Leo Strauss And The Esoteric Dubya

I wasn’t planning to watch the State of the Union message, mostly because Dubya is just such a god awful orator. I could listen to Reagan. I didn’t much agree with him, but I could sit through one of his speeches, comprehend his meaning, and refute his reasoning. Dubya doesn’t offer "reasoning." He offers slogans and other "ear candy" — usually mouthing things that would sound good, if we didn’t have five years of experience telling us that every word out of his mouth is a big crock of shit. In fact, Reagan gets credit for one virtue, which George W. Bush frequently claims for himself. You pretty much knew what you were getting with Ronald Reagan. Dubya’s claim that "people know where I stand" is just another line of bullshit. People don’t know where he stands — because he is very good at not telling them.

In fact, I wound up watching the State of the Union, because it was on the box when I came in the house, and what the hell, I didn’t have to go out of my way to find it on the teevee. Sure enough, I heard some of that "ear candy," that I would previously have written off as being, well, "ear candy." You get immune to it, after a while. In fact, I think that’s the whole idea. I wouldn’t have paid it any attention except that I’ve been emersed in reading Leo Strauss lately, and I heard something new, I would ordinarily have failed to notice.

You see, Strauss had this interesting conception, that’s kind of an "extra" feature of his whole way of thinking. He believed that philosophers regularly concealed their true meaning — the so-called esoteric meaning — behind what boils down to ear candy. The "exoteric" meaning is frequently platitudinous drivel, no one can really object to. Behind it lies a more substantive, and generally provocative, meaning. This isn’t nearly as mysterious and unfathomable as the Strauss cultists like to think. We are already familiar with, for example, racist "code words," wherein the bigots among us couch their bigotry in pseudo-high minded language. They can’t admit that they are just unreconstructed bigots. They would marginalize themselves among progressive minded society. So they come up with language that gives them what the CIA has called "plausible deniability." This enables them to communicate their bigotry in the open, and deny that they are doing any such thing. The average rube on the street — who isn’t paying much attention, anyway — buys their denials, which is made all the easier if the rube on the street in fact has some tendency to sympathize with those views. A radio personality up in Charlotte used to talk about "African-Americans or whatever they’re calling themselves these days . . ." What he meant was "niggers, but I can’t use that word." But that example is strictly "bush league" compared to the esoteric obfuscation of Bush administration neocons.

Oh wait, you probably want to know what exactly Dubya said. I’ll tell you in a minute, but first let’s take a little detour, and explore the Straussian background of it — since it was no doubt written by Dubya’s neocon speech writers.

Leo Strauss published a book called The City and Man somewhere long about 1963. The very first paragraph of the introduction refers to a "crisis of the west," which is the motivating concept behind the project he announces for the book. That project is some more of his signature exploration of the political philosophy of "the classics" as he refers to them. The "crisis of the west" apparently is the result of us silly modern humans — what with our moon rockets, jet airliners, computers and other primitive implements — failing to appreciate the clearly superior intelligence of Aristotle.

One would be justified in wondering just the what in the hell he meant by a "crisis of the west." He penned his preface, dated July 1963, while John F. Kennedy was in the White House. You may recall from your history — if you don’t directly remember that time period like I do — that these were the days of the "new frontier." We were developing those space vehicles, that would put men on the moon just six years later. This was a time when a siingle bread winner could finance a house in the ‘burbs, with two cars in the garage, and a color TV in the living room. Never in history has a population enjoyed a comparable level of prosperity, enjoying a standard of living that an individual household would have required hundreds of slaves to maintain back in the "good old days" of Aristotle and Cicero.

The following year, Ronald Reagan would tell the 1964 Republican National Convention that "the question isn’t left or right, it’s up or down." Boy, were we ever "down" in 1964. Come to think of it, this would have been about the same era that Milton Friedman was writing "Up From Serfdom" — as if affluent Americans were groaning under the yoke of oppression. Jesus H. Christ, what fucking planet were these jokers living on? Oh, wait, I know. Leo Strauss was writing about this "crisis of the west" in his air conditioned office at the University of Chicago. Every night after a hard day’s philosophizing, he no doubt drove his automobile past legions of serfs, stooped over in the wheat fields, on the way back to his suburban ranch style split level. Or maybe his problem was that he didn’t see those serfs. I guess it’s hard to enjoy to benefits of civilization, without someone toiling their life away to give you those benefits.

Actually, he tells us what he’s talking about. The time has come, my friends, to quote the man. On page 2 of The City And Man, (1963, University of Chicago Press), Strauss says this:

That crisis was diagnosed at the time of World War I by Spengler as the going down (or decline) of the West. Spengler understood by the West one culture among a small number of high cultures. But the west was for him more than one high culture among a small number of high cultures. It was for him the comprehensive culture. It is the only culture that has conquered all the earth.

. . .

However this may be, in one sense Spengler has proved to be right; some decline of the West has taken place before our eyes [as of 1963]. In 1913 the West — in fact this country together with Great Britain and Germany — could have laid down the law for the rest of the earth without firing a shot. Surely for at least a century the West controlled the whole globe with ease. Today, so far from ruling the globe, the West’s very survival is endangered by the East as it has not been since its beginning.

. . .

However much the power of the West may have declined, however great the dangers to the West may be, that decline, that danger, nay, the defeat, even the destruction of the West would not necessarily prove that the West is in a crisis: the West could go down in honor, certain of its purpose. The crisis of the West consists in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose. The West was once certain of its purpose — of a purpose in which all men could be united, and hince it had a clear vision of its future as the future of mankind. We do no longer have that certainty and that clarity


Just to put that in perspective, by 1963, we had President Kennedy talking about the "long twilight struggle" against things like ignorance, poverty, disease and war. He was setting up organizations like the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, negotiating nuclear test ban treaties with the Soviets — after successfully forcing them to withdraw missiles from Cuba. We were right smack in the middle of the "Pax Americana," where the US was going to use its power — or so we said — to create not empire, but an interdependent world of self-governing democracies. I have been listening to clips of John F. Kennedy’s speeches for as long as I can remember, and I don’t ever remember President Kennedy saying anything that remotely sounded like any lack of "certainty of our purpose" — exactly the purpose Strauss spoke of, namely a world where "all men could be united." "Ask not what the United States can do for you," Kennedy said at his inaugural, "ask what together, we can do for the freedom of man."

Ah, but was the "freedom of man" the proper goal of politics and government, according to Strauss? In the words of John Wayne, "not hardly." Remember, Strauss believed — and said so in The City And Man — that "the classics," meaning mostly Aristotle and Plato, contain a better conception of "political things" than modern philosophers. That "freedom of man" jazz is modern, through and through. Here is how Strauss describes Aristotle’s conception — and remember, Strauss says this the better view, so we can conclude that this also Strauss’ view.

The moral virtues cannot be understood as being for the sake of the city since the city must be understood as being for the sake of the practice of moral virtue. Moral virtue is then not intelligible as a means for the only two natural ends which could be thought to be its end. Therefore, it seems, it must be regarded as an "absolute." Yet one cannot diregard its relations to those two natural ends. Moral virtue shows that the city points beyond itself but it does not reveal clearly that toward which it points, namely, the life devoted to philosophy. The man of moral virtue, the gentleman, may very well know that his political activity is in the service of noble leisure but his leisurable activity hardly goes beyond the enjoyment of poetry and the other imitative arts. Aristotle is the founder of political science because he is the discoverer of moral virtue.

We can translate that into the vernacular, in case you didn’t catch his drift. "Freedom, my ass, civilization exists to promote ‘moral virtue.’" Other places, he explains that moral virtue is possessed by "the well-bred" also known as "gentlemen." As for the "certain" purpose of the West, we didn’t rise to global domination in order to free people. Our "certain purpose" is to bring moral virtue to the savages. Rudyard Kipling called it "the white man’s burden."

Poor Leo. What he saw in 1963, was the horrible specter of all those towel heads, slopes and spearchuckers governing themselves — badly — in the countries we had set up for them. Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Our corporations were still hauling off the mineral wealth and timber, which might have been used to build some local infrastructure and provide some basic services. And of course, the US didn’t hesitate to send its military in, when the local savages proved themselves incapable of using democracy "responsibly." We had to try and teach them that "self-determination" means allowing our corporations free access to their resources, and free reign to turn the illiterate pickininnies into wage slaves — the better to promote their virtues, doncha know. After all, civilizing the natives is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

The whole conservative mindset is contained, right here. A little over twenty years ago, George Will published a book called Statecraft As Soulcraft. I had forgotten about it, until I read the above discussion in The City and Man, but it contains every major Straussian theme, from the importance of "political philosophy" to the central function of government, which according to Will is to determine "what kind of people do we want our citizens to be." In light of the present culture of corruption, I would suggest to Mr. Will that the present crop of Republicans may not be the best bunch to be considering this question.

As for the political purpose of this view, that should be obvious. The allegedly superior virtue of wealthy elites is how they justify their existence — and has been since the time of, you guessed it, Aristotle. The project of Strauss, George Will, and every other conservative is the justification of oligarchy. Elites are just a better grade of human being, and have a "natural right" to rule. Strauss’ crisis of the west — language mirrored among other conservatives, who are forever foretelling the "end of civilization" — is the loss of our "certainty" about our moral superiority, which of course, gives rise to our natural right to "conquer all the world" and run it to suit ourselves.

Which brings us right back to Dubya, and his ear candy. As I said, many of his pronouncements may sound like banalities. They are not. They channel this conception, and they are heard by conservatives to channel these conceptions, even as they go right over the heads of everybody else. Here, let me show you.

We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting, yet it ends in danger and decline. The only way to protect our people, the only way to secure the peace, the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership, so the United States of America will continue to lead.

Abroad, our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world. Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it. On September 11th, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. Dictatorships shelter terrorists, feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer, and so we will act boldly in freedom’s cause.

Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time. In 1945, there were about two dozen lonely democracies on Earth. Today, there are 122. And we are writing a new chapter in the story of self-government, with women lining up to vote in Afghanistan and millions of Iraqis marking their liberty with purple ink and men and women from Lebanon to Egypt debating the rights of individuals and the necessity of freedom. At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And we do not forget the other half in places like Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom as well.

No one can deny the success of freedom, but some men rage and fight against it. And one of the main sources of reaction and opposition is radical Islam, the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder. Their aim is to seize power in Iraq, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world. Lacking the military strength to challenge us directly, the terrorists have chosen the weapon of fear. When they murder children at a school in Beslan or blow up commuters in London or behead a bound captive, the terrorists hope these horrors will break our will, allowing the violent to inherit the Earth. But they have miscalculated: We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it.

In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat. By allowing radical Islam to work its will by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself, we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil.

America rejects the false comfort of isolationism. We are the nation that saved liberty in Europe, and liberated death camps, and helped raise up democracies, and faced down an evil empire. Once again, we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed, and move this world toward peace.

First of all, notice the declaration that sounds an awful like a nation that has rediscovered its "certainty of purpose." "The only way to protect our people, the only way to secure the peace, the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership, so the United States of America will continue to lead." Notice the reason we will "continue to lead." To protect OUR people, and control OUR destiny. We lead others for our benefit, not theirs — the way any self-respecting elite does it. The world serves us, we don’t serve them. As for the "white man’s burden," it wasn’t nearly as burdensome as some would have it. In fact, it was quite lucrative. We can expect our new mission to bring "freedom" to be similarly profitable. It certainly has been for Haliburton and Bechtel.

But the main thing to notice is the generous use of the word "freedom." That is a code word. You hear one thing, but Dubya and his merry band of Straussians mean something very different. Freedom for them is "natural right" as Strauss explains it. Specifically, it is the alleged right of the powerful to bring "virtue" to the rest of us. Something tells me that some way or another, "virtue" winds up including a generous helping of cheap labor.

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