Friday, June 27, 2003

STILL MORE STRAUSSED OUT: For still more protestations of innocence, see these articles by Straussian operative -- er, I mean, teacher -- Clifford Orwin in the National Post (thanks to my friend PL for telling me about them). Orwin's defense of Strauss and criticism of conspiracy mongering is far from unpredictable, and most of his points have been made before; but he does a good job making them, and an account of Strauss's thought from such a prominent Straussian scholar, couched in such accessible terms, is welcome.
There are also two very good letters to the NY Times in response to Jenny Strauss Clay's op-ed piece, which I hadn't noticed; Jonathan Lear's point, comparing Strauss' influence with that of Rawls, is particularly interesting (Lear seems to have a penchant for defending unpopular thinkers -- cf his tireless, attractive, and unconvincing recent championing of Freud)
Incidentally, it's interesting to note, as Orwin does, that the most prominent person with Straussian connections in the Bush administration is Paul Wolfowitz (who is a Strauss-Bloom/Wohlstetter hybrid, rather than a pure, dyed-in-the-wool Straussian [gosh this is getting ridiculous!]). Wolfowitz, for all his faults (sometimes seemingly paranoid obsession with Iraq, belief in using US military power to promote -- or impose -- democracy all over the world, etc.), seems to be the senior official most consistently and sincerely dedicated to democracy promotion in the administration. So, maybe his exposure to Straussian ideas about natural right and political virtue wasn't an entirely bad thing -- and other members of the administration, whose commitments to democracy seem more opportunistic, could benefit from more, rather than less, 'Straussianism'.
Though actually, it seems to me, what the US and the world really need is just less Bushism.

STRAUSSED OUT: I don't think I can stand too much more on the Straussian conspiracy topic. But, those whose appetites haven't been satiated should check out a very good, albeit sometimes somewhat flippant, piece in the Economist on it. Generally, I think it's pretty sensible and accurate (though what's this about a DC Straussian BBQ? Why didn't I know about that?) I'm also somewhat dubious about the connection made between the Straussians and American conservatism's embrace of the politics of virtue. Strauss didn't promote or urge, so far as I know, moral engineering on the part of governments, though he did point out the importance of the relationship between a political regime and the personal characters of those involved in it -- subjects and rulers alike. And, while Strauss and some of his students' influence may have helped certain neo-cons (from Jewish backgrounds and without strong theistic beliefs) find it easier to make common cause with Christian conservatives, it has been the latter group who have been responsible for pushing the Republican Party towards adopting a virtue-cratic (if not actually theocratic) stance. Also, I'm not sure to what extent Leon Kass or John Walters are representative Straussians -- I know of at least a few 'Straussians' who think much the same of Kass's work as I do (which, while not unqualifiedly negative, ain't so positive, either).
Still, it is true that the Straussian influence has led some conservatice intellectuals, wonks, and pundits away from libertarianism -- sometimes towards a more unsettlingly authoritarian perspective, but often towards a more responsible and thoughtful consideration of what markets can't do. To the extent that Strauss's influence has made some conservatives more thoughtful, I think it is certainly a good thing; to the extent that it's made some thoughtful people more conservative -- well ....
UPDATE: Two regular readers -- RS and DW -- both suggest, in response to my question above, that identifying Kass as a Straussian is dubious. RS points to this list of prominent Chicago alumni who are Straussians. But I don't think this means anything: the list largely follows Atlas and Hersh's articles, and other 'Leo-con' conspiracy theories. The article seems to accept the groundless conflation of Strauss and Wohlstetter disciples, as well as the identification of Saul Bellow as a Straussian -- at best, Bellow's friendship with Bloom makes him rate a sometime fellow-traveler. Kass's non-inclusion doesn't mean he's not a Straussian -- any more than the non-inclusion of Chicago Straussians such as Bloom, Cropsey, Ralph Lerner, etc. etc. does. DW claims that Kass is really a follower and disciple of the philosopher Han Jonas -- like Strauss, a Jewish student of Heidegger's who emigrated to the US, and taught alongside Strauss at the New School for a time (see Richard Wolin's Heidegger's Children for an essay on Jonas). But being influenced by Jonas doesn't preclude being influenced by Strauss, for all of the two men's differences; and Kass -- who was an undergrad at Chicago during the height of Strauss's influence there, and who taught at St John's College, Annapolis, alongside both Strauss (for a year, before Strauss's death) and Strauss's student Laurence Berns. He's also, at Chicago, offered courses on classical philosophy (including Plato's Symposium, on which Strauss also offered a seminar, which has now been published in book form). Given Kass's concern with reclaiming natural law as a moral standard, and his fascination both with classical political philosophy, and Jewish thought -- and the fact that he's spent most of his career at Chicago -- I find it hard to believe that Strauss's work doesn't occupy a central place in Kass's intellectual landscape. This of course doesn't make Strauss or his influence responsible for Kass's ideas; but that influence, it seems to me, is there. At the same time, as DW's pointing to Jonas's influence makes clear, Kass has come to his ideas based on a number of different influences, besides Strauss; and, as RS points out, Kass works in a field -- bio-ethics -- from a background, in biology and medicine, removed from Strauss' own work (though Strauss' student Roger Masters has also gotten into the area of bio-ethics). In Kass' case, as in those of so many other 'Straussians', one needs to be careful to distinguish claims of influence from claims of agreement or equivalence -- or responsibility on Strauss' part; and one must remember that most identified 'Straussians' are thinkers in their own right, responsible for their own ideas, and not slavish mouthpieces for their gnomic Master.
In other news: I have it at third hand that Richard 'Prince of Darkness' Perle's conversion from nice liberal Jewish boy to war-mongering neo-con came as the result, not of his studies with Wohlstetter, nor the poisonous atmosphere of Straussianism at Chicago, but from his studying at LSE with ... Michael Oakeshott. Let the Oakeshottian conspiracy theories now commence! (To get the ball rolling: the current intellectual heavyweight and last, best hope of the Tory Party, Oliver Letwin, is the son of two close associates of Oakeshott's.) Now, there are people who have been influenced by both Oakeshott and Strauss, and might appear on lists both of Oakeshottians and Straussians; but I don't exactly understand how this works, so different are Oakeshott and Strauss's philosophies, especially with regards to historicism (for a comparison of Oakeshott and Strauss, see Robert Devigne's excellent book). The same source for the Perle-Oakeshott claim, by the way, also reports the experience of a grad student in poli sci at Chicago trying to take a seminar Strauss was offering on Plato's Gorgias. Strauss had a grad student read out the first sentence of the Gorgias -- and then proceeded to talk about that one line for the next 80 minutes.
Dangerous stuff, indeed.

NOTE TO READERS: Sorry for the light posting over the past couple of weeks (by which I mean, the non-posting). It's been a busy end-of-term for me -- finishing up what work I've been doing here, having visitors from overseas and visiting a friend overseas (in Berlin -- more on which in a future post), and now preparing to return to the States. Hopefully I'll be able to return to some serious blogging after getting back to the USA, and before starting my pedagological career for the summer.

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