Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Beyond Podhoretz: The Neocon Godfather Was Leo Strauss

There's been buzz on the blogs about how Rudy Giuliani has named Norman Podhoretz, longtime Commentary editor, neocon icon and 2004 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to his foreign policy team. The significance is that Podhoretz believes that the U.S. is in a world war against "Islamofascism," and that he advocates pre-emptive bombing of Iran to prevent their obtaining nuclear weapons.

It's troubling that one of the leading GOP candidates will be getting advice from Podhoretz, who believed that the Nixon administration was guilty of "appeasement" policies during its later years. But beyond this, it's important to look back at the origin of things. Let's go retro for a moment, and remember Leo Strauss (1899-1973), perhaps the intellectual founder of what we now call neoconservatism.

Wikipedia provides good background on Strauss. That's easy to look up, so I won't rehash much. The lead of his biography describes him as:

... a German-born Jewish-American political philosopher who specialized in the study of classical political philosophy. He spent most of his career as a Political Science Professor at the University of Chicago, where he taught several generations of devoted students and published fifteen books. Since his death, he has come to be regarded as an intellectual source of neoconservatism in the United States.

Strauss explored broad philosophical ground that cannot be done justice in a short post. But there is a passage in the Wikipedia bio that is extraordinarily revealing about the nature of neoconservatism:

Liberalism and nihilism
Strauss taught that liberalism in its modern form contained within it an intrinsic tendency towards relativism, which in turn led to two types of nihilism ... The first was a “brutal” nihilism, expressed in Nazi and Marxist regimes. These ideologies, both descendants of Enlightenment thought, tried to destroy all traditions, history, ethics and moral standards and replace it by force with a supreme authority from which nature and mankind are subjugated and conquered. ... The second type — the "gentle" nihilism expressed in Western liberal democracies — was a kind of value-free aimlessness and hedonism, which he saw as permeating the fabric of contemporary American society. ... In the belief that 20th century relativism, scientism, historicism, and nihilism were all implicated in the deterioration of modern society and philosophy, Strauss sought to uncover the philosophical pathways that had led to this situation. The resultant study led him to revive classical political philosophy as a source by which political action could be judged. ...

Noble lies and deadly truths
Strauss noted that thinkers of the first rank, going back to Plato, had raised the problem of whether good and effective politicians could be completely truthful and still achieve the necessary ends of their society. By implication, Strauss asks his readers to consider whether it is true that "noble lies" have no role at all to play in uniting and guiding the polis. Are "myths" needed to give people meaning and purpose and to ensure a stable society? Or can men dedicated to relentlessly examining, in Nietzsche's language, those "deadly truths", flourish freely? Thus, is there a limit to the political, and what can be known absolutely? In The City and Man, Strauss discusses the myths outlined in Plato's Republic that are required for all governments. These include a belief that the state's land belongs to it even though it was likely acquired illegitimately, and that citizenship is rooted in something more than the accidents of birth. Seymour Hersh observes that Strauss endorsed "noble lies": myths used by political leaders seeking to maintain a cohesive society.

Ideas are what separate humans from beasts; but the nasty downside, which became all too evident during the 20th century, is that they can be toxic. What Strauss so effectively re-introduced to a generation of American political philosophy students is the Machiavellian notion (although he had differences with Machiavelli) that it's OK to lie for reasons of state. Not that all governments don't do that to some degree. But when it becomes a guiding philosophy -- well, you get what Americans have been subjected to for the past 6 and 1/2 years.

The Wikipedia article goes on:

Critics of Strauss accuse him of mendacious populism (while actually being elitist), radical illiberalism and indeed anti-democratic sentiment. Shadia Drury, author of 1999's Leo Strauss and the American Right, argues that Strauss taught different things to different students, and inculcated an elitist strain in American political leaders that is linked to imperialist militarism and Christian fundamentalism. Drury accuses Strauss of teaching that "perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what's good for them." Nicholas Xenos similarly argues that Strauss "was not an anti-liberal in the sense in which we commonly mean "anti-liberal" today, but an anti-democrat in a fundamental sense, a true reactionary. Strauss was somebody who wanted to go back to a previous, pre-liberal, pre-bourgeois era of blood and guts, of imperial domination, of authoritarian rule, of pure fascism."

Despite the described link to fundamentalism, Strauss himself wasn't even a conservative Jew -- he was an atheist. Religion, it seems, was useful to pacify the ignorant mass of brutes, the rubes.

Who has been influenced by Strauss' ideas? This is from NNDB:

Influential political figures who have studied directly under Strauss (or under someone else who did) include: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, Weekly Standard editor and former Quayle Chief of Staff Bill Kristol, author Allan Bloom, and former New York Post editorials editor John Podhoretz.

John Podhoretz happens to be Norman's son. Well, that's our neocon lesson for today. Any questions, class?