Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Third Sequel: Direct to Tape

As much as I hate to be fair, I have to admit that I’ve sometimes attributed ideas to Leo Strauss that are more properly the obsessions of his followers. Just as popularization morphed Poststructuralism into cultural relativism, neo-conservatism has made Straussian philosophy into a clumsy rightist ideology. When I first encountered Strauss—as I write I’m gazing at the spine of his History of Political Philosophy on a nearby bookshelf—he struck me as a mildly interesting but hardly earth-shattering thinker. I found his discussions of the necessity of dissimulation neither alarming nor particularly radical—like everybody else who has an idea once in a while I’ve sometimes had to adopt Descartes motto, “I go forth masked”—and Strauss’ general skepticism about the Rule of Reason didn’t set off any alarms either in somebody raised as a cultural conservative. If you’re not going to blame Marx for Stalin or even Lenin, you shouldn’t blame Strauss for Wolfowitz or even Bill Kristol. Besides, in some respects the most interesting aspect of der Fall Strauss is not the genetic principle that regressive concepts breed true but the taphonomic commonplace that corpses eventually stink.

Anybody who ever taught Philosophy 101 understands a basic pedagogical problem with the project of Enlightenment. The Socratic method is a non-starter when inflicted on kids with plenty of prejudices but no convictions. In grad school, one learns how to throw rocks at received ideas; but in the absence of any ideas at all, there’s nothing to throw at so you end up teaching the 18-year olds ancient history or English composition instead of philosophy while reserving the real stuff for conversations over lunch with a handful of serious students. Mark Lilla points out in a piece in the October 21 New York Review of Books that much of Strauss’ outlook is rooted in just this kind of teaching experience and that, at least in the U.S., Strauss the teacher was far more influential than Strauss the learned interpreter of Hobbes and Spinoza. His followers, especially the Alan Bloom of the Closing of the American Mind, think of themselves as promoting a realistic brand of the Socratic method, which is to say, a rigorous, critical philosophy for the elite, myths and fairy tales for the state college set—rum for the ratings, gin for the gentlemen.

The fact that most people are not ready to reason as adults most of the time is a boundary condition of civilization, which, like many other problems, can be managed if not cured. The history of the last 150 years, however, reveals a problem with the neoconservative approach to managing Urdummheit. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to pull off the light irony recommended by Aristotle. The public is supposed to be mollified and edified by myths at the same time that wise counselors, operating in deep shadow, guide the decisions of the handsome but none-too-bright Prince by reason. In practice, unfortunately, four big problems mess up the scenario.

1. The religious and political myths the right promotes to the People don’t in fact make them more tractable and peaceful. All the talk about God and Evildoers stokes ethnic and sectarian passions for tactical political gain while the demonizing of the liberals both depends upon and exacerbates the dangerous resentments of lower-class whites.

2. A reasonable political philosophy recognizes the public’s limitations as rational actors, but it doesn’t try to underline its point by actively promoting irrationality. God knows I’ve got many Tory genes, but even I’ve noticed that straightforward arguments do have an effect on many voters when they address their existential concerns without cynicism. A lot of the despised Voodoo of Clinton’s rhetoric was nothing more than the magic of explanation—he gave reasons for what he thought we should do and people listened to them. A lot of rightwing propaganda is not an attack on the reasoning of liberals so much as an attack on reasoning itself.

3. The philosophers are supposed to keep two sets of books, promoting useful fictions to the multitudes while remaining hardheaded realists themselves. Even in a good cause, however, consistent hypocrisy is very difficult to pull off. The Neocons find themselves intrigued and eventually seduced by the religious and nationalistic myths they retail to the others. By now, for example, various writers in Commentary are obviously taking intelligent design seriously; and some of them have forgotten they, like Strauss, are atheists indoors.

4. As Plato himself found out in Syracuse, political leaders are dangerous allies. Lots of Conservative intellectuals dream of playing Joseph to Pharaoh, and wind up being getting manipulated themselves as the stately figureheads turns out to have purposes of their own. Over the last thirty years, the Princes fronted by the Chicago boys have turned out to be a prize bunch of opportunists and thugs.

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