It’s weird: The chief left-of-center bogeyman isn’t really G.W. Bush or Dick Cheney or Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld, but a long-dead University of Chicago philosopher named Leo Strauss. Strauss passed to the philosophic beyond in 1973, but you’d think he were alive today. As far as liberal intellectuals are concerned, Strauss personally got us into the Iraq war. Or rather, his dead puppeteering hand pulls the strings of the “neocon” cabal of the third- or fourth-generation Straussian students of his students (characters like Paul Wolfowitz) who are said secretly to run the White House. The war in Iraq? Blame it on Leo.
I’m not a Straussian myself. I’m not even a philosopher, because, frankly, I find philosophy boring. One of the few works of philosophy I can stand to read is Plato’s Symposium, because it’s all about love, and it features the dashing, dissolute Alcibiades and the wise and beauteous Diotima. But if I want to ponder the ultimate meaning of life, I reach for a good novel. And among philosophers–I’ll be frank again–I find the Straussians I run across some of the most boring of all. All that talk of “the polis” and “exoteric versus esoteric meaning.” My eyes glaze over, and I lurch toward the wine bar.
When I read the latest diatribe against Leo and his brood, however, by University of Massachusetts professor Nicholas Xenos for the intellectual journal Logos, I decided it was time to take a Straussian to lunch. (Arts & Letters Daily provides the link.) It’s one thing to blame Strauss for the war in Iraq, however far-fetched that may sound. It’s another to accuse the old guy, a German Jew who fled to and embraced liberal-democratic America during the 1930s for obvious reasons, of cozying up to the Nazis. According to Xenos, Strauss’s main quarrel with Hitler was that Hitler wasn’t right-wing enough! Xenos writes:
“Strauss was somebody who wanted to go back to a previous, pre-liberal, pre-bourgeois era of blood and guts, of imperial domination, of authoritarian rule, of pure fascism.”
Wait–wasn’t Strauss the guy who fled fascism and loved bourgeois America? Worse still, complains Xenos, Strauss believed in moral absolutes. You know, like good and evil. That’s anathema to the moral relativists of academia. Believing in concepts like good and evil is a sign of G.W. Bush-level simplisme, a cardinal sin to intellectual sophistos like Xenos, for whom all things are shades of gray and there’s no such thing as a bad person. To Xenos, the concepts of good and evil are “dichotomous and problematic constructions” because they force people to–horrors!–believe that America has genuine enemies.
And where exactly did Bush get all that simplisme-laden talk about the “axis of evil” that led to the invasions of Afghanistand and Iraq? Why, from that secretive neocon cabal that can trace its mentors back to Strauss himself. Xenos writes:
“[W]hat Strauss hated about liberalism, among other things, was its inability to make absolute judgments, its inability to take action. And…he sought a way out in a kind of pre-liberal decisiveness. I would suggest that this description of fascist, authoritarian, imperial principles accurately describes the current imperial project of the United States.”
According to Xenos, Strauss’s ideas have seeped everywhere into Republican ideology, even without people’s knowing it. For example, about a year after 9/11, former Bush pere official William Bennett wrote this for the Wall Street Journal:
‘An appropriate response to September eleventh begins with a kind of moral clarity, a clarity that calls evil by its true name, terms like evil, wrong, and bad were rightly put back into the lexicon. September eleventh also requires that we point to what is good and right and true. The dark day was pierced with rays of courage, honor, and sacrifice and they should be upheld for all to see, they too are enduring lessons.”
Sounds like good old American patriotism, doesn’t it? Not to Xenos, who says that “courage, honor, and sacrifice” are just code words for Straussian-style fascism. And when Bush fils talks about “regime” change in Iraq, he’s secretly translating the Greek word politeia, a favorite bit of Strauss-speak. The New York Times’s hiring David Brooks away from the Weekly Standard to be a columnist was “shocking in some ways,” says Xenos, because, well, Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago. Brooks mostly writes humorous articles about yups who shop at Restoration Hardware–but who knows what that could secretly mean in the World of Strauss?
I hate to rain on your paranoiac parade, Professor Xenos, but don’t you think there’s a teeny chance that Bush, a devout Christian, got his ideas about good and evil from the Bible? Or from human experience, in a world where human evil–in the form of genocide and tyranny (although Xenos hates that absolutist term, too)–is all too real? Next, Xenos will blame Leo Strauss when his car breaks down. I suggest that Xenos’ nutty article clearly demonstrates the extent to which left-of-center anxiety about neocon, neo-Straussian conspiracies is all inside their overeducated heads.