Monday, November 30, 2009

Poem: is


the chemistry teacher is gone

the English teacher is gone

the Confederate history teacher

the principal who  stood  inviting  over

the baseball coach whose son the star





the nature teacher    green snake


woman behind the


(even   Greens     itself

type write r

is gone

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Where the road diverges part 2


      This post continues a previous post here on Bill Connolly’s criticisms about Strauss’s virulent intolerance of modern scholarship, incarnated by the liberal classicist Havelock, in chapter 3 of Liberalism Ancient and Modern.  On the surface, Strauss maintains that to defend toleration, one must stop the Inquisition.  That is a plausible candidate for a correction of a badly stated liberalism – to make it more consistent and serious.  But that is only an exoteric view.  Antipathy toward the separation of church and state, that is, toleration, is a theme of Liberalism Ancient and Modern. This post will explore the preface and the exact wording of Strauss’s denunciation of the whole modern epoch.          

      Unsurprisingly, Liberalism Ancient and Modern is preoccupied with the destiny of the jews.  In fact, the Preface to the volume makes it clear that  non-orthodox jews and even quite “conservative” jews (Strauss is Delphic about what he means by these terms in the Preface and throughout the book) must be “liberal.”  Listen to the concluding paragraph of the Preface, pp. viii-ix: 

       “Not much familiarity with political life is needed in order to see that it is particularly difficult for a non-orthodox Jew to adopt a critical posture toward liberalism.  Even Jews who are politically conservative can be observed to defer to contemporary Jewish ‘opinion leaders’ who can in no sense be described as politically conservative.  This state of things induces one to raise questions such as these.  In what sense or to what extent is Judaism one of the roots of liberalism?”

Note the precise Nietzscheanism of the question.  Strauss continues:

       “Are Jews compelled by their heritage or their self-interest to be liberals?”

       I should also note that the whole of Judaism is brought into confrontation with liberalism.  Strauss  does not think that the seItaliclf-interest of Jews requires them to be “liberal” (but he also doesn’t  think that it requires them to be Jewish in the sense of believers in the prophets, either).  Recall that Strauss’s initial Zionism was power-political (aimed to bring into reality a Jewish state)  and overtly sympathetic to what he names in 1923 “pagan-fascism”  (in “Reply to Frankfurt’s ‘Word of Principle’” in Leo Strauss: The Early Writings, 1921-32, ed. and trans. Michael Zank, p. 65; Gesammelte Schriften 2:300).  I will post on this next week.

         Against the galut (the diaspora, the exile),  Strauss sought to save the Jewish people in a state.  But politically, Strauss favored an anti-prophetic stance, the restoration of kings justified by religiosity in Israel (an exoteric gesture at the prophets for an anti-prophetic, anti-egalitaritarian purpose), a kind of Jewish national socialism against the Palestinians, something about which, as a scholar who celebrated Arab Platonists, he might have – but tragically did not – stand against in Israel.

        The questions Strauss asks in Liberalism Ancient and Modern are decisive.  But he then – attractively because probingly – asks a couple of others:

        “Is liberalism [read also: Judaism] necessarily friendly to Jews and Judaism?  Can the liberal state claim to have solved the Jewish problem?  Can any state claim to have solved it?  To these questions I address myself in the two statements that conclude this volume.” (p. ix)

       As his last letters to Scholem show, Strauss deeply loved Israel and may, in dying, even have achieved some mystical peace about it.  But he thought that modern life would make the biblical temper of Israel fade (see the conclusion of Strauss’s 1957 letter to the National Review criticizing its anti-semitism, and his 1923 “Reply to Frankfurt’s ‘Word of Principle’").  Unfortunately, this brings up the dark alternative which I emphasized in my recent posts here and here: that the destructiveness of nuclear war – a secession from the modern age- is the only way out for a nihilist or a “serious Jew” (or “Christian”) who hates and fears modernity.  He speaks of Havelock’s intellectual rebarbarization, perhaps a good point about his scholarship, but one he fails to apply to himself: Strauss was long fascinated by a much more mass murderous and suicidal kind. 

         Listen to his lengthy concluding indictment of Havelock whom he regards both as a barbarian assaulting civilization, and typical of “modern” i.e. liberal scholarship.  Bill used the striking word virulent.  It is too weak.  Leo skins Havelock – and modern scholarship – alive:

         “Some readers may blame us for having devoted so much time and space [pp. 26-64, the longest chapter in the book except ch. 5 on Lucretius] to the examination of an unusually poor book.  We do not believe that their judgment of the book is fair.  Books like Havelock’s are becoming ever more typical.  Scholarship, which is meant to be a bulwark of civilization against barbarism, is ever more frequently turned into an instrument of rebarbarization.  As history suggests, scholarship is, as such, exposed to that degradation.  But this time the danger is greater than ever before.  For this time the danger stems from the inspiration of scholarship by what is called a philosophy.  Through that philosophy the humane desire for tolerance is pushed to the extreme where tolerance becomes perverted into the abandonment of all standards and hence of all discipline including philological discipline.  But absolute tolerance is altogether impossible; the allegedly absolute tolerance turns into ferocious hatred of those who had stated most clearly and most forcefully that there are unchangeable standards founded in the nature of man and the nature of things.  In other words, the humane desire for making education accessible to everyone leads to an ever increasing neglect of the quality of education.  No great harm is done, or at least there is no reason for alarm, if this happens in disciplines of recent origin but the situation is altogether different if the very discipline which is responsible for the transmission of the classical heritage is affected.  True liberals today have no more pressing duty that to counteract the perverted liberalism which contends  ‘that just to live, securely and happily, and protected but otherwise unregulated, is man’s simple but supreme goal’ (Havelock, p 374) and which forgets quality, excellence or virtue.  (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, pp. 63-64)

       In his last book, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), following Plato's Athenian Stranger, Strauss celebrates Athenian civilization, but not its democracy, Athenians without Athens.  Perhaps he does the same for the United States.  Read again carefully - perhaps aloud - the first three sentences of Natural Right and History:

    "It is proper for more reasons than the most obvious one that I should open this series of Charles R. Walgreen Lectures by quoting a passage from the Declaration of Independence.  The passage has frequently been quoted, but, by its weight and its elevation, is made immune to the degrading defects of the excessive familiarity which breeds contempt and of misuse which breeds disgust. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.'  The nation dedicated to this proposition has now become, no doubt partly as a consequence of this dedication, the most powerful and prosperous of the nations of the earth."

         Individual natural rights are, Strauss says, but an instrument to power and prosperity.  Strauss's contempt for justification solely by instrumentality is visible early on, for instance, in his scathing critique in 1923 of the signers of a Frankfurt Zionist manifesto suggesting that belief in God is optional or a mere instrumentality (see "Reply to Frankfurt's 'Word of Principle'" in Leo Strauss, Early Writings, ed. Michael Zank).  On p. 118, he cagily affirms the classical "rejection of egalitarain natural right" or supposed affirmation view  or the rule of the stronger. Power and civilization (prosperity), for Strauss, are good. The rights of individuals and democracy are nothing.

      In the passage cited above from Liberalism Ancient and Modern, note the danger of a philosophy, i.e. “value-free” social science, coupled with liberalism.  In this view, Strauss says, a “human desire for tolerance is pushed to the extreme where tolerance becomes perverted into the abandonment of all standards.” Perhaps this is true of Havelock, though one might wonder.  But it is not true of most modern liberals or radicals as the smashing of Nazism shows (some of us fought pretty hard against Nazism and other forms of fascism).  Taking Strauss to be perhaps a would-be liberal who is excessively nasty toward others, Connolly underlines the way in which his modern pluralist view fights militantly against reactionary “unitarianisms” (such as that of Strauss and the neoconservatives): “A pluralist, by comparison, is one who prizes cultural diversity along several dimensions and is ready to join others in militant action, when necessary, to support pluralism against counter-drives to Unitarianism.” (Pluralism, p. 41).

          At p. 43, concurring with Strauss’s insight, but speaking up. against him, for new discoveries and what I call, in Democratic Individuality,  moral progress, Bill says:

       “It is thus necessary to set limits, but pluralists are critical of the self-confidence with which many Unitarians endow already existing limits with eternal necessity. “ [Bill’s italics]  He continues:

           “It is necessary to set limits, partly because it is impossible to house every possible mode of diversity in the same regime at the same time.  And it is necessary to organize militantly [Bill repeats this point; the students of Strauss might note here that Strauss’s and neoconservative belligerence and arrogance elicit fairly quickly a fierce response] when pluralism is under grave duress from Unitarian movements.  You encourage a wide diversity of religious faiths, sensual habits, household organizations, ethnic traditions, gender practices, and so on, and you encourage the civic virtues of pluralism [for instance, toleration of, even respect for difference] to inform relations between these constituencies.  But a democratic pluralist won’t willingly, for instance, allow the state to torture prisoners; murder to go unpunished; parents to deprive their children of an education; the public school system to deteriorate; wealthy citizens to evade taxes; orphaned children to be placed under the care of incompetent adults; adult citizens to be unemployed for too long; the gap between the real cost of living in a system and the income-earning ability of most citizens to grow large; the income hierarchy to become too extreme; or narrow Unitarians to take charge of the regime.  Pluralists thus agree with Strauss that ‘absolute tolerance is altogether impossible,’ even as we set some of these limits at different points and places.” (Pluralism, p. 43)

       Strauss plainly disagrees with Bill on perhaps every aspect of these politics (see Sotomayor, Brown V. Board of Education, the social science of Kenneth and Mamie Clarks and Leo Strauss here).  Some might quibble abut torture -  many acolytes of Strauss are critical of Bush-Cheney torture, and as with Michael Zuckert, the Patriot Act - but one cannot say that his political followers, often in or around the administration,  raised any public objection.  

          As Bill drives home, however,in the abstract,  Strauss could be making a liberal point about toleration.  Tolerance for a vast diversity of points of view, as I underline in many places,  requires defeating the intolerant.  If it were up to the Nazis, the Inquisition, Sarah Palin, or sadly and increasingly, the Republican Party, there would be no other point of view.  There would be no public debate, no resulting increase in insight, no advance of previously denied rights, and no (good or bad) majority rule.  Liberalism requires standing up to enemies (this is Strauss’s Schmittian formulation, though it also has a surface straightforward meaning).  But of course Strauss means to suggest that view to his followers who imagine but  do not read “with open-minded care”  as well as others.  For sloppy and even fairly careful readers - just those who do not want to see the literal meaning of his sentences, the ambiguities or hidden meanings they often suggest -  he means to be taken for a liberal. He is, of course, against the Soviet Union.  But the road forks here.  He is no liberal. 

       I have always thought that Strauss’s point about modern relativism is a) a good critique of value –free social science, as I argue in Democratic Individuality and Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? and b) pretty stupid and dismissive as a general point against modern liberals, Marxists, communists, anarchists, conservatives (Michael Oakeshott)  et al.  But more strikingly, even though it is his often repeated and best thought, Strauss really doesn’t mean this argument except as a surface or exoteric gesture.  For Strauss himself is an admirer of Nietzsche and Heidegger (and up to a point concurs perhaps Thrasymachus).  He defends the advantage of the stronger, at least when the stronger is “civilized” and or “educated” (When he refers to classical “liberalism” in this regard, the term liberalism is empty; as he blurts out, there is no classical liberalism – see the last post here).  He advocates reactionary values – those of the stronger -   but no moral objectivity.  The notion of “health,” “strength”  and “civilization” are fascist.  He differentiates between a doctor who seeks to cure and one who harms.  But is this  “health”?  It does not take too much historical insight, with regard to Mussolini or the early Hitler or the American regime in Vietnam or Iraq to see that Strauss’s vision is, in substance, evil.

        “Perverted liberalism” – Strauss’s term, one again sweeping in its range - is just a cover for an indictment of the modern age.  The road forks sharply.  Bill cautiously imagines – Strauss at least affects some sort of ancient liberalism, does he not? – that Strauss is for liberals who stand up for themselves.  Strauss, we are told  by his acolytes and other neo-cons, really admired Churchill (not to say Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus in the Civil War).  As I have noted, though the leader of the genuinely admirable war effort against Hitler, Churchill was a tyrannical statesman (though unlike Strauss or Schmitt, he sought ultimately to restore the rule of the House of Commons and the law); in addition, he was a racist who ruled belligerently over an Empire.  But as Will Altman has underlined, Strauss says how a  nihilist would admire Churchill (see The courage to destroy here) and utters no word of friendship or affection for democracy or parliament.

         Strauss’s next sentence: “But absolute tolerance is altogether impossible; the allegedly absolute tolerance turns into ferocious hatred of those who had stated most clearly and most forcefully that there are unchangeable standards founded in the nature of man and the nature of things.”  Bill names this difference about “unchangeable standards.”  Again, we can see why someone might give Strauss the benefit of the doubt.   Still, it is hard to see why a liberal would have “ferocious hatred” for example toward women (and men) who stood up against patriarchy or workers who organized or lesbians and gays (and heterosexuals) who fought homophobia or opponents of American aggression and perhaps genocide in Vietnam and Iraq.  Yet in Aristotelian terms, these all arise from natural standards found in the nature of things (see Democratic Individuality, ch. 1).   Women are not objects to be dominated by men.  Vietnamese are not racial inferiors to be wiped out by a panoply of bizarre weapons like napalm.  Arabs are human beings; to torture them is racist (Imagine if the pictures from Abu Ghraib were of Bush or Cheney or Rice or Powell being tortured by secret, shadowy and antiseptic Arab captors – accompanied by psychologists with the approval of the executive board of a purported Arab Psychological Association, to determine the “strictest,” “safest,” “most medically appropriate limits” to accord with local and “international law” - how most Americans would feel.  Perhaps this exercise in applying Rawls’ original position will make it clear just how degraded the United States, under the influence of the neo-cons and a corrupt political establishment, Democrat as well as Republican, has become.

        What Strauss means by “unchangeable standards founded in the nature of man and the nature of things” is nothing liberal.  The point of “unchangeable standards” is to suggest that reactionary cant about the nature of things – women are to be dominated – is just the way it is.  Recall the deceptiveness of his title Natural Right and History.  One thinks again  of “natural rights” (though  as cited above the Declaration of Independence appears and then is denied in the first three sentences).  What Strauss really means by natural right is  the advantage of the stronger. There is no liberalism here.

         In chapter one of  Democratic Individuality, I emphasize moral progress.  In a patriarchal and class culture, women, slaves and “barbarians” can, for some historical epochs,  be taken as inferiors.  Much of history has been the story of heroic rebellions against this barbarous point of view (just to, in a Nietzschean idiom,  transvalue Strauss’s antidemocratic values).  We can say some definite things about human nature.  We have learned enough to recognize that every person has sufficient capacity for moral personality to understand and obey the law or to resist the law where it is unjust, and to participate in political life, for instance by voting, or perhaps by civil disobedience or rebellion.  More deeply, every child, Palestinian, Jewish, Iraqi. American and Native American, your child and my child, is holy, or to put it in philosophical terms, of equal and infinite value.  To murder children, as the US and the United Nations have done in the 1990s boycott of Iraq or Israel in its occupation of  Gaza,  is unnatural.  

       What is thus natural is not the reactionary patriarch’s impression of “unchangeable standards”; the latter are often brutal and unnatural.

         Strauss’s next sentence:  “In other words, the humane desire for making education accessible to everyone leads to an ever increasing neglect of the quality of education.”  The beginning of the sentence suggests that the desire is “humane” – it reflects compassion toward those who are denied the delights of education (in Strauss’s late letters to Scholem, he speaks of his “hard heart” which had melted a little,  but compassion for others is, sadly, absent from Strauss’s “virtues”).  The point of the sentence is, however, that the modern project of education for everyone leads to “an ever increasing neglect of the quality of education.”  It leads to “rebarbarization.”  For Strauss, mass education, that is democratization and democracy, is the enemy.  In listing the things he would be for, as we saw, Bill rightly takes on Strauss straight up.

        Strauss then has a sentence about a debased philosophy which substitutes for the true one, the one of barely hidden, authoritarian whispers...As I have argued, that "true" philosophy proposes the tyranny of the wise ruler, using religion, to dominate the masses.  See “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?,” Constellations, March 2009 here.  No liberalism here.

       Strauss’s final sentence: “True liberals today have no more pressing duty than to counteract the perverted liberalism which contends ‘that just to live, securely and happily, and protected but otherwise unregulated, is man’s simple but supreme goal’ (Havelock, p 374) and which forgets quality, excellence or virtue.”

         Havelock’s good society could be a version of Hobbes.  Strauss’s hatred for Havelock is hatred for the modern era.  Thus, for each individual to be alive and pursue her goals peacefully and happily (with whatever happiness – better, eudaimonia -  a human life is permitted) is on Strauss’s view “perverted liberalism,”  Democratic individuality for Strauss is “perverted liberalism.” 

         What then is “true liberalism’?  It is remembering “quality, excellence or virtue.”  But the rule of the best man, expressing in Aristotle or Plato, “quality, excellence or virtue,” is remarkably inegalitarian (Strauss amusingly and exoterically refers in Natural Right and History to the “equality” involved in this rule – but no one is equal to Zeus. The rule of the outstanding man incarnates inequality; Strauss’s argument here is belligerently bad or self-refuting). This theme is not simply anti-modern, since il Duce or Der Fuehrer or, in the words of William Kristol riffing on the Supreme leader in Iran for Fox News, “Supreme Commander Bush.  I like the sound of that” are all “modern.” But this theme is anything but decent.  There is nothing liberal in Strauss’s affectation of “true liberalism.”

         Throughout the essay on Havelock, Strauss’s esoteric allusions to rule of the best man appear.  For instance, in distinguishing Antiphon’s likely hidden view from Havelock’s emphasis of a surviving sentence, Strauss, rightly, a page before this final paragraph (p. 62, the last paragraph is 62-64), points out;

         “Antiphon says that the law of the usages of the city stem from agreement as distinguished from nature.  This does not necessarily mean that the law or usages are simply the product of ‘group opinion’; it does not exclude the possibility that the laws or usages are primarily the work of an outstanding man regarded as endowed with superhuman virtue whose proposals were accepted by human beings, and these human beings constituted themselves, by virtue of this acceptance, as members of one society.”

         Strauss also says something of this sort in relation to liberal progress early in the essay.  It is of course true that individuals invent wise things and that one is lucky to have, when one has them, wise leaders.  But this is only a part of history.  Trouble and rebellion from below, often characterized by considerable leaders like Spartacus, Jefferson, Robespierre, Mother Jones. Lenin or Gandhi, has led to insights into and an ultimate reduction of oppressions.  Strauss sides with the traditional or reactionary – to find a leader who will suppress such movements, or destroy what he takes to be their consequences.  Sublimely reactionary and in this sense, admirable, this is also a sad and murderous way of thinking.  In Strauss’s exoteric words at p.  32, “Moreover, one may grant that progress is due entirely to man’s exertions and inventions and yet trace progress primarily to rare and discontinuous acts of a few outstanding men; ‘progressivism’ is not necessarily identical with that ‘gradualism’ which is apparently essential to liberalism.”

         This last sentence is deceptive.   Strauss attacks communism – surely revolutionary as communists see it, and not gradualist – and liberalism as leading to communism.  But liberalism, too,  came about through the Puritan Revolution in England, the French Revolution in France, and the American Revolution and Civil War in the United States.  Locke famously is no “gradualist” (though in Natural Right and History, Strauss avoids Locke’s advocacy of revolution).   But the outstanding men –  they are not, for Strauss, Cromwell or Robespierre or Lincoln (Strauss himself never speaks of Lincoln) or Rousseau or Locke and the like – but mainly reactionaries: Nietzsche and Heidegger, and…Hitler (at least as late as 1934; Strauss does not  quickly turn away from what he later calls in 1941 vulgar nihilism).  He admires the great men who might undo modern liberalism and communism.

          In response to Will Altman’s question – why did a man consumed with the theological-political problem never write about separation of church and state, AZ and Peter Minowitz (in an initial letter to me) were right to think that Liberalism Ancient and Modern was a place to look for toleration.  And as we have seen in Connolly’s probing, Strauss does write about it here.  Let us change Altman’s question: why does Strauss only write briefly and malevolently about toleration?  For on p. vii of the Preface, Strauss  makes it clear that toleration of other religions – the modern liberal standpoint – is the enemy in this book.  He talks about how in America, even a very conservative organization calls itself “Daughters of the American Revolution”: “The conservatism of our age is identical with what originally was liberalism, more or less modified by changes in the direction of present-day liberalism.  One could go even further and say that much of what goes now by the name of conservatism has in the last analysis a common root with present day liberalism and even with Communism.  That this is the case would appear most clearly if one were to go back to the origin of modernity, to the break with the pre-modern tradition that took place in the seventeenth century, to the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.”

         Strauss goes back, again, to the origin of liberalism in Hobbes.  All of his views are connected with his original anti-modern stance (this is not to say that the connections are made by arguments, however; the links are more by intimation or intuition).  Strauss is thus not an Anglo-American conservative (one who like Oakeshott celebrates individuality).  Proximately, however, he goes back to the clear meaning that arose in the struggle of authoritarianism against liberalism in Europe.  “Then and there the conservatives stood for ‘throne and altar’ and the liberals stood for popular sovereignty and the strictly nonpublic (private) character of religion.” (vii)  The theme that is repeated throughout the book is that the separation of church and state or toleration is characteristic of the deficient or “perverted”  liberalism which slides into communism.  It is liberalism that the philosophical rule of one – the philosopher-tyrant – means to destroy.  That rule will be upheld by one religion.  If you want to understand the dangers of “executive power” – and Obama in sustaining much of what Bush did needs to look at this or more aptly, to be helped by the rest of us, to look at this – here is an important root.

         In response to Altman’s question, a scholarly conversation has now unfolded.  But the imagined liberalism of Leo Strauss has yet to make an appearance.



Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The tragedy of escalation in Afghanistan and what it reveals about American democracy

        Gary Wills has written a striking article that Obama should (and is the only potential American president who even might) end the two aggressions and occupations in which the US is engaged, even at the cost of not getting a second term (below). It is a valuable article because it reminds us, even today as the leaks come out about Obama’s decision to escalate, of the chance that he has missed, of the potential he still represents.

       Obama’s apparent calculation – to run against the Republicans means to be tough on war as well as pursuing increasingly modest social reforms.  And he would thus be a good, he imagines, though not a great President (this rests on the economy not staying collapsed in terms of joblessness, a big if, and of course does enormous harm in the world).  On the first dimension - war -  he has also just admitted continuing, shamefully, to oppose the international land mine treaty – land mines still murder several thousand children a year – because of Pentagon foolishness about American “security” (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 5, for the story of Bill Clinton’s cowardice on this matter – Obama seems to reach too much to restore Clinton’s harmful policies).   Barack has also adopted a number of the twisted anti-legal doctrines of the Bush administration about "state secrets" and so-called military trials for indefinitely detained and tortured prisoners. Even the courage of publically trying 5 Guantanamo prisoners in New York, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – the administration stands for the rule of law; a decent America has returned - has been rendered evidently hypocritical and foolish by a separate system of military trials for others detained and tortured.  Here, Obama has missed possibilities of change which the majority of the American people as well as economic necessity (Representative David Obey of Wisconsin is now challenging escalating the war given the economic facts)  would favor. 

          On the second dimension - reforms - the medical insurance companies have hollowed out the health care bills.  If passed, the reform would be an improvement (for instance, eliminating lack of coverage for preexisting conditions), but not nearly the one that seemed possible a few months ago.    Obama has also bailed out the big banks, with their monstrous bonuses (scandal here is too weak a word), while doing little for homeowners faced with foreclosure (many of them, blacks  whom Obama once served as a community organizer).  As President, Obama has changed things for the better and saved us from the very worst (tyranny as well as the likelihood of bombing Natanz and in the short run, initiating a cycle further inflaming and possibly leading to nuclear war in the Middle East).   Yet as Wills' article suggests, what Obama is becoming, as President, reflects the mindless competition of two parties, moving ever, short of mass protest from below, to the right.  Obama probably will pass a decent health care reform, already has a stimulus for green jobs, will do something international on global warming.  Not his hope, Lincoln, he may think, but not the worst…

         Perhaps given the influence of imperial thinking among so many (it is hard to believe that the effectiveness of  American military power is waning moment by moment, that the choice to leave or stay might not be “ours”), Wills does not mention defeat.  But if the US had bombed Natanz as Cheney wanted, Southern Iraq would probably have risen up, the supply lines for American troops would have been cut, and the US would have had to exit Iraq; if economic collapse and major protest from below here couples with further Karzai ineffectuality and corruption, and  trouble in Pakistan, the US may have no choice but to withdraw most of its troops in Afghanistan after another year or so of statements about “this war’s necessity.”   But Wills hints at a profound point about democracy – that the momentum of two party competition, once again, short of  crisis and mass protest, is steadily to the right.

        Our regime is dominated by a military-industrial-political-academic (at least think tank “expert”)-media complex.  This complex is for war, war and more war (see Must Obama find the right war?  here).  As Leslie Gelb, former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, has both testified self-critically about Iraq and exemplifies, yet again, just now about Afghanistan, this complex rattles on in the same vein, even though our economy is collapsed, even though millions of people are unemployed.  Electoral competition between two major parties, both of which are funded by and seeded with members of this complex, makes an effort to break with the most criminal, murderous, self-destructive and irrational wars beyond the skill even of Obama.  Obama probably recognizes, yet will probably acquiesce in  the costs, not only in American lives, but in decency and honor as well, of continuing them.  It is a dangerous path that he treads.  Wall Street recovery does not end the depression for ordinary people.  A right-wing commentator has recently suggested that Sarah Palin imitate William Jennings Bryan: I will not be crucified upon the cross of Wall Street.  By escalating an indecent occupation, Obama has a very good chance of being a one-term President. I might name the cause of his choice to escalate party competition-motivated. imperial hubris.

        For his is not the tragedy of madmen like Cheney and fools like Bush or even of needing to prove  “manliness”  like Hillary Clinton.  Barack is tough, but also bides his time (surveying possibilities and what his opponents do) and is decent.   He might be decisive, as Wills suggests, in pulling American troops out.   Perhaps what we are seeing starkly are the ideal limits of a decent American Presidency, short of mass revolt.  Such revolt is what the country needs. ordinary people are  disarmed, to some extent, by Obama’s decency, by the fact that he is the first black President and by the monstrousness of – and peril represented by - the attacks against him.

         To see the stark awfulness of Obama’s choice to escalate, to cater to the torturer McChrystals of this world, we should look more deeply at the real situation in the United States. America is broke. In a great public service, David Leonhardt in the Times, echoed by Charles Blow, has identified the figure for unemployment as 17.5% men and women in the workforce, counting those who have given up looking for work and those who have part-time jobs but would gladly take fulltime jobs.  That the New York Times underlines this figure has the potential to challenge the dishonest government statistics in which, for example, 4% unemployed, some millions of suffering people, is declared “full employment.”  Exceeding Obama’s projections (he imagined with the stimulus, unemployment would hit 8%), the official figure 10.5%.  But this is just a gesture at real unemployment which is, as Leonhardt underlines, 2/3 higher. 

           In addition, a large part of the homeless and jobless are veterans of the Iraq War (some 25% according to figures cited by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.  Like Vietnam vets today, they are likely to be the majority of the homeless in American society for the next forty years.

             On November 6, 2009, Max Cleland wrote an op-ed on “The Forever War of the Mind”  in the Times here.  He had lost his limbs in Vietnam and been elected a Senator from Georgia.  He was then  defeated in 2002 by Saxby Chambliss who said Cleland was “unpatriotic” (leavng aside the military, what are Chambliss’s human credentials?).  The 2002 Georgia election was a trial run for computerized voting with no paper records, and showed an odd and sudden shift from polls favoring Cleland by 5 points in the last week to a Chambliss “victory.”  Afterwards, Cleland has been revisited in dreams by the horrors of war, he reports; he has fallen again into depression.  

            These are terrors which do not leave the sufferers (they can be limited, held at bay at times) over a lifetime.  That is what soldiering in imperial wars – and very likely even soldiering in self-defense - is about. Nonviolence is a way of saving the world (working to keep it habitable for humans) and each of the soldiers. Cleland also reminds us of the shell-shocked veterans of World War I who were many of the unemployed and homeless in the Depression. 

           As Cleland does not say (Times op-ed pieces are brief), the greatest moment of heroism and revival for veterans of World War I  was  the Bonus Army in Washington.  The 43,000 protestors who built shacks and demonstrated for weeks, named themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force  (17,000 soldiers, their families, and affiliated groups, who protested in Washington, D.C., in the spring and summer of 1932).  Walter W. Waters, a former Army sergeant, led it; Marine Major General Smedley Butler supported it.  The  veterans, many of whom had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression, sought immediate cash payment for Service Certificates granted to them eight years earlier by the Adjusted Service Certificate Law of 1924. Each such certificate, issued to a  veteran, had a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment, plus compound interest. The problem was that the certificates (like bonds) would mature twenty years from the original date of issue; thus, the veterans could not redeem their certificates until 1945.

      In an episode which should live in infamy, later fabled American generals, Douglas McArthur and George S. Patton, used their troops to suppress the veterans, burning their shacks and beating them.   As this example  reveals, there has always been a “which side are you on” question about the standing army. The US government has always been leery of the original citizen army suggested by the founders (and other republican theorists over the  centuries).  After his election, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered members of the Bonus Army work building the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys. In 1935, a great hurricane killed more than two hundred and fifty of these veterans, and evoked public outrage.  In 1936 Congress, overriding FDR's veto, enabled veterans to redeem their certificates early.

        As the Massachusetts national guard suppressed the 1787 Shays Rebellion (in which poor farmers, mainly veterans of the Revolution, demanded relief from interest payments which threatened their lands), as the police fought against Vietnam Veterans against the War or attacked Iraq Veterans against the War demonstrating outside an Obama-McCain debate (Obama did meet with anti-war vets at the Convention), a standing army – and in Thoreau’s words, a standing government - often turns into the enemy of the soldiers.     Revealing the hollowness of wearing little metal flag lapel pins, Bush treated wounded veterans with contempt at Walter Reed.  His government  could squander billions on Iraq, on Cheney’s Halliburton, Erik Prince and Blackwater,  on private companies like CACI to torture, but it could not provide clean hospital rooms - hospital rooms  without mold growing on the walls - for the wounded.   That the Times printed Cleland’s op-ed is good.  But it is the tip of an iceberg about America’s likely future. 

       As Wills suggests for Cheney/Bush, Johnson and Nixon,  Presidents cannot give up on a losing war.  Instead, they kick it on to  the next occupant of the Oval Office.  If a President loses a war, he will be crucified as “soft” on the enemy (almost a woman).  That the Soviet Union no longer exists makes no difference to the military-industrial-academic-political-media complex and its patriarchal stupidities.  It now has  “Islam.”  Obama has made significant changes in addressing other countries and peoples with respect and self-restraint.  But despite the now widely recognized unilateral madness in the Bush-Cheney years, this complex agitates mechanically, endlessly in Wills’ apt word, for extending  even losing wars.  

        Obama probably recognizes that neither Iraq nor Afgnahistan is sensible (that they are both “dumb wars” in his idiom at an anti-War rally in Chicago some years ago).  In the much publicized, much leaked about meetings about escalating the war in Afghanistan, Biden has asked Obama’s questions, I suspect, about whether Pakistan is the real danger (see here).  The foolishness and harms of such occupations are demonstrated by the story of an American solider, one other than General Abizaid in Iraq who could speak a local language and puffed himself up as a would be native,  He asked a local farmer: “Have you seen any foreign troops around here?”  The farmer looked at him.  “Yes, you,” he replied. 

        Every hour of American occupation (and firing off drone missiles to kill civilians in Pakistan from Langley) makes new enemies for Americans.  As Obama said in the campaign, sacrificing our values – the Bill of Rights,  decency - makes us less secure.  Occupying countries and torturing other people – making it clear that the US government is an enemy of the rule of law and human dignity as in the Bush-Cheney administration, but one now extended in important ways by Obama - breeds new enemies at a rapid rate.

          Still, Obama represents something different.  That America elected a black leader, one as gifted and decent as Obama, testifies to resources in American democracy that no one could have predicted  before it happened.  But could Obama withdraw from both wars?  He has yet to remove even a division from Iraq. though there, the plans for some drawdown are in the works.   But as Wills emphasizes, a powerful right will excoriate him, is already unleashing a storm of reaction: the non- or un-American, “other” is "too weak," too shifting, to “man” our military efforts.  We need Presidents, it says, who will continue the wars.  Perhaps the Republicans can breathe life into General Petraeus to lead their ticket. That might, as Wills suggests, make Obama a one term President.  Perhaps that is what Obama’s escalation means to head off.  The Republicans are quickly becoming the minority fantasist party of Sarah Palin; it may be that sickly prospect which Obama hopes to defeat by his combination of war and reforms in 2012.  His is a weak calculation, not the historic one that Will portends.  And if the economy recovers,  surely Palin and even Petraeus are as beatable by doing something decent,  by reaching for greatness, by standing up and altering self-destructive American imperialism, as by caving in, becoming smaller,  “the lesser of two evils.”

        Wills rightly celebrates the potential, if unlikely choice of Obama’s, to end two wars.  He is the first President, Wills  says, one could imagine actually doing the right thing.  I might elaborate.  There is grave discontent in the American population with unending wars, and the war in Afghanistan.  There is fierce anger against Wall Street.  Popular anger could give Obama some room to draw down the troops.

        But there are two issues here which Wills does not see.  Obama is by far the most skillful politician in mainstream politics for many generations.  That he would give up being President – make a noble sacrifice – is doubtful.    Further, if he had taken in this issue fully, he would never have run for President.   What it means to become the American President, even for a decent person, is to murder through war and military aid and the CIA thousands of innocent people.  That point is underlined by Kathleen Barry’s moving appeal to Obama’s empathy (see below after Wills' piece; her article has several errors of fact, which I note in brackets, however).  She calls for directing it at  ordinary people in Afghanistan and Pakistan murdered by American bombs and drones. If an American leader is aggressive about it like Bush or Johnson or Nixon/Kissinger, one can really achieve distinction in the way of  mass murder, but there is no escaping doing some.  One can try to content oneself – I imagine Obama does – by the good he can  do, by the greater evils – and we have seen Cheney and Bush – he heads off.    I am grateful to him now – and will be even if he escalates the war in Afghanistan.  The apt cries of some radicals against him do not quite take in the seriousness of our situation or what he represents. Still as they see, we do need a mass movement from below to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan.

       If Obama does not win a second term, Guantanamos will be back as the emblem of American policy.  Obama is already developing the  “state secrets” doctrine, establishing executive power (see Jack Balkin’s work on this bipartisan consolidation of a new “legal” regime) and shielding war criminals from any investigation.   “We do not torture” is an empty phrase in America as long as we remain in violation of international and domestic law.  The torturers like Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and my student Condi Rice and Gonzalez and Yoo remain at large.  Other powerful people celebrate them (well, not so much Gonzalez and Yoo at the moment), and pretend that really, they didn’t do anything; really, America is all right.  Maintream pundits are at work...If this anti-legality for the American elite is not reversed, the next President can restore Bush-Cheney criminality  and go further.

         There is, nonetheless, a chance, internationally, and even domestically, for the law to proceed.  Over four or eight years, there may be indictments and trials of some of these war criminals. Thre was more than enough evidence before, and Obama, under legal deadlines, released unredacted, the torture memos.   There may be enough decent measures taken by Obama – even the weak health care initiative is a vast improvement compared to laissez-faire for the executives of insurance companies, who, by stalling coverage, murder 44,000 people every year according to a recent Harvard study.  Even a not vast green jobs initiative, as in the first stimulus, has helped the American economy and the Democrats will probably have to do more (or lose swiftly).

         There is still hope that Obama can, vacillatingly, elliptically, a bit like Lincoln, restore the rule of law in America.  But one term will not do it.  Obama might be good enough  to end these wars quickly and get reelected. But greatness is not what he seeks.   He may even be reelectable despite escalation, given Republican sectarian self-destructiveness and the possibility that they will nominate a way reactionary, unappetizing (to most of us) candidate.  But Wills's column, thoughtful as it is, does not take in the likely continuation in the future of a regime of tyranny, the banishing of habeas corpus (the right of each prisoner to a day in court and not to be tortured, the centerpiece, fought for over centuries, of a system of  law as distinct from tyranny).  That Obama was elected by a serious movement from below was a miracle.  That he alone can or will restore the rule of law has always been doubtful.  The complex which would destroy what is good in America (and perhaps destroy the world) is  working overtime.  To cater to it is currently, in many respects, the “pragmatic” course.  Thus, every effort that anti-war, pro-jobs and rule of law people make to open a path of decency for Obama – perhaps to force Obama to adhere to his better instincts, to be Obama -  is effort well spent.


Published on Monday, November 23, 2009 by The New York Review of Books

A One-Term President? Why Not, If He Ended an Endless War

by Gary Wills

I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president. I think that may be true. The charges from various quarters would be toxic-that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he could have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate.

These are the arguments that have kept us in losing efforts before. They are the ones that made presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon pass on to their successors in the presidency the draining and self-lacerating Vietnam War. They are the arguments that made President George W. Bush pass on two wars to his successor.

One of the strongest arguments for continued firing up of these wars is that none of these presidents wanted to serve only one term (even Lyndon Johnson, who chose not to run for a second full term). But what justification is there for buying a second presidential term with the lives of hundreds or thousands of young American men and women in the military?

I have great hopes for the Obama presidency, even in his first term, and especially if he could have two terms to realize the exciting new things he aspires to do in the White House. But I would rather see him a one-term president than have him pass on another unwinnable war to the person who will follow him in office.

I know how difficult it will be to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. We go into these places, now, trailing baggage of a deadly sort. There are more hired American contractors in both nations than there are military personnel. What to do with these unaccountable and corrupt bands? We have farmed out so many of our national duties that the contractors, like our banks, have grown too big to be dealt with. Who is to guard our soldiers if not our mercenary bodyguards?

But we had a thousand soldiers wounded in the last three months-a quarter the number of wounded since 2001. These include many lives shattered forever. We sink deeper into blood, with no foreseeable end in sight. Qualified reporters and military officials foresee another ten years in Afghanistan-and their projections usually err on the short side.

The American people now oppose the war, and it is folly to keep up a war without support back home. We will hear predictions of dire consequences if we don't carry out a commitment, and don't yield to demands of the military to expand forces. We heard that for years about Vietnam. But when we did withdraw, the consequences were not as fatal as those we incurred during the years that saw the deaths of over 50,000 of our soldiers and many more Vietnamese. Some leader has to break the spell before costs mount further while our wars are passed from president to president. Among other things, this will give our military a needed chance to repair the wear and tear on men and equipment that the overstretched regular services and the National Guard have suffered, and to make them ready for other challenges.

It is unlikely that we will soon have another president with the moral and rhetorical force to talk us out of a foolish commitment that cannot be sustained without shame and defeat. If it costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it?

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would rather be a one-term president than give up on his goals. Here is a goal no other president we can imagine would have a possibility of reaching. Presidents who just kick the can down the road are easy to come by. Lost lives and limbs are not.

© 2009 The New York Review of Books

Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. His most recent book, What Jesus Meant, was published in 2006.

November 25

Obama's Afghanistan Decision

by Kathleen Barry

Dear President Obama,

Thank you for being an empathetic model of manhood and further, for bringing that quality into the American Presidency.  But how do you explain those dead Afghani and Pakistani daughters, mothers, sons and fathers, killed by US forces since you took office, to your own daughters who you want to develop the kind of empathy you have.  You are teaching them how to understand the suffering of others.  In Ghana you took them to the slave port and said that you wanted them to "engage in the imaginative act of what it would be like if they were snatched away from Mom and Dad and sent to some place they had never seen before."  You want them to identify with the suffering of others, "And get them to - to make sure that they are constantly asking themselves questions about whether they are treating people fairly and - and whether they are examining their own behavior and how it affects others."

You have shown how empathy does not conflict with strength, how it enhances rather than diminishes leadership.  In this country, you have faced down the health insurance industry from the memory of how your mother suffered at their hands.  At the same time, you bring your empathy together with the power of your leadership when a woman at one of your health care forums tells you through her tears of how her insurance company is denying her life-saving treatment.  We saw you go to her as you asked her to come forward to you, and watched you embrace her telling her that she was not alone.

As you are making your decision on the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I ask you, are the people there any less deserving of your empathy?  When you took office you escalated the U.S. war in Afghanistan and allowed it to expand in Pakistan.  By the end of June, over a 1,000 Afghani civilians were killed, 261 alone in the month of May.  In other words, more than one-third of the number of people killed in the Al Qaeda attack on the US in 9-11-2001 are dead since January of this year in order to keep America safe, even though they had nothing to do with fighting then or when they died.  And with the increase our bombings have caused in recruits to the Taliban, America is not more safe.

 While you were telling Americans that you wake up every morning and go to sleep every night thinking of how to keep America safe, you were denying that safety to the families of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Mr. President, you know that the empathy that you so highly value cannot be selective. When you engage it for some, say Americans, and refuse it to others, like Afghanis and Pakistanis, you are telling the world that only Americans lives are of value and that everyone else's lives can be put at risk to protect American lives.     

Still you have not lost your empathy or respect for the lives of people in countries the US bombs and attacks.  On May 9, in a rare gesture of an American President, you apologized to President Karzai when he met with you in Washington a few days after the US military killed an estimated 140 Afghanis in Farah, 94 of them girls under the age of 18  who had gathered in a compound to take shelter from the fighting.  Some villagers said the strikes hit an area which the Taliban had already left and where there was no fighting. You apologized but you did not stop the bombing.  In fact, drone strikes on Pakistani villages three days later in South Waziristan killed 8 people.  Four days after that, US forces killed 25 civilians in a village in North Waziristan.  None were Taliban, none were Al Qaeda.  And the drone attacks continue, weekly, daily sometimes. 

How will your decision on troop levels and military plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan reflect what you are teaching your daughters about the value of human life?  Will you show them the petitions from the women of Afghanistan brought to you by Medea Benjamin from Code Pink?  Will you explain to them that Afghan women have asked that you disarm the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Northern Alliance, none of whom have the support of the people? 

In your April speech in Islamabad you said that you "have no sympathy and no patience for people who go around blowing up innocent people."   If you engage the same kind of empathy you are teaching your daughters with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, you will see that in their daily experiences of US bombings and drone attacks they see the US attacks in the same light that you see the terrorists who attacked the US.

Against a US force of 68,000 troops in Afghanistan before you make your announcement in a few days, Senator John Kerry, when he returned from Iraq last month, told us that there were not more than a thousand hard-core Taliban [sic: Al-Qaida] in Afghanistan.  Women in Afghanistan estimate that there are not more than 100.  The rest are boys and men who cannot find work, who are angry over the US bombing and occupation of their country, who are driven to fight back against the US military who killed  their parents or their children. 

How difficult would it be to announce a plan to disarm those "reconcilables" as General Petraeus calls them?  To disarm not rearm!  Rather than negotiating with the Taliban to sell out women's rights as Hamid Karzai has done, why not pay those fighters who are not hardcore terrorists to go home and restock their shops or rebuild their farms.  Then withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan allowing them to protect their people and their country from the small number of hardcore terrorists remaining? 

You have expressed your pain and sorrow in phone calls to families of American soldiers who have lost a son or daughter, a husband or wife.  But what about the soldiers still there in combat?  If you are truly pained by the loss of American soldiers in this war, bring those who are still there in combat home and give them the support to put their lives back together. 

Mr. President, it is frightening to look at your advisors and see mostly hawks who are proponents of unending war.  From your Vice President [sic – Biden is for moving out of Afghanistan, though for continuing use of  CIA drones in Pakistan] to your Secretary of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you have surrounded yourself with people who dismiss the cost of human life in war in favor of war.  They have left us with the blood of over a million Iraqis on our hands [sic – that is Bush-Cheney; Obama is deescalating in Iraq].  We do not expect empathy from your Generals whom came to their prestigious ranks through the military whose job it is to kill and destroy.  They coldly speak of killing civilians as "collateral damage" as if it is not killing, as if human life outside of the United States is as significant as paper clips.  

You have shown us that we can expect empathy from you, except in war.  Will you close that gap?  If you have not turned over the Executive Authority of this country to the Generals as your predecessor had, as it appears that you did when you took office in January, we will expect your decision on troops in Afghanistan to be reflected in your empathy for Afghanis and Pakistani as well as for American soldiers. 

We are awaiting your decision on troop levels for Afghanistan.  More precisely, we are waiting to see if you or the Generals are running this country as they have been since 2001.

In closing, Mr. President, before announcing your decision, please think hard and long from that place of empathy within you of what it would feel like to receive that call telling you the fate of one of your daughters, the kind of call that far too many Afghanis have received about their boys and girls who are with them no longer.  

With respect,

Kathleen Barry, Ph.D.

Kathleen Barry is Professor Emerita of Penn State University, a feminist and sociologist and the author of Unmaking War, Remaking Men forthcoming Spring, 2010.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Where the road diverges - part 1


        My friend Bill Connolly wrote me a note about my posts on Liberalism Ancient and Modern here and here emphasizing the peculiar viciousness of Strauss’s indictment of the liberal classicist Eric Havelock in chapter 3. “You get it right as far as I am concerned, though you have read more Strauss than I have.  I think the time that he attacks Eric Havelock, a liberal, in the most ignoble ways in Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, reveals a lot of what he is all about.  Great work.  Bill”

        In his insightful book Pluralism, Bill invokes Strauss’s chapter as an emblem of what is depraved in a neoconservative,  unitary or national surveillance view of the American regime (the latter term is also Jack Balkin’s).  Bill  makes a brilliant effort to hear Strauss, to detect whether Strauss actually believes what he says or whether it is mainly for gentlemen and the masses (Bill’s and Strauss’s stalking horse is Bill Bennett, a gambler who squanders millions but recites to others the virtues of virtue; Bennett is a bit like Crito or Phaedo, a lesser interlocutor who will repeat a story ostensibly beneficial to “the city” which “the philosopher” does not or, more aptly, only partly believes).. Connolly’s comments penetrate far more deeply into Strauss‘s cultivated obscurity than, for instance, many of Strauss’s defenders as a constitutional democrat allow themselves to go.  It is as good an effort as anyone is likely to make short of devoting themselves to reading carefully not just a book of Strauss, but trying to capture what he is saying in each book as a whole and across books and correspondence.  It is why Strauss’s sublime politics of reaction and hatred of the modern –  entertaining nuclear war as a hopeful thing, a return to the human “spring” see here and here  -  remain hidden to these advocates, even though he spells them out daringly and with much amusement, near the surface.  My commenter AZ, for example,  nominated a seeming surface endorsement of separation of church and state in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (here).  But Strauss himself rejects the  supposed virtue of toleration, claimed by Dore Schary,  in limiting conformity.   

          Bill takes up Strauss’s seemingly promising remark in chapter 3: roughly, the defenders of toleration cannot be tolerant of the Inquisition.  We might consider this remark to be the sharpest, most central nominee for a defense of toleration by Strauss so far proposed.  Bill makes it clear that he – and there is a universe of others – are militantly opposed to intolerance. So Strauss's sweeping indictment of all us moderns is foolish - or will play only with those who do not consider seriously or empathically the views of others.  Still,  on the surface, Strauss rails against “relativism” or “historicism” or “nihilism”: he means by this roughly the “modern age” or, as he puts in a Platonic joke, the third wave of modernity (the waves of modernity mirror Poseidon’s storms in the Odyssey and the waves of ridicule which confront the “city in speech” in book 5 of Plato’s Republic).  Strauss’s thought seems a touchstone for a version of true liberalism or toleration. 

       In Bill’s forceful words,

       “I find  Strauss’s effortless use of such phrases as ‘enemies of civilization, ‘squander,’ ‘perverted,’ ‘shallow and glib futurists, ‘rootless,’ ‘utmost’ ‘abandonment of all standards,’ and ‘ferocious hatred’ to express a degree of virulence outstripping the intellectual vices of the object of attack. (Pluralism, p. 40)

           For the sake of argument – I have not studied Havelock though I know something about Plato and the Greeks – I am willing to accept the accuracy of some of Strauss’s criticisms. Strauss speaks almost nowhere of contemporary writers.  He does not consider himself a comrade or colleague of this seemingly wayward classicist in seeking the truth.   Instead, as Bill stresses, his criticism is blistering.  For Strauss, Havelock’s projection of his own liberal views on to the ancients and foolishness are but the symbol of the age.  Strauss’s use of some of the terms Bill notes is in context revealing and Delphic. I will in this essay pull apart and comment sentence by sentence on a few passages of Strauss.  If you read them aloud to yourself (a useful thing to do with hidden writing, since it slows the reader down, allows other senses to let the meaning unfold, prevents, as Strauss puts it, imagining what is there rather than actually hearing it), the meaning will, rhetorically, jump out at you.  This whole following passage is at Liberalism Ancient and Modern pp. 40-41:

        “[Havelock’s] explanation rests on the untenable assumption that Plato believed in the age of Kronos.  Havelock also suggests, it seems, that Plato had to contradict himself because he could not contradict the Greek anthropologists ‘in open fight,’ for in doing so he would have been compelled to restate their doctrine and thus to contribute to the spreading of a dangerous doctrine (Havelock, 87-88).  This explanation rests on the assumption, proved untenable by the tenth book of the Laws, for instance, that Plato was afraid openly to set forth dangerous or subversive doctrines to which he was opposed [atheism is the surface target of book 10, but the Athenian Stranger – and Plato - seem to have wanted to protect a potential “Socrates” who gets to walk with members of the Nocturnal Council in discussion every night for 5 years instead of, as in Athens, being made to drink the hemlock after a day’s trial; both are, on Strauss's view, atheists;  Strauss’s elliptical surface invocation of book 10 here is puzzling]. 

       But then, in the single most dramatic sentence in the whole book, Strauss lets the cat out of the bag:

        “Havelock might retort that the extreme view openly set forth and openly attacked by Plato was less dangerous in his eyes than the view of the Greek liberals; but until we know that there were Greek liberals we must regard it as possible that Plato failed to set forth the liberal view because the liberal view did not exist.”

          Recall that the title of Strauss’s book is Liberalism Ancient and Modern.  This chapter on “The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy” never says what modern liberalism is and ends by trashing the modern age.  But isn’t ancient liberality still  “the study of the greatest books” as in chapter one?  Shouldn’t one assume from the title that there is some classical “liberalism” (as I have emphasized here, Strauss plays the same exoteric trick in many of his titles). Listen again to the operative clause: 

       “until we know that there were Greek liberals we must regard it as possible that Plato failed to set forth the liberal view because the liberal view did not exist.”

         Just in case the "careful" reader might miss the point, Strauss steps out of his usual role as revealer through seeming commentary of  hidden meanings and underlines his own agreement with Plato.  He then explains hidden or exoteric writing in Plato (see Phaedrus discussed here) and by implication himself.

        We on our part support this explanation.  Plato knew that most men read more with their ‘imagination’ than with open-minded care and are therefore much more benefited by salutary myths than the naked truth.”

         Strauss’s concluding sentence to the essay  implies that he might be some sort of true or ancient liberal as opposed to “perverted liberalism” (Liberalism Ancient and Modern p 64); that, he says here for the careful reader, is but a “salutary myth.”  (The word “salutary” repeated mantra-like by Straussians with empty condescension - things that are good for others who are not "up to it” intellectually to believe – has been pretty well ruined for this period of time in English by Strauss; for those students of Strauss who exempt Strauss himself from exoteric writing, note: the condescension which Strauss and some of his followers display toward others boomerangs and is also directed at you). It is the one time in the book as opposed to many misleading phrases about ancient liberality in which he lets the “naked truth” flash past.

        He then invokes the fierce terms Bill cites as seemingly part of what a decent liberal might say.  The careless reader might let them go by.   But these words are part of a well-known – in Europe but not America - reactionary critique of modern “rootlessness”:

        “Precisely the liberals who hold that morality is historical or of merely human origin must go on to say, with the sophist Protagoras as paraphrased by Havelock, that this invaluable acquisition which for later men is a heritage ‘must never be lost’ or is ‘too precious to be gambled with’ (187): the greatest enemies of civilization in civilized countries are those who squander the heritage because they look down on it or on the past; civilization is much less endangered by narrow but loyal preservers than by the shallow and glib futurists who, being themselves rootless, try to destroy all roots and thus do everything in their power in order to bring back the initial chaos and promiscuity.”

       Amusingly if a bit bizarrely, his words are directed most obviously against the liberal classicist Havelock, who purports to defend the past, but instead misreads Greek arguments to try to locate a tradition which, Strauss avers, does not exist.  Havelock is a paradigm for those fake modern classicists and all moderns who “squander the past.” They are “rootless.”  They seek to restore  “the initial chaos and promiscuity.”  They are as, Strauss will say in the end of the essay “barbarians” or rather engage in “rebarbarization.”  These are liberals, on  Strauss’s view… 

       Ironically, in reality, classicists tend to be the least modern in orientation of scholars, to be most inclined to conservative or reactionary views (Donald Kagan and his sons, Bob and Fred, influential on the Iraq aggression and the "surge," leap to mind).  A liberal scholar like W. Robert Connor, whose study of Thucydides during Vietnam (published in 1984) is a counterexample.  But Connor's scholarship on Thucydides is incomparably superior to Kagan's, and on close study, I would say, plainly superior to Strauss's.  He illuminates Thucydides' profound critique of the corruption of Athenian democracy through empire, leading to its destruction (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 3).  In contrast, Strauss thinks that Alcibiades could have saved the empire, and that the citizens, the demos, who kicked him out are the problem.

         Strauss continues:

         “The first duty of civilized man is then to respect his past. This respect finds its exaggerated but effective expression in the belief that the ancestors – the Founding Fathers – were simply superior to the present generation and especially to the present youth and mere ‘logic’ leads from this to the belief in perfect beginnings of in the age of Kronos.” (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, pp. 40-41).

         For Strauss, the proximate or first duty of “civilized man” is to respect the past: to be perhaps conservative (if the past has been revolutionary, one may not be conservative in respecting it).  But of course the beginning of the Republic is Socrates’ challenge to the father Kephalos who, although an immigrant or metic, worships old Athenian ways.  The Laws too is devoted to the Athenian Stranger’s sometimes dark challenges to and undercutting of the adoration of the past of the old men Klinias and Megillus, his Cretan and Spartan interlocutors.  By this remark, Strauss is indicating to the reader that he is not a conservative either.  He stands with Plato as a philosophical reactionary (a lover of the outstanding man, the philosopher-tyrant) or perhaps with Nietzsche and Heidegger (the modern rule of one, destroying secularization).  He concludes with a sentence affirming “the age of Kronos” which the first sentence of the citation above contradicts: “This explanation rests on the untenable assumption that Plato believed in the age of Kronos.”  In other words, he seems to say, don’t take the promixate view too seriously; but absorb the right words for the liberal age which his followers must make pass, historically, into the darkness. 

          This passage is one of the many peculiar and revealing examples of hidden writing in Strauss, but perhaps it is glaringly obvious that none of this has anything to do with argument.  I have just been decoding some of Strauss’s anti-liberal message to his careful readers.  Strauss is right that ancient and medieval philosophers often had hidden messages. That is a genuine discovery for which he deserves admiration (though not everything he offers as an example or a way of doing it is sensible).  But reading Strauss requires cryptography, not philosophy. Putting aside reaction, he is clever and amusing, but does not understand those he disagrees with (he reduces their arguments to snippets or weaker arguments by lesser figures against whom he fulminates) or provide serious argument.

           Bill, however, rightly stresses the awful force of “rootless” and “enemies of civilization” in Strauss’s lexicon.  Perhaps we Americans can’t quite hear these terms now.  But I have fought fascism all my life; even in Strauss’s elliptical usage, they take my breath away.  For these words in 1920s and 1930s Germany referred on the Right most obviously  to communists (let us reverse the medal: what should one make of these affected Reactionary intellectuals, dressed up with Heidegger in peasant garb before he donned a Nazi brown shirt, rooted in the soil? If affectation is "roots," then Heidegger was "rooted."  Heidegger had creative ideas, notably about mortality and "falling into the one," but aside from his betrayals of Jewish or ostensibly pro-American students like Baumgarten - as Rektor-Fuehrer of the University of  Freiburg in 1933-34, he wrote nasty letters preventing their employment - there is a base hypocrisy to Heidegger which is pretty sad and obvious).

         European reactionaries also named the supposedly restless, shifting and inconstant urban and modern as “rootless.”  In “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism,” Strauss fears the urbanization of the world, connecting it with Marxism; in a long essay on Socrates, he praises rural Athenian citizens who – against the masses of naval rowers in the Piraeus, the demos - knew how to size up horses and, with a Mel Brooks’ inspired sexism, women…Recall Strauss’s wish, which he reports and which is echoed by his daughter, to be a rural postman who reads Nietzsche and Plato.  He was born in rural Kirchhain.  There are many virtues in the wish – like growing and eating decent food, living with others you know, a neighborhood on  a human scale  - if and only if it is not connected to destroying everything else (or in the temptation to nuclear war, everything…). 

         Most importantly,  “rootless” is a common anti-semitic description of Jews. Rootless is the idea of the outsider.  As I have written about elsewhere, Carl Schmitt devoted himself to  Strauss’s interpretation of Spinoza.  The latter opened up, according to Strauss the crack in Hobbes  between outer obedience to Leviathan and inner belief.  For Hobbes clashes with the Platonic thought that in the best regime, each of the ordinary people until the age of 50 (Plato has a funny vision of how long it takes before the regime’s propaganda wears thin)  must have the “same thoughts, the same feelings, see and hear the same things.”  In Spinoza, Strauss said, this gap between obedience and what Spinoza renames inner freedom of thought had become a chasm.

        Strauss turned away from the implications of this theme about Spinoza.  Instead, against anti-semitism, he commendably emphasizes Machiavelli’s thought as a cause both of Spinoza and the last men.   But here too a road diverges.  Strauss’s Spinoza’s Critique of Religion opens the way to Schmitt who studied it closely.  In his 1938 book on Hobbes, Schmitt denounces the “outsider Jew Spinoza” who is the cause of the Satanism of the modern world, to be headed off by a katechon (he who delays the end). Ss Prussian State Councilor up to 1936, Schmitt called , in the legal literature, for naming every Jewish lawyer as the Jew so-and-so - putting a yellow star on each one; for him,  the catechon had been Adolf Hitler.  What Schmitt, an anti-Nietzschean Catholic calls Satanism, Nietzsche and Strauss see as the last men.  Different words, but the same murderous disgust. 

         My friend Rob Howse has rightly emphasized  important differences between Strauss and Schmitt and criticizes Heinrich Meier, the custodian of Schmitt’s legacy in Germany and editor of Strauss’s Gesammelte Schriften.  This argument about Strauss on Machiavelli, which I make in a not yet published essay – “Politics and the God”  reinforces Rob’s point.  But there are boxes hidden in boxes in Strauss.  I have now come to a subtler understanding of this.  Strauss came to see and hate murderous anti-semitism, but as a Nietzschean, he also believed a lot of occasionally more subtle anti-semitic ideas, as words like rootlessness show.  The Jewish prophets led to the Christians, democracy, socialism and communism which as Beyond Good and Evil puts it, unite and praise the terms “poor,” “holy” and “friend.”  These visions all lead to the last men.  As Strauss wrote in 1932 in the Religioese Lage der Gegenwart [the Religious Situation of the Present]:

          “The end of this struggle is the complete rejection of tradition neither merely of its answers, nor merely of its questions, but of its possibilities: the pillars on which our tradition rested; prophets and Socrates/Plato have been torn down since Nietzsche.  Nietzsche’s partisanship for the kings and against the prophets, for the sophists and against Socrates – Jesus neither merely no God, nor a swindler, nor a genius, but an idiot.  Rejected are the theorein and “Good-Evil” – Nietzsche, as the last enlightener.”

           “Through Nietzsche, tradition has been shaken at its roots.  It has completely lost its self-evident truth.  We are left in this world without any authority, without any direction.” (Gesammelte Schriften2:389; trans. Michael Zank; h/t William Altman).”

           Strauss continues insistently: “and even so, the Bible: we can no longer assume that the Prophets are right; we must earnestly ask whether the kings are not right.” 

        In addition, that an ideology targets a people does not mean that many of the targeted individuals even those suffering from it, do not adopt it or large parts of it  – consider Strauss’s and Jacob Klein’s anonymity, studying in a coffee shop, pretending to be businessmen, and Strauss shouting suddenly, “Nietzsche!” at Klein, and watching his expression, and laughing; consider their august status as German Jews, looking down sneeringly on the Ostjuden, Eastern or Sephardic jews (see here).  Once again, this is common enough in all oppressed groups or, in Weber's idiom,  statuses (light skinned blacks often look down on dark skinned blacks, Chicanos on immigrants, etc.)  Malcolm X’s  therapy for himself and other black people was constantly naming and mocking the inner racism that paralyzes those harmed by genocide.  That Strauss, a German jew, was sympathetic, against secularism, to the National Revolution and much of its anti-semitism is hard to take in (see Shadings - they consider me a ‘Nazi’ here” here, particularly the 1934 letters, cited at length between Klein and Strauss).  But it is, as Hannah Arendt suggested in her bitter quip about Strauss (he wanted to join a party that would not have him because he was a jew) the case.

          For in invoking rootlessness and these other terms,  Bill is suggesting, perhaps not quite fully realizing it, that there is, for Strauss, a jewish quality – once again, a deteriorated voice of the Jewish prophets - in modern liberal culture which Strauss seeks to eradicate.  For us moderns,  there is a hunger for justice.  There is a search for mutual recognition for workers and blacks and women and, among them, lesbians and colonized peoples and…Human nature is to stand up, to demand to be treated with dignity as human being.  In contrast, for Nietzsche,  modern liberalism and democracy go back to the revolt of the poor and lead to “rootlessness” and the last men - “rebarbarization” in Strauss’s words about Havelock and modern scholars.  As I have emphasized in other posts, it is the whole of modern culture Strauss seeks to root out.

       In Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Strauss suggests that a liberal education consists of reading and studying great men.  But he admires those books only that have a reactionary conclusion; despite the name, cautiously expressed (it is what the ancients meant by the term liberality, not a modern  political idea), he is no friend of liberalism.