Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Medical experimentation and the American overthrow of Guatamalan democracy

Amy Gutmann, an old friend from Princeton and currently, President of the University of Pennsylvania has been leading a commission appointed by President Obama to look into the infection of Guatemalans with syphilis by American doctors after World War II. In the article below, she names the criminality of and "historic injustice" committed by the doctors who knew that they could not do to white Americans what they could do in Guatemala.* As in the Tuskegee and other experiments on blacks, in the 1940s through '70s (extended into widespread American experimentation on prisoners, against which I participated in a campaign at UCLA in 1974**), nonwhites were the favored subject for such experimentation. Dr. John C. Cutler, an American Mengele, played a leading role in both the Guatemala and Tuskegee "experiments." Professor Susan Reverby at Wellesley did the original research which unearthed the crimes in “’Normal Exposure’ and Inoculation Syphilis: A PHS [Public Health Service] ‘Tuskegee’ Doctor in Guatemala, 1946-48,” Journal of Policy History, Special Issue on Human Subjects, January 2010. See here. Cutler was a eugenicist who sought genocidal “population control.”*** Eugenics, the ideal of a master Nordic or Aryan race to which others were inferior and must be subordinated, influential in American politics in immigration, sterilization and anti-miscegenation laws in the early twentieth century, became the ideology of Nazism. See here, here and Gilbert, Democratic Individuality, ch. 10. One might imagine the medical ethics and politics of such American “physicians,” then and later, different from the practices Nazi Germany toward jews, poles and roma. They were not.****

When I debated Dr. L, Jolyon West – “Dr. Jolly” - the director of the Violence Center (the official name was the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, the sadism down to psychosurgery on prisoners hard to describe*****), Students for a Democratic Society put out a leaflet: Auschwitz 1944, UCLA 1974 detailing many experiments at each institution. In the periphery of the empire and for the lower classes, democracy does not exist; fascism is the norm. In a parliamentary democracy, the parliamentary aspect is mostly for the elite, dictatorship for the many (until Obama, it looked like democracy and the rule of law might vanish even in the elite…). But it is a mistake to see these policies as unusual in a “great democracy.” It took more than half a century for these policies to be brought to light; redress is another bridge to cross.

This article is published in Al-Jazeera (see a related piece in the New York Times today by Donald McNeil, "Panel Hears Grim Details of Venereal Disease Tests" here). Though the study was commissioned by President Obama and is based on a just and commendable apology by the American government, the commission’s report is not yet much in the American papers. In addition, this is the tip of the iceberg. In 1950, the Guatemalans elected President Jacobo Arbenz who nationalized the United Fruit Company. When I was a student at Harvard, I took a plane flight from New York to Boston and the person sitting next to me was a Canadian sea-captain who had transported fruit from Guatemala. As an emblem of his experience, he described a poor woman near the dock trying to pick up some bananas from a broken container that the workers had dropped. She was beaten by a company guard. Physical abuse of the workers, he said, was also routine. When I discovered that President Eisenhower had used the CIA to overthrow Arbenz in 1953 and establish a dictatorship (one that, according to the Denver Post, murdered some 200,000 Mayans especially under Rios-Montt, one that made reflective American State Department people sometimes wish again for Arbenz), I understood American foreign policy.

That particular overthow has always made the so-called inter-democratic peace hypothesis in international relations, which among other matters, omits the deliberate destruction by the American government (“democracy”) of some 12-15 nonwhite democracies during and after the Cold War, fatuous. See here and here. In ordinary English, the idea democracies do not go to war with each other seems to affirm peaceful intentions, not bellicosity, toward other democracies. But operational “English” restricts war to when both sides lose a thousand soldiers and excludes other hostilities. CIA intervention (or drone, mercenary, and seal warfare today – see here in Pakistan) does not count as war.****** This is pretty inept and quite often bad faith prestidigitation about belligerence.*******

Around here, there is the illusion, for most of us, that America is not also a police state (though it holds 25% of the world’s prisoners), that it is not militarist (though it spends as much on war - over a trillion dollars a year - as all the other nations of the world combined), that it is not racist…

That Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have apologized for the experimentation in Guatemala is an honorable attempt to acknowledge a sordid history and avoid it in future. Alluding to the Convention against Genocide, the Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has rightly named these acts crimes against humanity. It would be good if the American public could hear the story and take in the links. Informed citizens, as I say sometimes to my classes who often do not know of such things or miss seeing a pattern, might then think about whether American militarism – of which such overthrows and racist “doctoring” are an ingredient – is really a road on which this country needs to continue.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 by Al-Jazeera-English
Panel Condemns US Syphilis Study in Guatemala

US presidential commission discloses gruesome specifics of 1940s experiments on prison inmates and mental patients.

The US research project in which government researchers deliberately infected Guatemalan prison inmates and mental patients with syphilis in the 1940s has been described as an "institutional failure" by a US presidential commission.

Nearly 5,500 people were subjected to diagnostic testing and more than 1,300 were exposed to venereal diseases by human contact or inoculations in research meant to test the drug penicillin, the commission said on Monday.

Within that group, "we believe that there were 83 deaths," said Stephen Hauser, a member of the commission which has poured over 125,000 documents linked to the episode since being set up by President Barack Obama last November.

However, Hauser said not enough evidence existed to confirm that the procedures the people endured during the study was what had killed them.

Among the 1,300 people exposed to STDs during research between 1946 and 1948, "under 700 received some form of treatment as best as could be documented," he said.

Guatemala's vice-president Rafael Espada told Al Jazeera that Guatemalan doctors were also present during the tests.

Obama personally apologised to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom in October before ordering a thorough review of what happened.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the experiments as "clearly unethical".

'Historic injustice'

The experiments are already considered one of the darkest episodes of medical research in US history, but panel members say the new information indicates that the researchers were unusually unethical, even when placed into the historical context of a different era.

Commission president Amy Gutmann called it an "historic injustice," and said the inquiry aimed to "honour the victims and make sure it never happens again".

"It was not an accident that this happened in Guatemala," Gutmann said. "Some of the people involved said we could not do this in our own country."

The US researchers "systematically failed to act in accordance with minimal respect for human rights and morality in the conduct of research," Gutmann said, citing "substantial evidence" of an attempted cover-up.

A Guatemalan study, which was never published, came to light in 2010 after Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby stumbled upon archived documents outlining the experiment led by controversial US doctor John Cutler.

They revealed that some of the experiments were more shocking than was previously known.

For example, seven women with epilepsy, who were housed at Guatemala's Asilo de Alienados (Home for the Insane), were injected with syphilis below the back of the skull, a risky procedure.

The researchers thought the new infection might somehow help cure epilepsy. The women each got bacterial meningitis, probably as a result of the unsterile injections, but were treated.

'Crimes against humanity'

Perhaps the most disturbing details involved a female syphilis patient with an undisclosed terminal illness. The researchers, curious to see the impact of an additional infection, infected her with gonorrhoea in her eyes and elsewhere. Six months later she died.

Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled 1,500 people in Guatemala, including mental patients, for the study, which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Initially, the researchers infected female Guatemalan commercial sex workers with gonorrhoea or syphilis, and then encouraged them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates.

Neither were the subjects told what the purpose of the research was nor were they warned of its potentially fatal consequences.

Cutler, who died in 2003, was also involved in a highly controversial study known as the Tuskegee Experiment in which hundreds of African-American men with late-stage syphilis were observed but given no treatment between 1932 and 1972.

The Guatemalan president has called the 1946-1948 experiments conducted by the US National Institutes of Health "crimes against humanity" and ordered his own investigation.

© 2011 Al-Jazeera-English

*At the 50th anniversary gathering of Social Studies graduates at Harvard last September, Amy spoke, musingly, of how when the President asks, one has to do it. This is, of course, a view from a great height (reflecting little residue of the program as critical social theory), and it might not have occurred to her, with W or Clinton, to offer such a maxim. What Obama asked her to do, however, was genuinely important and the report itself revelatory.

**See Jessica Mitford, Kind and Usual Punishment and Humberto Bracho, Jim Prickett and Alan Gilbert, Stop the Violence Center.

***"CBS News reports that Cutler seemed to recognize the delicate ethical quandaries their experiments posed, particularly in the wake of the Nuremberg 'Doctors’ Trials,' and was concerned about secrecy. 'As you can imagine,' Cutler reported to his PHS overseer, 'we are holding our breaths, and we are explaining to the patients and others concerned with but a few key exceptions, that the treatment is a new one utilizing serum followed by penicillin. This double talk keeps me hopping at times.'

Cutler also wrote that he feared 'a few words to the wrong person here, or even at home, might wreck it or parts of it … '

PHS physician R.C. Arnold, who supervised Cutler, was more troubled, confiding to Cutler, 'I am a bit, in fact more than a bit, leery of the experiment with the insane people. They can not give consent, do not know what is going on, and if some goody organization got wind of the work, they would raise a lot of smoke. I think the soldiers would be best or the prisoners for they can give consent.'” See the link above.

****To their credit, the American Medical Association, along with the American Psychological Association condemned the Bush-Cheney administration's torture policies at Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and other secret sites. The leaders of the American Psychological Association and some American anthropologists disgracefully participated. See, however, the anti-torture statement by anthropologists here. And a rank and file sponsored referendum in the Psychological Association finally reversed the leadership's criminal support for these activities.

It is worth taking in both how individuals and later associations opposed these policies and yet how present and so far unpunished these crimes by professionals are…

*****When a new “apolitical” director, Dr. Joshua Golden took over, he had done experiments in chemical castration of prisoners – accused “rapists,” actually sometimes leftists – in Franco’s Spain. See here, here and here.

******Libya does not count either, so Obama’s unconstitutional rationalization for how firing all those missiles is not a war is echoed in political “science.” But Qaddafi was no democrat…

*******During the Cold War, Michael Doyle's initial articulation of this view, first published in Philosophy and Public Affairs, was courageous and solitary. I am speaking of some more recent articulations, particularly the use of the idea politically by Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Poem: and on e










Sunday, August 28, 2011

Politics and the god, part 1

I spoke on a version of this essay at the American Political Science Association in 2008. In it, I recognized deeply that after a quixotic adventure in Syracuse, Plato himself ceased to be, in any sense, an ally even of ideal tyrants and intended his students at the Academy to read the Laws with the questioning that Socrates might have offered, to test the coin of every argument for the original gold, if any, and not accept its conventional and empty monetary ring. For Plato wanted even the arguments of the character Socrates, whom in life he adored, assessed critically. But the Athenian Stranger is not Socrates. He is an imagined Socrates who did not take the poison, who escaped at the expense of the cause of philosophy. The term is not invoked by or about the Stranger in the Laws, and this is, as a Platonic device, very important. I initially thought the Stranger was the result of Plato simply re-imagining a Socrates who had lived and done something good - from Plato's point of view, helpfully advised a Cretan lawgiver - in a setting ridiculed by the speech of the laws in the Crito, for, of course, their speech is not deeply believable. See here. Socrates was convinced he should go to his death, I thought, but Plato, like his other students shown in the Phaedo, was unconvinced. But the contrast with the Stranger, that of two drinking parties (in book 1 of the Laws, in the Phaedo, as Will Altman suggests), shows that he understood Socrates.*

In any case, none of this is quite so simple. Plato and Socrates taught mainly smart aristocratic boys, some democrats, but many others, initially, fierce anti-democrats. Plato taught them for years in the Academy, and as the Phaedrus reveals, sent messages to his future students/readers. That many start out above or against democracy is one of the senses of the first line of the Republic: "yesterday, I went down to the Pireaus with Glaucon, son of Ariston…"**

Socrates goes down as a philosopher (a separate figure from Glaucon, he was, in addition, of artisan origin). But Glaucon, military leader and son of the best – what the word Ariston means – goes down from the heights of Athens to the seaport, the center of the rowers in the navy and the democracy, the place where the shifting enthusiasms and customs brought with the sea is manifest. He and Socrates go to see the procession for the Thracian moon-goddess Bendis. In the action of the Republic, as Leo Strauss might put it, we can already see, in this sentence, that Athens which puts Socrates to death for disbelieving in the city's gods, hungers after a moon-goddess from Thrace. Employing a rarely used law against blasphemy, we can also see that the death sentence delivered by Athens in the trial is, intellectually, morally and juridically, a farce.

In addition, the aristocracy lived up on the hill, and its children looked down on the Piraeus in more than one sense. As the Republic implies (Glaucon asks of the austere city: where is the relish? and the action of the dialogue centers on his being convinced of justice in the sense of not seeking to become a tyrant; since he is Plato’s brother and not otherwise well known, the dialogue perhaps reflects an important reality…), many of the conversations of Socrates were with pro-tyrants and anti-democrats, even when faced with the looming of tyranny (they sometimes initially favored such tyrannies, as Plato reports of himself at the opening of the Seventh Letter,*** or in the case of Critias or Alcibiades, were themselves tyrants or demagogues). In contrast, as I have emphasized, Chaerophon, the democrat, was Socrates's best student, according to Aristophanes' The Clouds, and Polemarchos, the foil for some of the first book of the Republic, becomes a “philosophic youth” in Phaedrus, and is killed leading the democrats against the Tyranny of the Thirty in the fighting in the Pireaus. See here, here, here, and here.

Strauss emphasizes the great medieval tradition of Arabs, focused on the Laws, which emerged in Avicenna, was taken up by Ibn-Rusd (Averroes) and Al-Farabi and the great Jewish thinker, Maimonides, and extended perhaps into the German Nazi Heidegger (though Heidegger rarely speaks of the Laws and knew nothing of the Arab and Jewish middle ages in his original work on Plato, see here and here) and the would-be Nazi Leo Strauss. This is a really important scholarly contribution of Strauss beyond Heidegger as one can see in his last book, The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws (1973). (Strauss otherwise took over Heidegger, the “great philosopher of the era” as he enthuses in his posthumous essay on “An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism.”) I had not realized so fully, when I wrote this essay, that Strauss was in the 1930s not only a fascist or authoritarian with hankerings for Mussolini (that would have been bad enough), but that he actually, though a Jew, supported Hitler. See here and here.

But the scholarship and politics of advising reactionary great men, culminated in the twentieth century in the enthusiasm of the pro-Nazi German philosophers for Plato. Heidegger saw himself as the philosophical advisor to Hitler or an ideal Hitler (the true national socialism he spoke of in 1953), and the friend who greeted him on the tram in Freiburg when he resigned the Rectorship in 1934 – “back from Syracuse?” – identified only the abandonment of Heidegger’s hopes of rising in the Nazi establishment, winning Hitler's ear directly. But Heidegger never renounced Nazism. He never left the Party and prayed for the Nazis to win until Hitler was crushed, and continued to embrace the ideal, down to his statement, released in Der Spiegel by agreement a few days after his death, that democracy cannot deal with the threat of planetary technology (the US, the Soviet Union and what, as he saw it, Germany itself was becoming).

Heidegger was also a great philosopher who followed Plato subtly. Plato himself went to advise the tyrant in Syracuse at the behest of his best student Dion and was clearly tempted by the idea that a tyrant might rule for the best, though lawlessly, even though in Syracuse, he and Dion recommended laws (see The Seventh Letter). He learned, however, from the failure in Syracuse that neither the tyrant he advised and was held a prisoner by nor his student Dion who became the ruler and was then swiftly murdered by a friend working with Dion’s enemies, could become a philosopher-king. With his students, Plato experimented with philosopher-tyranny (the rule of the wise without laws), but abandoned it. In this, he, too, went down with Socrates. See here, here and here.

But some subtle, not just superficial readers of the Republic miss this decision. They go, in what they imagine Platonic garb, with tyrants. Socrates never advised tyrants. He went to his death for asking questions, defending philosophy, and he is easy to see, and rightly seen, by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as founding the practice of civil disobedience within democracies and against tyrannies like English colonialism. But tyrannies also include democracies – more aptly, oligarchies with parliamentary forms - for the few, those which practice deep injustices like segregation, injustices which make claims of freedom for all claims only of freedom for whites or perhaps for the top 1/10 of 1% of the population…).

The first part of this essay captures Strauss’s scholarly enthusiasm for the discoveries he was making in his letters to his friend Jacob Klein in 1938-39. This is a wonderful thing – he refers dryly to his “so-called life” as drab in comparison – and reveals, fiercely, what it is that make the scholarly (and philosophical) life gripping and so much fun. What he discovers is partly what Plato intended, but he gives up questioning beyond trying to figure out what riddles Plato leaves and wants one to follow out. Strauss thus never asked whether where an esoteric or hinted at path leads is something Plato actually agrees with or wants his students, upon consideration, to agree with. To question the hidden pointing is often philosophically what one should do, taking up and continuing the journey. Strauss falls short.

But why bury something Strauss might ask, like a child on an imagined treasure-hunt, for the few who read that carefully, if you mean something else? Perhaps, one might respond politically, Socrates's and Plato's students were often would-be tyrants. If so, then what is hidden for them, may not be the secret truth of Plato, but a trial, a false-path to be compared with the main text and other themes (for instance, with the action/dramatic moment/argument when Glaucon is convinced not to become a tyrant, philosophical or other...).

Socrates took the hemlock; he is the leader in the Phaedo, as Will Altman says, of a great drinking party, one which affirms philosophy within democracy, that the asking of questions is essential and must go on even if the tyrants, including reactionaries among the people, kill you for it. The Athenian Stranger runs away. He is a not-Socrates. His advice is sometimes poisonous…

This is right there in the dialogues, where Strauss could have seen it. He did not. Nonetheless, as this essay reveals, Strauss is a deep and subtle reader of Plato and the Laws. He follows many like Avicenna and Ibn-Rusd (though contra Strauss, Ibn-Rusd emphasized the emancipation of women in Plato, took it further, is part of what Hilary Putnam calls the first enlightenment - Ethics without Ontology, part 2, lecture 1 - or since it is 1700 years later, founds a second enlightenment before "the Enlightenment," and Maimonides (same caveat), and worships Heidegger. And this is not wholly inaccurate. It is a path which Plato’s project of heading off potential tyrants by trapping them in a maze of arguments allows. It is a subtle way of reading and questioning Plato’s texts, a scholarly way, which ultimately leads onto a false, and, for Heidegger and Strauss, an horrific path for only one reason. It is not a philosophical one.

Heidegger and Strauss were extreme reactionaries from the start. Their subsequent following of a way through the woods seemingly in Plato, their prestige as philosophers, particularly Heidegger’s, confirmed what they already were politically. In the deepest sense, they were not, Platonically, philosophers about politics…

For there is no magic solution, no dream of actual rule by a philosophical, that is all-wise, tyrant. To escape the maze of one’s prejudices, even reflectively, renewed questioning – "for they think they know and do not but I do not know and do not think I know," as Socrates says in the Apology - is, alone, the answer.

Politics and the God

…the treatment of prophecy and the Divine Law is contained in the [Plato’s] Laws – Avicenna, On the Division of the Rational Sciences [cited in epigraph to Strauss, The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws – hereafter Action]

To a god or some man, o strangers, do you ascribe the authorship of your laws? [Theos e tis anthropon] - Laws, 1]

Nomoi [Laws]; a book about laws with the antidote [Gegengift] to Nomoi. – Strauss to Jacob Klein, October 20, 1938

How I can make this believable to anyone other than you, I have absolutely no idea. – Strauss to Klein, November 28, 1939 (2)

1. What is the “theological-political problem” for Strauss?

Strauss mentions himself in the “grip” of the now much discussed “theological-political predicament” in just a few contexts, for instance, the opening sentences of his 1962 introduction to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. He does not define it. (3) To gain insight into this “predicament,” this essay will focus on Plato’s Laws, the central book of prophecy and law-giving, according to Avicenna, for Al-Farabi, Ibn-Rusd (Averroes), and Maimonides. Avicenna’s single sentence abruptly clarified for him, Strauss’s announced at St. John’s in 1970, these writers’ obscurities.

Maimonides was, to begin with, wholly unintelligible to me. I got the first glimmer of light when I concentrated on his prophetology and, therefore, the prophetology of the Islamic philosophers who preceded him. One day, when reading in a Latin translation Avicenna’s treatise On the Division of the Sciences I came across this sentence (I quote from memory): the standard work on prophecy and revelation is Plato’s Laws. Then I began to understand Maimonides’ prophetology and eventually, as I believe, the whole Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides never calls himself a philosopher; he presents himself as an opponent of the philosophers.(4) He used a kind of writing which is in the precise sense of the word exoteric. When Klein had read the manuscript of my essay on the literary character of the Guide of the Perplexed, he said: ‘We have rediscovered esotericism.’(5)

On the surface, Strauss presents a theological-political “predicament” – that philosophy supposedly cannot refute revelation, that the Athens of Socrates and the Jerusalem of the Bible have an equal standing and one must arbitrarily choose between them. In contrast, the Laws presents religion as a way for a philosopher – the Athenian Stranger – to appeal to a Cretan lawgiver for a colony and a Spartan gentleman, and persuade them modify their views. Concurring with a philosophical stranger, Klinias becomes the bearer of his preludes (prooemia) and institutions to make of a population a people. Together, Klinias and the Stranger – whom Klinias bids continue to help him ( ) – become a kind of philosopher-king (in book 4, the Stranger suggests, only a philosopher-tyrant can rapidly change customs and mores, 709-711) This was the central esoteric meaning of the theological-political problem, I will argue, for Strauss. Using religion, Strauss saw no problem in misleading “the many” to revere authority. As I will also show, the “many” include many of Strauss’s own followers from whom he sought to conceal at least some of his views.

This essay will, however, also explore a contrasting idea of theology and politics based on the recognition by Gandhi and King of Socrates as the first satyagrahi, and the influence – apparent from the Laws – of the story of Socrates on that of Jesus Christ. In addition, I will consider the complex question of who the Athenian Stranger is, and how, as Strauss hints, Plato’s “repetitions” of the story substitute a subversive political way - a hidden Platonic one - for the more direct and, to Athens, threatening, questioning of Socrates. Strauss treats Socratic and Platonic philosophy and politics as fundamentally the same. “Socrates” is Plato’s (or perhaps Xenophon’s or Farabi’s) “Socrates.” In going to his death in Athens, for Strauss, Socrates’s action “saves philosophy” by somehow – with Plato’s subsequent intervention - turning it into Platonism. In contrast, Socrates, I will argue, was no authoritarian.

This essay will cite (and translate ) some of Strauss’s letters to Jacob Klein in 1938 and 1939; it will also emphasize the Laws and Strauss’s commentaries on them in the first chapter of What is Political Philosophy [hereafter WIPP] and his 1973 Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws [hereafter Action]. In contrast to polished books, Strauss warns against using a writer’s letters to the “mediocre” to understand an argument:

…the books of men like the mature Spinoza are meant as possessions for all times, are primarily addressed to posterity….The flight to immorality requires an extreme discretion in the selection of one’s luggage…Whereas the works of [Spinoza’s] maturity may be presumed to be addressed primarily to the best type of readers, the large majority of his letters are obviously addressed to rather mediocre men.(6)

In most cases, Strauss’s advice is sound. Its force is muted, however, precisely where a writer hides meanings.(7) In that case, letters, especially to a wise correspondent, or lectures may sometimes provide a hint – to be confirmed in the finished writings – of what the author really thinks.

In addition, Jacob Klein had shown Strauss the way, based on Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, to recover the subtlety of Greek texts.(8) In 1938-39, an exhilarated Strauss – one who refers sourly to returning to “this so-called life” [“Doch zurueck zum sogenannte Leben”] (9) outside of the intoxication of scholarship – tells Klein of mesmerizing discoveries in Maimonides. Averroes, Plato, Xenophon, Herodotus, Hesiod, and Thucydides. Strauss remarks delphically: “I begin to suspect how not understood the Ancients are.”(10)

At first glance, a reader may not appreciate the force of these insights. I will highlight what he says about Maimonides in this correspondance to motivate his choice of esoteric writing to hide his opinions even from many of his followers. Strauss, a Zionist, but not religious, discovers that the pillar of Judaism, the rabbi who compiled the Torah, is actually, in the Guide for the Perplexed, an “Averroist”: “that in his belief Maimonides was absolutely no jew” [dass Maim. in seinem Glauben schlechterdings kein Jude war]. (11) Strauss is proud to have “unraveled the riddle of Maimonides,” but the consequences of publicizing his solution weigh upon him:

I can myself be a little proud, that I have unraveled this riddle. But my nerves are perhaps not strong enough – or the science fails me – or perhaps both are the case. Briefly, I am shaken by what my interpretation will lead to. The conclusion is that I, a poor devil [Teufel] , must sip the soup that the devilish sorcerer [diabolische Zauberer] of the 12th century has set before me. But, as the heathens say, fate carries the unwilling. (12)

Maimonides, he says, has a finer hand in satire than Voltaire:

You cannot imagine with what infinite subtlety and irony treated “religion’: a remark over the stench in the temple as a result of many sacrifices has no like in the whole of Voltaire and a thousand additional things. One essentially does not understand Maimonides unless one recognizes that he is an ‘Averroist”; if one recognizes this, all the difficulties in principle dissolve. – If I let this bomb fall in a few years (if I live so long,) so will a great war ignite. (13)

Strauss notes that Maimonides is more important to Jews than the Old Testament, just as Aquinas – following the idea of his colleague Glaetzer - was more important than the New Testament to Catholics. Making known his discovery would dynamite “the foundation” of Judaism. (14) Parallel to Al-Farabi’s famous tale of the “pious ascetic” escaping a tyrant by feigning drunkenness, Strauss traces a method of writing for philosophers, through repetitions with seemingly minor additions, which subvert the initial meaning:

The leader of the perplexed, or the instruction for the perplexed is a repetition of the Torah ( = an instruction) for the perplexed, i.e, for philosophers – i.e. an imitation of the Torah with ‘little’ additions, which the knower remarks, and which imply a radical critique of the Torah. (15)

In a postscript, Strauss distinguishes sarcastically between what he thinks (for the few) and what he will say (to “the vulgar”):

There is an aphorism of Nietzsche’s: when I have the truth in my fist – must I open my fist? – Our situation becomes ever more medieval, the difference between freedom of thought and freedom of expression ever clearer. That is a ‘step forward.’ (16)

With ancient philosophers, Maimonides believed, Strauss says, in the “eternity of the world.” So much for the creation in Moses’s vision (the Torah which Maimonides edited). Instead, Strauss focuses on the law-giver as a Prophet, once again the theological-political problem:

[Maimonides] was a truly free Spirit. Naturally he had not believed the legends of Jewish dominion over philosophy. What was then Moses, however, for him? It is indeed difficult to say. The crucial question for him was not the creation of the world versus the eternity of the world (because he was convinced of the eternity of the world) but whether the ideal law-giver must be a prophet [ob der ideale Gesetzgeber Prophet sein muss]. (17)

In later writings, Strauss hides these fierce judgments in circuitous scholarly discussions. For instance, three-fifths of the way through “The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed,” he discloses an esoteric truth:

Another characteristic omission [in the Guide] is Maimonides’ failure to mention the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body when he attempts explicitly to answer the question of Divine Providence.(18)

In addition, the last half of the sixth chapter of WIPP focuses on how Maimonides hinted at Al-Farabi’s view that the “best ruler” does not need laws.(19)

Maimonides and the Arab Platonists learned from Plato’s Laws. That dialogue traces the role of a philosophical stranger, acting politically, to influence the laws to be given to a new city, to make them flexible for particular circumstances. For Strauss, Plato invokes a kind of philosopher-tyrant in the promulgation of “laws”: “Nomoi : a book about laws with the antidote to laws.” The Stranger’s use of preludes or proeemia promises a democratic component, an appeal to the understanding of the subjects. But these preludes are often misleading, for example, appealing to a putative god, even for a Cretan lawgiver. The philosopher alone has the further argument for an esoteric meaning. The students of the Laws, like the students of Strauss, must use the texts to unravel its “riddles.”

About Maimonides, Strauss hesitated, as his letters suggest, to bring his views to public attention. He was a Zionist and reactionary who – except for engagements in Germany with fascists like Schmitt and Heidegger - spent his life in Jewish social and political circles. In 1957, criticizing the anti-Jewish sentiments in the National Review, he defended Israel as “conservative” for “the nearness of Biblical antiquity”:

Israel is a country which is surrounded by mortal enemies of overwhelming numerical superiority and in which a single book absolutely predominates in the instruction given in the elementary schools and in high schools: the Hebrew Bible. Whatever the failings of individuals may be, the spirit of the country as a whole can justly be described in these terms: heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity.” (20)

No wonder his hints were obscure except to his closest followers; even these often missed them. Further, Strauss left Hitler’s Germany. In the United States, others sympathized with him as a jew fleeing genocide. But what if Strauss were an authoritarian, a fascist and even a would-be Nazi who scorned democracy? That also would have harmed his public reception, not to say his job prospects. (21) Thus, he hinted at but did not spell out this reactionary vision. His sect – the political Straussians – took on an authoritarian cast, defending unending aggressions and “commander in chief power” at home – but with how much instruction in Strauss’s views – beyond some direct indications of political sympathies and dislikes – one might wonder. (22)

In letter after letter to Klein, Strauss offers often dazzling insights into the subtle meaning of Plato and other authors. But such discoveries are scholarly; they rarely involve philosophical arguments (logoi) which justify those meanings. As I have noted elsewhere sometimes, these discoveries are undermined by the surface arguments and are thus self-refuting. For instance, Plato’s Republic masterfully indicts tyranny; its esoteric gesture, a hinting that a certain kind of tyrant becomes a philosopher-king and rules tyrannically, is refuted by its surface reasons. In practice, Plato and his students tried valiantly, as in Syracuse, to find the right tyrant; cases of philosophical transformation of tyrants are vanishingly rare. (23) In this sense, Strauss is not good at argument. He is a cryptographer - or even a brilliant literary navigator of “labyrinthine” texts (25) – rather than a philosopher.

Further, Plato perhaps intended a reader who would think about this conflict. Arguably, the Republic defends going down to fight against tyranny, and, in this context, for the democracy rather than replacing it. (26)

As another example, on the surface, Strauss argues for justice against value-freedom: as health is to medicine, so justice is to political science. Such a view, he rightly suggests, prevents one from – as value-free social scientists often do – tacitly adopting, without argument and in fact, against their methodological conviction, the values of their society. (27) But esoterically, Strauss also concurs with Nietzsche that morals can be reduced to group outlooks – slave morals and master morals, for example, which is, in fact, a form of meta-ethical relativism: justice has no integrity. (28) Relativism is the motive, however, for value-freedom: to escape from bias.(29) So Strauss’s Nietzscheanism undercuts his exoteric defense of justice. Affirmation of either the master’s or the slave’s morality can have no reasoned justification; the argument is self-refuting. As Strauss puts it in Natural Right and History, undercutting his seeming praise of the Declaration of Independence, the classics affirm inequality. (30) But is this yet an argument that authoritarian rule is superior to a regime based on the equal political liberties of its citizens? (31)

Strauss likes to aver that a contradiction in a “philosopher” or careful writer is intentional. But one has to pay attention to argument to show this. As the two examples above suggest, Strauss’s refusal to pay attention to actual argument, in Plato or in his own thinking, leads to non-intentional or ordinary contradictions. Distinct from his scholarship, much of Strauss’s argument is foolish.

The relationship between surface and esoteric argument has two additional types. First, the hidden meaning of Maimonides – the “repetitions with small additions” which ridicule stories in the Torah, are often rational criticisms of particular tales. Exoterically, Strauss avers that ridicule does not settle the issue – it does not demonstrate the error of putative revelation.(32) But many examples of, for instance, learning about why rainbows occur after rain and are not miracles, lead, in modern philosophical terms, to an “induction to the best explanation” – that science and philosophy are better, on these questions, than revelation. Strauss was not aware of such arguments. But consider Strauss’s barely concealed scorn at the Torah’s irrationality:

It is difficult not to see the connection between the depreciation of the primary object of philosophy – the heaves and the heavenly bodies – in the first chapters of Genesis, the prohibition against eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the second chapter, the divine name ‘I shall be what I shall be,’ the admonition that the Law is not in heaven or under the sea, the saying of the prophet Micah about what the Lord requires of man, and such Talmudic utterances as these: ‘for him who reflects about four things – that which is above, what is below, what is before, what is behind – it would be better not to have come into the world, and ‘God owns nothing in His World except the four cubits of the Halakhah.’ (33)

As a remark in Persecution and the Art of Writing, a study of hidden meanings, his judgment leaps out at the reader. Esoterically and perhaps for reasons like “inference to the best explanation,” Strauss sided with philosophers.

Second, in Plato’s Statesman, the “Eleatic Stranger” criticized laws for deciding particular cases woodenly. In the Laws, Plato seemingly provides an “antidote”: a central role for the philosopher in dispensing Athenian wisdom among the “less civilized.” But the Stranger leaps from a deficiency in the rule of laws to the omnipotence of a wise man. His inference would need further argument and specification. For instance, in trials, the modern American court system differentiates between juries which apply general laws and convict of an illegal act, and judges who, in sentencing, attend to particular circumstances. On a limited scale that practice remedies the deficiency in the laws which the Eleatic Stranger identifies.

Without such argument, however, Plato, at least seemingly, and Strauss infer the lawless political rule of a “wise” man. No one (except a fantasy of the suffering Christ) could be that compassionate. The argument is not self-refuting, just foolish. In a large modern state, particularly, the idea of a Supreme ruler is, in practice – as the Bush-Cheney regime and its coterie of Straussian/neoconservative sycophants illustrates - a horror. (34)

At worst Strauss’s scholarly insights into Plato are intriguing. Some, for example like Klein’s about the Timeaus, are hard to argue for beyond metaphor. Is Hermocrates, the Syracusan destroyer of the Athenian invaders who does not speak in either Timaeus or Critias, really Ares? Does the Olympian Zeus, whom neither Plato nor Socrates celebrate, really, with Timaeus, articulate the sequences of numbers out of which the celestial spheres are shaped? In the Timeaus, the age of Chronos is one of plenty. But Critias depicts a mighty warring Atlantis and Athens, swallowed by the sea and earth. Klein’s surmise doesn’t quite fit. Sadly, Strauss buried most of these discoveries; only a few of his followers could figure out some of the hidden messages – those not offered on the surface for the many (Straussians as well as others). (35) No assessment of the differences between striking insights and ultimately mirage-like gestures has been undertaken.

In the late 1930s, after reading “The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed,” Klein had announced to Strauss enthusiastically: “We have rediscovered esotericism.” These letters embody that moment, those insights. Their transcendent sense of discovery shines more vividly than Strauss’s report of it in the comparatively guarded Persecution and the Art of Writing [hereafter Persecution].(36) The letters thus indicate a startlingly counterintuitive direction in Strauss’s thinking - the devoted Jew is not a Jew, the Laws are about “wise” lawlessness (37) - one to be confirmed by arguments about the texts themselves and Strauss’s later commentaries.

To Klein on November 2, 1938, Strauss connects the last line of the Apology “which of us goes to a better place is known only to the god” with “the god” who begins the Laws:

Most importantly, the Apology ends with the word theos, that is, with the word with which the Nomoi [The Laws] begins. That is: the visibly sharpest problem of gods and giving laws to the city in the Apology is the theme of the Nomoi. The Nomoi are Plato’s greatest work of art! (38)

From its opening, the theme of Plato’s Laws’ is the relationship of the law-giver to a god. The Athenian Stranger continually conjures God as a fundamental political tool both in persuading his Cretan interlocutor of unfamiliar proposals and, imaginatively, in putting across such unfamiliar laws to form a people. (39) Through the Athenian Stranger, for instance, Plato suggests a law which will permit an impious man – one resembling Socrates - to be counseled for 5 years in midnight walks with members of a Nocturnal Council. Afterwards, if the former prisoner challenges the gods again, he will be put to death. The Stranger’s rhetoric against impiety is fierce. But, unlike Athens, Strauss suggests, this law would allow a Socrates to live…(40)

If, with Socrates, one asks: what is law? what is piety? what is the divine? or what is the cosmos?, one questions local certainties. Whatever the conclusion, philosophy – questioning - is itself subversive and, prima facie, impious. The charges against Socrates are, Plato hints, not mistaken.

Yet Socrates himself was and was not subversive; he asked questions, but obeyed or at least did not challenge ordinary pieties. In Phaedo, his startling last words to Crito: “we owe a cock to Asclepius” are pious and ironic, since he honors the god of health as he dies…

Socrates questioned others in the market place. As a response to Athens’ murder of his teacher, Plato created the Academy, where he could instruct secretly. Unlike Socrates, Plato sent philosophical advisors to influence monarchs, tyrants, and laws. In the dialogues, Plato is deeply hidden; present – and future - students must discern his views. But the Seventh Letter, written in Plato’s own voice, relates his attempts to advise the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse as well as the political role of Dion, his best student. Some sophisticated Straussians believe that a philosopher cannot be motivated to rule a people. That thought is undercut by Plato’s role in Syracuse – Plato was not “above” such advising - and that of his students in advising tyrants. (41)

Startlingly, in the Seventh Letter, Plato says that he – the author of the Republic and the Laws - will never write about laws:

I know indeed that certain others have written about these same subjects; but what manner of men they are not even themselves know. But thus much I can certainly declare concerning all these writers, or prospective writers, who claim to know the subjects which I seriously study, whether as hearers of mine or other teachers, or from their own discoveries; it is impossible, in my judgment at least, that these men should understand anything about this subject. There does not exist nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing with it. For it does not admit of verbal expression like other studies, but as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion with it, it is brought to birth in the soul of a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself (341c-d)

Similarly, the Athenian Stranger suggests at the end of the Laws:

…it isn’t easy either to discover what things should be learned, or to become the student of someone else who has made the discovery. Then in addition to these things there is the question of the times – at what times and for how much time each subject should be taken up; it is vain to discuss these matters in writings, for it wouldn’t be clear to the learners themselves where the subject was being learned at the right time, until knowledge of the subject had, presumably, come into being within the soul of each. Thus, while it would be incorrect to speak of all that pertains to these matters as indescribable secrets, they are incapable of being described beforehand, because describing them beforehand would clarify nothing of what is being discussed. (968d-e)

The Laws contain both preludes to the laws – proeemia – and laws; yet it is not, for Plato, writing on legislation. This is a warning to read it – and the Stranger – skeptically. The Phaedrus beautifully explores the difference between writing at once for the simple, including perhaps some of Plato’s followers, and the complex. For writing at best corrupts memory and appeals indifferently to the ignorant and the wise:

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (274e-275b)

Socrates compares writing to painting. When one questions the words, they remain
silent. The ignorant, mere simulacra of the wise, then parrot them.

Writing, Pheadrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has not power to protect or help itself. (275d-e)

This account is subtler than the Republic‘s (lines ) of the sense in which the arts are “imitations” of underlying Ideas. What writings refer to can only be “recalled” with further questioning and dialogue which their existence, for the many, renders unnecessary. Only the spoken word Plato suggests – the word directed to the few who can hear, not the multitude – will help kindle the fire. So, perhaps, will a certain kind of subtle writing, a dialogue, which may open the possibility of eudaimonia:

In my opinion serious discourse [about justice] is far nobler when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever, and which make their possessor happy, to the farthest possible limits of human happiness.(276e-277a)

Dialectical writing has two levels, “offering to the complex soul elaborate and harmonious discourses, and simple talks to the simple soul.” (277c) (42) At the end of the Laws, once again, Plato indicates that one must move beyond the written surface of the law and its preludes – penetrate the esoteric meanings oneself – for the legislator’s spark to ignite in one’s soul.

Given his three years sojourning with and counseling the tyrant Dionysius the second of Syracuse, Plato needed to write the Seventh Letter as an apology to the Athenians. Suspicions had arisen from the fact of his advising a tyrant - ones which could only be palliated by a Seventh Letter - as well as the lingering charge, which Strauss underlines, that Plato had been “corrupted” by Socrates. On November 28, 1939, Strauss sees the Seventh Letter as coming across to Athenians as “absolutely harmless, absolutely normal” [absolut harmlos, absolut normal]. But Strauss’s point is true only from a rhetorical point of view; the fact remains that Plato and some of his leading students - though no immediate threat to Athens - advised and perhaps preferred to advise tyrants. (43) Strauss himself retains what seems to be a core Platonic attitude toward democracy. As he says in “What is Political Philosophy?,”

Now as regards wealth, it so happens, as Aristotle observes, that there is always a minority of well-to-do people and a majority of the poor, and this strange coincidence will last forever because there is a kind of natural scarcity. ‘For the poor shall never cease out of the land.’ It is for this reason that democracy, or rule of the majority, is government by the uneducated. And no one in his senses would wish to live under such a government. (44)

On the face of it, Socrates’s politics differ markedly from Plato’s (and Xenophon’s and Strauss’s). Controversially, Strauss assimilates Plato’s to Xenophon’s “Socrates” – “I begin to see land (or sea). There is absolutely no further question, that Xenophon’s Socrates is identical with Plato’s – only Xenophon’s Socrates is still hidden, still more as he appears than Plato’s, And in addition more Aristophanic than Plato’s.”(45) Strauss implies that Socrates moved in Plato’s direction and that Plato’s accusations of Socrates, though passionately wishing he had lived, point to a life-saving improvement: a political “armor” for philosophy.(46) As Strauss avers in Persecution:

…according to Farabi, Plato ‘repeated’ his account of the way of Socrates and he ‘repeated’ the mention of the vulgar of the cities and nations which existed in his time. The repetition amounts to a considerable modification of the first statement, or to a correction of the Socratic way. The Platonic way, as distinguished from the Socratic way, is a combination of the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus; for the intransigent way of Socrates is appropriate only for the philosopher’s dealing with the elite, whereas the way of Thrasymachus, which is both more and less exacting than the former, is appropriate for his dealings with the vulgar. What Farabi suggests is that by combining the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus, Plato avoided the conflict with the vulgar and thus the fate of Socrates.(47)

But the way of Socrates is not just occluded by Strauss (and Farabi and to some extent, Ibn-Rusd); as we will see, it conflicts with what they suggest. And even Plato, we may discover, supported democracy against tyranny.

1. “Nomoi: ein Buch von Nomoi mit dem Gegengift gegen Nomoi.” Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, 3:559.

2. GS, 3:586. “Wie ich das irgend jemandem glaubhaft machen ausser Dir, das weiss ich allerdings nicht.” In context, he suggests that the subtlety of Xenophon’s Symposium - the distinction between the exoteric Socrates grasped by Antisthenes and the real Socrates – subordinates Plato (“Xenophon ordnet sich Plato unter!”). More generally we can see that Strauss is closer to Xenophon – a Xenophonian – and is perhaps even more a “Platonist” of the Middle Ages (a follower of Farabi or Maimonides).

3. Steven Lenzner stressed this point on a roundtable I organized on “the theological-political predicament,” American Political Science Association, 2008.

4. In presenting Maimonides, Strauss sometimes affects a similar belief.

5. Strauss, “A Giving of Accounts” in Kenneth Hart Green, ed., Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, pp. 462-63. Strauss was saturated in Jewish thought. Contrary to the editor’s impression – Green entitles his essay “Leo Strauss as a Modern Jewish Thinker”; see p. 55-56, n. 12 - Strauss was, as he says of Maimonides, “in his belief, absolutely no Jew.”
I provide the German in the notes because these revelatory letters have never before been translated, and readers should also see the original.

6. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 160 [cited hereafter as Persecution]. I am grateful to Steve Lenzner for bringing this passage to my attention.

7. To Klein on October 15, 1938, Strauss refers to the story of Gyges in Herodotus as “Esoterik,” to its “esoterische Sinn.” GS, 3:556.

8. “A Giving of Accounts,” in Green, op. cit., pp. 462, 461.

9. GS, 3:568.

10. “Ich fange an zu ahnen wie unverstanden die Alten sind.” GPS, 3:558.

11. February 16, 1938. GS, 3:550

12. July 23, 1938. GS: 3:554. “ich koennte eigentlich ein bischen stolz sein, dass ich dieses Raetsel geloest habe. Aber meine Nerven sind vielleicht nicht stark genug – oder es fehlt mir die scientia – oder es ist beide der Fall. Kurz, mir schaudert manchmal vor dem, was ich durch meine Interpretation anrichte. Das Ende wird sein, dass ich armer Teufel die Suppe ausloeffeln muss, die jener diabolische Zauberer des 12. Jhdts. mir eigebrockt hat. Aber, wie die Heiden sagen, fata nolentem trahunt.”

13. February 16, 1938, GS:549. “Du kannst Dir nicht vorstellen, mit welcher unendlichen Feinheit und Ironie Maimonides die ‘Religion’ behandelt: eine Bemerkung ueber den Gestank im Tempel infolde der vielen Opfer findet in ganzen Voltaire nicht ihresgleichen, under 1000 andeere Dinge mehr. Man versteht Maim. lediglich darum nicht, weil man mit dieser Moeglichkeit, dass er ein ‘Averroist’ war, nicht rechnet: rechnet man mit ihr, so loesen sich alle Schwierigkeiten im Prinzip sofort auf. – Wenn ich diese Bombe in einigen Jahren springen lasse (falls ich noch so lange leben werde), so wird ein grosser Kampf entbrennen.”

14. Gershom Scholem could not get Strauss a job at the Hebrew University in the late 30s, because from his book Philosophy and Law, many sensed him an atheist.

15. GS, 549-50. “Glatzer, der jetzt hier ist, sagte mir, fuer das Judentum sei Maimonides wichtiger als die Bibel – entzieht man also dem Judentum Maimonides, so entzieht man ihm die Grundlage. (Du verstehst Glatzers Aeusserung: in gewisser Weise ist ja auch fuer die Katholiken Thomas Wichtiger als das N.T.”

16. July 23, 1938. “Der Fuehrer der Verwirrten, oder die Weisung der Verwirrten ist eine Wiederholung der Torah (= Weisung) fuer die Verwirrten, d.h. fuer die Philosopher – d.h. eine Imitation der Torah mit ‘kleinen’ ‘Zusaetzen,’ die nur der Kenner bemerkt, und die eine radickale Kritik der Torah implizieren.” GS, 3:553.

17. February 16, 1938. GS, 3:550. “Es gibt bei N. einen Aphorismus: Wenn ich die Wahrheit in meiner Faust habe – darf ich die Faust oeffnen? – Unsere Situation wird immer mittelalterlicher, die Differenz zwischen Freiheit des Denkens und Freiheit der Aeusserung immer sichtbarer. Das ist ein ‘Fortschritt.’”

18. I owe attention to the 1938-39 letters to Klein on Strauss’s interpretation of Maimonides to Charles Butterworth. GS, 3:545. “Er war ein wirklich freier Geist. Er hat natuerlich die Legende von der juedischen Herkunft der Philosohie nicht gelaubt. Was war dann aber Moses fuer ihn? Es ist tatsaechlich schwer zu sagen. Die crucial Frage war fuer ihn nicht Weltshoepfung oder Weltewigkeit (denn er war von der Weltewigkeit ueberzeugt), sondern, ob der ideale Gesetzgeber Prophet sein muss.” Chapter 6 of WIPP focuses on this issue in Maimonides.

19. Strauss, Persecution, p. 76.

20. WIPP, pp. . In conversation, September 24, 2008, Nathan Tarcov told me a story. Shlomo Pines, translator of the Guide with Strauss’s introduction, and Strauss were speaking about the book to a large audience. Pines said: ‘of course [Strauss thinks] Maimonides was an atheist.” Strauss lowered his head. One may wonder how successfully Strauss concealed some of these secrets – for instance about atheism.

21. Strauss, “Letter to the editor” in Green, ed., op. cit. , p. 413.

22. As Gershom Scholem wrote to Walter Benjamin on March 29, 1935, a sense Strauss’s atheism had already – sadly - denied him a job at the Hebrew University: “Any day now, Schocken will bring out a book by Leo Strauss (I devoted great energy to obtaining an appointment for Strauss in Jerusalem), marking the occasion of the Maimonides anniversary [Philosophy and Law]. The book begins within an unfeigned and copiously argued (if completely ludicrous) affirmation of atheism as the most important Jewish watchword. Such admirable boldness for a book that will be read by everybody as having been written by a candidate for Jerusalem! It even outdoes the first 40 pages of your doctoral dissertation! I admire this ethical stance and regret the – obviously conscious and deliberately provoked – suicide of such a capable mind. As is to be expected here, only three people at the very most will make use of the freedom to vote for an appointment of an atheist to a teaching position that serves to endorse the philosophy of religion.” Cited in Green, ed., op. cit., pp. 55-56, n. 12.

23. Charles Butterworth charmingly suggested to me that Strauss’s teaching – he asked questions about texts – was “impish.” He thinks no political sect, initiated directly by Strauss, exists. But a well-defined, interconnected group of reactionaries, the intellectual “life” of the neocons, inspired by Strauss though not perhaps esoterically instructed by Strauss, looks like such a sect. Even though he hid his secrets, particularly about Maimonides, from followers, Strauss set a broadly defined group in motion.

24. The Republic traces a decline of regimes – from philosopher-king to tyrant. But following what was common among Greek thinkers, what would make of it a “circle” [kuklos]? Gilbert, “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?” Constellations, March, 2009. In the Seventh Letter, Dion was a philosopher-king, but even achieving power, his choice of a treacherous friend undid him.

25. This apt term for Strauss’s texts – perhaps even more applicable to Plato’s – is
Steven Lenzner’s, Claremont Review of Books.

26. See my three essays on “going down” at;; and

27. Ironically, Strauss vehemently advocates states rights – the most degenerate form of the “values” of American society – against Kenneth Clark’s criticisms of discrimination adopted by the Supreme Court. The latter are perhaps the only decent findings of social science – “ss” as Strauss, a German Jew, refers to it in letters. Politically and exoterically, Strauss does not mention this example in Natural Right and History.
28. On the integrity of ethics, see Gilbert, Democratic Individuality, ch. 1. As we will see, Strauss also concurs with Thrasymachus – and to an extent Plato: in existing cities, justice is the advantage of the stronger

29. Strauss’s defense of Nazi-like racism – the system of segregation – is again a telling example of master morality and the worst of biases.

30. NRH, p. 119.

31. Strauss offers two thoughts – “no woman has been a philosopher” – a false and foolish bromide, delivered just down the hall at Chicago from where Hannah Arendt lectured… - and “everyone isn’t equally smart” which is irrelevant to answering the question of which regime is better both by and large and as an ideal. Set early on, Strauss’s political views seem more in the way of prejudices than arguments.

32. Strauss on . Gilbert Harman, “The Inference to the Best Explanation.” The Philosophical Review, 1965.

33. Persecution, pp. 20-21.

34. Discussing the Supreme Commander in Iran on Fox News , William Kristol burbled “Supreme Commander Bush. I kind of like the sound of that.”

35. Michael Goldfield recalls in class Strauss getting a “twinkle in his eye” when he hinted at some esoteric thought. See Gilbert, “Response to Nathan Tarcov,” American Conservatism, Nomos, 2009 forthcoming, for examples from the transcripts of his 1967 lectures on Aristotle’s Politics. Strauss created followers who are among the “many” (one thinks of Fukuyama here, who is sometimes insightful about policy, but about scholarship, retails slogans). Strauss is oddly elitist or patronizing even toward some of his followers; so, perhaps, was Plato.

36. Persecution included that essay.

37. The political disaster of the central role of Strauss and some of his followers in the neoconservatives, in the translation of “wise” lawlessness or “the principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial” (Strauss to Loewith, 1933, GS 3:624-25) into “commander in chief power” unfortunately flows directly from the delphicness of Strauss’s scholarship. In politics, the view sadly comes down as pseudo-learned justifications for authoritarianism: appealing to authorities or slogans rather than articulation of thought-out positions.

38. “Uebrigens endet die Apologie mit dem Wort theos, d.h. mit dem Wort, mit dem die Nomoi anfangen. D.h.: das in der Apologie absicthlich eskamotierte Problem der theoi ous e polis nomizei wird das Thema der Nomoi. Die Nomoi sind das groesste Kunstwerk Platos!” GS, 3:558. Strauss repeats the point about theos in What is Political Philosophy, p. 32. As Strauss did not remark, “theos” is also the second to last word in Crito.

39. Perhaps many political Straussians, like Goldwin or Shulsky or Wolfowitz or Fukuyama were, for Strauss, “gentlemen” – a less powerful version of Klinias – set walking into government with their reactionary prejudices ornamented with the names of Plato and Strauss. Wolfowitz and Fukuyama studied with Bloom, encountered Strauss only in his last period, and studied primarily with Wohlstetter. The marriage of Strauss’s prejudices with Wohlstetter’s version of anti-Soviet (Trotskyist) mathematics was interesting. Wohlstetter came up with the idea – one that prevents extinction - that nuclear missiles had to be reauthorized in flight (fail-safe) or turned from the target. But he did not alter Strauss’s leading idea of authoritarian executive power.

40. Strauss, Action. Pangle, , .

41. In conversation, Steven Lenzner initially offered this thought that if a people asks a philosopher to rule, he still cannot be compelled to. That is the most difficult problem for creating a philosopher-king. It echoes The City and Man, p. – though not - and Bloom’s interpretation.

42. Strauss’s Persecution , p. 160, n. 77, emulates Plato’s Phaedrus: “The most outstanding example of the latter type of exoteric writing [to potential philosophers] is to be found in Plato’s Phaedrus. In Action, p. 2, he hints at the hidden meaning of “the laws,” namely the role of philosophical strangers in providing an “Antidote” to the rigidity of the laws: “The only Platonic dialogue apart from the Laws which is located outside of Athens is the Phaedrus. The peculiar theme of the Phaedrus may be said to be writing. The laws proposed in the Laws are written.” His intricate account of the hidden role of Plato in the dialogues can be found in The City and Man, pp. 50-62.

43. GS, 3:586. Farabi’s suggestion that Plato accepted Athens provisionally in order to subvert it (to change its laws) was a reasonable Athenian surmise about the future (though apparently Plato did not). Strauss affirms the validity of all the letters: “By the way I am now convinced that Platonic letters (including the first) are genuine: they are the Platonic parallel to Xenophon’s Anabasis; they show that the author was not corrupted through Socrates: while the author of the dialogues constantly conceals himself, the goal of the letters as also the Anabasis is to show that the hidden one is absolutely harmless, absolutely normal.” [Inzwischen bin ich fest davon ueberzeugt, dass alle platonischen Briefe (auch der erste) echt sind: sie sind das platonische Gegenstueck zu Xenophons Anabasis: sie sollen zeigen, dass der Autor nicht durch Sokrates korruptiert worden ist: waehrend such der Autor in den Dialogen konstant verhuellt, ist der Zweck der Briefe wie auch der Anabasis zu zeigen, dass der sich Verhuellende absolut harmless, absolut normal ist.]

44. Strauss, What is Political Philosophy and other essays, p. 37.

45. February 28, 1939. GS, 3:569. “ich beginne Land (oder Meer) zu sehen. Es ist jetzt gar keine Frage mehr, dass der Sokrates Xenophons identisch mit dem Platonischen ist – nur zeigt Xenophon Socrates noch verhuellter, noch mehr os phaneros en, als Plato. Und ausserdem ist er viel aristophischer (= obszoener) als Plato.”

46. At Persecution, pp. 17-18, Strauss’s phrasing is particularly intense.

47. In the preceding sentences, Strauss differentiates Plato’s “city in speech” – and Plato’s Socrates in the Republic from Socrates: “Socrates chose non-conformity and death. Plato found a solution to the problem posed by the fate of Socrates, in founding the virtuous city in speech: only in that ‘other city’ can man reach his perfection.” Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 16, 17-18.

*That Plato set up a secret academy shows that he was different from Socrates and did not wish to suffer swiftly the same fate as Socrates. It also shows that he wished, in a somewhat different vein, to cultivate philosophers (something he agreed on but did differently, in writing and teaching, than Socrates). But it does not show that he disagreed with Socrates about Socrates’ decision or did not deeply admire Socrates.

**Hilary Putnam has underlined to me the skepticism that the Seventh Letter is written by Plato, going back to at least Kant. This might be true, though I think the argument actually displays distinctive Platonic subtleties and mannerisms; that argument, read carefully, is also plausibly skeptical of advising tyrants and about philosopher-tyranny in the sense of actual rule of a city by philosophers (both Dionysius and Plato’s best student, Dion, betrayed by a friend and murdered, fail as philosopher-kings). A philosopher-king, in Plato's sense in the Republic rules by argument in a small community of philosophers. He or she may go down with them to defend a democracy against tyranny, even die for doing so, as Socrates or Plato's student Demosthenes did.

In any case, there is no controversy that Plato went for three years, to educate and advise the tyrant Dionysius the second of Syracuse.

***Heidegger once gave a semester course explicating the first sentence of the Republic.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Clean coal" and civil disobedience

2000 people have recently pledged to do civil disobedience at the White House starting last Saturday against a project by a large and unscrupulous (is there now another kind of large corporate entity…?) oil company aiming to build the Keystone XL Pipeline. This is also the week that the new Martin Luther King memorial opens on the mall (Obama will speak at its dedication Sunday), and the timing of the sit-in honors King’s significance in a way that Obama himself is avoiding (and of course, historically avoided, a community organizer who did not engage in or lead actual protest).

Coal is, as in mountain top removal in West Virginia, the destroyer of environments, the human activity which poisons clean water – the blueness of the water as something to drink and to water the land and a lifesource for fish, people and other animals is already and will become a great source of strife in this century, notably in Africa, but here too (see Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, h/t Matt Morgan). In West Virginia, the beauty of the land has been ravaged by the removal – it is perhaps the best symbol of what humans do to the creation. And children have been visited by new cancers at Marsh Fork Elementary where the community did civil disobedience at Governor Mancin's office - see here - and marched to Washington to protest. (h/t to my student Travis Linger, a West Virginian who is writing beautifully about this).

But the hunger for energy and profit has now brought tar sands, something possibly worse, into the picture. As leading climate scientist and responsible (in Max Weber’s terms) public servant James Hansen suggests – the Bush administration’s oil lobbyists, wrote the poisonous “clean air act” and filed reports, reedited to eliminate everything written by civil servants, on the “climate,” especially tried to silence Hansen – the use of the tar sands would generate even greater, probably unstoppable global warming. Since evolution is, for the profit-greedy and their sycophants, including Republican Presidential candidates not science but a fiction (that these are "Presidential" candidates and that the corporate media make it possible for them is a sign of how America has declined), company advocates have apparently suggested that humans can adapt to this kind of climate change. Making all the world worse than Midland Texas (where Bush lives), the fantasy that humans would conform is, however, not evolutionarily desirable, were it possible.*

Keystone is also announcing various figures on jobs to be provided – listen to a debate over the project from DemocracyNow here - and the Teamsters leadership is supporting it. The pressure on Obama as a capitalist politician to adopt this is especially fierce in the midst of a depression where he has relied on largely empty slogans about trade (his administration sold weapons in India just after the 2010 election and he extolled “20,000” jobs – Obama, the peace candidate about Iraq, has been reduced by Washington and the war complex from launching the stimulus, which spent no money on the Pentagon and did fund green projects, to hawking militarism.** Featuring few economists, Obama’s administration has come to downplay Keynsian insights about serious stimulus spending to get the economy moving.***

But the democracy will not take the degradation. The farmers whom the pipeline from Canada to Texas will dispossess are protesting in Nebraska (the debater against the policy on Democracy Now here represents them). Interestingly, only local papers as in Rutland, Vermont and Lincoln, Nebraska are covering this story, though the Times printed an editorial against Tar Sands production on Sunday (civil disobedience from below has an effect despite the general corporate media blackout).

The Ogalalla Aquifer in Nebraska, which this pipeline would run across and leak into, provides drinking water for the people of 9 states…20,000 jobs versus poisoned water, new cancers and much other damages. Not a hard choice, ethically speaking…

But capitalism has, without mass pressure from below, sucked the promise out of the Obama administration. Capitalism is rapidly destroying the middle class and with roughly 16% real unemployment, counting those who have given up looking for work, and those who have part-time work but would gladly take full-time work, the “renewed” recession is deepening into a long and global depression. The Keynsian remedies for this, those Obama tried, with success but in too limited a way, have been stopped by parliamentary democracy, or as I call it in Democratic Individuality, an oligarchy with parliamentary forms. Without mass civil disobedience and democratic protest, such a regime is, as I have suggested on this blog, a reactionary two-step to the Right. About capitalism, Europe (see especially Greece here) and the US are busy proving Marx right for political reasons adjoined to economic ones (one has but to read Paul Krugman’s columns in the Times to trace the contrast between what is possible and what big money, moving increasingly to the anti-democratic Right, has wrought).

Richard Gilbert, the first Keynsian in the United States who served in the Roosevelt administration (and my dad), once wrote an essay in a book edited by Seymour Harris, called Saving American Capitalism. It suggested that the economic solutions for countering depression had now been made available. But my dad quit the Truman administration because politically, the interest in redistribution was slight. Democracy works, in Michigan in the auto industry when there are sit-down strikes in the factories, in the South, when there is mass disobedience for civil rights. Otherwise, mainstream or corporate American politics is bought by the rich, the Right strident, most Democrats spineless...

In retrospect, one might even say that even the Communist Manifesto was a fairly conservative idea about capitalist economy and did not see important aspects of its destruction of the environment. In 1848, Marx and Engels thought the majority would become dispossessed and suffering proletarians (workers with only their labor-power to sell, having no tools or land to work with), and that there would be a small number of capitalists. But they did not foresee a redistribution of income and wealth from the vast majority (say, the bottom 80%) to the top 1/10 of one per cent of the population. They did not foresee the complete destruction of the environment, the making of lands a waste or a vision of hell for profit.*****

Obama ran in 2008 on his understanding of global warming and climate change. He said rightly that ordinary people would have to keep the pressure on him from below for him to lead in this direction (since he demobilized his mass campaign upon reaching office, many of whom would have pushed for this, his actions spoke louder than words on whether he would fight for serious reforms, for instance a green-collar economy as Van Jones names it). Many of those doing civil disobedience will wear Obama 2008 buttons. They carry the hope that Obama represented, of a productive American economy providing more jobs and doing something about global warming. Civil disobedience (and even much more mass and rowdy civil disobedience) is the way to go to give America and the world a future. There is vigor and enthusiasm in Bill McKibben’s statement below. This is worth fighting for. As the protestors say, we are all indigenous to this planet…

Monday, August 22, 2011 by The Journal Star (Nebraska)
I Will Be Sitting in Front of the White House
by Carol Smith

Here in Nebraska, the controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline has largely focused on the danger of an oil spill contaminating our groundwater resources. Nationally though, growing numbers of people are warning of the irreparable damage that tar sands oil will wreak on the climate if we burn the filthy fossil fuel that the pipeline would haul.

While a vocal group of skeptics continue to argue that the science of human-caused global warming is unproved or even an outright hoax, the human role in climate change now is beyond doubt. The overwhelming majority of the world's climate scientists (98 percent, according to the Washington Post) clearly put the blame for global warming on the increased carbon emissions produced from burning coal and oil.

According to the world's most celebrated climatologist, Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, "if tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over." The carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will rise precipitously, triggering uncontrollable climate change well before the end of this century. The world, Hansen warns, already is facing a "climate emergency."

The last thing we should be doing is building a pipeline to transport this toxic fuel.

Not over the Ogallala Aquifer. Not anywhere.

To date, however, the administration has refused to take a principled stand on this critical issue, opting to passively let the permitting process go forward. But with the State Department on track to issue a final decision before the end of the year, the opportunity to influence the White House is narrowing.

So James Hansen and over a thousand other American citizens are marching on the White House, risking arrest for trespassing.

During a two-week period that ends Sept. 3, activists wearing business suits and "Obama for President" buttons will -- in dignified and nonviolent fashion -- literally put their bodies on the line to urge the president to honor the promise he made in accepting the 2008 Democratic nomination that his election would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." In the largest collective act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate movement, these Americans will be asking President Barack Obama to publicly declare that he will not sign a certificate of national interest permitting this transnational pipeline to be built.

And I will be one of a thousand people sitting in front of the White House.

As a native Lincolnite, homeowner and a mother, I'm doing as much as I personally can to reduce my carbon footprint. I've insulated my home, installed Energy Star appliances and light bulbs and even erected solar panels on my roof. I drive less, bicycle more and eat food produced locally and organically. But a consumer can only do so much. Conservation and energy efficiency only go so far.

I can't stop the tar sands oil from being mined. I can't stop coal mining in Wyoming or West Virginia, or oil drilling under the sea or in the Arctic. Only the politicians in Washington can do that. And unlike the fossil fuel industry lobbyists and U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which gives more money to candidates than the Republican and Democratic parties combined), I can't make huge financial contributions to influence the political process.

But as a citizen -- beyond voting and contacting my elected officials -- I can make a moral statement with my body.
This month, for the first time in my 62 year-old life, I will be intentionally violating the law and risking personal arrest. Along with the other thousand-plus activists who will be marching on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I will be asking Obama to stand up to the fossil fuel lobby that is seeking to scrape every last bit of coal and suck every last drop of oil out of the earth, no matter how much damage is done to our fragile ecosystems: the land, air and water. I will be urging him to back us away from the climactic tipping point that threatens to bring our species (and most of the other species on the planet) to the brink of extinction. I will be beseeching him to unilaterally break us of this destructive fossil fuel addiction and instead promote safe, green energies like wind, solar, wave and geothermal.

And until Obama publicly declares that he will not sign a certificate of national interest, I will sit in front of his house and respectfully refuse to leave.

Carol Smith plans to leave for Washington on Wednesday.

Sunday, August 21, 2011 by the Rutland Herald (Vermont)
Bill McKibben Jailed After White House Tar Sands Pipeline Protest
by Kevin O’Connor

Vermont environmental author and activist Bill McKibben went to Washington, D.C., in hopes of getting attention by getting arrested. This weekend he got that and more: a surprise two-night stay in jail

McKibben and 64 other protesters kicked off a two-week sit-in at White House on Saturday to oppose a $7 billion, 1,700-mile oil pipeline planned to cross the nation’s Great Plains.

U.S. Park Police had warned demonstrators that each would be arrested and quickly released with a $100 fine for trespassing. But after authorities learned that more than 2,000 people from all 50 states plan to join the protest sometime between now until Sept. 3, they jailed McKibben and his peers until a court hearing Monday — all in hopes of deterring future participants.
The police action, however, didn’t appear to stop pipeline opponents. McKibben used his one phone call from jail to tell fellow protest organizers that despite heat in the nation’s capital, all arrested were in good spirits and urged their peers to continue on.

“This was a powerful day,” McKibben said in a written statement. “It’s not the easiest thing on earth for law-abiding folk to come risk arrest. It’s hot out here today, especially when you’re wearing a suit and tie. But it’s nowhere near as hot as it’s going to get if we lose this fight.”

The Obama administration is debating whether to approve the pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Supporters say it will expand the nation’s energy supply, while opponents counter it will raise emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are warming the planet and warping precipitation and wind patterns.

McKibben and colleagues are fearful the Obama administration will permit the pipeline just as it recently opened much of Alaska to oil drilling and approved coal mining on federal land in Wyoming. Lacking money for advertising or lobbying, they’re inviting supporters to join them in Washington in hopes of luring the attention of the press, public and president.

“This pipeline has emerged as the single clear test of the president’s willingness to fight for the environment,” McKibben said in a weekend statement. “We’ve already succeeded in nationalizing this fight in a way no one thought was possible. It’s not just a group of people along the pipeline route who are opposing this project anymore. People from all 50 states will be joining us over the coming two weeks.”

After a Saturday rally at Lafayette Square Park, McKibben and supporters moved to a sit-in on the sidewalk in front of the White House. There they unfurled two large banners that read “Climate Change is Not in Our National Interest: Stop the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline” and “We Sit In Against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obama Will You Stand Up to Big Oil?”
Police, issuing warnings to clear the area, first arrested a young woman from Wasilla, Alaska — hometown of Republican politician Sarah Palin — and then McKibben and colleagues on charges of failure to obey a lawful order.

Authorities transported the group — which included Vermont Law School professor and former White House official Gus Speth and gay rights activist Lt. Dan Choi — to a booking station before transferring all but about a dozen D.C. residents to the city’s Central Cell Block.

The protesters are scheduled to appear in court Monday, at which time their lawyers expect them to be processed and released — perhaps after each paying $100 or more on the initial charge of failure to obey a lawful order and up to $500 more on an additional charge of blocking passage.

Before the sit-in, police had said participants would be arrested and face only a $100 fine before being released the same day. But authorities since have expressed concern that the protest would divert their attention from events leading up to the Aug. 28 dedication of the capital’s new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.

Protest coordinators at responded in a statement: “As the dedication of the MLK Jr. memorial approaches, the sit-in outside the White House is a reminder that the great American tradition of civil disobedience is not just history. The participants are coming not with deep pockets or a partisan agenda, but with the simple idea that their voices should be heard. They will not be intimidated or deterred.”

© 2011 Rutland Herald

The People v. the Pipeline: Time to Join In
How you can get involved in the one of the most important climate struggles happening in North America.

by Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, Danny Glover, Maude Barlow, Tom Goldtooth, James Hansen, Wes Jackson, Naomi Klein, George Poitras, David Suzuki, Gus Speth
posted Jun 22, 2011

Dear Friends,

This will be a slightly longer letter than common for the internet age—it’s serious stuff.[sic - this sentence is unfortunate]

The short version is we want you to consider doing something hard: coming to Washington in the hottest and stickiest weeks of the summer and engaging in civil disobedience that will likely get you arrested.

The full version goes like this:

As you know, the planet is steadily warming: 2010 was the warmest year on record, and we’ve seen the resulting chaos in almost every corner of the earth.

"If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.”
-James Hansen

And as you also know, our democracy is increasingly controlled by special interests interested only in their short-term profit.
These two trends collide this summer in Washington, where the State Department and the White House have to decide whether to grant a certificate of ‘national interest’ to some of the biggest fossil fuel players on earth. These corporations want to build the so-called Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries.

To call this project a horror is serious understatement. The tar sands have wrecked huge parts of Alberta, disrupting ways of life in indigenous communities—First Nations communities in Canada, and tribes along the pipeline route in the U.S. have demanded the destruction cease. The pipeline crosses crucial areas like the Ogallala Aquifer where a spill would be disastrous—and though the pipeline companies insist they are using "state of the art" technologies that should leak only once every 7 years, the precursor pipeline and its pumping stations have leaked a dozen times in the past year. These local impacts alone would be cause enough to block such a plan. But the Keystone Pipeline would also be a fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet, the one place to which we are all indigenous.

How much carbon lies in the recoverable tar sands of Alberta? A recent calculation from some of our foremost scientists puts the figure at about 200 parts per million. Even with the new pipeline they won’t be able to burn that much overnight—but each development like this makes it easier to get more oil out. As the climatologist Jim Hansen (one of the signatories to this letter) explained, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate “the principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.” In other words, he added, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.” The Keystone pipeline is an essential part of the game. "Unless we get increased market access, like with Keystone XL, we're going to be stuck," said Ralph Glass, an economist and vice-president at AJM Petroleum Consultants in Calgary, told a Canadian newspaper last week.

It’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces.

Given all that, you’d suspect that there’s no way the Obama administration would ever permit this pipeline. But in the last few months the president has signed pieces of paper opening much of Alaska to oil drilling, and permitting coal-mining on federal land in Wyoming that will produce as much CO2 as 300 power plants operating at full bore.

And Secretary of State Clinton has already said she’s ‘inclined’ to recommend the pipeline go forward. Partly it’s because of the political commotion over high gas prices, though more tar sands oil would do nothing to change that picture. But it’s also because of intense pressure from industry. TransCanada Pipeline, the company behind Keystone, has hired as its chief lobbyist for the project a man named Paul Elliott, who served as deputy national director of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Meanwhile, the US Chamber of Commerce—a bigger funder of political campaigns than the RNC and DNC combined—has demanded that the administration “move quickly to approve the Keystone XL pipeline,” which is not so surprising—they’ve also told the U.S. EPA that if the planet warms that will be okay because humans can "adapt their physiology" to cope. The Koch Brothers, needless to say, are also backing the plan, and may reap huge profits from it.

So we’re pretty sure that without serious pressure the Keystone Pipeline will get its permit from Washington. A wonderful coalition of environmental groups has built a strong campaign across the continent—from Cree and Dene indigenous leaders to Nebraska farmers, they’ve spoken out strongly against the destruction of their land. We need to join them, and to say even if our own homes won’t be crossed by this pipeline, our joint home—the earth—will be wrecked by the carbon that pours down it.
And we need to say something else, too: it’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces.

We don’t have the money to compete with those corporations, but we do have our bodies, and beginning in mid-August many of us will use them. We will, each day through Labor Day, march on the White House, risking arrest with our trespass. We will do it in dignified fashion, demonstrating that in this case we are the conservatives, and that our foes—who would change the composition of the atmosphere—are dangerous radicals.

Come dressed as if for a business meeting—this is, in fact, serious business. And another sartorial tip—if you wore an Obama button during the 2008 campaign, why not wear it again? We very much still want to believe in the promise of that young Senator who told us that with his election the "rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet start to heal." We don’t understand what combination of bureaucratic obstinacy and insider dealing has derailed those efforts, but we remember his request that his supporters continue on after the election to pressure the government for change. We’ll do what we can.
And one more thing: we don’t want college kids to be the only cannon fodder in this fight. They’ve led the way so far on climate change—10,000 came to DC for the Powershift gathering earlier this spring. They’ve marched this month in West Virginia to protest mountaintop removal; Tim DeChristopher faces sentencing this summer in Utah for his creative protest. Now it’s time for people who’ve spent their lives pouring carbon into the atmosphere (and whose careers won’t be as damaged by an arrest record) to step up too. Most of us signing this letter are veterans of this work, and we think it’s past time for elders to behave like elders. One thing we don’t want is a smash up: if you can’t control your passions, this action is not for you.
This won’t be a one-shot day of action. We plan for it to continue for several weeks, to the date in September when by law the administration can either grant or deny the permit for the pipeline. Not all of us can actually get arrested—half the signatories to this letter live in Canada, and might well find our entry into the U.S. barred. But we will be making plans for sympathy demonstrations outside Canadian consulates in the U.S., and U.S. consulates in Canada—the decision-makers need to know they’re being watched.

Winning this battle won’t save the climate. But losing it will mean the chances of runaway climate change go way up—that we’ll endure an endless future of the floods and droughts we’ve seen this year. And we’re fighting for the political future too—for the premise that we should make decisions based on science and reason, not political connection. You have to start somewhere, and this is where we choose to begin.

Now it’s time for people who’ve spent their lives pouring carbon into the atmosphere to step up too. We think it’s past time for elders to behave like elders.

If you think you might want to be a part of this action, we need you to sign up here. As plans solidify in the next few weeks we’ll be in touch with you to arrange nonviolence training; our colleagues at a variety of environmental and democracy campaigns will be coordinating the actual arrangements.

We know we’re asking a lot. You should think long and hard on it, and pray if you’re the praying type. But to us, it’s as much privilege as burden to get to join this fight in the most serious possible way. We hope you’ll join us.

Maude Barlow
 Wendell Berry
 Tom Goldtooth 
Danny Glover 
James Hansen 
Wes Jackson 
Naomi Klein 
Bill McKibben 
George Poitras
David Suzuki
 Gus Speth
p.s.—Please pass this letter on to anyone else you think might be interested. We realize that what we’re asking isn’t easy, and we’re very grateful that you’re willing even to consider it.

Published on Friday, August 19, 2011 by YES! Magazine
This Is Getting Exciting

The climate movement's biggest civil disobedience action ever is about to take Washington by storm.
by Bill McKibben
This is starting to get exciting.

Five or six of us are hunched around a table in a small Washington office, shouting into phones and pecking away at keyboards as we count down toward the Saturday beginning of what looks like it will be the largest civil disobedience protest in the history of the American environmental movement.

We’ve got 2,000 people signed up to come to Washington and get arrested outside the White House between August 20 and September 3, all in an effort to persuade President Obama not to grant a permit for a new pipeline from the tar sands of Canada.
As momentum builds, we’re hearing from the famous and powerful: the wonderful Bernie Sanders just offered up a blogpost pointing out how many more jobs we’d create if we concentrated on clean energy; and the dynamic actor Mark Ruffalo chipped in a heartfelt video imploring people to head to Washington for the protest.

But it’s just as exciting to see the stream of inspiring commitments coming in from four Montana grandmothers (one of whom just happens to be Margot Kidder, otherwise known as Lois Lane), or a New York City college student who felt the hope of Obama’s 2008 victory, and also a little of the frustration many of us have shared since, pointing out the many times the president has “backed down from what could have been transformative confrontations with the defenders of the status quo.”

Which is exactly why so many of us will be wearing our Obama ’08 buttons when we get arrested: we want desperately to conjure up the surge of joy that came with that campaign.

For me, though, the big thrill of the day was seeing a blog post from my junior high school biology teacher, Fran Ludwig. She’s emerged in recent years as a great Massachusetts leader of the climate movement, and she managed to capture perfectly the message we’re trying to spread.

She says, "I'm going to Washington and risking arrest because, in spite of the efforts of concerned individuals and communities to live in a more sustainable way, government policy is the only way to achieve the large-scale change we need to avert the worst outcome of rampant climate change. The approval of the Keystone XL is exclusively up to President Obama. I hope to add my presence to thousands of others in Washington (and hundreds of thousands in the U.S. and across the planet) to say: Enough! We need to take a stand against fossil fuel now!!"

By Saturday morning, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be in jail, along with the first wave of a hundred or so protesters. [Mckibben and others were kept in jail over the weekend to try to discourage others]. But by no means the last—we’ll keep this protest alive till Labor Day Weekend, and then hand it off to the Canadians, who plan mass civil disobedience of their own in September.

And did I tell you we just heard from friends in Turkey? They’re planning to deliver their protest to the Canadian consulate this weekend—and they’ve spurred many others around the world in the same direction.

As I said, it’s starting to get interesting. If you want in on the fun, go to

Bill McKibben wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Bill is a YES! Magazine contributing editor. McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, co-founder of, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Friday, August 19, 2011 by the Guardian/UK {this highlights how weak the coverage is in the American corporate press]
Massive Protest at White House Against Alberta Tar Sands Pipeline
Campaigners say the two-week protest will be the biggest green civil disobedience in a generation
by Suzanne Goldenberg

A protest at the White House against a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands is emerging as the biggest green civil disobedience campaign in a generation, organizers said.

Approximately 1,500 people signed up to court arrest during the two-week action outside the White House, which begins on Saturday morning.

The campaign is seen as a last chance to persuade Barack Obama to stop a planned 1,600-mile pipeline that will carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta across rich American farmland to the Gulf of Mexico.

The State Department is expect to produce its final environmental analysis of the pipeline by the end of the month. Obama will then have 90 days to decide whether going ahead with the project would be in the national interest.

The Keystone XL project has been a major focus of environmental protests. Greenhouse gas emissions of tar sands crude are 40% higher than conventional oil, and the open-pit mining has devastated Alberta's boreal forest.

Recent pipeline accidents in Michigan and Montana have also deepened fears about potential dangers along the pipeline's route through prime American farmland.

The veteran environmentalist Bill McKibben, who is leading the protest, describes it as the biggest civil disobedience action in environmental circles for years.

It also puts Obama on the spot to make good on his promises as a presidential candidate in 2008 to act on climate change.
Congress failed to act on the main plank of Obama's green agenda – climate change legislation – and pressure from Tea Party activists has forced the Environmental Protection Agency to delay or weaken regulations on dealing with climate change.
This time though, Obama has freedom of action – or at least that is McKibben's hope.

Obama must personally sign off on the pipeline, if it is to go ahead. "We think we may have a chance because for once Obama gets to make the call himself. He has to sign – or not sign – the permit," McKibben said.

"As environmentalists this is the one clean test we are ever going to get of Obama's real commitment to climate issues."
The protest will begin at about 11am on Saturday morning when a first group of 100 activists will gather at the gates of the White House, an area that is supposed to be kept clear, and wait to be arrested.

Unlike other campaigns, the next fortnight's actions have geographical reach – with protesters descending on Washington from areas along the pipeline's route.

One group from eastern Texas, has hired an RV to make the journey.

The campaign against the pipeline has steadily been gaining in momentum amid concerns about pipeline safety.

The pipeline route crosses rich farmland and important aquifers.

Campaigners argue the thick heavy tar sands crude could do far more damage than conventional oil, and that the State Department has rushed through its environmental review.

The oil industry, meanwhile, pushed back with a study this week claiming the pipeline would create 20,000 new construction jobs.

New York Times EDITORIAL
Tar Sands and the Carbon Numbers
Published: August 21, 2011

This page opposes the building of a 1,700-mile pipeline called the Keystone XL, which would carry diluted bitumen — an acidic crude oil — from Canada’s Alberta tar sands to the Texas Gulf Coast. We have two main concerns: the risk of oil spills along the pipeline, which would traverse highly sensitive terrain, and the fact that the extraction of petroleum from the tar sands creates far more greenhouse emissions than conventional production does.

The Canadian government insists that it has found ways to reduce those emissions. But a new report from Canada’s environmental ministry shows how great the impact of the tar sands will be in the coming years, even with cleaner production methods.

It projects that Canada will double its current tar sands production over the next decade to more than 1.8 million barrels a day.

That rate will mean cutting down some 740,000 acres of boreal forest — a natural carbon reservoir. Extracting oil from tar sands is also much more complicated than pumping conventional crude oil out of the ground. It requires steam-heating the sands to produce a petroleum slurry, then further dilution.

One result of this process, the ministry says, is that greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector as a whole will rise by nearly one-third from 2005 to 2020 — even as other sectors are reducing emissions. Canada still hopes to meet the overall target it agreed to at Copenhagen in 2009 — a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. If it falls short, as seems likely, tar sands extraction will bear much of the blame.

Canada’s government is committed to the tar sands business. (Alberta’s energy minister, Ronald Liepert, has declared, “I’m not interested in Kyoto-style policies.”) The United States can’t do much about that, but it can stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

The State Department will decide whether to approve or reject the pipeline by the end of the year. It has already delivered two flawed reports on the pipeline’s environmental impact. It should acknowledge the environmental risk of the pipeline and the larger damage caused by tar sands production and block the Keystone XL.

*"Libertarians" like the Koch Brothers push this position. A serious libertarianism might begin from an insight in political philosophy into the importance of equal liberty – John Rawls’s first principle of justice, characteristic of modern democratic theory. See here. But we all then particularly need a government that stands up for preserving the health of human beings and the beauty of the environment in which we found ourselves (for the religious, the creation…). The Canadian company purchased a Democrat, Paul Elliott, who worked on the Hilary Clinton campaign to lobby for the pipeline; the Department of State, perhaps not fortuitously, has now issued a statement that this project may go ahead.

**The administration had previously arranged a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

***Keynsianism is, in this respect, like evolution. Stimulus programs do put people to work and give money both to the then employed who spend it, needing to survive, and “multiply” the economic effect. Sadly, emphasizing deficit-cutting against stimulus, European finance ministers, led by the German conservatives, have unnecessarily worsened the Euro crisis, and they are echoed now by the “tea party” and the Democrats. Obama has made a desperate calculation that he can win reelection in a depression from the “center” (he also probably is weak-minded about what is necessary for the economy: too much training at Chicago where Milton Friedman’s economics of the money supply and anti-Keynsianism is in the atmosphere one breathes, even for a community organizer studying law….

****The emphasis on militarism was also already prevalent (Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules and The Limits of Power draw a good picture of the development of the Cold War and the militarist alternative to decent and non-destructive/self-destructive priorities; my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? indicates how foreign policy – and hence militarism – leads to the blunting or defeat of reform or what ought to be “common sense” under capitalism and this has gone much further; today Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich say what is true about militarism – how American aggressions and military bases are completely self-defeating and against the interest of citizens and their words do not get covered in the corporate media, except in Paul’s case recently on the Daily Show.

*****Marx’s argument in Capital that technology is the great enemy of strikes in the chapter on "Machinery and Modern Industry" or on the hellishness of factory life for children, women and other poor workers in the chapter on the "Working Day: as well as on the adulteration of food in the "General Law of Capitalist Accumulation" does suggest this broad trend, but it is Heidegger’s rethinking of philosophy, of humans “being there” in the environment which, against the previous slogan, including Marx's of "man against nature," suggests this. (Actually Heidegger speaks only of “Dasein,” not humans, and his real view stressed the importance of German dasein and was wantonly predatory see here, here, here , here and here). Heidegger’s argument is skeptical of modern urbanization and critical of the destruction of the environment. See the passage on Rilke’s visionary short poem from the Book of Hours, discussed briefly by Heidegger in What are Poets for? Trans. Albert Hofstadter, in Poetry, Language and Thought, p. 114,

The Kings of the world are grown old,
Inheritors they shall have none.
In childhood death removes the son,
their daughters pale have given, each one,
sick crowns to the powers to hold.

Into coin the rabble breaks them,
Today’s lord of the world takes them,
stretches them into machines in his fire,
grumbling they serve his every desire;
but happiness still forsakes them.

The ore is homesick. And it yearns
to leave the coin and leave the wheel
that teach it to lead a life inane.
The factories and tills it spurns;
from petty forms it will uncongeal,
return to the open mountain’s vein,
and on it, the mountains will close again.

Heidegger’s commentary is a brief paragraph at pp. 114-15. See also Michael Zimmerman, Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, and Art (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Technology).

Now of course any notion of humanity is already a distortion of Heidegger’s real, covert or esoteric view on the importance of German Dasein. He denied the importance of ethics as a way of thinking, a “fishing in the muddy sea of values,” but his actual ethics were those of conquest and genocide, of active National Socialism.