Goldwag: I Was A Teenaged Straussian

Guestblogger Arthur Goldwag is the author of "Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more" and other books.

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No, not really. But when I was a freshman in college in 1975, the Poli Sci 101 course that I took was Straussian and neo-conservative to its core. Kenyon College's political science department was (and still is–or at least it was three years ago, as this story in the far right wing journal Human Events confirms) an "oasis" of Straussian and conservative theory. The first text we read, as I recall, was Socrates "Apology." Most of us assumed that Socrates' persecutors were the bad guys, that freedom of thought was strictly good and the suppression of free speech categorically bad. But using Socrates' own mode of questioning, our teachers challenged our blandly liberal presuppositions. Precisely what's good about Democracy? Why shouldn't the state protect itself? Are we sure we understand what the Founders of our own country really meant when they wrote about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?"

Writing in David Horowitz's rightwing Front Page magazine in 2002, Robert Locke explains:

The key Straussian concept is the Straussian text, which is a piece of philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one ("exoteric") thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real ("esoteric") meaning. The reason for this is that philosophy is dangerous. Philosophy calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends; it also reveals ugly truths that weaken men's attachment to their societies….Strauss shockingly admits, contrary to generations of liberal professors who have taught him as a martyr to the First Amendment, that the prosecution of Socrates was not entirely without point. This honesty about the dangers of philosophy gives Straussian thought a seriousness lacking in much contemporary philosophy; it is also a sign of the conviction that philosophy, contrary to the mythology of our "practical" (though sodden with ideology and quick to take offense at ideas) age, matters.

This isn't the inherent slipperiness of language that we're talking about, Strauss's isn't the radically deconstructive spirit of Barthes, Derridas, or Paul de Man. Strauss believed, rather, that the authors had deliberately coded their texts; applying sufficient care and scholarship, they could be decoded too. We spent an entire semester working through Allen Bloom's copiously annotated translation of Plato's Republic, for example, which had a surprise on nearly every page.

Though Strauss was an atheist, he was culturally Jewish to the core. And hermeneutics is a prototypically Jewish practice. Kabbalists acknowledge that every Biblical text has four distinct levels of meaning:

Pashat (simple), its literal surface

Remez (hints), suggestions (mostly through paradoxes and double-meanings) that something lies deeper

Drash (search), allegorical, symbolic, or analogic interpretations

Sod (hidden), its deepest, most mystical level of meaning

The Masons borrowed the idea of exoteric and esoteric texts from Kabbalah; needless to say, Conspiracy Theorists are as suspicious of Masons as they are of Jews. But they have armed themselves with their enemies' methods and learned to be attentive for hidden messages and meanings themselves–thus, this anonymous poster on a conspiracist website: "Has anyone else noticed that Obama keeps saying, 'Out of many, we are one?' It's the E Pluribus Unum from the seal of the US. Is this his ritualistic mantra signaling to the world that HE will bring about the NWO?"

A number of leading conservatives in Washington turn out to be Straussians–Locke's piece identifies some of the most prominent circa 2002: "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 William Kristol; Allan Bloom, author of THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND; former New York Post editorials editor John Podhoretz; former National Endowment for the Humanities Deputy Chairman John T. Agresto; and, not meaning to class myself with this august company but in the interests of full disclosure, myself."

Some of the architects and most strident apologists of the Iraq war turned out to be students (or students of students, or protégés of students) of Leo Strauss, among them Wolfowitz, Abram Shulsky, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Douglas Feith, and Robert Kagan. Some of them (not all of them, but enough that it was noticeable) were Jewish. Leftists rightfully attacked these neo-conservatives for the disastrous consequences of their militarism, but at times there was an unsettling undertone to their rhetoric. "The anti-Semitism behind the current wave of Strauss hatred, like the anti-Semitism that drives so much talk about the neoconservative "cabal" in Washington, is barely even veiled," Adam Kirsch complained in the New York Sun. "Tim Robbins, in his recent play "Embedded," portrays characters based on Messrs. Wolfowitz and Perle shouting "Hail Leo Strauss," in an echo of the Nazi salute." Extreme rightists were even less circumspect. But how could they not be? I mean, the whole phenomenon was an antisemite's dream. Here was a real-life, flesh-and-blood cabal of influential Jews, academically trained in the art of dissimulation and coded discourse, enacting what seemed to be a well-thought-out, long-held plan to hijack American foreign policy. It could have been ripped right out of the pages of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion:

The art of directing masses and individuals by means of cleverly manipulated theory and verbiage, by regulations of life in common and all sorts of other quirks, in all which the GOYIM understand nothing, belongs likewise to the specialists of our administrative brain. Reared on analysis, observation, on delicacies of fine calculation, in this species of skill we have no rivals, any more than we have either in the drawing up of plans of political actions and solidarity. In this respect the Jesuits alone might have compared with us, but we have contrived to discredit them in the eyes of the unthinking mob as an overt organization, while we ourselves all the while have kept our secret organization in the shade.

I never drank the Straussian Kool Aid, but it was offered to me, and by teachers that I respected. Maybe that's why I'm troubled by some of the kneejerk denunciations of Strauss. Writing in Free Inquiry, Shadia Drury declared that,

Strauss thought that the best way for ordinary human beings to raise themselves above the beasts is to be utterly devoted to their nation and willing to sacrifice their lives for it. He recommended a rabid nationalism and a militant society modelled on Sparta. He thought that this was the best hope for a nation to be secure against her external enemies as well as the internal threat of decadence, sloth, and pleasure. A policy of perpetual war against a threatening enemy is the best way to ward off political decay. And if the enemy cannot be found, then it must be invented.

Is that a fair summary of Strauss or a caricature of his disciples? I can't answer the question with any authority–I'm not deeply read in Strauss, as she is–most of my exposure to him was second hand, and it was more than thirty years ago, when I was eighteen and nineteen years old.

Anything that provides fodder to anti-Semites is unfortunate, but it's hardly surprising that the most politically ambitious exponents of Straussianism would have found each other in Washington and formed a clique-College Republicans, Dartmouth Review editors, born again Christians and students of Robert Bork do the same thing. There's a creepily culty quality to the ism that his name is attached to today, which never quite made it into the mainstream of American academia, suffered a major backlash in the '60s and '70s, and is experiencing another today, during the reaction against George W. Bush. Most of those guys are bad actors and some of them must have real chips on their shoulders. But do they rise to the level of a cult or a conspiracy or a secret society? I suspect not.