Sunday, February 28, 2010

Letters: on Strauss and his political followers


         Don Campion took courses with Gary Schmitt as an undergraduate at the University of Dallas, had lively discussions with him, and has had himself an enduring interest in Leo Strauss. Schmitt, a political Straussian and long time intelligence operative (for instance, originally with Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and for the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, later as executive director of President  Reagan's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board - 1984-88).   At the American Enterprise Institute and in the Project for a New American Century, he has fomented aggression in Iraq and Iran and, as a once upon a time scholar of "executive power," spying on Americans and torture (see here). 

        Don found John Mearsheimer’s and my emphasis on Strauss as a German reactionary helpful (and of course, the early writings are at last, after long hiddenness, beginning to be available, so one can get a sense of the distant Nietzschean/Heideggerian planet from which Strauss comes). See here and here.  Don wrote me the following note, reflecting on the quasi-religious phenomenon among some Bloom aficianados (see my "the clashing visions of Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss" here which reproduces the text of Bloom’s letter to Strauss as a kind of magical rabbi).  Don rightly distinguishes Strauss’s own willingness to let students go their own way and explore America (not of much interest to Leo, except through the Public Affairs Conference at Chicago, politically) from Bloom's. 

       One qualification here: both Robert Goldwin (special assistant to Rumsfeld at NATO and to President Ford and Vice-President Richard Cheney, and Herbert Storing, who once again, admirably went far afield from the master in considering Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X and especially, editing 7 volumes on the anti-Federalists, created notions of “prerogrative” and “executive power” which translate Strauss’s “principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial” into an American idiom, taken up by Richard Cheney and extending throughout the neocons. Storing was Gary Schmitt's mentor.

       Strauss himself was merely offering up Carl Schmitt’s dictum: “He is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception” (the first sentence of Schmitt’s 1922 Political Theology).   One might say that Strauss was the conveyor to the United States, through these students, of pure, anti-separation of powers, Schmittian reaction (first fascist, then Nazi).  Gary Schmitt, as it were, carries Carl Schmitt's water here - is a purveyor of Schmittian reaction - but has no other relationship.  Carl Schmitt's influence is, however, inimical to and places in mortal danger the balance of separate powers to protect individual rights, the core of the American Constitution.  

          The empire’s decline and the capacity of the war complex to take up bizarre neo-con fantasies at great cost (the imperial dreams and actions of Cheney) have made Carl Schmitt increasingly relevant here.  Strauss and his students play a decisive  role in giving previous American episodes of tyranny (Lincoln on habeas corpus, even more obviously, FDR’s jailing of Japanese-Americans for the “crime” of breathing while brown) this Germanic inflection.  Unlike these previous dangerous, and in FDR's case, degraded episodes, the bipartisan consensus that some 50 prisoners at Guantanamo, having been indefinitely detained and tortured, need to be thrown away (current Obama policy) gives far less promise of a return to the rule of law.    

      Don memorably names the casual, voyeur murderousness of the political Straussians:

       “Strauss and Neocons: You and Mearsheimer, have clarified my thinking. I met and talked with Bloom and had many conversations with Gary Schmitt and a Bloom student, Don Maletz. Anyone who thinks Strauss spent a lot of time on 'Americana' is sadly mistaken, in my view. That said, he apparently encouraged students like Storing, Berns, Jaffa, and Diamond to really delve into the "Founding" etc. Bloom seemed to almost worship Strauss. Maletz a Professor at Oklahoma U., while a student of Bloom, I believe at Cornell, was put off by the acolytes who slavishly followed Bloom and even apparently attempted to mimic his stutter! Rock stars are not the only ones with groupies! However, Gary Schmitt, Kristol, Shulsky etc. are the kind of groupies that think they are real men who see clearly Nietzsche's deadly truths (Lampert); who are the very few who see deeply into the ‘necessity’ of war; who have imbibed their Thucydides, Machiavelli, Xenophon ad nauseam; and proceed to advise the Princes to send young men to kill and to die in the desert. What a tragic farce. Anyway, thanks again for keeping up the good fight. Don”

       In my post on  Leo Strauss’s 1923 celebration of “pagan-fascism” here, Michael Zank whose scholarship I have praised here and who made the correct and revelatory translation of the mysterious phrase “meskine Unwesen” as a reference to grubby Jewish modern secularism or nonentity, a quasi-Nietzschean thought, rather than a reference to Hitler, sent me two striking comments: 

“Dear Alan  I haven't finished reading this post, which I find interesting for obvious reasons. But there seems to be a conflation (iterated in several places) between Strauss's 1923 affirmation of interest and relevance of Bible study and Sabbath observance on the one hand and  "orthodoxy" on the other.  It is quite possible of course that Strauss envisaged something of the kind which has been materializing more prominently in the wake of 1967, namely, the unholy alliance of nationalism and orthodoxy in the settler movement. But to my mind, his early writings never denied the historical critical appreciation of the Bible in contrast to the religionization Judaism underwent at the hand of the rabbis. (This distinction is not just characteristic of Spinoza but is also evident in the work of Jacob Neusner, of more recent vintage.) In other words, modern critique allowed to the (by  rabbinic standards) atheistic, i.e., pagan fascist, presuppositions of the Bible (esp. the Book of Joshua) to reemerge, presuppositions Strauss felt were more conducive toward steeling the Jews toward the task of reconquest (after all: he was a Jabotinsky-ite; and Jabotinsky was the only one who acknowledged that there were Arabs in the country who would not let go of their right to their land peacefully). That's the spirit of the early writings; not the exoteric affirmation of orthodoxy that you attribute to it. In my view you conflate something that should be kept apart (earlier and later Strauss, political and philosophical Strauss, whathaveyou).  Very best – Michael”

       Michael is right that Strauss does not refer to orthodoxy and so, I would now eliminate the term from my post. But there is another meaning here for Strauss which his differentiation of Jabotinisky and today’s military advisor-rabbis does not quite get. Isn't a Jabotinisky-like steeling of the Jews to dispossess the Palestinians something like Strauss’s exoteric/esoteric or atheist, philosophical/political distinction?  And doesn't the need for the Book of Joshua  (not something that Strauss believes in) fill in the idea I was trying to get at with orthodoxy more precisely?  The consequences of Strauss’s Mussoliniesque promotion of Walter Moses in the 1923 youth group Blau-Weiss, his “pagan-fascism,” extend both to Jabotinsky and the “transfer” of Palestinians (whom Michael rightly characterizes as having a right to land or property, the keys as is often said) and the settler-rabbis.  Jabotinsky has more justification in the sense that Jews were being persecuted and murdered in Europe (and the murder was shortly to become  genocidal), and Palestine was a place that Europe and American would permit Jews to flee (with the pretence often that there were no people there).  What is somewhat attractive about Strauss is his realism in willing the Jewish people into reality (see the initial post and the comparisons with Mearsheimer). With a state, they could avoid being murdered (though the "transfer" harmed those who had not hurt them).  What is unattractive and murderous about Strauss is the role of an authoritarian political theology to be manifested in Joshua-esque slaughter of innocents to this day. It is an aspect of Strauss’s influence sharper now than even his authoritarianism among neocons (I think he might well have seen the Iraq war as a fantasy - see here) and one that has been largely undiscussed.

       Israel was founded on a crime, as is true of perhaps every state (for instance, the US toward blacks, Native Americans and Mexicans).  It exists.  It could work toward a decent relationship toward other states in the Middle East.  Instead, post-1967, it has renewed the crime against Palestinians in the occupied territories, and repeats it today in a thousand bizarre ways.  What Israel is doing is self-destructive and has no future (its repulsiveness to Americans who go to the occupied territories, including Jews, is an indication).

       Do we not know how Pharoah treated us? Ordinary Jews in Israel have an interest in standing up against these fascist policies.

       In a forthcoming post, I comment on several stories  Ilene Cohen sent me about recent activities in Israel (these are daily matters) which sadly illustrate this point.

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