & become the caricatures they really are & forge alliance with forces that posess the real weight that will destroy them also

wasn't it christ who said when i left childhood i gave away childish things - it seems the american elites have stayed, worked & created staes & empires from that playpen

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 28 2005 12:27 utc | 11

fwiw, this link to a John Kaminski musing entitled "Deer In The Headlights" (from a Kate_Storm comment over at All Spin Zone) offers up more tinfoil-hat commentary re the psycopaths running the asylum.

"To not be afraid is to be stupid."

(adding an aberrant psychology piece to your politco-philosophical puzzle, Billmon)

Posted by: andrew in caledon | Apr 28 2005 12:50 utc | 12

Billmon knocks it out of the park with his latest piece. What I find particularly intriguing is his hypothesis that the current neocons have found a way to form a productive (or perhaps a better word would be destructive) alliance between religious/moralistic fascists that Huey Long and George Wallace sought.

In my mind, the current alliance between the neocons and the moneyed elite/unfettered capitalists of Republicans with the religious right is at the heart of their power. The objectives of each group--the religious right and the intellectual/capitalistic aristocracy of the Straussians--- cannot succeed without each other. Moreover, both are about maintaining and expanding their spheres of influence and concentration of power. Each of these group's goals are about power. The difference is that one group--the moneyed capitalist elite is dependent upon the moralistic crusaders of the religious right to distract the sheeple so both groups can profit. In many ways, this is no different than the Catholic Church's collusion with the early and burgeoning aristocracy of medieval Europe. The aristocracy was dependent upon the gift of the "divine right of kings" from the Church while the Church was responsible for mollifying the fears of the sheeple and keeping them passive so they would not rebel against being economically raped by the royalty. Both groups profited handsomely for centuries from this convenient arrangement.

We are seeing the same situation play out here in America today. We have the attempts by the neocons and Republicans to shift more wealth to fewer people and manufacture faux crises, while the religious fundamentalists make hay out of social ills that have no affect on the believers if they chose to not participate in the "decadence" of others. But the goals of each group are the same--power.

The American Taliban of the religious right is colluding with the Republicans with the deal being that the American Taliban gives the political and monetary support of the "offended white man" of lower and middle class America so that moneyed elite and business interests can accumulate more wealth by the economic rape of the lower and middle classes of America. This is essentially a different twist on the collusion between the Catholic Church and the royals of Europe for much of its history. The Church takes the souls and money of the poor in order to distract the sheeple from the fact that the royalty was taking the fruits of their labor. In America today, the story is the same, but the economic elite aren’t viewed as royalty and there are more factions of the religious right splitting the economic spoils and power of control of their flocks (and let’s not forget the money that the modern day Elmer Gantry’s are raking in).

This religious collusion with political power has played out before in every one of the monotheistic religions. But this is nothing new here in America with the exceptions I touch on below. Robert Frank touches on it in his book "What's the matter with Kansas?” Sinclair Lewis speaks to the issue in fictional terms based on public figures in "It Can't Happen Here" and the horrid consequences that the political-religious alliance can have. Lewis's "Elmer Gantry” encapsulates the modern cynicism of current religious leaders and their lust for power at the expense of their so-called faith.

The real key to the alliance between the neocons/Republicans and the religious right is, as Billmon briefly touches on, the attack on encroaching modernity by the religious right and the neocons recognition and exploitation of this conflict. Karen Armstrong illustrates the recurring clash of modernity with peoples of faith in the "Battle for God". This clash of modernity with faith has happened in Christianity, Judaism and Islam with surprising regularity. What is unique and frightening now is the effectiveness in an established political system--and the party controlling that system, the Republicans--in harnessing the unfounded fears of religious fundamentalists with societal change.

Posted by: WyldPirate | Apr 28 2005 13:41 utc | 13

Speaking of Rand...

Posted by: Blind Misery | Apr 28 2005 13:51 utc | 14

as a follow-up to my previous post, perhaps I should have used the term "sociopath" as per this article, "The Killers (and Liars) in Our Midst" and this statistic:
"While the percentage of true sociopaths is debated - Stout contends it is 4 percent of the population, or one person in 25, while others believe it is one in 100 or fewer - experts do agree on what characterizes them."
Even at 1%, in a population of 300+ million, that's 3,000,000 'muricans that qualify, and if we assume that being WASP is not a necessary and sufficient condition, then that means 60,000,000 worldwide!
Oh joy, oh joy.

Posted by: andrew in caledon | Apr 28 2005 14:02 utc | 15

"The sign that it isn't holding will be the onset of political assassination."
Well, alas you're several decades late. The Kennedys, MLK, Paul Wellstone, etc...

Billmon's piece was very enlightening. And from what I see, I agree with him that if they get complete power, they won't be able to rule together this time. The ancient regime of Europe with church and nobility ruling hand in hand won't work, because both sides want the whole cake for them and are too extremist to compromise. It's like the Talibornagains supporting the Orthodox Jews - they're just using each other to promote their own goals who are ultimately opposed to each other.

WyldPirate: "This clash of modernity with faith has happened in Christianity, Judaism and Islam with surprising regularity"
Probably linked to religion, but it's a bit broader than that. When there's massive turmoil coupled with quickly changing world and society, people go back to mythical golden age, which can often be mystical mumbo-jumbo (hardcore Salafism, Falwell, Shas party). It also helped big time the Nazis to rise to power during the Weimar era.

Posted by: | Apr 28 2005 14:08 utc | 16

One bit of a warning though, don't let the Right claim God as their's. Everything doesn't have to be either or. Since the colonial period there has been a battle over the definition of God between the Fundamentalists and the Spark of God Religions. The Fundamentalists believing that a few chosen are saved and the rest of humanity are damned have used this as an excuse for elitist policies including genocide of the Native Americans, exploitation of land and labor, and of course slavery. But the Spark of God religions-like the Unitarians and Quakers, believing that the spark of God is found within each man therefore "none above none below"-have been the leaders of abolition, labor rights, and women's rights. The progressive movement must remember its' 19th century history, and reclaim it's more positive definition of God.

Posted by: middleoftheroadnot | Apr 28 2005 14:32 utc | 17

a trend that I first saw in Eastern Europe in the 90s has been spreading more and more to the Western world as well: the blurring of the left/right - labor/capital distinctions and their replacement by what I call the social-liberal vs national-populist distinctions, which can also be seen as centrism vs others.

I think it's the back to the future thing again. For most of the 20th century, the basic political divide was between liberalism (in both its classic and New Deal forms) and Marxism -- with the fascists popping up as a "third force" in countries where the struggle became especially intense.

But now that Marxism has been vanquished, the political dialectic is returning to the familiar 19th century conflict between liberals and conservatives -- with the liberals standing (just as they did back then) for globalization, individualism and the caretaker state, and the conservatives standing for tradition, hierarchy and the authoritarian nationalist state.

Actually, from a Marxist perspective, you could argue that it makes a certain sense: With the recreation of the late 19th century economic base (capitalist globalization) it's logical that the political superstructure would follow.

But, in the USA at least, neither of the major parties is internally aligned to the new fault line. The GOP cheers for both economic conservativism (i.e. Manchester liberalism)and Straussian social conservatism -- which is much closer to the original 19th century meaning of the word.

The Dems, meanwhile, include both New Democrats (i.e. kinder, gentler Manchester liberals) and Social Democrats -- who, on some cultural issues at least, are more traditional and communitarian. Many of the Straussians, after all, used to be Social Democrats.

This obviously leads to a lot of confusion and tension. But it's hard to see how the parties can realign themselves to eliminate the inconsistencies, since the Social Democrats have nothing in common with the hard core Manchester liberals of the GOP and the religious conservatives hate the Godless secular New Democrats.

Which just highlights the fact that the return to the politics of the 19th century has a kind of weird and artificial feel to it. It's like the Europe the winners tried to reassemble after the Napoleonic Wars -- as if the French Revolution had never happened, and the industrial revolution was irrelevant to the political order.

The system hung together, sort of, but it was never very stable (1832, 1848, 1870, etc.) And when the autocratic powers finally stumbled into a general war, it abruptly collapsed -- allowing the revolutionary left to come roaring back.

History never repeats, and the revolutionary left looks a lot more like road kill than any kind of credible threat to the recreated capitalist world order. But the system is unstable -- because the capitalist world order of the 19th century hasn't really been recreated. It can't be, because the world has changed too much in a 125 years.

So the stage does seem to be set for some interesting times down the road -- and maybe not that far down the road. It took 100 years to go from the Congress of Vienna to Sarajavo. But time moves a lot faster these days.

Posted by: billmon | Apr 28 2005 14:51 utc | 18

Anti-liberalism definitely seems on the rise in this country. Generally, elite political debate since World War II has largely been between progressive liberal and conservative liberal visions. Both those seeking a larger government role and a smaller government role in one or another policy spheres disagreed on the application of liberal principles to policy, but largely agreed on the centrality of those principles in the political debate.

The exploitation of the fears created by 9/11, the rise in the power of religious absolutists, traditional anti-intellectualism and the prominence of political leaders who appear fundamentally anti-liberal at heart have all contributed to this trend.

Liberalism, the national secular religion in some sense, has also become a prop in the hands of anti-liberal forces. Ritualistic invocations of freedom and democracy used as "opium for the masses" by those who may in reality be highly skeptical of those values except as a means for manipulation.

In some ways, the most disturbing aspect of the Straussians is their apparent cult-like status and their unwillingness to intellectually engage on core principles with those outside their circle. This view seems to permeate the Bush Administration for one reason or another. Information and the rationale behind policy choices are held so closely that policy suffers as a result as ideological impulses are unchallenged by argument or reality.

My biggest fear is that any economic deterrioration in the US economy will result less in a repudiation of those forces currently in power than in the further strengthening of fundamentally anti-liberal forces. I am less certain than I was that the relatively successful history of liberalism in America will be enough of a bulwark against these forces, especially as they adopt a patina of liberalism as their rhetorical cover.

Posted by: Ben Brackley | Apr 28 2005 14:56 utc | 19

Probably linked to religion, but it's a bit broader than that. When there's massive turmoil coupled with quickly changing world and society, people go back to mythical golden age, which can often be mystical mumbo-jumbo (hardcore Salafism, Falwell, Shas party). It also helped big time the Nazis to rise to power during the Weimar era.

Posted by: | April 28, 2005 04:08 PM | #

You certainly have a reasonable point, but I think it is different than the one I'm trying to make.

In your example, the Nazis rose to power and displaced the Weimar Republic in the aftermath of the post-WWI catastrophe that caused economic and political crisis in Germany. Of course one could argue that WW-I was caused, in part, by the century and a half-long demise of monarchical domination of European states beginning with the French Revolution and attribute the resultant rise in German nationalism under Bismark in the latter half of the 19th century and labled this as a crisis of encroaching modernity. However, the Nazi's worked from the outside of political power in post-WW I to overthrow the Weimar Republic--not from within.

My point was that the alliance between the political power of the Republicans--who unquestionably completely control all three branches of governemt--and the religious right, is, I think, unparalled in the modern history of democratic states. The alliance of the neocons/Republicans and religious fascists are are doing their evil from within the system.

Now I'll be the first to admit that I am not a political historian, but I can't think of any other modern parallel in a modern democracy other than perhaps the Likud Party's collusion/origin amongst Zionists in Israel. Even with the Likkudniks, there has been a fracture since the origin of the party and the hardcore religiously orthodox Zionists.

I suppose what I was saying is that what we are seeing today in America is a social and cultural revolution from within the government that harnesses religious "fundamentalists".

Posted by: WyldPirate | Apr 28 2005 14:59 utc | 20

I believe it is the blending of all the different influences that will dictate the outcome.
the Strausssian idealogues, the christian hungerites and the self loathers all spew thier points of view with an eye towards something else, only they don't mesh and the result is going to anarchy or destruction.
The powers that be are so screwed up that the various interests that are competing for dominance will eat each other and attempt to take us all down and of course they all believe it is really what we need and want.

Posted by: jimmyjazz | Apr 28 2005 15:28 utc | 21

Holy Hell, this piece synthesised a lot of questions that have cropped up lately.

How much education do people need to serve a function in society? I think perhaps 8th grade is a good cut off. After that, they might start questioning things better left to thier "betters". By 8th grade you can read People magazine and USA Today. You can figure out the instructions on your Tivo and have a baby and drive a car and read your credit card bill and be tried as an adult in a court of law. It is a perfect moment in the Straussian worldview. And if people won't stop questioning their government (which "knows best", just like father) than maybe God needs to step in (because you certainly can't question God).

I've heard Strauss bandied about in the neocon circles, but this is the first time I really "got it".

Posted by: Super Ju | Apr 28 2005 15:32 utc | 22

Although I probably shouldn't say this, we here in the uber-Straussian community think we finally have these Straussian patsies playing their rolls perfectly.

If you have eyes to see and ears to see, watch this week's Everybody Loves Raymond for your instructions!

Posted by: wetzel | Apr 28 2005 15:44 utc | 23

I find it ironic that it takes a Canadian (liberal) to talk about the Neocons in America. lol!

I guess it must have something to with seeing the ideologies and frustrations that operate in plain sight in soceity that the natives are only dimly aware of, but foreigners see clearly.

I'm reminded of the end of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale where a group of Canadian academics try and piece together the fall of the Republic of Gilead.

I hope the center holds together in the US, but I fear religious populism will tear it apart in ways that Atwood alludes to.

Posted by: The Key | Apr 28 2005 15:51 utc | 24

I can't think of any other modern parallel in a modern democracy other than perhaps the Likud Party's collusion/origin amongst Zionists in Israel

A more ominous parallel would the traditional conservative parties in Weimar Germany, who allowed Hitler to take power in the belief that they could control him.

Posted by: Billmon | Apr 28 2005 15:51 utc | 25


While you're reviewing Strauss, you may want to take a look at>Thomas Carlyle, too. Similar attitude only focused more on on the military than religion. Essentially, Carlyle maintains that the function of the state is to provide a strong military, and the function of the people is to feed it and shut up.

The Carlyle Group claims to be named after the Carlyle Hotel in New York. But the Carlyle Hotel claims to be named after Thomas Carlyle.

They're not even subtle, really.


Posted by: John | Apr 28 2005 15:58 utc | 26

Thank you, Billmon, WyldPirate, et al.

I believe there is one factor--one other opiate, if you will--that the GOP has harnessed, and that is oil. Those groundlings who do not respond to the comforting allure of religious heirarchies are captive to the comforts that the oil economy has provided.

It has not been in the interests of the monied elites to disturb this addiction or to even discuss the dangers. And far from manufacturing faux crises, this nexus of lies propagated by powerful elites from the religious and economic spheres will prove disastrous to our now infantilized nation.

Posted by: SG | Apr 28 2005 16:09 utc | 27

Fascinating, I'll have to get that book. Billmon's piece brings together many sprouts of ideas that seem to be floating around.

A more ominous parallel would the traditional conservative parties in Weimar Germany, who allowed Hitler to take power in the belief that they could control him.

I think this is spot on, but who is going to step up to the plate? Bush Junior obviously doesn't have the fortitude, even though "they" have built up the scaffolding for a Dear Leader.

Posted by: idook | Apr 28 2005 16:14 utc | 28

he capitalist world order of the 19th century hasn't really been recreated. It can't be, because the world has changed too much in a 125 years.

I'm sort of glad you threw this in because you seemed to forget the central "ideology" justifying power is capitalism.

All of the sub rosa elitism of Straussianism might make more sense if the folly of capitalist development was included as a focus. I recently attended a lecture by Krauthammer (most deadly quadriplegic who has ever lived) who heroically defended neoconservatism by all means except a critique of capital. It is not so much by religious/cultural diversions the plebes are guided through history. More than anything, it is the ideology of capital as natural which assures the endurance of the de jure plutonic philosopher-king(s). For this reason alone, nothing intellectual separates straussians from the predictably ultiumate negotiation of economic crisis by fascism. There is no irony whatsoever the present fascism is inspired by an old European Jew.

So, only in the liberalism of Marx et al., is the problem of ideology confronted as actual material relations among persons, i.e., as the basis of domination solved only by socialism.

If only I had the time to kindly turn off krauthammer's chair in order to restore the man's faith in the charity of others...

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 28 2005 16:19 utc | 29

Also, Nietzsche cannot be used, except only by the crudest dissimulation of his work, as a model for neoconservatism.

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 28 2005 16:23 utc | 30

This isn't a post about Leo Strauss, it's a post about Shadia Drury! The Barkeep hasn't mentioned a single piece by Strauss, and shows no sign of having read a single piece by Strauss. To write about Strauss without reading him--reading only someone else's account of his work (whether good, bad or indifferent)--is like writing about Machiavelli on the "strength" of reading Strauss about Machiavelli without having read the actual writings of Machiavelli. It's like confusing the words of various "Straussians" on the writings of "Strauss" with the words of Strauss himself. The only "grand delusion" at work here is the Barkeep's irony-free conviction that you can read someone without also actually reading him (call it the "Cliff Notes Delusion," if you will).

Posted by: alabama | Apr 28 2005 16:46 utc | 31

Wow!!! I'd write more but I've got to get to Border's to pick up Drury's book. You've a first class mind Billmon...keep writing.

The Whiskey Bar....stimulant for the mass mind.

Posted by: CybScryb | Apr 28 2005 16:59 utc | 32

Nietzsche cannot be used, except only by the crudest dissimulation of his work

And that, according to Drury, is what Strauss did.

The only "grand delusion" at work here is the Barkeep's irony-free conviction that you can read someone without also actually reading him

So sue me.

Posted by: Billmon | Apr 28 2005 17:01 utc | 33

Great analysis, Billmon. I can add a footnote to the analysis. Many years ago, as a callow political science graduate student at a convention, events conspired to find me in a lengthy discussion/debate with Willmoore Kendall. My footnote to the analysis comes from that evening:it apparently does matter to the neocons which version of religion is the masses' opium. Kendall despised any version of liberal Christianity and Social Gospel adherents and disciples. Push to shove, they prefer the fundamentalists of whatever stripe. The irony, as you say, is, having helped create the monster it is not at all clear they can contain or control it. But to be done in by one's PREFERRED monster! Aye, there's the rub.

Posted by: charles | Apr 28 2005 17:05 utc | 34

I won't sue you, Billmon, I'll just cite you.

Posted by: alabama | Apr 28 2005 17:15 utc | 35

Benjamin admired intellectual cabbalism. Honestly, I'm not sure why. It makes sense reactionary intellectuals would prefer to convene in bat caves (think: 'skull & bones'). But, I don't understand why revolutionary intellectuals would ever prefer the arcane over the popular.

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 28 2005 17:21 utc | 36

What a pleasure and a relif to see the real war addressed.

Five concerns.

1. Will the Anglo American tradition get this Conteniental infection? There never has been a European left in America, as marxism demonstrated. Has America lost its immunity? If so, why?

2. This is (my pet theme) a COMPETITIVE failure. The "perfect storm" may have arrived, but, it was UNOPPOSED. Who defends "modernity" or "liberalism" or even the "market" as a liberal institution? If someone is doing it, I am missing it. The "liberal" blog sites, for example, aren't interested or up to the challenge faced here.

3. None of this would be possible without a culture of political correctness. Much of the modern American "conservative" is pure, proven, bullshit, that, is protected by "liberal" bullshit. Take Scalia's "originalism" for example, which is a perfect illustration of Conteniental conservatism that has no legitimate place in American Constitutional law. He gets away with it. Its bullshit and he gets away with it. Tons of law journals and hundreds of well paid law professors, all dignifying "originalism" bullshit. If wichan is valid, so is originalism.

4. Strauss non sense lines up nicely with Opus Dei and a Pope who claims he prayed not to be voted in as Pope, which, somehow seems Straussian at some brain stem level of self deceipt.

5. The "irony" view of the Straussian mistake is too generous. Any educated person knows better than to believe Southern fundamentalist belligerence is going to toady to some eggheads. There is at the core some emotional failure common across the modern intellectual conservative spectrum that is caught in the phrase "autistic economics." And how does one intellectually contest what is actually a crippled emotional need?

Posted by: razor | Apr 28 2005 17:22 utc | 37


Am presently reading Persecution and the art of writing by Strauss and can only say w/ weak confidence the esoteric meaning of great texts stressed by Strauss seems to point not to a kind of deconstruction or attack on myth/natural meaning/denotation, but a revelation of Truth for smart initaites.

But, I have to internalize this material before intelligently commenting.

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 28 2005 18:00 utc | 38

I have a problem with the ideas presented here. We haven't had truly liberal leadership in America for at least the last half century. Maybe Eisenhower was the last true credible President that hated war and warned about the dangers of the military/industrial/congressional complex. Clinton set the stage for many problems going on today with policies such as NAFTA, Kosovo, etc. I would argue that he was part and parcel of these guys, only slightly more moderate and more clever at it. I could never bring myself to vote for him, and I pretty reliably vote Democratic.If Hilary runs, I am out of the Democratic Party.

I also argue with the premise that globalization is a good thing. I also think that history does repeat itself constantly with a few variations. Look at the period before WWI; the world was as highly globalized (maybe even more so than today) and things did fall apart. Britain and Germany were major trading partners and that didn't stop WWI. No group of people in the world actually supports globalization unless they think that they can use it to run the world. USA in the 90's, China today. The tensions caused by these disparte groups fighting over the resouces available, generallly leads to big trouble. Look at Latin America right now; great instability caused by neoliberal economics. After all, it is bad government and corruption that causes most economic problems, two problems often exacerbated by globalization.

All the powers that be in this country support a sort of statist/corporate state. Both parties care more about social issues than the economic well being of the people. Shame on them.

Posted by: la | Apr 28 2005 18:12 utc | 39

This was a great post in terms of historical context and present-correspondence(s), but perhaps the vocabularly needs to be distilled down to more understandable/universal elements available at some point before anyone moves to action.

All not-totalitarians (not-neocons, included) need to work on showing the correspondence between different types of totalitarianism (religious, political, rational, etc) and the basic lower-human-nature, ego-based commonality which drives them all (and which are not merely, "facts" of human nature, but rather dis-functions of human nature). Naming the behavior of malcontents in simpler terms is necessary to strip them of any complexity or nuances to hide behind (from themselves or others), and importantly helps provide a detached, non-personal platform (e.g., 'this "problem" of yours, GWB, is what everybody is dealing with, just in varying amounts, but that doesn't make it good, innate, or inescapable!'.

Being "confronted" by such an approach, which forces the malcontents to "own" their behavior, can be very disarming and effective as Gandhi, King, and others have shown...

Posted by: Caleb | Apr 28 2005 18:14 utc | 40

From transcript of "The Power of Nightmares"

Strauss believed that the liberal idea of individual freedom led people to question everything—all values, all moral truths. Instead, people were led by their own selfish desires. And this threatened to tear apart the shared values which held society together. But there was a way to stop this, Strauss believed. It was for politicians to assert powerful and inspiring myths that everyone could believe in. They might not be true, but they were necessary illusions. One of these was religion; the other was the myth of the nation. And in America, that was the idea that the country had a unique destiny to battle the forces of evil throughout the world. This myth was epitomized, Strauss told his students, in his favorite television program: Gunsmoke.

Professor STANLEY ROSEN, Pupil of Leo Strauss 1949: Strauss was a great fan of American television. Gunsmoke was his great favorite, and he would hurry home from the seminar, which would end at, you know, 5:30 or so, and have a quick dinner so he could be at his seat before the television set when Gunsmoke came on. And he felt that this was good, this show. This had a salutary effect on the American public, because it showed the conflict between good and evil in a way that would be immediately intelligible to everyone.

Leo Strauss’ other favorite program was Perry Mason. And this, he told his students, epitomized the role that they, the élite, had to play. In public, they should promote the myths necessary to rescue America from decay. But in private, they didn’t have to believe in them.

Posted by: beq | Apr 28 2005 18:40 utc | 41

Funny, I was also quoting Heine over at Americablog in an entry about an Alabama Senator's suggestion that all books referring to homosexuality should be banned. Heine noted (back during the beginning of the fight over egalitarian Enlightenment vs. State/Church control--i.e. the long revolutionary/backlash era):

Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings. (Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen) --Heinrich Heine, From his play Almansor (1821)

rgiap- I'm glad someone sent you the latest edition of Harper's. I'd advise others to pick up a copy here, too. (the May issue.)

Jeff Sharlet, who wrote about Jesus Plus Nothing said he left out parts where the men in this group talked about using the "Hitler Concept," or the "Pol Pot concept" --all in the service of their idea (and their idea only) of Christianity--defined as being the human translators of Jesus-ness.

"The group is partial to men who ruled with absolute power: Mao, Pol Pot, and -- you guessed it -- ol' Adolf. They are not Nazis. I repeat: They are not Nazis. Many, in fact, are genuinely dedicated to human rights abroad, the poor at home, and peaceful conflict resolution...What they have in common is a belief in the organizational models offered by dictators, the real problem with which, they think, is their neglect of Jesus. Imagine if Hitler had been working for Jesus, they suggest. Well, you be the judge of how desirable that'd be. "

This is the rationalization that allows the standard bearers for the religious right to embrace fascism without calling it fascism, and this is the place where their ideology intersects with Strauss. (and, btw, Alabama--I have read some Strauss, and I cannot see where Billmon gets it wrong in any way.)

Sharlet's earlier article was backed up by Pulitzer prize winner Lisa Getter in the LATimes, archived here

The Institute thinks that religious diplomacy, conducted by private individuals, is the way to "fix" the world's problems.

Douglas Johnston, who heads the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington and is a former Fellowship board member, said faith-based diplomacy is the hallmark of the Fellowship. He said the Fellowship has kept its actions low-key because people might wrongly assume it is crossing the line of church-state separation.

"People forget what separation of church and state is supposed to be all about," he said. "Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion."

--that last sentence is the catch phrase for all those who want to elide the separation of church and state--

Anyway, back to the latest edition of Harper's. Former war coorespondent Chris Hedges, author of War is Force that Gives Us Meaning, (here's an article by him from The Nation), wrote the other Harper's article, called " Feeling the Hate with the National Religious Broadcasters."

His closing comments in the article discuss his old professor, Dr. James Luther Adams, at Harvard Divinity School who told his ethics class that when we were his age, and he was then close to eighty, we would all be fighting the "Christian fascists.".

This was 25 years ago, with the onset of Pat Robertson as the face of Domionism. Adams, back then, saw the parallels to fascism and its nastiest variant, Nazism.

Adams told us to watch closely the Christian right's persecution of homosexuals....noting that after the ban on homosexual publications, [by Nazis] there were raids, then a public bonfire of books from The Institute for Sexual Science.

(here, the Kinsey Institute, where I live, would be the equivalent, I suppose.)

Homosexuals and lesbians, Adams said, would be the first "deviants" singled out by the Christian right. We would be the next.

Alabama Bill Targets Gay Authors

Republican Alabama lawmaker Gerald Allen says homosexuality is an unacceptable lifestyle. As CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmannreports, under his bill, public school libraries could no longer buy new copies of plays or books by gay authors, or about gay characters.

"I don't look at it as censorship," says State Representative Gerald Allen. "I look at it as protecting the hearts and souls and minds of our children."

I agree with Billmon that the neocons are like the Junkers who thought they could use nationalism (in this case, fundamentalist "Jesusism") to maintain and hold power. German nationalism, just like the current American coalition between the neocons and the Domionists, was founded on a hatred for the modern...for Enlightenment ideals.

Anti-semitism wasn't strictly about was also about the idea that Jews were liberal, or social democrats, or that they were responsible for Bolshevism. In other words, in the beginning, it was a political struggle that became a genocide. When it was to the point of genocide, it didn't matter what your politics were. Jewish identification was all that mattered...including if you were married to a Jew.

And remember, too, that Hitler took years...nearly a decade... to come to the "final solution." At first he tried to force Jews (and others) to emigrate. It was only after the battles in Russia, with wholesale slaughter, mass murders of villages, that the idea of forced emigration to Uganda or part of Russia was deemed too difficult...combined with food shortages.

And, as I read recently, and do not know where to attribute it, in western Europe, with its treaties on the treatment of prisoners, casualties and mass slaughter was not as bad. However, in the east, in the battles with Russia, mass slaughter was the norm.

Something to keep in mind as the Bush administration justifies torture and a repeal of the Geneva conventions as "not applicable" in the current circumstances.

Posted by: fauxreal | Apr 28 2005 18:44 utc | 42

Billmon is more or less right about Strauss' philosophy, although it is a bit more complex and thought out than Billmon suggests. Not that it's any good, it's not even when it's explained more carefully.

But Billmon is right that the Straussians and the neocons have their most serious beef with Enlightenment thought. Strauss is completely wrong that the Enlightenment ideas are ultimately behind fascist and communist theory. However, this line of reasoning was also quite acceptable to the left as well. It is bogus. Modern liberalism is the heir to the Enlightenment traditions of Voltaire, Locke, Spinoza and many others. Neo-conservatism, fascism and the politics of the American christianist right devolves from the views of the opponents of Enlightenment thought.

This is all laid out in a fascinating book called "Reclaiming the Enlightenment" by Stephen Bronner. It can be found at this url:


One more point. Billmon equates fundamentalism with pre-modern religious thought. Not quite. Fundamentalist movements are a reaction to modernist trends; they have little independent life outside modernism.

Posted by: tristero | Apr 28 2005 18:45 utc | 43

b or Jerome- can you fix tristero's html? it's busting the margins.

Posted by: fauxreal | Apr 28 2005 18:49 utc | 44

In a considerable number of countries which, for about a hundred years, have enjoyed a practically complete freedom of public discussion, that freedom is now suppressed and replaced by a compulsion to coordinate speech with such views as the government believes to be expedient, or holds in all seriousness. It may be worth our while to consider briefly the effect of that compulsion, or persecution, on thoughts as well as actions.

"Esoteric," slothrop?

Posted by: alabama | Apr 28 2005 19:02 utc | 45

Two years ago I had a happenstance encounter with Joseph Cropsey, the executor of Strauss's writings. I asked him to explain it to me and he replied that the key was Machiavelli spilling the beans, as it were. I then asked what kind of man was Strauss, and he replied "Can we ever truly Know a man?"
That pretty much told me that I could read Strauss as closely as is possible, along with all the rest, and it doesn't make a person know shit.

Posted by: dk | Apr 28 2005 19:18 utc | 46

I think the most interesting part of this post to me is the genesis of the right-wing love affair with slippery slope arguments. Following the political philosohpy of Strauss, this same view can be found in Hayek's economic philosophy. Is it any wonder that these were men of nearly the same era and the same place. My political economy prof. in undergrad believed that Hayek's view was correct when contextualized within his circumstances i.e. the rise of social-totalitarianism in his native Austria, but inadequate if looked at the experience of other social democracies. However is not this the crux of the problem, for these folks believe to make such assertions is to subscribe to what Pope Benedict XVI referred to as a "dictatorship of relativism" during his homily when he was still know as Ratzo Rizzo, aka Cardinal Ratzinger. And should I also point out that Ratzo is also German?

Is it not absurd that these folks take anecdotal evidence, based on a single example (see Tierney's NYT column on Chile's SocSec system for more on this), draft a whole theory around it and apply it to all circumstances. Is it not more absurd but that to point this out makes one succeseptible to their own invented largest of all evils, relativism. It is a convenient circular and self-reinforcing argument that they have fashioned. Unfortunately, it is lost on logic, so bring in faith!

Posted by: Bubb Rubb | Apr 28 2005 19:28 utc | 47>More Thos Frank on American populism as manipulated by the Straussians and the curious dexterity w/which the Right embraces class distinction on the "culture war front" but denies its very existence where it really counts: money, employment, taxation, housing, health care, food, environmental toxicity, military service...

And now a digression... Strauss' insistence on "secret readings" to be found in standard texts, accessible only to the initiated, smacks to me of classic delusional/paranoid behaviour. It's a common delusion among mentally ill persons to believe that they, and they alone, can intuit or decipher the hidden messages in newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, TV shows, street signage etc. It is as if the semiotic function of the brain were hypertrophied, desperately seeking meaning out of noise, in a flurry of false pattern recognition.

I knew a guy once who was a ardent Baconian. A perfectly harmless and quite bright fellow, he spent his spare time on an intricate, never-ending numeric analysis of the text of Shakespeare's plays in an attempt to prove to his own and others' satisfaction that they were actually written by F Bacon. Frankly Strauss' hermeneutic/hierophantic approach to classical texts seems to me at least as pathetic an obsession, if far less harmless.

Which brings us back to the question of functional mental derangement, the percentage of psychopaths among us, the breakdown of the bicameral mind, the nature of consciousness, communication, perception and other brain-science topics. What always astounds me is the contagious aspect of such delusional systems, i.e. that functional paranoiacs and psychos often seem to have more than their share of charisma -- perhaps it is their absolute certainty and confidence that charm others? -- and hence tend to acquire acolytes, adherents, supplicants eager to be Admitted to the Secrets and taught to see the hidden meanings and writings in the street signage (or in Plato). Cult-formation around charismatic, manipulative personalities who claim to hold the crypto key to secret messages in well-known texts -- it appears to be a universal human behaviour.

I sometimes wonder if it may be a response of the frustrated primate brain, adapted for pattern-recognition in a far richer and more communicative environment than that offered by the modern city-state; seeking the subtle spoor of prey or predator no longer in existence, trying to recognise the thousands of species of flora we have eliminated, trying to read smells on a wind saturated with hydrocarbons, desperately seeking more meaning than can be extracted from the dumbed-down noise of our days. And in the process, slipping a gear and starting to see complex constellations drawn between any four random stars, secret writing between the lines of every page, encrypted messages telling us exactly what our old reptile brain wants to hear...

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 28 2005 20:26 utc | 48

yes fauxreal my comrade in new york sends me work being publishe in your country which astounds me - in the case of that harpers frightens me - paranthetically there is a demolition job of the new ee cummings biography that reflects a real hollowness in our age & in scholarship

i have read strauss & the whole gang or prettyboy psychopaths & their hollow utterances are not worth the study that some would imply. even heidegger the smartest of this cruel crew is not worth a single book by husserl. they are the thinkers that late capitalism deserves. minor thinkers. what is however necessary to study is the conditions - the concrete conditions

the concrete conditions where you have a fusion between a semi fascist lynch mob pretending they are all on personal terms with the lord himself, an intellectual class that is so impoverished it turns round & round the same points - that machiavel spoke to us clearly about, an intellectual class that has been coddled by richly funded 'think' tanks who want an extension & elaboration of that privilege, a political class that are as dumb as they come & can be herded by a fool like rove - who is a nothing of nothing really - whatever his experience with atwater - he is an old numbers cruncher - like any high level nazi functionary, a political class so mindless they don't miond being in the same movie that hjas been played out before, a judiciary that is close to its own moral collapse & a industry of communication that is so simply pornographic in its intent - i wonder why we take it seriouslly at all

those conditions, that fusion what some might loosely call this synthesis of elements is necessary to study until the end & as someone sd here that might come sooner than we think

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 28 2005 20:27 utc | 49

This thread is awesome. Bottle it a time capsule so that whoever visits wasteland Earth in the future will understand what went wrong here.

Posted by: Cloned Poster | Apr 28 2005 21:13 utc | 50

Am presently reading Persecution and the art of writing by Strauss and can only say w/ weak confidence the esoteric meaning of great texts stressed by Strauss seems to point not to a kind of deconstruction or attack on myth/natural meaning/denotation, but a revelation of Truth for smart initaites.

But, I have to internalize this material before intelligently commenting.

The problem a number of folks have with Drury's reading of Strauss is that she's convinced that he's a postmodernist in the more or less standard meaning of that term. Like Strauss (in certain ways), Drury, whose liberalism is rather old-fashioned (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that), believes that relativism is the great political evil of our times. She sees Strauss as a secret relativist. By her own account, she was attracted to Strauss early in her studies precisely because he appears to celebrate a strong, moral foundation for political philosophy. But she came to believe that this was, in fact, just a false front.

It should be noted that some Straussians (using that term broadly) more or less agree with Drury on Strauss's postmodernism (e.g. certainly Laurence Lampert who sees Strauss as a Nietzschean, and arguably Stanley Rosen). Most Straussians, however, disagree (or at least claim to do so). Drury herself admits that Harry Jaffa and the so-called West Coast Straussians don't share Strauss's purported relativism. Indeed, Jaffa (one of Strauss's earliest important students), Thomas West, and others of their ilk bitterly attacked Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind as essentially nihilistic and un-American (with much gay bashing of Bloom along the way). Drury claims that Jaffa was simply never taught Strauss's secret teaching. But although Jaffa is, by Drury's own estimate, not a Straussian in the sense she (and Billmon) describe (though nearly everyone considers Jaffa a Straussian), he's very much an activist on the right (he's one of the leading lights of the Claremont Institute, and he authored Goldwater's famous "moderation in the defense of liberty" line from the 1964 GOP convention).

At any rate, the reason I point all this out is that Straussians while playing an important and subtle role in the American right are not the principal force behind the rise of post-war conservatism, nor even the principal force behind neo-conservatism. I'd say that the more grandly conspiratorial views of their role on the right -- The Power of Nightmares or Tim Robbins' play Embedded -- distract us from seeing their real role. And, like Lyndon LaRouche's attacks on Strauss, they actually provide convenient strawmen for people on the right to dismiss all criticisms of Straussianism.

This thread has done a good job of identifying some important affinities between Straussians and others on the right, but it's also worth remembering some tensions. One good example would be the statism of Straussians, which clashed pretty openly with the more Hayekian, libertarian strains on the right. This is covered well in George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (Nash is a conservative, but he's also a very serious historian, and this is still the standard history of conservative intellectuals in America. It's a fine book and well worth reading.) In this regard, it's worth noting that Willmoore Kendall was the only prominent conservative of his generation to embrace Straussianism. Like the the Straussians, and unlike most conservatives, Kendall did not have a Classical Liberal bone in his body.

Plenty of people on the right are still very suspicious of Strauss and Straussianism (though mostly they're self-identified paleo-cons). See, for example, Claes Ryn's America the Virtuous.

The reason that many -- though by no means all -- Straussians were once Democrats is itself an interesting and complicated question. Bear in mind that the division between the parties has never been entirely about ideology, and that, until quite recently, there were more liberal Republicans as well as more conservative Democrats.

Another interesting figure to add to the mix when we think about Straussianism is Alexander Kojeve. This Russian-emigre French Hegelian was a key figure in the development of 20th-century French philosophy, and may actually have been a KGB agent. He was a (very respectful) philosophic opponent of Strauss. Their correspondence is included in the more recent editions of Strauss's On Tyranny. But despite their deep disagreements (Kojeve believed in the desireability and inevitability of a universal state; Strauss bitterly opposed the idea), Strauss sent a number of his students to Paris to study with Kojeve. And the ideas of one of the most politically influential Straussians -- Francis Fukuyama -- were at least as influenced by Kojeve as they were by Strauss.

I suppose the take home point for me is that American conservatism is a very complicated phenomenon, intellectually, socially, and politically. Straussianism, a part of this phenomenon, is similarly complicated. Exploring its various aspects is an interesting, and important, task for liberals and those on the left. But we should be careful not to reduce complex phenomena to single causes.

Posted by: BenA | Apr 28 2005 22:09 utc | 51

We should be careful not to reduce complex phenomena to single causes.

Nor should we hide from the phenomena that demand urgent attention by making fine graded distinctions that do not justify their claims on our attention.

For example, depending on which level of the philosophical game one chooses to play, "Straussianism" is itself a noun that represents something that does not exist. See, e.g. Thatcher on whether or not communities exist, her claim itself having a history. On the other hand, my country is in trouble as is the world. Strauss played his role and some people aren't prepared to see it.

Posted by: razor | Apr 28 2005 22:25 utc | 52

it is not as complicated as all that, bena - just a convergence of economic, ideological & political interests. the poverty of philsophy - of conservative philosophy has allowed for a small number of dominant voices - that too is not surprising

to be crude - these 'philosophers' & 'thinkers' have been bought & sold like any other form of chattel - even kojève or jean hyppolite the hegelian's hegelians - as you infer also came with a price

the brothers bloom & the whole enterprise of american conservatism masks is essence an infantile intellectual enterprise defending implicity the political/financial interstes of tyranny. sadly, for me that is all the american empire has always been a tyranny with an odd moment here or there of self illumination & correction which has never in any substantial way, endured

as always it is the left who provides the most beautiful songs & the richest & more multiple & less absolutist strains in philosophy

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 28 2005 22:28 utc | 53

Strauss played his role and some people aren't prepared to see it.

I certainly wouldn't associate myself with those who say that he didn't, though I might disagree with many over exactly what that role was.

Posted by: BenA | Apr 28 2005 22:58 utc | 54

I agree that conservatives should not be reduced to any one cause. In fact, the conservative coalition is actually composed of a number of ideological bases that are both complimentary and contradictory. Which is why I referenced Hayek in my previous comment. Hayek, a former conservative hero and a name not spoken much anymore, would be highly suspicious of the grand planning of the present neo-cons, the royalist tendencies of Bushco economics and the religious rights institutions of control. Although Hayekian conservatives are dying in number, either from old age a la Bill Safire or from outright intellectual fraud a la George Will, some remain. And those that are true at heart with their conservative libertine values should be uneasy and probably have been for a while. It is a fragile caucus that the conservatives hold, one part corporatist, one part royalist, one part religious orthodox and one part liberal in the classic sense. The question is when these groups will decide that their divisions are greater than their common interest.

Posted by: Bubb Rubb | Apr 28 2005 23:14 utc | 55

& the c i a does not have the budget it used to for these frauds

a reread of 'who paid the piper' might be in order

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 28 2005 23:17 utc | 56>Speaking of the maximally irritating George Will, Werther (a byline I am always glad to read) is back at CP today with some commentary on Will's attempts to rewrite the history of the Viet Nam war.

As pointed out in an earlier essay, George F. Will is a columnist who specializes in misleading historical analogies. Part of this syndrome is a penchant among pseudo-erudite pseudo-conservatives to invest present events with the urgent, cataclysmic patina of the Second World War: Saddam is Hitler, the occupation of Iraq is like the occupation of Germany, an attempt to negotiate a compromise is always Munich, and so forth.

A variant on this syndrome is the sour, vindictive desire to ransack history and "make it come out right." The bookshelves groan with adverse comment on the far-Left's revisionist history. Much of this comment is deserved: this writer has yet to see persuasive evidence that Aristotle was a black African or that James Madison learned everything he knew about constitutions from the Iroquois Nation. As of yet, however, the revisionism of the pseudo-conservative wing of the American political spectrum has received surprisingly little attention.

In truth, the self-described intellectual arm of pseudo-conservatism has for decades fairly seethed with revisionist emotion. If only Ike hadn't been a befuddled One-Worlder, we could have driven to Berlin and the cold war could have been avoided. If only we'd unleashed Chang Kai-shek, our boys would have been victorious in Korea. [2] No doubt some are still lamenting Pickett's failed strategy near a small Pennsylvania town.

[and more]

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 28 2005 23:29 utc | 57

Billmons review of Shadia Drury is well done. But I agree that reading a book about someone's work is not the same as reading the author directly But Strauss is a tough nut to crack and we are several generations away from his direct influence. Things have changed. However I think I need to explore more of Strauss' gnosticizing tendencies again and review his long series of debates with Eric Voegelin sometime this summer. We are not all full time Political Scientists (and I am not. I am a historican!) and not all have the time to do that. I think Drury's book would make a good beginners guide. I may read it for fun on my next flight to the Midwest in June.

Posted by: diogenes | Apr 28 2005 23:34 utc | 58

"la loi, par contre, qui fait faceà la loi du coeur est séparée du coeur et libre pour soi. l'humanité qui relève d'elle ne vit pas dans l'unité béatifiante de la loi avec le coeur, mais ou bien dans la séparation cruelle et la souffrance, ou au moins dans la privation de jouissance de soi-même à l'occassion de l'observation de la loi, et dans le manque de conscience de l'excelllence propre à l'occasion de la transgression de cette même loi"

gwf hegel phénoménologie de l'esprit trad: jarczyk & labarrière p 347

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 28 2005 23:42 utc | 59

Though it's much harder to find as it's out of print, Drury's first book on Strauss, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss is better than the book Billmon has reviewed.

Posted by: BenA | Apr 28 2005 23:52 utc | 60

frankly, i think that's a lot of effort for minimal gain. my counsel is to read the old fella leo strauss by a breakwater in a black tutu while listening to ramstein on a battered cd player or even better for the mind the benjamin scholem correspondance coupled with a fast reread of old willy reich's the mass psychology of fascism & character analysis while listening to system of down

of course if pain's your thing - heidegger & eminem

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 29 2005 0:07 utc | 61

Werther (a byline I am always glad to read)

I first came across Werther's stuff at Chuck Spinney's web site, Defense and the National Interest ( He/she is definitely an interesting thinker, and his/her choice of pseudonyms is almost as intriguing.

Werther was originally the code name for a Soviet spy placed very high in Hitler's headquarters during the middle years of World War II. He/she is widely credited with leaking the exact time and place of Operation Citadel -- the German attack on the Kursk salient that became one of the decisive battles on the Eastern front. (It's still the largest tank battle in history.)

The identity of Werther has never been uncovered, although one historian wrote a book a few years back claiming it was none other than Martin Bormann.

Anyway, for someone who's billed as a "defense analyst in Northern Virginia" a pen name like Werther seems filled with significance.

Posted by: Billmon | Apr 29 2005 0:10 utc | 62

of course, with leo it would do well to read the worst, persecution and the art of writing & on tyranny - as for a cd by ramstein their entire oeuvre is disponible

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 29 2005 0:14 utc | 63

I wondered if it was that Werther, or Werther as in "The Sorrows of Young". Apropos of which my neurological jukebox whirs and serves up:

Charlotte, when she saw young Werther
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person
Went on cutting bread and butter...

Anyway, the mole Werther does seem more likely, and I agree it's a provocative nom-de-plume. Bormann? that seems a bit "out there"...

Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 29 2005 0:28 utc | 64

i thought it would have been goethe's werther too dea & there is also allussions to mr bormann in the histories of the red orchestra & of the big chef, trepper & not only because of the battle of kursk but because the information was daily & of such detail that it implied someone on the inner inner circle - is that gnostic enough but then i think t e lawrence was attaturk without a suntan

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 29 2005 0:42 utc | 65

Amazing discussion. As neither a historian nor a philosopher, Straussians having the only key to the truth sounds like a mirror image of the pathology of their arch enemy, Lyndon LaRouche.

What the neo-conservatives give the GOP is the philosophical clap trap that supports the True Believers and Enron business leaders a high minded justification for their grasp of money and power. Lying and government propaganda is necessary with Freedom on the March.

Posted by: Jim S | Apr 29 2005 0:42 utc | 66

ô jim s

lyndon larouche is as his name suggests an old showgirl & i think an old flame of bugsy siegel except she didn't know he was jewish & i think the only book she has read was something gordon liddy picked up in a paris antiquarian bookshop - les decombres by lucian rebatet & i think she has sent to america on a regular basis for its economic analysis & op eds, paris turf which she reads after omar sharifs finished with it

Posted by: remembereringgiap | Apr 29 2005 0:47 utc | 67

"Drury's first book on Strauss, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss is better than the book Billmon has reviewed." I found the one copy left in the University of Maine system library and snagged it for the next 4 months.

Posted by: diogenes | Apr 29 2005 1:15 utc | 68

Since we seem to be discussing ways of getting at Straussianism without reading Strauss.....

For those interested in a very different negative portrayal of Strauss from Drury's, it's worth checking out the chapter on Strauss in Stephen Holmes' Anatomy of Illiberalism.

John Gunnell, a very much non-Straussian political theorist who does a lot of work on the history of political theory in the US, puts Strauss in very interesting contexts in his general history of US political theory (The Descent of Political Theory), in his article on the 20th-century invention of the "great tradition" of political thought that Strauss and other European emigres like Arendt built their thought around, and in his article on Strauss's early career in Germany.

If you want to read Straussians (as opposed to Strauss), you could look at what they sometimes call the "purple bible," Strauss and Cropsey's History of Political Philosophy (a chronological series of essays on individual political philosophers by a variety of Straussians). The concluding, posthumous essay on Strauss himself is something of a locus classicus of post-Strauss Straussianism. This is, of course, very much in the realm of political philosophy. A good place to look for Straussians' views on American politics (not something Strauss himself much addressed), is a collection edited by Kenneth Deutsch and John A. Murley entitled Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (this book includes Gary Schmitt and Abram Shulsky's often mentioned essay "Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do Not Mean Nous)").

Posted by: BenA | Apr 29 2005 2:01 utc | 69

Ooops...the title of that Stephen Holmes book is The Anatomy of Antiliberalism.

Posted by: BenA | Apr 29 2005 2:03 utc | 70

Thanks BenA, very helpful

alabama, afaik now, Persecution... essays extol what Strauss over and over again refers to "esoteric" meanings of the "separate class" of philosophers who must write "between the lines" in order to avoid persecution and transmit meanings to future philosophers. To be sure, these "meanings" are certain, and for philosophers, not so easily equivocated. That is to say, great philosophers often proclaim othodoxy in order to "surreptitiously" conceal core heterodoxies. Thus: Kant is a frickin' antiprussian revolutionary, Hobbes and Hegel are atheists, Montesquieu a monarchist, and so on.

Well, no one knows for sure what is "between the lines." Didn't Charles Taylor find a transcendental turn in Hegel's Phenomenology? Who knows? Strauss doesn't intend proof of the real meaning, but only emphasizes reading between the lines can, when properly done, transmit true knowledge among elite philosophers. (the Kuzari essay I have not read).

Well, all this defense of the esoteric justifies secret knowledge intended to protect elites from the orthodox idiocies of the mob. Platonist elitism is preferred over a compulsorily educated ochlocracy.

Based on what I have read, Strauss defends the esoteric as a means to preserve elite power, and not so much defense of any Truth. Put another way, he seems to me to be a "relativist" as explained above.

But I'm not certain.

This ia all I know after reading most of the book recommended by you, alabama.

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 29 2005 2:12 utc | 71

"People forget what separation of church and state is supposed to be all about," he said. "Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion."

Perhaps a bit old fashioned to assume words have meaning, but here's a good essay on freedom of vs. freedom from

The Meaning of Freedom

Posted by: nathanw | Apr 29 2005 2:14 utc | 72

slothrop, we have the same edition of that book, and so I invite you--not to quote directly from Strauss in support of your claim that he presents a "defense of the esoteric" that "justifies secret knowledge intended to protect elites", or that he "defends the esoteric as a means to defend elite power"--no, not to quote directly from Strauss (which you may find a somewhat tiresome exercise), but merely to point me to the pages that you have in mind. The page-numbers alone will do just fine.

Posted by: alabama | Apr 29 2005 2:42 utc | 73

this issue of Harper's is good. barkeep! put another recommendation on my tab. should have the money next week.

Posted by: b real | Apr 29 2005 3:10 utc | 74

You're funnin' me alabama, but ok...

This is what Strauss believes to be preferrable to modern philosophy:

What attitude people adopt toward freedom of public discussion, depends decisively on what they think about popular education and its limits. Generally speaking, premodern philosophers were more timid in this respect than modern philosophers. After about the middle of the seventeenth century an everincreasing number of heterodox philosophers who had suffered from persecution published their books not only to communicate their thoughts but also because they desired to contribute to the abolition of persecution as such. They believed that suppression of free inquiry, and of publication of the results of free inquiry, was accidental, an outcome of the faulty construction of the body politic, and that the kingdom of general darkness could be replaced by the republic of universal light. They looked forward to a time when, as a result of the progress of popular education, practically complete freedom of speech would be [34] possible, or-to exaggerate for purposes of clarification-to a time when no one would suffer any harm from hearing any truth." They concealed their views only far enough to protect themselves as well as possible from persecution; had they been more subtle than that, they would have defeated their purpose, which was to enlighten an ever-increasing number of. people who were . not potential philosophers. It is therefore comparatively easy to read between the lines of their books.15 The attitude of an earlier type of writers was fundamentally different. They believed that the gulf separating "the wise" and "the vulgar" was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education: philosophy, or science, was essentially a privilege of "the few." They were convinced that philosophy as such was suspect to, and hated by, the majority of men."' Even if they had had nothing to fear from any particular political quarter, those who started from that assumption would have been driven to the conclusion that public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times. They must conceal their opinions from all but philosophers, either by limiting themselves to oral instruction of a carefully selected group [35] of pupils, or by writing about the most important subject by means of "brief indication. 1117

Writings are naturally accessible to all who can read. Therefore a philosopher who chose the second way could expound only such opinions as were suitable for the nonphilosophic majority: all of his writings would have to be, strictly speaking, exoteric. These opinions would not be in all respects consonant with truth. Being a philosopher, that is, hating "the lie in the soul" more than anything else, he would not deceive himself about the fact that such opinions are merely "likely tales," or "noble lies," or "probable opinions," and would leave it to his philosophic readers to disentangle the truth from its poetic or dialectic presentation. But he would defeat his purpose if he indicated clearly which of his statements expressed a noble lie, and which the still more noble truth. For philosophic readers he would do almost more than enough by drawing their attention to the fact that he did not object to telling lies which were noble, or tales which were merely similar to truth. From the point of view of the literary historian at least, there is no more noteworthy difference between the typical premodern philosopher (who is hard to distinguish from the premodern poet) and the typical modern philosopher than that of their attitudes toward "noble (or just) lies," "pious frauds," the "ductus obliquus"18 or "economy of the truth." Every decent modern reader is bound to be shocked by the mere suggestion that a great man might have deliberately deceived the large majority of his readers.18 And yet, as a liberal theologian once remarked, these imitators of the resourceful Odysseus were perhaps merely more sin [36]cere than we when they called "lying nobly" what we would call "considering one's social responsibilities."

An exoteric book contains then two teachings: a popular teaching of an edifying character, which is in the foreground; and a philosophic teaching concerning the most important subject, which is indicated only between the lines. This is not to deny that some great writers might have stated certain important truths quite openly by using as mouthpiece some disreputable character: they would thus show how much they disapproved of pronouncing the truths in question. There would then be good reason for our finding in the greatest literature of the past so many interesting devils, madmen, beggars, sophists, drunkards, epicureans and buffoons. Those to whom such books are truly addressed are, however, neither the unphilosophic majority nor the perfect philosopher as such, but the young men who might become philosophers: the potential philosophers are to be led step by step from the popular views which are indispensable for all practical and political purposes to the truth which is merely and purely theoretical, guided by certain obtrusively enigmatic features in the presentation of the popular teachingobscurity of the plan, contradictions, pseudonyms, inexact repetitions of earlier statements, strange expressions, etc. Such features do not disturb the slumber of those who cannot see the wood for the trees, but act as awakening stumbling blocks for those who can. All books of that kind owe their existence to the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies2° of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn: all exoteric books are "written speeches caused by love."

Exoteric literature presupposes that there are basic truths which would not be pronounced in public by any decent man, because they would do harm to many people who, having been hurt, would naturally be inclined to hurt in turn him who pronounces the unpleasant truths. It presupposes, in other words, that freedom of inquiry, and of publication of all results of inquiry, is not guaranteed as a basic right. This literature is then essentially related to a society which is not liberal. Thus one may very well raise the question of what use it could be in a truly liberal society. The answer is simple. In Plato's Banquet, [37] Alcibiades-that outspoken son of outspoken Athens-compares Socrates and his speeches to certain sculptures which are very ugly from the outside, but within have most beautiful images of things divine. The works of the great writers of the past are very beautiful even from without. And yet their visible beauty is sheer ugliness, compared with the beauty of those hidden treasures which disclose themselves only after very long, never easy, but always pleasant work. This always difficult but always pleasant work is, I believe, what the philosophers had in mind when they recommended education. Education, they felt, is the only answer to the always pressing question, to the political question par excellence, of how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license.

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 29 2005 3:22 utc | 75

you might think the last bit about education is as defense of liberalism, but don't be fooled.

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 29 2005 3:28 utc | 76

3. None of this would be possible without a culture of political correctness. Much of the modern American "conservative" is pure, proven, bullshit, that, is protected by "liberal" bullshit. Take Scalia's "originalism" for example, which is a perfect illustration of Conteniental conservatism that has no legitimate place in American Constitutional law. He gets away with it. Its bullshit and he gets away with it. Tons of law journals and hundreds of well paid law professors, all dignifying "originalism" bullshit. If wichan is valid, so is originalism.

Posted by: razor | April 28, 2005 01:22 PM | #

[rant on]Bless you, razor. This is something that makes me go all Linda Blair-like from "The Exorcist" and starts my head spinning around and green gunk spewing out of my mouth.

I just don't understand for the life of me how otherwise intelligent people let Fat Tony get away with this bullshit.

How in the hell can any Constitutional scholar--or anyone that had a civics or American Government class in junior high school for that matter--give this "strict constructionist" horse manure the time of day? If the framers of the Constitution had meant for the Constitution to "evolve" with changing attitudes of the governed over time, then why the fuck did they provide a mechanism to amend the damned thing in Article V?

James Madison kicked Hamilton's butt on this very issue in James Madison, Federalist, no. 43, 296 when he wrote:

That useful alterations will be suggested by experience, could not but be foreseen. It was requisite therefore that a mode for introducing them should be provided. The mode preferred by the Convention seems to be stamped with every mark of propriety. It guards equally against that extreme facility which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty which might perpetuate its discovered faults.

It infuriates me that a sorry-assed microbial physiologist such as myself sees through this "strict constructionist" tripe--and can find succinct refutations of this mindless drivel from idiots like Scalia and the religious whackjobs spouting his rhetoric in under five minutes--while highly paid talking heads with "research staffs" in the media let this blather pass unchallenged. [/rant off]

Sorry for the diversion from the thread topic and the profanity, but this crap makes me mad as hell.

Posted by: WyldPirate | Apr 29 2005 3:57 utc | 77

slothrop, if you elect to cite a passage, shouldn't you cite the passage in toto, or give some indication of the materials you've left out? In this instance, you've omitted eight dense footnotes, mostly referring to Plato, Cicero, Hobbes and Spinoza (and we know that, for Strauss, footnotes are the heart of his writings, just as citations are the heart of Benjamin's). Strauss, in these pages, is explaining the technical distinction between "esoteric" and "exoteric" expositions--a distinction crucial to Cicero's accounts of Plato's more "fabulous" passages. I, for one, have profited from Strauss's clarification of this particular detail, while you see only a power-play. Are you reading, perhaps, "between the lines," or simply refusing to read, or reading, perhaps, in haste? I don't reject the possibility that Strauss is being tendentious here,or that he makes too much of this one canonical distinction in the larger motion of his argument. But that's not the point you make, because you really don't care about the problems posed for readers of Plato by Cicero's ingenious approach. Strauss is indeed a remarkable scholar.

Posted by: alabama | Apr 29 2005 4:25 utc | 78

So sue me.

I might have to sue you for making me buy another book that's going to keep me up at night.


Seriously, brilliant post. You distilled down to the reasons for the conclusions I've come to the past couple of years.

Unlike some commenters, I'm not at all shocked at what there ultimate goals are- but I wasn't quite sure of how they got that way.

Though for the life of me I'm not sure what we can do about it.

Posted by: fourlegsgood | Apr 29 2005 4:44 utc | 79

I read Drury's book a few years ago. It was the moment of my awakening, in fact, the moment when I was born again as a political animal. Drury's arguments made seemingly nonsensical political developments look obvious. What the wingnuts politicians were doing was tiger-riding. Now they can't get off .

But I also recall how unsatisfactory Strauss's philosophy ultimately was for himself: it could buy no way out for the Jews, no way for them not be reviled and oppressed. His worldview was that of a chronic depressive.

Posted by: Echidne of the snakes | Apr 29 2005 4:47 utc | 80


I assume you are being sarcastic, since Scalia disdains strict construction, and plays a different game, that won't work, called originalism. I say serious people read John Hart Ely.

My fault for straying from Straus.

Posted by: razor | Apr 29 2005 5:33 utc | 81

Way tired tonight. But I wanted to get this in...

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.

Is this not, exactly, what the neocons and radical christians have long said about liberals? That despite all claims of ethics, the "liberal elite" does not believe the ethics it propounds? And was it not, exactly, true of Stalinism, too--for the masses, propaganda based on Marxism; for the elite, raw power. Motes and timbers, motes and timbers.

"Do not throw pearls [of wisdom] before swine, lest they trample them, and then come and trample you!" Which is from the Sermon on the Mount, liberally rendered, but seems very Straussian.

"In the history, the genuine history, of higher men, The stake fought for and the basis of the animal struggle to prevail is ever--even when the driver and driven are completely unconscious of the symbolic force of their doings, purposes and fortunes--the actualization of something that is essentially spiritual, the translation of an idea into a living historical form. This applies equally to the struggle of big style-tendencies in art, of philosophy, of political ideals and of economic forms. But the post-history is void of all this. All that remains is the struggle for mere power, for animal advantage per se."--Owsald Spengler. Cranky damn German. But he knew something.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz | Apr 29 2005 6:41 utc | 82

On the difference and consequences of "originalism" ("constitution in exile") vs. "constructionism" there was a good Jeffery Rosen piece in the NYT magazine some weeks ago.

The copyright loving freepers have a copy stored here.

Posted by: b | Apr 29 2005 6:49 utc | 83

Alan Moore once told an anecdote about a contemporary magician who decided to test the power of seeing the material world as acting in conformity with a set of preconceived ideas to the test by adopting a belief so strange that nobody could possibly mistake it for reality and then seeing what happened.

The belief he decided to go with was that Noddy, the little toy-car driving and belied-hat wearing protagonist of Enid Blyton's children's books ("Oui-Oui" in French, for Jerome's benefit), was in fact the absolute creator of the Universe and the God of all Gods.

Within a couple of weeks he abandoned the experiment in alarm, finding himself upon the brink of conclusively proving that Noddy was indeed an avatar of the Supreme Being.

He'd come across magazine articles showing freshly discovered cave-drawings of an obviously sacred figure wearing what appeared to be a tall pointed hat with a little bell on the top. He'd read an interview with Enid Blyton herself in which she described a strange vision that had come to her while under the influence of gas at the dentist; in which she had been whisked across the Universe at the speed of light to meet God himself, although he couldn't describe the details of their conversation. This, along with a whole mess of other stuff and previously hidden meanings in Bible passages (Cain is banished to the Land of Nod in Genesis, for example), seemed to indicate that Nod was God and Enid Blyton His prophetess.

I'm inherently suspicious of any philosophical system who tries to do what Marx, Strauss and others have done, and the Noddy anecdote illustrates why.

Posted by: Lupin | Apr 29 2005 7:09 utc | 84

Strauss's . . . worldview was that of a chronic depressive.

Well then I guess he and I have something in common after all.

Posted by: Billmon | Apr 29 2005 7:24 utc | 85

As they say, 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Per my norm, I share w/you, my snobbish mooners
CSPAN to Air David Griffin 9/11 Video on Saturday w/out hopes of comment as not many here even bother.

Posted by: Uncle $cam | Apr 29 2005 8:28 utc | 86

What’s more, if the neocons did succeed in tearing up the liberal parchment regime, I seriously doubt they could control the forces they’ve helped unleash. The Bible fedayeen aren’t exactly yearning for a little recycled Plato from the philosophical elite. Their version of the city on the hill might not have room for a philosophical elite – not unless it’s a fundamentalist Protestant one, which is a contradiction in terms.
And in many ways, contradiction is the gasoline they're playing with -- within the tenderhouse culture of contradictions of red state Ulster/Scots tradition. Bush's ever increasing high stakes press conference shows roll the dice same as ever, blind arrogance in the face of humiliation -- up the bet, throw more money on the table, such is both the hallmark of vice and the" opium of the masses" -- or an illustration of solidary with the red state culture of contradiction. Its not lost on his handlers, that the audience here is in love not just with religion, but also with the pornographic trash pop culture that lurks everywhere else. Reverence for the uniform, a good fight, if anti- authoritorian is acceptable. But come anything that reaks of aristocracy, a privlidged elite setting the agenda, and all bets are off. I think the neo-con dip-shits have failed to take into account, as in Iraq, is even the most remote understanding of the culture they have such great plans for.

Posted by: anna missed | Apr 29 2005 8:50 utc | 87

The strategy relies on America’s puritanical longing for virtue

Before Billmon ran spellcheck over his post there was a t in front of virtue making it tvirtue. I wondered if might not be accidental. We do seem to get most of our virtue from television these days.

Thanks to all the heavy hitters for wonderful comments above. One wondered why the Straussians were once Democrats. Larry Flynt once said that if you scratch a liberal a fascist will bleed. I tend to agree though I still identify with liberals.

Last, feeling disgusted after discovering how the elites rule is probably what most of us experience after reading this. Do we feel this way because we are not in the elite group? Given the disdain that I have for many of my fellow Americans who support the current administration and what seems to me to be completely against their own interests, I probably would like to be part of the group that makes decisions for all too. Are we all whining about sour grapes?

Posted by: dan of steele | Apr 29 2005 12:06 utc | 88

Is this not, exactly, what the neocons and radical christians have long said about liberals? That despite all claims of ethics, the "liberal elite" does not believe the ethics it propounds? And was it not, exactly, true of Stalinism, too--for the masses, propaganda based on Marxism; for the elite, raw power. Motes and timbers, motes and timbers.

Citing a lie as a proof is a sorry ass type of argument. "Is this not what Nazis have long said about Jews" and other applications of the same method spring to mind. "Liberal elite" is in itself a term containing such deep dishonesty as to poison all following conversation. The smug self-regard and gimcrack illuminatism for third rate academics shines so garishly from the polyester fabric of Strausses writings as to make appeals to the footnotes laughable. For what it's worth, Stalinism used appeals to Marxism to the intellectual elite, raw power for the governing elite and the cops, and patriotism and order for the masses. That recipe is merely a variant on the time honored method of governance that is advocated by Plato and practiced by Bush.

Posted by: | Apr 29 2005 12:34 utc | 89

Is this not, exactly, what the neocons and radical christians have long said about liberals? That despite all claims of ethics, the "liberal elite" does not believe the ethics it propounds? And was it not, exactly, true of Stalinism, too--for the masses, propaganda based on Marxism; for the elite, raw power. Motes and timbers, motes and timbers.

Citing a lie as a proof is a sorry ass type of argument. "Is this not what Nazis have long said about Jews" and other applications of the same method spring to mind. "Liberal elite" is in itself a term containing such deep dishonesty as to poison all following conversation. The smug self-regard and gimcrack illuminatism for third rate academics shines so garishly from the polyester fabric of Strausses writings as to make appeals to the footnotes laughable. For what it's worth, Stalinism used appeals to Marxism to the intellectual elite, raw power for the governing elite and the cops, and patriotism and order for the masses. That recipe is merely a variant on the time honored method of governance that is advocated by Plato and practiced by Bush.

Posted by: citizen k | Apr 29 2005 12:34 utc | 90

I can agree with the part about Spengler being a crank, but as far as knowing something...well, his work is more along the lines of Moore's revelation about Noddy.

(and the religious right would go ballistic if Noddy were widely available in the U.S. with his "paganism") off topic on a serious thread, but when I watched Noddy with my kids when living overseas, I always had to do a doubletake when Noddy talked about losing his rubber for school--those oversexed Brits...)

Thanks much for the interesting discussion on this thread, all.

It seems that, no matter how one approaches Strauss, the devotees who are now weilding power have developed their own "esoteric" meanings that all who have eyes can their actions and their casual relationship with truth.

And as far as "any religion" goes, I think that Strauss makes it clear that the religion has to be one that holds "absolute truths" that, of course, are not absolute for the elite, but must be presented as such for the masses in order to have religion as a form of social control and justification for might making right when power is the ultimate end for the powerful.

Posted by: fauxreal | Apr 29 2005 12:37 utc | 91

I've taken a few moments to think things out. I actually got up at 3:00AM and pounded out my frustrations in an essay that I hope no other human will ever have to see. But as I have been thinking about this debate on Strauss, recalling a few grad school debates of a decade ago, and historical theory in general, I decided to make a few brief cautionary statements.

2. Bush never read Strauss and Cheney probably never took the time to read Strauss Cliff Notes!

3. The notable neoconservatives that read Strauss in graduate school or had him as their advisor no doubt were influenced by him, but are not real Straussians. Often political theories are prisoners of their generation, especially when they never become the foundation of a real state. And even when their tenets are finally applied, these go through evolutionary changes over time that make the founding philosophy progressively more remote from the present. In America, many of the issues and movements that framed our Constitution no longer exist except in abstract form. Even historical revisionism becomes viable after so much time has passed. Most students in schools today have a very shady view of the Enlightenment. The focus of its rebellion is nebulous, its characters are not studied, and if my experience in teaching at three universities is valid, unless one is a history major or philosophy major, they have what I call the TLC Enlightenment experience: Textbook, Lecture, Candide. that's it, if they are lucky. Its our fault. In the great move to be politically correct in the 1980's and 90's we moved away from teaching Western Civilization course to teaching more inclusvie World Civilizations courses in the core. The average World Civilizations textbook omits much of Europe's history and tries to cover the Scientific Revolution, The Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment in one 20 page image-filled chapter, allowing for one lecture to cover all. And you wonder why a revisionist fundamentalist group like Wallbuilders can create and distribute a teaching system that advocates a Christian-only colonial America and a Constitution that really doesn't advocate a separation of church and state without a wimper?

4. I doubt that Strauss is being applied systematically in American government now. I do not think it is possible. But I do think that echo's of his philosophy can be see in the neoconservative movement. But they are working from a playbook, not a collection of weighty tomes. They don't work like that. They tend to avoid the study of the past. As one arrogant pup from Patrick Henry College now working in Washington once said, "We don't read history. We are making history!" And so I am wondering if we are chasing our tails going directly to Strauss and spending time and spilling ink over interpreting his language (which can be a bit of a brain twister) to see if the Neocons are really Straussian, Neo-Straussians, Straussian hybrids, or some other kind of creature. We must not forget that they are what they and want they imagine themselves to be. If we bury ourselves in Strauss trying to decode them, our conclusions get progressively more remote from any of the reality of the Average American and we even lose our ability to describe to them what is happening in any meaningful way. And we become a bright minority on a mountain top whining about concepts while the masses in the valley cannot distinguish our discourse from grunts and clicking noises they hear on Fox News! The sad thing is, this occurs when we are right, not wrong. What we need is their playbook, the distilled, dumbed down, Strauss stick figure that leads the Neoconservative movement. Otherwise our answers will lack relevance. And that what they have been saying about us all along!

I will still read Billmons Shadia Drury book and about 5 other books of Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin (including their corespondence)just for fun. I have summer to read. That's what I do as an academic (even though this is outside my field) Millions do not. Millions are more interested in keeping their jobs one more day, seeing a doctor without health insurance, filing for bankruptcy before the new laws go into effect, and figuring how to earn another $1000.00 a month to pay for higher gasoline and fuel oil prices. Can we read Strauss' works...and find them an answer they can understand any better than we can now before the long process? Just a thought. I enjoyed Billmon's review very much and it does provoke my interest in the book. But how far should we go.....2006 is not that far away!

Posted by: diogenes | Apr 29 2005 12:48 utc | 92

Hmmmm. Point 1 disappered. Must be the gods.

Posted by: diogenes | Apr 29 2005 12:49 utc | 93

Whatever else he's doing, diogenes, Strauss struggles (and not always successfully so) for a measure of philological exactitude in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin, and the modern European tongues. He introduced me to Al Farabi, Maimonides, Xenophon, Marsilius, and Lucretius. And though he didn't introduce me to Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Hobbes, Locke, or Spinoza, he certainly showed me things in those writers that I would never have noticed otherwise. Yes, I think the book on Machiavelli is wildly, and even shockingly, perverse, but no more so, finally, than the writings on Machiavelli by most of Strauss's contemporaries. So why would anyone want to blow off a corpus of this magnitude? As for the so-called "Straussians," does there exist such a thing as an interesting or informative book by a "Straussian"? I'll pursue (most gratefully!) any leads you can provide (and it's obviousy not Schmitt or Kojeve I'm asking about). Finally, I doubt that anyone who has trouble tracking Strauss's dogmatic commitments could parse out much of anything. Strauss is utterly "exoteric".

Posted by: alabama | Apr 29 2005 14:22 utc | 94

Dear Alabama: If "philological exactitude" is something you value, what possible excuse can you have for using "liberal elite" in an argument? And, if I may, lists of philosophers one has read is less interesting than evidence of some insight.

Posted by: citizen k | Apr 29 2005 15:17 utc | 95


I don't reject the possibility that Strauss is being tendentious here,or that he makes too much of this one canonical distinction in the larger motion of his argument. But that's not the point you make, because you really don't care...

Bullshit. Really, complete bullshit. Yes or no, alabama, the passage confirms his own devotion to premodern philosophy as strategy to preserve recondite knowledge among "Those to whom such books are truly addressed." Note: this attitude is essentially antiliberal.

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 29 2005 15:30 utc | 96

Had I been a German-born political philosopher writing in English, and in 1952, citizen k, I might have supposed that the term "liberal elite" meant something to the readers of an essay being published in a learned English-language journal at that time. This is a guess, and I'd have to check it out to make sure. I do know that such attention to context is an elementary philological precaution, and I offer this point, in all good faith, as evidence of some sort of "insight" on my part--supposing, perhaps naively, that you posted your question, and your point about "lists," in a kindred spirit of good faith.

Posted by: alabama | Apr 29 2005 15:31 utc | 97

Don't tell me how to read carefully, slothrop. I know the problems posed by Strauss, and I'm not going to pretend they aren't there. I offered you an opportunity to parse the opening sentence of this essay early in the thread, and you simply ignored it. I also pointed out the sloppiness, even the violence, of your own lengthy citation further along, and you ignored that point as well. I'm not inclined to try one more time.

Posted by: alabama | Apr 29 2005 15:42 utc | 98

I'm inherently suspicious of any philosophical system who tries to do what Marx, Strauss and others have done, and the Noddy anecdote illustrates why.

Marx analysis of capital is not mysticism, it's science.

Marx's Hegelianism (proletarians not bourgeoisie are world historical class) is not scientific.

Posted by: slothrop | Apr 29 2005 15:47 utc | 99

Interesting comments Alabama, but I think I am content to have read the classics in my time without Strauss as my guide. I cannot see him as Virgil leading me out of Hell.

Posted by: diogenes | Apr 29 2005 16:11 utc | 100

next page »

The comments to this entry are closed.