Saturday, May 17, 2003

SIGH. I was really hoping to give up this blogging-in-defense-of-Strauss thing. I mean, there are so many people with fine minds who admire Strauss far more, and know his work far better, than I do, and whose understanding of his meaning and significance goes much deeper than mine. And some of them even have their own blogs. They should be able to cover this. Why can't I devote myself to championing thinkers I actually agree with (Isaiah Berlin, for instance ...)
Well, no one's currently writing about Berlinian conspiracies (now THAT would be interesting [actually did you know that several officials in the Clinton administration studied under Berlin or students of Berlin? And do you know where they were WHEN VINCE FOSTER 'DIED'??? NEITHER DO I!!!]), and caricaturing Berlin's thought in the process. Whereas with Strauss ...
And it keeps happening. And I just can't restrain myself.
The latest offender is William Pfaff, in the International Herald Tribune. Now, mind you, Brian Leiter has set the bar for commentary on Strauss so low, Pfaff's piece doesn't seem so bad. Sure, he grossly exaggerates the influence of Strauss, and falls into the conflations of early and later neo-conservatism and neo-conservatism and Straussianism that I've complained of before. But the real, and original, bloopers come when he talks about Strauss's views on America. (On the other hand, high points to Pfaff for realizing, and pointing out, that Strauss was deeply pessimistic and anti-utopian -- unlike many of today's 'neo-cons') He claims that Strauss regarded America as the most advanced modern regime -- that is, the most sunk in nihilism. Um ... couldn't be further from the truth. Strauss to some, not wholly known, extent, and his followers even more (though some more than others -- this is what makes Straussians from Claremont loathe Straussians from Toronto ...) (to the Straussians reading this: yes, I know I'm exaggerating. No, I'm not going to say which side I'm on ...)
Actually, according to Strauss (I think), and his followers (well, some of them at least), America is actually closer to classical republics than most other modern societies, and represents the best compromise between liberal democracy and classical natural right that the modern world has been able to achieve -- not perfect, of course, but much, much better than anything else around. And it's this commitment to a belief in the virtue and justice of the American regime and the principles underlying it -- and not, as Pfaff suggests, his advocacy of rule of the masses by an elite of deceptive philosophers -- that links the neo-cons to Strauss.
I don't know if Strauss actually believed in the rule of a philosophical elite; but I rather doubt it. Indeed, this reading of his work seems to me not just an error, but a travesty -- and a particularly unpleasant one when one considers the circumstances of Strauss's life (Note: Some, though by no means all, Straussians are very much against a 'historicist' interpretation of any thinker, Strauss included. This incidentally is one of the many reasons why I'm not a Straussian.) Strauss fled the Nazis; he saw the culture in which he had been raised -- the great tradition of German humanism which had formed him -- consumed by its own horrific demons. And he devoted his life to trying to figure out why. This may have led him down some pretty wild, and possibly mistaken, paths; but it was a serious, admirable quest.
And this experience is also, I think, what shaped his thinking about the relationship of the philosopher to society. For Strauss, the philosopher was in tension with the rest of society -- and in danger from it. Most people, whatever their moral virtues, are strongly committed to their unexamined opinions; the philosopher, in questioning those opinions, is a challenging, upsetting force. Therefore, the philosophers may need to hide their opinions, and acquiesce publicly to the prejudices of their time -- and therefore the wise philosopher will be strongly committed to safeguarding civil liberties, to preserve the freedom to philosophize. The model for the relationship of the philosopher to the city (Straussian-speak for the political community) for Strauss, in my reading, is the Platonic 'philosopher king' (apparently, none of the writers on Strauss -- Pfaff included -- have bothered to note that Strauss's reading of The Republic is directed in part to showing why Plato didn't, and couldn't, actually advocate such a thing). It's Socrates, codemned to death by the people of Athens for questioning the city's gods. (Something else not mentioned by most recent journalistic commentaries on Strauss: the major source for Strauss's theory of the deployment of exoteric, or public, and esoteric, or hidden, teachings by philosophers is a book called Persecution and the Art of Writing. That's PERSECUTION and the Art of Writing, not RULE BY THE PHILOSOPHICAL ELITE and the Art of Writing. Just in case that wasn't clear.)
Maybe this is why so many Straussians have, in fact, been in favour (some of them reluctantly -- and some have been opposed, by the way) of the war on Saddam: because they are aware of, and think seriously about, the experience of the dissident being crushed for questioning the ruling orthodoxies. This may be being overly charitable to them -- perhaps I'm being taken in by the 'exoteric' teachings of Strauss and his disciples. But I'd rather err on the side of interpretive generosity, than go along with the paranoid, unfair, and largely perverse calumnies of certain columnists.

Friday, May 16, 2003

AND SPEAKING OF DISINFORMATION: Seems like there's some doubt as to whether documents implicating British MP George Galloway as a paid agent of Saddam Hussein MAY be forgeries, and that the rescue of PFC Jessica Lynch MAY have been rather different than the way the US military-PR complex portrayed it. (Both stories courtesy of David over at what I'm beginning to think of nicknaming 'Even the Neo-Conservative OxBlog')
Of course, these reports are coming from the British press; so, they should not be taken as conclusive. On the other hand, the Galloway story initially came from the British press as well; and the Lynch story was fed to reporters by the US military/government.
So, basically, as yet we really don't know what's happened in either case. Again, as Sextus Empiricus would advise, we should suspend judgment -- until someone in the media (or even, dare I say it, the government -- you know, there is a view that the government ought to do its best to provide honest, accurate information, rather than engaging in constant spin. Whatever happened to that view?) does a proper job and establishes -- if it can ever be established -- just what's happened.
Still -- wouldn't it be nice to have a government, and some media outlet[s], that we could just trust? Ah well.
UPDATE: Also courtesy OxBlog, an article suggesting that America is, in fact, being ruled by a bunch of PR-experts. And the sad thing is -- it's working really well.

EVEN PARANOIDS HAVE ENEMIES: Seems like I could blog in response to Jermey Reff's blogging all day (and thanks for alerting me to the sad news of Mrs. Cash's passing, Jer). Well, I won't -- there's only so much positive attention one can give to La Jolla boys before one's blog starts looking like a piece of local boosterism -- but special mention must be made (and not just because he, er, refferences me) to Jeremy's mammoth post on conspiracy theories and the present administration.
Leaving aside the disquisition on the semiotics of conspiracy theories -- which I tried to read, I really did, but couldn't fathom -- and the argument that conspiracy theories ultimately don't work (well, a die-hard conspiracy theorist might reply, we only KNOW about the ones that DON'T work), Jeremy well articulates the growing sense of unease of many who really want to believe that the Bush administration is acting honestly and responsibly -- but can't help that notice that, well, very often it isn't.
Well. There's a surprise.
Seriously, though, I think Jeremy's quite right (at least in my reading of what he says) that this reflects not a conspiracy, but rather a policy of misinformation and/or manipulation of public opinion by a politically astute, power-jealous administration, an administration composed,I fear, of individuals who are so convinced -- or, in some cases (Karl Rove, maybe?), probably so unconcerned with -- their own rectitude and righteousness (uh-oh -- going into rhetorical overdrive again...), that they don't flinch at deceiving themselves or their countrymen, and don't recognize or bother to seek to rectify their own gross irresponsibility and inconsistency in action.
And that's one of the problems with these stupid conspiracy theories. It gets people so busy blaming -- and defending -- Strauss or Wohlstetter or whoever the Yiddishe guru of the hour is, that attention and conversation are drawn away from the really important subject -- what, in the names of democracy and security, the Bush administration is doing, or failing to do, or trying to but failing to do, to our country and our world.

GRAMMAR: CASE CLOSED. Apparently there's been this controversy floating around teh blogosphere in response to some obnoxious Weekly Standard article. Haven't really been following it. Feel I don't need to, now that Jeremy Reff has laid a righteous smackdown on the poor, benighted heads of those he appropriately calls 'nattering nabobs'. Nicely done.

SPEAKING OF MUSIC: My friend Chiansan has a very special post (for me, at least) up at his blog (he unfortunately doesn't have permalinks -- at all -- so just scroll down. The post in question is from Wednesday May 14. But you should scroll down past that -- many of his other posts are also excellent, and unlike most other things in the blogosphere -- or anywhere). The post is special in part because it's just thoughtfully and beautifully written, like most of what Chiansan writes, in part because Chiansan is one of my closest friends, and in part because it's about a song that's very important to both of us -- 'Blue Jeans' off of Blur's album Modern Life is Rubbish . I think of the song as a sort of join discovery on our part -- Chiansan introduced me to Blur by giving me Parklife as a present (and then borrowing it for a while ...), I introduced him to Modern Life ...
The song itself is, well, magical. Chiansan offers his own thoughts about it; I'll offer a few of mine. The song starts out with a sort of baggy drum beat, and then what I'm pretty sure is a harmonium (not an harmonica or accordian, certainly, as Chiansan wonders, and I think not an organ either). Then the vocals -- in harmony, and, as Chiansan notes, expressing both melancholy and contentment -- a gentle, sweet weariness. And that, along with a guitar, bass, maybe a piano somewhere in there?, is largely it. The effect is ineffable. To me, it ranks not only with Blur's best songs, but with the best songs of the Beatle's post-Sgt. Pepper's period (of course, I'm not such a big fan of that period, so that's sort of faint praise. But, really, any comparison of pop music to the Beatles is positive).
The song has special resonance for me, since I associate it very strongly with a particular period of my life, towards the end of college, which was both very content, and very melancholy -- and very anxious, as well, since I myself didn't want anything to change, and knew that it soon would. The song encapsulates and evokes that time for me; and yet also transcends it -- in that I can still appreciate the song's beauty just as much with that time behind me.
As Chiansan notes, the song doesn't really end -- it fades out with a sort of unformed piano figure coming in and just sort of running down. And this, too, is perfectly fitting. Because there's really no way to end it -- the song is largely about inertia, about being enrapt in a particular place -- and yet, it has to fade out somehow; because nothing really does stay the same way forever. And so it ends inconclusively, as things often do. And we therefore don't really remember the end; we remember the repetitive, sustained body of the song, the experience of it, the echo of which continues on in our memories. In that way, because it's ending sort of vanishes, it does in a sense go on forever -- or something of it does.
Ultimately, of course, it's a song about love. All the best ones are, aren't they?

Thursday, May 15, 2003

It's occurred to me (thanks largely to an e-mail exchange with Dan Drezner) that, now that there may actually be a few people reading this blog who don't already know me, it might be a good idea to have some information on who, exactly, I am, posted somewhere (I'll leave it to my occassional co-blogger Rob to tell people more about himself -- or not, as the case may be).
So. Here goes.
I'm a grad student at Oxford University, studying (supposedly) Modern History, residing in Balliol College, and focussing my scholarly activities on 20th century British intellectual history. My work starts with the thought of Isaiah Berlin, and seeks to trace Berlin's intellectual development, and relate it to his responses to earlier thinkers and, primarilly, to the political events and cultural/intellectual trends of his own day (which means the 1940s, '50s and early '60s; I'm not really looking at Berlin's later work or life, as I think all the real changes in his thought occurred earlier). I also hope, related to this, to reconstruct and make a case for Cold War liberalism as an intellectual, and even a philosophical, as opposed to just political, position and movement.
I got my BA in Political Science from Yale College in May 2002, where I also worked on Berlin's thought, and studied under a number of wonderful teachers, one of whom -- the estimable Steven Smith -- fostered an abiding interest on my part in a certain scholar of political thought. This summer (as of July) I'll be returning to fair New Haven to teach political philosophy in the Yale Summer Program.
In my free time, which is more plentiful than it should be, I pursue various interests -- philosophy (political and otherwise), literature (mainly English and Russian), music (mainly Baroque and rock of various shades), politics, culinary matters, film, and sundry intellectual and cultural developments as I may notice them. I also spend a good deal of time, though not enough, keeping up with friends from college, keeping up with friends here in Oxford, and walking around Oxford's parks; and a good deal of time, and rather more than I should, sitting, talking, and drinking in smoke-filled pubs. Well, it is England, isn't it?
My political perspective should become clear -- or as clear as it is -- from the contents of this blog. I think of myself as a liberal; not every reader may agree with this self-definition (to my credit or discredit).
So, that's me.
Oh, anyone wanting an explantion of why this blog is called what it's called, the explanation is here.

TERROR AND TACKINESS UPDATE: It took a little while, but the media is once again starting to run with the story of Saddam's atrocious taste in art and furnishings -- check out this overview of Saddam's, and other monstrous rulers', aesthetic enormities. It's pretty comprehensive, if not exactly profound in it's insights -- there's nary a mention of Nabokov or Arendt in it (or of the masterful observations of the deserving Mr. Reff)

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

OFF THE HOOK: I haven't posted anything about the Jayson Blair scandal because I've been hoping that someone else would be able to express my thoughts on it more clearly and cohesively than I could (without putting more effort into it than I really want to). I was beginning to worry that this wouldn't happen, and I'd have to write something myself. But now TNR (who know from fraudulent journalists -- sorry, but someone had to say it) has come to my rescue with this excellent item explaining why the Blair debacle isn't an example of the inherent evils of affirmative action, but of how certain organizations -- or, rather, the individuals who run them -- make bad decisions.

PUTTING THE BULLY CLUB AWAY: This is an excellent post from the Rittenhouse Review on our efforts to deal with the reality of terrorism -- and why the Bush administration's policies aren't going to cut it. (Link courtesy of the ever-valued Marstonalia)

STILL MORE ON STRAUSS: Hapilly, I don't actually have to write any more on the 'cabal of Straussians dictating US foreign policy canard' -- Dan Drezner does a fine, quick demolition job on all the conspiracy-mongering (with plentiful quotes from Richard Hofstadter, another one of my favourites) in TNR (he's also, in a post on his blog linked to the TNR article, kind enough to mention my own posts on the subject -- thanks!)

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

WITH ALLIES LIKE THESE ... After our recent alienation of 'Old Europe', now might not be the best time to start picking on our allies. At the same time, I tend to think that many current crises -- especially in the Middle East -- stem from our having been too indulgent towards certain allies for too long. Jeremy makes the point with regards to Saudi Arabia; agreed. But I think the Bush administratio might also remind Ariel Sharon that America is Israel's only dependable friend, that we've under-written most of the military he's using to keep his damned settlements, and that we take a lot of heat for that -- and for that reason, to say nothing of the fact that it involves the continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people, and is a suicidal as well as unjust policy for Israel to continue pursuing, he might just want to THINK about changing his policy on the settlements.
Hopefully his recent statements are just bluster, a sop for the far-right of his party. But if he means business ... Well, we've seen what holding onto the settlements has done, and I think we all know what continuing to do so will mean. And, while I've never accepted arguments justifying terrorist attacks against Israel, or widespread anti-semitism among Israel's neighbours, in the name of Israeli culpability, if Sharon persists, some of the blood that will continue to flow will be on his hands, some of the blame on his head; and his name will be a curse on the future of his country.
UPDATE: Wow. For once, a post of mine has actually done some good. Not in effecting any changes in policy, of course, but in helping to prompt this post from Jeremy Reff. Jeremy pretty much says the same thing as I did -- only with little things like analysis, factual knowledge, and argumentation thrown in.
Well. If you like that sort of stuff. (And if you do, you should definitely read Jeremy's post. I also recommend, on a very different note, his account of his meeting with Cornel West. Now I can add Jeremy to the list of people I know who have improbably been called 'brother' by Cornel West. Ok, so it's only a two-person list. Whatever.)

David Aaronovitch offers a moving, compelling account of life in Gaza -- and why the Israeli occupation cannot but yield suffering for all involved. Then, he switches gears, and has fun with national stereotypes. A double must-read.

David Adesnik's awesome post proposing a liberal foreign policy deserves a read -- and a better response than I'm capable of supplying, either at the moment or, as a near-foreign-policy-illiterate, ever. But, here are a few thoughts.
David starts with history; I, of course, start a level down from that -- with the word-set 'liberalism' 'liberal' etc. What, as G.E. Moore and most English philosophers thereafter might say, do we MEAN by that? Well, as it happens, this I do know a little about -- indeed, I'm currently trying to come up with thumbnail characterizations of the conceptions of freedom of all the major historical variants of European liberalism (ah, joy!), so I've been thinking about this (I highly recommend Alan Kahan's book Aristocratic Liberalism for those interested in such things, as a particularly good example of such a typology of one strain of liberalism, and Michael Freeden's account of The New Liberalism as another; if anyone knows any similar works on earlier periods, please let me know!)
Anyway, this is largely tangential to David's point, so I won't go down that favourite alleyway of mine any further. But, let's remember that 'liberal' has many meanings -- which means it has no very clear meaning. Even if we talk only about contemporary liberalism (which Dave, with his return to Woodrow Wilson, doesn't do), the term has vastly different meanings on either side of the Atlantic -- to say nothing about it's particular connotations in political philosophy. David's account suggests that respect for individual rights -- presumably as a top, if not THE top, priority -- is the essence of liberalism as he understands it. Which sounds fair enough; I at least am happy with that. Ok, question answered.
David's holding up of Truman and Kennedy as models of a good liberal foreign policy seems largely reasonable to me -- though he doesn't note Truman's acquiesence to deeply illiberal policies at home -- loyalty oaths and whatnot. This is not insignificant; preserving a respect for civil liberties at home, regardless of what happens internationally, should be a key commitment, and goal, of liberal policy. As for Kennedy, I'm not sure that the Bay of Pigs or Vietnam are good models for American foreign policy. So, yes, Kennedy's approach to Latin America (about which David knows a particularly great deal, and I know zilch) seems to have been a good model, Cuba aside (maybe?) But liberals have a lot to learn, I think, about what not to do, as well as what to do, from Kennedy and Truman (and they -- and others of different political stripes - can also learn how easy it is to make mistakes while pursuing a noble cause -- and how often the more intense a belief in teh cause's, and one's own, nobility, the bigger the mistake. Not that I have anyone in mind here ...)
But this is an argument for an appreciation of limitation and tragic uncertainty and fallibility -- one might almost say humility, if Bush hadn't used the term (insincerely); not about what a liberal foreign policy involves. Ok. As far as liberalism goes, I think David gets half of the picture (or maybe two thirds, or so) -- a commitment to promoting democracy (I'd specify, following Fareed Zakaria, LIBERAL democracy) around the world. But liberalism -- or at least one strand of it, and I think a wise strand [can strands be wise? -- ed] -- also involves a suspicion of too great a concentration of power as tending to lead to its misuse. Hence Acton's now cliched saying about absolute power corrupting absolutely; and Constant's somewhat fresher, and generally more imaginative, comment that it isn't that the hand that hold's the sword is bad -- it's that some swords are too heavy for even the best hands to wield.
Then there's also Rawls' position -- which I think it safe to say is a good representative of the liberal position in this case -- that we should only intervene in the affairs of other countries if they violate the fundamental human rights of their subjects, but not to promote, or impose, our own values. So, preventing genocide -- and toppling genocidal dictatorships -- is fine; but trying to promote democracy generally, even when the society in question isn't actually groaning under the rule of a particularly brutal and oppressive dictator, isn't. Interventionism on moral grounds is sometimes necessary; but so are limits to it. (On the other hand, J.S. Mill -- another paradigmatic liberal -- as a consequentialist believed in a wider scope for foreign intervention to promote liberal values or principles. He also put this view into practice, as one of the British administrators who ran India from London. That now seems like less than complete success from a liberal perspective.)
So, a truly liberal foreign policy necessarily involves an attempt to balance between our good intentions and ardent desires to see democracy and human rights triumph everywhere -- and our fear of assuming too much power in pursuing this goal, and in the process losing sight of, or undermining, it. This is, I think one reason why liberals don't have a single, agreed-on foreign policy -- there's too much ambivalence and internal diagreement, too many scruples, perhaps too much moderation.
Oh, wait a minute. Am I talking about liberals in general, or just me? I dunno. At this hour of night, or morning, the difference becomes blury to me ...
Ok. Gotta go channel J.S. Mill now.
UPDATE: Jeremy Reff -- who's return to the blgosphere is cause for celebration -- offers a typically interesting and provocative perspective on the original post to which David was responding (as for the opening thesis of Totten's post -- that liberals and Leftists are bored by the outside world -- I think it's largely rubbish. I think that liberals and Leftists are more distracted by domestic politics, because domestic politics have been going so very much not their way; and that many tend to feel overwhelmed and defeated by the sheer enormity of the challenges to liberal/progressive ideals abroad. On the other hand, I've found liberals and Leftists to generally be more likely to idealize, and try to learn from, other cultures than conservatives -- which can be both a good and a bad thing, both in terms of foreign policy, and in terms of much else. Also, as Jeremy notes, it hardly seems fair to judge liberal/Left intellectuals based on The Nation. But, Kieran Healy has already done a good job mocking Totten' style of argumentation, so I won't attempt to do so as well.) (Note also Matt Yglesias's response to David, and David's response to Matt, Kieran, and Armed Liberal, which also includes a discussion of the excellent work of Walter Russel Mead ... and so on, down the echo corridor.)
FURTHER UPDATE: Add to that Archidamus' THREE posts (starting here; really just one post, broken up), ranging over the nature of war, how to fight war, the relation of war to democracy building, etc.

Monday, May 12, 2003

I quite enjoyed this post from Brett Marston -- but I don't see what's so special about its conclusion. I know I think of Josh Chafetz and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith together in the same thought all the time.

AND YET STILL MORE ON STRAUSS: The Boston Globe now joins in the Strauss-hunt, with this article.
Where to begin? How about with the beginning?:
"ODD AS THIS MAY SOUND, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss,"
It does sound pretty odd, actually. Let's see how they prove this one ...
"a controversial philosopher who died in 1973. Although generally unknown to the wider population, Strauss has been one of the two or three most important intellectual influences on the conservative worldview now ascendant in George W. Bush's Washington."
I can't help but think that talk of an intellectual influence on Georege W. Bush is reminiscent of talk of epicurean influences on McDonald's; how swayed by abstract ideas do all these Strauss-hunting journos think our President is?
"Eager to get the lowdown on White House thinking, editors at the New York Times and Le Monde have had journalists pore over Strauss's work"
If the Times article was the result of someone 'poring' over Strauss's work, I don't think much of the author's 'poring' skills.
"and trace his disciples' affiliations. The New Yorker has even found a contingent of Straussians doing intelligence work for the Pentagon."
If by 'contingent', you mean 'one'.
But picking on the opening is unfair; not all is so bad; the list of Straussians who have held significant positions in the US government is pretty good -- it includes most of the Straussians or semi-Straussians who have been in government (including, unlike earlier lists, Clinton advisor and neo-liberal Bill Galston), and doesn't include a lot of people who aren't, actually, Straussians. It also shows that there have been Strauss or Straussian-trained or influenced government officials since the Ford administration, sprinkled fairly evenly; so it's hardly a matter, it would seem, of sudden predominance. Yet the article, of course, doesn't draw this conclusion. (It also, of course, doesn't go into questions such as how Galston's somewhat Strauss-inflected Aristotelian critique of Rawlsian deontological liberalism influenced the domestic policy of the first Clinton administration. Now THAT would be an interesting topic to write about; yet none of the Strauss-hunters seem interested in it. Pity.)
Some bits of info are new to me, too. For instance, I knew Shadia Drury's interpretation of Strauss -- treated by many who don't know much about Strauss as authoritative, since it's been put between the covers of a book -- is grossly hostile, indeed inquisitorial; I didn't know that she'd go to the extent of calling him a 'Jewish Nazi'. When you start calling someone who fled Germany in the '30s, and I would assume lost family in the Holocaust, a Nazi, it seems to me you've abandoned any pretense, or claim, to moral seriousness. So, for exposing the similarities between Drury's 'scholarship' and the rantings of Lyndon Larouche's followers, at least, the article is useful.
I'm not sure if the club of Strauss's admirers and disciples in academia is so 'large'. My Straussian friends and correspondents inform me that it's actually really quite small; yet I seem to know an awful lot of Straussians. May say more about me than the academy, though.
The author (Jeet Heer) seems to have actually studied Strauss's life, and know a bit about his works, even if the interpretation presented is perhaps too dependent on the interpretations of hostile scholars such as Drury and the somewhat less egregious Stephen Holmes. He also quotes Thomas Fleming, who's only claim to be here is that he's a critic of Strauss from the Right (and one with a good record of exposing the crimes and plots of fake conservatives -- most of whom just happen to be Jewish). Just how much of an elitist Strauss was remains open to debate -- the key texts with regard to this question, to my mind, are his essays on liberal education, which not many of the recent writers on Strauss's influence seem to have read; I personally think that he was, but an elitist of a somewhat less authoritarian sort than many of the recent articles on him claim. But I'm not sure -- just as I'm not sure if Strauss's atheism meant, as the article claims, that he didn't really believe in natural law, and also (as the article doesn't really discuss) that his argument that revelation was not open to critique by reason was just exoteric posturing. (It would help my trust of Heer's judgment on such matters if he were better at interpreting Stanley Rosen's comment that Straussians are 'epicureans' -- by which I would assume Rosen meant that they adopt the policy of self-control and moderation advocated by the ancient Epicureans, but which Heer seems to think is a reference to Allan Bloom's eating, and other, habits. Sigh)
One final note: Heer says that, "if you read Strauss with a skeptical mind, the way he himself read the great philosophers, a more disturbing picture takes shape ... [he] emerges as ... a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity. The worst thing you can do to Leo Strauss, perhaps, is to read his books with Straussian eyes."
Well, that's a nicely ironic filip. Pity it gets things so wrong. First, like so many these days, Heer confuses 'skeptical' with 'cynical' -- this is, I'm increasingly convinced, the source of much of the intellectual weakness of our time. Secondly, though, despite his 'esotericism' (which I have problems with), what Strauss most certainly didn't do was to read those he studied in a cynical, or hostile, way. One of his great contributions to the study of the history of ideas was his advocacy and practice of a 'hermeneutics of generosity', as opposed to the 'hermeneutics of suspicion' -- which often amounts to a hermenteutics of calumny -- practiced by so many academics today (Shadia Drury and Stephen Holmes among them). This, maybe, is one reason why Strauss and his disciples have been, and remain, so attractive to students -- including students like myself who disagree strongly with them: they take thinkers of the past seriously, and treat them with respect -- and so cultivate a genuine skepticism (at least on some matters), rather than the flip,smug -- and thus ultimately complaceny -- cynicism that so often characterizes, and predominates in, the academy.
Dangerous, indeed.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

CRAWLING DOWN THE LADDER: STILL MORE ON STRAUSS Silly me. I thought I’d seen most of the depths to which Strauss-bashing (and Straussian-baiting) can descend. I was, of course, wrong – and I should’ve remembered that, for every political theorist who regards Strauss with suspicion and fear, there’s a philosopher who regards Strauss with withering, dismissive contempt. The former at least take Strauss seriously; the latter don’t. The former may be ideologically prejudiced, they may be intolerant – and some of them may be right (who knows; maybe Strauss WAS really a Nietzschean?). The latter are just a bunch of pompous, narrow-minded, intellectually dogmatic and desiccated specialists who are reminiscent of nothing so much as the Schoolmen of the Middle Ages – and indeed, probably somewhat worse; they cannot recognize the claims to validity of anything that doesn’t conform to their own academic standards.
Brian Leiter [you'll need to scroll down] provides a case in point. While many (myself included) were annoyed with the Times’ article for not taking Strauss’s ideas seriously enough (and for getting a number of things wrong), Leiter is pissed-off because the Times took Strauss TOO seriously. Far from being an example of anti-Straussian paranoia, the Times’ article is part of a conspiracy by the big media to ‘fraudulent’ly portray Strauss as a serious thinker.
Well. Where to begin?
Leiter seems willing to accept that Strauss and his students’ work is grossly inaccurate and devoid of serious argumentation because Myles Burnyeat says so. Now, I respect Burnyeat’s classical scholarship a lot, from what little I know; but I think it’s important to stress that his approach – and, it would seem, Leiter’s – is just that, a particular approach, deeply informed by recent Anglophone analytical philosophy, as well as the classical philology of the same period and place, with it’s own standards of what qualifies as valid or serious argumentation.
Now, Burnyeat and Leiter may well be right that Strauss and his students do mis-read the classical philosophers – indeed, I tend to think that they do. But, first of all, I have problems with scholars and thinkers who claim that the readings of other scholars of texts as unfamiliar, difficult and ambiguous as Plato’s and Aristotle’s works are DEFINITELY and COMPLETELY wrong. This is surely not the argument of a good skeptic (Burnyeat’s close studies of Ancient Skepticism notwithstanding.) Furthermore, even if Strauss and co. ARE wrong about the meaning of the texts they seek to interpret – and again, I can readily believe this – and even if they’re also wrong in the substantive points they make, the fact is that they DO make substantive points, and based both on a wide range and deep store of learning (or at least Strauss himself and his best pupils do), and a strenuous engagement with serious questions. To criticize Strauss’ reading of Plato is perfectly just (so long as it reflects genuine learning, and is based on substantive claims -- unlike Leiter's categorical, unsubstantiated, derivative put-down); but to regard such a criticism as allowing one to completely dismiss Strauss and his project, without engaging with Strauss’s account of modernity, or his ideas about the nature of philosophy, the shortcomings of the social sciences, the problems of political life, the interrelationships of religion, philosophy, and politics, the meaning of nature – this is a failure to engage with Strauss at all. As such, it is a sign of intellectual failing -- though whether that intellectual failing is arrogance, laziness, or cowardice, I can't say.
But this isn’t the real point. What’s at stake here, as Leiter makes plain, is the title and meaning of philosophy. Simply put, the Straussians define philosophy one way – a way deeply influenced by certain traditions in Western philosophy, mainly classical philosophy as read through the lens of later, especially post-Kantian German, philosophy. Leiter and co. define philosophy in a different, more narrowly professional, way. For the Straussians, philosophy is defined by its systematic scope – it is an attempt to understand the whole of existence as a whole, rather than as a sum of parts; for Leiter’s sort of philosopher, philosophy is, I’d guess (though of course Leiter, while going on and on about how the Straussians aren’t philosophers and don’t deserve the name, doesn’t actually explain what philosophy does involve. But this is, I suppose, too self-evident to need stating. Which is about as unphilosophical attitude as I can think of.), a matter of employing a particular technique of argument and analysis. Ok, fair enough. I think philosophy encompasses, but isn’t restricted to, both of these meanings. Leiter, though, doesn’t, it would seem. The house of philosophy only has so many rooms; not everyone can fit in. And it’s Leiter and his buddies who should own the house, and decide who can be thrown out.
It’s not surprising that Leiter is, among other things, a Nietzsche scholar (and a famous tracker of trends in the academic-philosophical profession): his screed seems to me to come from a desire for power, and a naked careerism – a greater concern with determining, or dictating, who’s in and who’s out as far as philosophy goes, than a desire for truth (his ‘evidence’ that Straussians can’t be real philosophers or classicists because they aren’t employed by ‘major’ philosophy or classics departments is telling; philosophical merit, it would appear, is the right of the stronger.). But let’s remember that ‘philosophy’ means love of the truth. Leiter seems to be a lover of opinion – and of power.
So, who’s not a philosopher here?

Post Script: Leiter snobbishly refers to Paul Wolfowitz as an ‘intellectual lightweight’ and ‘political hack’. An intellectual lightweight who, in addition to his scholarly as well as active contributions to international relations, is also a brilliant mathematician who’s made contributions to that field despite not pursuing it professionally beyond his BA. Uh-huh. At least Wolfowitz, if he is a political hack, knows well enough to restrict his political hackishness to politics – and not to apply it to academia.

Post-Post Script: I haven’t spoken of Ted Hinchman’s attempt (also scroll up from the link for later posts) to mount a defense of Strauss against what he correctly views as Leiter’s ‘bullying’ – despite his own earlier, but far more substantive and reasonable, critique of Strauss (be sure to read the comments as well). Hinchman, an analytic philosopher seemingly free of Leiter’s dogmatism, who reads widely, ultimately can’t manage it – he finds Strauss’s tone intolerable, and his arguments full of unsupported leaps. Well, I sympathize – I’m also sometimes put off by Strauss’s style and tone (even more that of some, though by no means all, of his students), and whenever I read him I find plenty to be bothered by, and argue with, and reject. But, unlike Hinchman I guess, I find this botherment and disagreement to be profitable – Strauss is, I’ve said, a great gadfly, a useful provocation and spur to thought. And, even if you think that his arguments don’t ultimately convince, or even hold together – that they involve too many assumptions that Strauss never adequately justifies, or genuinely questions – the sheer learning, brilliance, and above all intellectual engagement and concentration of the man are deeply impressive – and beneficial in calling us to emulate them. (The comments on Ted’s posts are also worth reading. Clifford Bates makes one error, though, so far as I can tell: he says that Wolfowitz studied first with Morgenthau, and then with Strauss and Bloom because Morgenthau encouraged him to. But, so far as I know, Wolfowitz came under Bloom’s influence – one might say spell – as an undergrad at Cornell, and then went to Chicago – where he studied with both Morgenthau and Strauss, as well as Wohlstetter, largely because Bloom encouraged him to. If this isn’t true, I hope someone will let me know; I have this on personal authority from a classmate of Wolfowitz’s at Cornell.)

MORE, AGAIN, ON STRAUSS: Many thanks to everyone who’s written me in response to my posts on Strauss, the Straussians, the neo-cons, old uncle Al Wohlstetter and all (and to everyone kind enough – Brett Marston, David Adesnik at OxBlog, Jacob Levy at Volokh, Matt Yglesias, and Archidamus, as well as anyone else who’s posts I missed – thanks guys!).
Several readers were kind enough to point out errors of fact in the NY Times article that I missed, or confirm that what I suspected were errors of fact, were in fact errors.
My own Straussian teacher from Yale writes that ‘There were several errors of fact in the Atlas article. He says that Strauss "witnessed Russian pogroms." False. Strauss never visited Russia. He describes preposterously Albert Wohlstetter as "a Straussian professor." This certainly would have been news to Wohlstetter …Third, he claims that Strauss asserted "the natural right of the stronger." Does this mean that Strauss endorsed Thrasymachus over Socrates? A strange claim to make. [Unless one buys the Shadia Drury reading of Strauss and his students as closet Nietzscheans – and closet other things. It’s interesting, btw, given Drury’s own harping on Strauss and students’ misogyny, that so many of her fellow liberals have endorsed her account without noting its vaguely homophobic overtones.] And finally, he confuses Brasidas with Alcidas in Thucydides.” [This last, by the way, is the sign of a true Straussian; I of course missed that one!]
Another correspondent, Robert Schwartz (who has his own blog), who was an undergrad at Chicago in the late ‘60s, confirms my impression that Strauss left Chicago before Shulsky and Wolfowitz took their doctorates, and that they therefore probably didn’t, contra Hersh, receive their doctorates under him. He says Strauss left Chicago for Claremont in 1966, while the Times article says he left in 1968; Straussian.net says 1967. So, we have a range here. I’d be inclined to just go with ’67 for the moment, as splitting the difference; in any event, the point is clear – Strauss was gone by the time Shulsky and Wolfowitz got their doctorates. Schwartz goes on to write: “Shulsky's 1966 MA thesis was: "The Platonic critique of sophistic politics: the Protagoras" and his 1972 Ph.D. dissertation was: The "Infrastructure" of Aristotle's Politics" These are impeccable Straussian topics. Shulsky may have studied with Strauss while he was getting his MA, but he must have written his dissertation under Joseph Cropsey…” [UPDATE: Michael Kochin, a very good student of Strauss's work, informs me that Shulsky did do his doctoral dissertation under Strauss's direction; so, a point for Sy Hersh there!] Wolfowitz, though, as my correspondent informs me, wrote his dissertation on "Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East: the politics and economics of proposals for nuclear desalting" under the supervision of Albert Wohlstetter – see above. Schwartz also helpfully explains: “Real Straussians never did current events in class. And the late 60's was not an era that was not conscious of current events. Wholsteter was ... one of those political science types who liked to apply game theory and mathematical modeling to questions of nuclear deterance. Wolfowitz had been a Math major at Cornell. I do not know if he intersected Bloom there [according to a friend of mine who was also at Cornell at the time, Wolfowitz was a Bloom disciple – a view backed up by Bellow’s Ravelstein]. The Scientific Political Science Profesors had their offices in Pick Hall at the south east corner of the Quadrangle at Chicago, but Cropsey’s office was on the west side.” [Talk about being ghettoized!] He also points out that the number of Straussians, and their influence on academia as a whole, is small.
I’ve also, since writing my original posts, discovered Brian Leiter’s outrageous calumny against Strauss. But this, and Ted Hinchman’s replies to it, require a separate post.

OxBLOG'S ON ANOTHER ROLL: Check out Patrick's excellent, and very useful, guide to Who's Who in post-war Iraq; then, as pendants to this jewel, it'd be good to check out David's various parsings of the news from occupied Iraq -- which one could easily do if the permalinks were working. But they seem not to be at the moment; so you'll just have to start at the top and scroll dow. Ah well.

THE UNIVERSITY, CONT"D: Archidamus has caught me out on some self-contradications in my post, below, on the university.
Part of this inconsistency is merely the result of my going into rhetorical overdrive at the end my post, as I have a bad tendency to do. However, it is also, in part, due to a genuine inconsistency, or ambivalence, in my thinking, between a more thorough-going egalitarianism and pluralism, and a more hierarchical view of what is valuable.
In any event, I never meant to suggest that the life of the mind itself, or the life of a scholar, is superior to other lives, or that the values that the university is -- or should be -- dedicated to are the best, or only worthy, values. But I do, at the same time, think that some things are more valuable or important than others -- that poetry really is better than push-pin (even if I from time to time -- indeed, all too often -- prefer push-pin, or at least equivalent activities, to poetry.) And I think that there is a difference between something being better across the board than everything else, and being nobler (since nobility is itself but one value). And when I spoke of 'that which is most noble in our world', I didn't mean only scholarship or book-learning, but all disinterested curiosity, devotion to thought and imagination, to truth and beauty, in any form. But, even so, I really should have said 'MUCH OF that which is most noble in our world,' since there is obviously a sort -- indeed, many sorts -- of moral nobility which the university doesn't necessarily have anything to do with (and, all too often, most definitely DOESN'T have anything to do with.)
I'd incidentally make a clarification about Wayne's summary of my argument that our culture of 'thoughtless instrumentalism' is the price we pay for living in a more open, diverse, egalitarian society. Actually, I meant to suggest that a sort of cultural relativism, in which no particular activity or value or set of values could claim special authority over everyone in society, and which therefore elevates, say, Jerry Springer to the same level of worth as Shakespeare (as anyone who's recently been in London and noted the relative lines for Henry the Fifth and Jerry!: The Opera, will know), is the price of our relatively liberal and egalitarian society. Instrumentalism is another matter; it does seem to be closely linked to this tendency, but I think it's implications are actually different, and more dangerous. I merely diverse and relativistic society would allow the universities to get on about their own business, not particularly generously perhaps, but without bothering too much if the universities did their own thing. An instrumentalist mindset, which views everything as needing to justify itself in terms of some sort of social utility, on the other hand, is what leads to aggressive demands that the university place social utility above purely intellectual goals -- which is what bothered me in the education secretary's statement to which I was initially responding.
As for the bit about 'rational faith', it is admittedly a paradox - but not quite so incoherent a one as Archidamus suggests. By 'rational' there I simply meant that I could give reasons for why I believe what I believe, and why it's so important to me. It remains a faith because, while the reasons for my commitment to the university and what it represents can be articulated, they won't, I suspect, win adherence from anyone who doesn't already accept these values as valuable in the first place.

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