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Saving America: Leo Strauss and the neoconservatives

Shadia Drury gets to the bottom of neoconservatism.

By Shadia B. Drury

11 September 2003 "Evatt Foundation" -- There is a growing awareness that a reclusive German émigré philosopher is the inspiration behind the reigning neoconservative ideology of the Republican Party. Leo Strauss has long been a cult figure within the North American academy. And even though he had a profound antipathy to both liberalism and democracy, his disciples have gone to great lengths to conceal the fact. And for the most part they have succeeded -- as the article by James Atlas in The New York Times and the article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker indicate. This picture of Strauss as the great American patriot, who was a lover of freedom and democracy is pure fabrication. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The trouble with the Straussians is that they are compulsive liars. But it is not altogether their fault. Strauss was very pre-occupied with secrecy because he was convinced that the truth is too harsh for any society to bear; and that the truth-bearers are likely to be persecuted by society - specially a liberal society - because liberal democracy is about as far as one can get from the truth as Strauss understood it.

Strauss's disciples have inherited a superiority complex as well as a persecution complex. They are convinced that they are the superior few who know the truth and are entitled to rule. But they are afraid to speak the truth openly, lest they are persecuted by the vulgar many who do not wish to be ruled by them. This explains why they are eager to misrepresent the nature of Strauss's thought. They are afraid to reveal that Strauss was a critic of liberalism and democracy, lest he be regarded as an enemy of America. So, they wrap him in the American flag and pretend that he is a champion of liberal democracy for political reasons - their own quest for power. The result is that they run roughshod over truth as well as democracy.

It should however be pointed out that being a critic of liberalism or democracy or both does not make one automatically an enemy of America. On the contrary, freedom and democracy can only be strengthened by intellectually confronting their critics. Strauss has no special antipathy for America. He is the enemy of liberty in general. It was for love of America that he wished to save her from her disastrous love affair with liberty, as I will explain.

Strauss's preoccupation with secrecy was no doubt connected to the fact that he did not feel at home in America. He realised how much his ideas were at odds with America's liberal modernity. He felt that in America, everything that does not fit the mould, everything that does not conform to public opinion, was ostracised. In a letter to a friend, Strauss complained that the academic atmosphere in America was oppressive, and that it was very difficult to publish. As a man forced to emigrate from his native Germany, learn a new language by watching television, and forced to conduct his scholarly life in this newly acquired language, Strauss must be the subject of our sympathy. But Strauss's American disciples continue to complain that they are oppressed, beleaguered, and ostracised by the liberal academy, and the equally liberal media. But surely, these are crocodile tears.

The Straussians are the most powerful, the most organised, and the best-funded scholars in Canada and the United States. They are the unequalled masters of right-wing think tanks, foundations, and corporate funding. And now they have the ear of the powerful in the White House. Nothing could have pleased Strauss more; for he believed that intellectuals have an important role to play in politics. It was not prudent for them to rule directly because the masses are inclined to distrust them; but they should certainly not pass up the opportunity to whisper in the ears of the powerful. So, what are they whispering? What did Strauss teach them? What is the impact of the Straussian philosophy on the powerful neoconservatives? And what is neoconservatism anyway?

Strauss is not as obscure or as esoteric as his admirers pretend. There are certain incontestable themes in his work. The most fundamental theme is the distinction between the ancients and the moderns - a distinction that informs all his work. According to Strauss, ancient philosophers (such as Plato) were wise and wily, but modern philosophers (such as Locke and other liberals) were foolish and vulgar. The wise ancients thought that the unwashed masses were not fit for either truth or liberty; and giving them these sublime treasures was like throwing pearls before swine. Accordingly, they believed that society needs an elite of philosophers or intellectuals to manufacture "noble lies" for the consumption of the masses. Not surprisingly, the ancients had no use for democracy. Plato balked at the democratic idea that any Donald, Dick, or George was equally fit to rule.

In contrast to the ancients, the moderns were the foolish lovers of truth and liberty; they believed in the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They believed that human beings were born free and could be legitimately ruled only by their own consent.

The ancients denied that there is any natural right to liberty. Human beings are born neither free nor equal. The natural human condition is not one of freedom, but of subordination. And in Strauss's estimation, they were right in thinking that there is only one natural right - the right of the superior to rule over the inferior - the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise few over the vulgar many. As to the pursuit of happiness - what could the vulgar do with happiness except drink, gamble, and fornicate?

Praising the wisdom of the ancients and condemning the folly of the moderns was the whole point of Strauss's most famous book, Natural Right and History. The cover of the book sports the American Declaration of Independence. But the book is a celebration of nature - not the natural rights of man (as the appearance of the book would lead one to believe), but the natural order of domination and subordination.

In his book On Tyranny, Strauss referred to the right of the superior to rule as "the tyrannical teaching" of the ancients which must be kept secret. But what is the reason for secrecy? Strauss tells us that the tyrannical teaching must be kept secret for two reasons - to spare the people's feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals. After all, the people are not likely to be favourably disposed to the fact that they are intended for subordination.

But why should anyone object to the idea that in theory the good and wise should rule? The real answer lies in the nature of the rule of the wise as understood by Strauss. 

It meant tyranny is the literal sense, which is to say, rule in the absence of law, or rule by those who were above the law. Of course, Strauss believed that the wise would not abuse their power. On the contrary, they would give the people just what was commensurate with their needs and capacities. But what exactly is that? Certainly, giving them freedom, happiness, and prosperity is not the point. In Strauss's estimation, that would turn them into animals. The goal of the wise is to ennoble the vulgar. But what could possibly ennoble the vulgar? Only weeping, worshipping, and sacrificing could ennoble the masses. Religion and war - perpetual war - would lift the masses from the animality of bourgeois consumption and the pre-occupation with "creature comforts." Instead of personal happiness, they would live their lives in perpetual sacrifice to God and the nation.

Irving Kristol, a devoted follower of Strauss and father of neoconservatism, was delighted with the popularity of the film Rambo. He thought it was an indication that the people still love war; and that means that it will not be too difficult to lure them away from the animalistic pleasures that liberal society offers. There is a strong asceticism at the heart of the atheistic philosophy of Leo Strauss that explains why those with religious inclinations are attracted to it.

Strauss loved America enough to try to save her from the errors and terrors of Europe. He was convinced that the liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic led to the rise of the Nazis. That is a debatable matter. But Strauss did not openly debate this issue or provide arguments for his position in his writings. I am inclined to think that it is Strauss's ideas, and not liberal ideas, that invite the kinds of abuses he wished to avoid. It behoves us to remember that Hitler had the utmost contempt for parliamentary democracy. He was impatient with debate and dispute, on the grounds that they were a waste of time for the great genius who knew instinctively the right choices and policies that the people need. Hitler had a profound contempt for the masses - the same contempt that is readily observed in Strauss and his cohorts. But when force of circumstances made it necessary to appeal to the masses, Hitler advocated lies, myths, and illusions as necessary pabulum to placate the people and make them comply with the will of the Fürer. Strauss's political philosophy advocates the same solution to the problem of the recalcitrant masses. Anyone who wants to avoid the horrors of the Nazi past is well advised not to accept Strauss's version of ancient wisdom uncritically. But this is exactly what Strauss encouraged his students to do.

Strauss's students have left the academy in quest of political power. They complain that they are persecuted in the academy because they are illiberal. But in truth, it is not because they are illiberal that they are held in contempt; it is because they are ill-equipped to handle philosophical debate. Strauss's secretive or esoteric style of writing is inimical to philosophical dispute within the academy. He was convinced that there can be no disagreement among the wise. They instinctively recognise the truth. And those who deny it are unfit for the company of the wise. This explains why his students are a cultish clique, which is comfortable only when preaching to the converted and consorting with the like-minded. All the while they fool themselves into thinking that they are the exclusive few who see the unadulterated truth, which is concealed from the eyes of the uninitiated. Not surprisingly, they are not well regarded within the academy. But it is not entirely their fault. They are poorly trained, because Strauss's philosophy is ill-suited for academic life. It aspires to action. Its goal is not to understand the world, but to change it. And now that they are closely allied with the powerful neoconservatives in Washington, they have a chance to make their vision a reality.

So, what is neoconservatism? And how does it propose to change the world in accordance with Straussian political philosophy? 'Neo' comes from the Greek neos, which means new. And, what's neo about neoconservatism? Well, for one thing, the old conservatism relied on tradition and history; it was cautious, slow and moderate; it went with the flow. But under the influence of Leo Strauss, the new conservatism is intoxicated with nature. The new conservatism is not slow or cautious, but active, aggressive, and reactionary in the literal sense of the term. Inspired by Strauss's hatred for liberal modernity, its goal is to turn back the clock on the liberal revolution and its achievements.

Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, Strauss's best known student, was a professor at the University of Toronto. His best selling book demonised the sixties - the age of civil rights for black Americans, and greater freedom and equality for women. Irving Kristol also demonised the sixties. And Francis Fukuyama, student of Allan Bloom, and vanguard of the neoconservative intellectuals, refers to the sixties as "The Great Disruption," the title of his recent book. Supposedly, all these Strauss-inspired writers believe that the new found freedoms of the sixties are the root of all evil, because freedom invites licentiousness, and licentiousness is a harbinger of social decay - divorce, delinquency, crime, and creature comforts. And there is a sense in which they are right - freedom is a treasure that is quickly lost if it is not wisely used. The trouble is that neoconservatives have zero tolerance for human vices or follies, and as a result, they are unwilling to give liberty a chance.

So, what is to be done? How can America be saved from her dangerous fascination with liberty? Irving Kristol came up with the solution that has become the cornerstone of neoconservative policies: use democracy to defeat liberty. Turn the people against their own liberty. Convince them that liberty is licentiousness - that liberty undermines piety, leads to crime, drugs, rampant homosexuality, children out of wedlock, and family breakdown. And worse of all, liberalism is soft on communism or terrorism - whatever happens to be the enemy of the moment. And if you can convince the people that liberty undermines their security, then, you will not have to take away their liberty; they will gladly renounce it.

In an essay entitled "Populism Not to Worry," Irving Kristol argued that Americans should embrace populism, or the rule of the majority, despite the reservations of the Founding Fathers. The latter feared the tyranny of the majority, and institutionalised safeguards to protect the liberty of individuals and minorities. But Kristol and the neoconservatives want to dismantle these very safeguards against majority rule. Kristol tells us not to worry. Why not? Apparently because the neoconservatives believe that America has been ruled by an unwise liberal elite for over two hundred years, and they are willing to gamble that the people will be wiser, which is to say, more likely to endorse conservative policies. Inspired by the same ideology, the Alliance party in Canada is willing to take the same gamble. But, luckily for Canada, it is sagging badly in the polls.

With the neoconservatives in power in the US, it will be difficult to conceal the real nature of neoconservative policies. The "stealth campaigns" are not likely to be as effective. The policies are by now very clear: no gay rights, no liberated women, no uppity blacks, lots of prayer in the schools, a strong commitment to the death penalty, and the re-criminalisation of abortion. The latter is particularly important. Of course it will keep the women at home and out of the way so that world can be ruled by men in the proper manly fashion; but that's not all. More importantly, it will keep women busy having babies - lots of babies. In this way, women will become useful once again; they will return to their vocation as factories for soldiers - and we need lots of soldiers, for we will have plenty of wars to fight, if the neoconservatives have their way. And it seems they have.

The neoconservative goal is reactionary in the classic sense of the term. It is nothing short of turning the clock back on the liberal revolution. And it will use democracy to accomplish its task. After all, Strauss had no objections to democracy as long as a wise elite, inspired by the profound truths of the ancients, was able to shape, invent, or create the will of the people. In his interpretation of Plato's myth of the cave, Strauss maintained that the philosophers who return to the cave should not bring in truth; instead, the philosophers should seek to manipulate the images in the cave, so that the people will remain in the stupor to which they are supremely fit.

It is ironic that American neoconservatives have decided to conquer the world in the name of liberty and democracy, when they have so little regard for either.

Shadia Drury is among the world's foremost scholars on the history, philosophy and politics of neoconservatism. She is the author of the acclaimed books Leo Strauss and the American Right (1998) and The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988). Her forthcoming book is Terror and Civilization. Professor Drury holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina, in Saskatchewan, Canada. For more information on her books and her work in general, see her website . E-mail: shadia.drury@uregina.ca

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