[Ed. Note: While Neocons are not in the news so much these days, but they are waiting in the wings, and for reasons given in recent posts, it's just a matter of time before they make their comeback. This is a repost of a 2007 piece (slightly edited) that was a repost of a 2005 piece. See also these posts related to Strauss here and here.]
When I first picked up Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind in the nineties, I feared that it would be a Rush Limbaugh-like rant against Liberal decadence. In some ways you could say it is, but unlike Limbaugh, you have to take Bloom seriously. He's got a case to make, and both he and Christopher Lasch make similar and, for me, persuasive cases for the inadequacy of secular Liberalism as a dominant culture-wide value system or worldview.
Neither Bloom nor Lasch have developed an alternative that makes any sense to me, but Lasch's celebration of the kind of religious progressivism, quite alien to the spirit of Liberalism, that inspired the Civil Rights movement comes closer. For Bloom's thinking, as fairly typical of the thinking of all the Straussian neoconservatives, is a symptom of decadence rather than an antidote for it. Lasch understands the problem, but struggled in a much more wholesome way to develop a solution. The mistake the neocons make, in my opinion, is their belief that there should be no pluralism either in the political or cultural spheres. That a healthy society needs a unified cultural/political mythology to give it strength and coherency. Toleration for if not an enthusiastic embrace of pluralism is for me the litmus test for political sanity.
But pluralism isn't the same thing as individualism. Both Bloom and Lasch understood that a society pays a price when it values individualism and freedom above all other values. For both men the laissez faire in Liberalism creates a fragmented, atomized society. This is a problem for Lasch because it diminishes the possibility for human community life, destroys local traditions and neighborhoods, and creates a culture of narcissism, a culture of minimal selves--of lost souls who don't know who they are, a society of ungrounded people who are empty of any real interior life, and who are therefore weak and easy to manipulate.
In other words, Liberalism creates a vacuum in the life of a society where instead there should be a soul. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so the emptiness is filled with the crudest kinds of impulses. But the antitdote for the fragmentation of pluralism is a localist communitarianism, not top-down statism. Lasch was a communitarian; the neocons, with their flipped Trotskyist ethos, are statists.
Shadia Drury's says of Straussians like Bloom that he "believes that America fails to provide a culture that can be embraced, loved, and appropriated by its citizens. She offers them only an opportunity to devote themselves to the satisfaction of their brutish nature. Far from teaching them to have contempt for themselves and their brutishness, it teaches them smugness and self-satisfaction. America provides her people with nothing splendid and sublime to bow before." It's not the job of the state to provide aspiration to the sublime, and any state that tries to do it is dangerous. The American patriotism that tries to be this sublime thing in American civil religion is the crudest kind of jingoism that appeals not to what is humanly noble, but to the crude nationionalism that feeds the need to feel superior.
For Straussians feeling superior is good enough if it is a unifying social force. The problem lies with a society that is fragmented, because it is weak. An open, multicultural society in which every thing is equal, in which no value or cultural ideal is considered any better than any other, an anything-goes" different strokes for different folks" society loses any sense of cohesiveness and is very vulnerable to manipulation by a willful, well-disciplined minority that has no qualms about violently asserting its own values and suppressing any other value system as inferior and to be annihilated.
In other words, the easygoing, nonjudgmental, cultural laissez faire of Liberalism invites its own destruction by those whose attitudes are anything but laissez faire. The anything-goes decadence of the Weimar Republic created the conditions for the Nazis to bully their way into power. Strauss, a German Jew who fled the Nazis, saw structural similarities between the anything-goes liberalism of Weimar and the anything-goes mentality of the American Liberalism. He believed it was inevitable that the U.S. would succumb to an aggressive minority of thugs if Liberalism continued to be the main shaping force in American politics and culture.
For many of the neocons, politics is thuggery, and you fight thuggery with thuggery, so the only thing that matters is whether the thugs you approve of are running things. The thuggery that we began to see assert itself on the right starting with Newt Gingrich, the impeachment of Clinton, through to the the bullying of Tom Delay in the House are all justified by Straussian theory. It's thuggery in the cause of the higher good. They really believe that. Liberalism must be destroyed or America will be destroyed by its enemies.
For the Straussians, following Carl Schmidt, politics is not the sphere of compromise and working things out, it's the realm of domination of the weak by the strong. For the neocons, politics is war. It's about controlling the political process or being controlled, annihilating or being annihilated. They understand power as the central truth, and every other value has value only insofar as it promotes power. And the neocon influence in the Republican party seems bent on proving their theory right by doing everything it can to discredit and destroy Liberal ideas and Liberal institutions. And so far, judging by the compliance of the Democrats, they seem to have proved their case.
All of this has become so much clearer for me after reading Shadia Drury's Leo Strauss and the American Right -- particularly the virulence of the conservative attack on Liberalism, which until recently I had naively dismissed as crackpot. Most normal people think of wingnuts like Limbaugh, Robertson, and Coulter as comical, barely sane troglodytes. These rightists, on the other hand, take Liberals very seriously, and see them as a cancer that is destroying American society and making it spineless and weak, and as such all the more vulnerable to its enemies. They believe that Liberalism is destroying America, and they are totally committed to preventing that by destroying Liberalism. "Let the Liberals laugh at us," think the wingnuts. "We'll see how hard they laugh when eventually we put our boot on their throats."
The great virtue of the Liberal credo is its belief that a society can be built on facts, rationalism, and enlightened, pragmatic self-interest. But I also think that over the long haul that's not enough. Conservatives understand that a society needs myths, religion, and to stand for something worth dying for. Otherwise, as Drury points out, "it is little more than an animal farm." I would say that a postmodern America needs to find a way to integrate both the Liberal and Conservative credos. But it's not the state's job to provide or reinforce any particular mythos.
But the conservative part is dangerous if the myths are not true narratives. By' true narrative' I mean that they are true in a metaphorical or analogical sense--they use symbol and story to point to transcendent truths that are genuinely life-giving and profound. For the neocons, myths are simply arbitrary fictions whose value lies in their effectiveness to anesthetize and galvanize the masses. How to distinguish between the true and false myths is a tricky business, but it boils down to: By their fruits you will know them.
Until reading Drury's book, I thought that the alliance between the intellectually sophisticated neocons and the simplistic religious-right extremists like Falwell and Robertson was a marriage of convenience engineered for short-term political gains. But Drury makes clear that the neocons believe that the religious right is essential for continued American dominance because it provides the requisite myths that justify American supremacy.
The neocons themselves don't believe in the myths of religion--they are philosophers who have transcended the need for such childishness. Like the nihilists on the cultural left, they believe that philosophy necessarily leads one to understand that there is no God, that there is no truth, that there is only the void. But the few, the true philosophers, can confront the bleak truth of this metaphysical nihilism. And the truly great philosophers are the creators of the great metanarratives that inspire great cultures.
Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad constructed magnificent fictions, according to the neocons, that these individuals themselves did not believe, but which they saw as meeting the needs of the people who could not live without such splendid illusions. The arrogance and cynicism of this kind of thinking is beyond comical. You have to be a madman to take it seriously, and yet these guys surround Bush and are directing policy.
This is why in my opinion Straussian neoconservatism is just as decadent as the nihilistic philosophies of the cultural left. Both left and right are nihilistic at their root; the difference lies in that the the Straussian rightists see themselves as socially responsible because they understand that society needs its myths and illusions and should not be disabused of them. They oppose the cultural left, which wants to evangelize its nihilism. Drury says of Bloom:
But it is important to recognize that Bloom does not condemn the universities for failing to inculcate the truth. On the contrary, he regards the truth as too dangerous to be spread liberally by universities intended for mass education. His point is that the universities because of their commitment to openness, have failed American society on two counts. They have failed to educate either the many or the few. First, they have failed to impart to the many what Strauss calls the noble lies or the salutary myths; the myth of of openness is destructive, not salutary. Second, the universities have failed to provide the few with what Bloom regards as an education in the real sense: a capacity to transcend the myths of the cave and see the truth. To do this, philosophy must dismantle culture, and Bloom warns that this is a "dangerous business." Philosophy breaks the spell of culture. It liberates man from the charms by which culture holds him captive. It is therefore a threat to civil society.
Strauss thought that the Athenians were correct in their condemnation of Socrates. Socrates was indeed corrupting the youths of Athens by breaking the spell the collective myths had on their minds and which undermined their ability to be loyal citizens who loved their city above all others. For the neocons, a society must believe in its superiority and it must be fanatically committed to its preservation precisely because of its belief in its superiority. It doesn't matter if in reality its customs, values, and achievements are no better or worse than that of its enemies. Power determines what the truth is, and history is written by the victorious. Does this sound familiar? We have Americans in power now who believe this.
For the Straussians, if a society does not believe itself superior in every way to its enemies, it will be defeated by an enemy who is not intimidated and that believes itself superior. The neocons therefore have formed an alliance with the Christian Right not for political convenience, but because the Christian Right naively and fanatically accepts the myth of American superiority and of its special God-given role in world history. The neocons support the wingnut attitude that anyone who does not believe this myth is an America-hater and, as Ann Coulter puts it, is guilty of treason. There is no gray area. There is no room to criticize. It's my country right or wrong--any other attitude leads to inevitable defeat by another society that believes in itself more.
Sane people dismiss extremists like Coulter as comical crazies. But the very fact that her views have been legitimated by her ubiquitous presence in the media in the last decade points to the drift of things in this country toward insanity. What should by now be clear to everyone is that the right is not just indulging in a lot of crazy talk. They are walking their talk.
They look at the mainly passive, disorganized, fragmented Democrats and they say to themselves, "This is an enemy easy to defeat. The Liberals have no unifying religion or myths; they are fragmented, weak, and ripe for the taking." And they were taken in 2000. And they were taken again in the runup to the war in 2002. And they were taken yet again in the swiftboating of Kerry and the shenanigans in Ohio in 2004. The wingnuts have proved correct their critique of the Democrats as weak and spineless time and time again.
Does that mean that anybody who wishes to oppose the neocons must resort to thuggery to defeat them? No. But I do not believe that secular liberalism has the resources to defeat it. Even if the Democrats win in the short run, the problem remains for the long run. We need a tough, principled, idealistic politics in the spirit of King, Mandela, Gandhi. These men were not nihilists. They were genuinely religious humanists who understood evil and knew how to fight against it on their own principled terms, not on the terms defined by the thugs.
The Straussians are convinced that we all live in a nightmare world and that there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to human existence, and they seem bent on turning our world into something that conforms to their imagination of it. It will be an American capitalist nightmare world that the neocons believe nevertheless all Americans should embrace with patriotic fervor. They believe that the masses have to be anesthetized and controlled with myths and religious fictions, but that the grownups have to run things, and the grownups understand that it's all about power, and that so long as the U.S. has the enormous power it now possesses, it had better use it or lose it.
This explains their gambit in Iraq--it was an opportunity to fill a geopolitical power vacuum with American power after the collapse of the Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. It's a gambit that has failed--the Muslims there are not Liberals, and they do not fold so easily. But I for one am worried about what the neocons have up their sleeve now that their policies are being discredited by their failure. They will not walk away with their tail between their legs. They still believe they are right even if their tactics were ineffective. They will not be gracious in defeat. Look at Cheney, for god's sake.
And they are not going away. Wingnuttery in America will always be a problem so long as there is a vacuum in American society where there should be a soul. How to solve that problem in a sane, progressive way is for me the most pressing issue that confronts Americans in the 21st Century.