Thursday, October 06, 2005

Leo Strauss and the Neoconservative Cabal

David Jones has posted a link to Dr. Hubert's "The New Stealth World View, what looks to be an extended indictment of The Straussian Neocon Cabal [tm] which has infiltrated the Bush Administration, seduced Evangelical Christians and Catholics (Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel, Michael Novak) alike, imbedded itself in not one but both mainstream political parties, launched a war of aggression against the sovereign nation of Iraq, and seeks to establish an American Empire by the spread a 21st Century Secular Paganism around the globe.

David seeks my comment on this piece -- my time is limited, and I have not yet read Andrew J. Bacevich's The New American Militarism (Oxford UP, Feb. 2004), upon which Hubert grounds much of his argument. Consequently the comments I make here will be rather brief (I also do not want to go too far afield of the specific purpose of this blog). In any case, I hope to explain why I think it difficult to 1) portray neoconservatives as 1) collectively adhering to a specific economic platform (besides a loose endorsement of the free market); 2) portray neoconservatives as a Straussian conspiracy with a stranglehold on the Bush administration.

First, I would like to say that Dr. Hubert's manner of constructing an argument leaves something to be desired, given as it weaves one allegation after another which simply begs for clarification and substantiation. Consider the following:

"neoconservative thinking embraces the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill" . . .

"Neoconservative economic principles repudiate the Natural Law and thus are largely incompatible with Catholic teaching in the economic arena" . . .

"In the economic realm neoconservatives are also Darwinian. [Footnote: "In contradistinction to paleoconservatives who while economically competitive had a basic historical commitment to the Judeo-Christian ethic, including fixed notions of right and wrong as well as fair-play."] Most are devoted to the unbridled free market capitalism of Adam Smith where brute “market forces” are allowed (unfettered) to determine the landscape. [Footnote: 'This is obviously incompatible with Catholic social teaching.']"

I could quote further, but the above should suffice as a demonstration. Perhaps I am alone in my resentment, but I find the use of blanket generalizations here more than a little frustrating.

Coincidentally, it was on the same day that David referred this article to me that I had just finished The Neocon Reader (Grove Press, Jan. 9, 2005), in which I came across several articles which might lead one to question some assumptions made by Dr. Hubert.

For example, let's unpack the following paragraph:

. . . Catholic teaching holds that both communism and unbridled capitalism are morally evil since they are destructive of basic human dignity. Free Market Capitalism must be “managed” in light of the principles of the Natural Law and be sensitive to the true nature of “man” as created in the Imago Dei in order to be just.[footnote: "this includes a proper balance between solidarity and subsidiarity as well as an equitable distribution of the world’s limited resources."]

So far so good. I think that if Dr. Hubert bothered to look, he would find some affinities with this proposal in the writings of Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel, Sirico, Buttiglione, etc. There may be some haggling over how the market ought to be "managed" -- but as they share an appreciation of John Paul II's thought there may be some basis for mutual agreeement (or, at the very least, constructive dialogue). So, on the whole, a good start to this paragraph. Moving on . . .:

Neoconservative economic principles repudiate the Natural Law and thus are largely incompatible with Catholic teaching in the economic arena.[9] This explains why Americans tolerate the consumption and export of pornography in ever increasing numbers. There is absolutely no inhibition when it comes to generating income whether the so called “free enterprise is morally licit or not. The objectification of women and the young is encouraged (as part of inter-state commerce and ever larger profits; both being instrumentalized through seductive television, “bill-board” ads and motion pictures in order to maximize economic growth). All of this is perfectly compatible with Darwinian neoconservative economic policy and rabid unbridled free market capitalism. This is an example of utilizing persons not as “subjects” deserving of basic human dignity and respect but as objects to be used, abused and discarded (even secular Kantians should cringe).
It seems to me that Dr. Hubert's argument pressupposes a collective adherence by neoconservatives to a specific economic philosophy or platform -- if this is the case, one might request specific citations from the key neoconservatives in question. Furthermore, as he charges that the neoconservatives have seduced various Catholic scholars into their number, I would expect Dr. Hubert to demonstrate how these individuals have given an unqualified endorsement of "the unbridled free market capitalism of Adam Smith" and the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.

Turning to The Neocon Reader, Adam Wolfson, in "Conservatives and Neoconservatives", compares three conservative approaches - traditionalism, libertarianism, and neoconservatism. He makes the following observation:

In contrast to the paleoconservative and the traditionalist, the libertarian is entirely at home in today’s world. He takes his bearings from John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and such twentieth-century social thinkers as Friedrich Hayek. The libertarian spirit is neither backward-looking nor meliorative. It is progressive, and aims at expanding economic freedom and individual choice ever-forward. Libertarians oppose almost all regulation, whether of markets or morals.

It is arguable whether libertarianism is in fact a variety of conservative thought. Hayek once wrote an essay explaining why he was not a conservative, and Milton Friedman has always insisted that he is a nineteenth-century liberal, not a conservative. But there is at this late date no point in playing semantics and quibbling over labels and definitions. From the 1950s to the present, libertarianism has been an important and influential - arguably the most influential - stream of thought on the Right, informing both Republican policy making and conservative ideology more generally. . . .

Wolfson goes on to chart significant points of distinction between libertarians and neoconservatives in their understanding of freedom and its moral boundaries, the limits of Big Government, etc., all of which lead me to question whether Dr. Hubert is not being to hasty in lumping the two together.

One might raise the observation that Catholic scholar like Michael Novak does seem to bridge this theoretical gap -- Novak is a fellow of what Wolfson categorizes as the economically-libertarian institution The American Enterprise Institute; he appreciates the work of Friederich Hayek (although not uncritical of his weaknesses); however, he draws equally, if not more, from Lord Acton, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray.

Do Americans as a people "tolerate the consumption and export of pornography in ever increasing numbers"? -- Pornography is a great evil in our society, of that there is no question. But to imply that neoconservatism necessarily entails a "hands-off" approach to pornography out of deference to the free market (or, rather, "unbridled capitalism") is misleading. If we take for granted Dr. Hubert's chief allegation, we presently have a "neo-con" infested presidential administration that is concerned about the spread of pornography, having established a Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in May 2005, with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales making it a top priority.

In "The Neoconservative Persuasion" (Weekly Standard Volume 008, Issue 47 August 2003), Irving Kristol, the very "godfather of neoconservatism" himself, contends that "it is only to a degree that neocons are comfortable in modern America. The steady decline in our democratic culture, sinking to new levels of vulgarity, does unite neocons with traditional conservatives -- though not with those libertarian conservatives who are conservative in economics but unmindful of the culture."

If I may recommend to Dr. Hubert another article from the Neocon Reader: "Pornography, Obscenity and the Case for Censorship" (pp. 167-180). It is not a specifically Christian argument (Kristol is, after all, a secular Jew), but he does raise good points about the debasement and alienation of humanity in a pornographic culture and the danger that pornography and/or obscenity poses to the establishment of a democracy as our founding fathers conceived it. He even manages to employ C.S. Lewis. Amusing enough, Kristol in this case was writing in response to an editorial in the New York Times, which had taken the laissez-faire position of letting the market sort it out.

To summarize my concern, I think that sweeping generalizations and allegations of this nature render Dr. Hubert's argument less effective and invites further confusion. Perhaps a reading of Andrew Bacevich's The New American Militarism will bring the light of clarity, but I have to wonder if he is not making the common enough mistake of using "neo-conservative" as a catch-all term for anybody supportive of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. On this note see Think Again: Neocons, by Max Boot. (Foreign Policy Jan/Feb 2004).

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One last aspect I'd like to touch on, and already this post is getting far too long and afield of the themes of this particular blog. Dr. Hubert makes the following claim:

At its core, neoconservatism embraces a Darwinian (survival of the fittest) mentality (epistemologically, metaphysically and morally) in which the historical reality of evil is recognized as foundational, the answer to which is overwhelming power (military and economic) and deception[4] of the masses.

Dr. Hubert credits this Machivellian approach to the influence of Professor Leo Strauss:

The history of American Neoconservatism arguably dates to the early 20th century and several academic German/Jewish intellectuals including Professor Leo Strauss who was purportedly a secular Zionist (Professor of Political Philosophy, University of Chicago) the philosophical progenitor of many contemporary public policy elites including several neoconservative Bush administration officials and other members of the Washington establishment in both political parties. Strauss was an avid opponent of modern liberalism having been an admirer of Martin Heidegger and by extension Nietzsche’s philosophy (itself Darwinian). It was later developed by several first generation neoconservatives including Norman Podhoretz (for many years editor of Commentary) and Irving Kristol. Later, in the second generation came Irving’s son William (now editor of Commentary’s “replacement” The Weekly Standard), Michael Ledeen, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer and Richard Perle among others. . . .
Dr. Hubert cites as his source for this startling revelation Jim Lobe's sketchy article, “Leo Strauss' Philosophy of Deception”, AlterNet. May 19, 2003, which in turn is largely based on a polemical work by Shadia Drury (Leo Strauss and the American Right).

I'll confess that I'm not directly acquainted with the thought of Prof. Strauss or Shadia Drury, and in this post I'm very much reliant on those who are familiar with their works. Drury's work on Strauss, however, appears to be regarded with squeals of glee from Bush-haters (confirming their worst suspicions about the Right) and cautious skepticism or outright derision by serious readers of Strauss -- for starters, see Ken Masugi's review "A Leo Straussian Conspiracy Washington Times Feb. 4, 1998).

I also stumbled across this blog entitled "Leo Strauss and the Politics of the Present", founded by Jon Feinberg and a liberal collective with the ambition of "focusing on the political and philosophical writings of Leo Strauss in an attempt to create a critical history of the forces that contributed to the emergence of the current conservative stranglehold on American politics and American thinking" (brevity, it seems, is not their forte). For reasons as yet unknown (short attention span? internal group rivalries? censorship under the Patriot Act?) the reading project lasts all of three months, with Mr. Feinberg urging readers in his last post to "read Drury cautiously" (Dec. 22, 2004): "So, I've finally made it into Drury's book, and, the further in I venture, the less impressed I am. . . .")

In any case, much of what I've read in connection with researching Hubert's charge strongly suggests that while Straussians did have a prevalent role in the Reagan administration and helped to establish a principled case for American anti-communism, the influence of Strauss on the foreign policy of the present Bush administration is rather questionable, as is the portrayal of Leo Strauss as "grand architect" of neoconservative thought.

I'd like to address the reasoning behind Hubert's assertion that Strauss "was an avid opponent of modern liberalism having been an admirer of Martin Heidegger and by extension Nietzsche's philosophy (itself Darwinian)." Now, a great many folk could be construed as being "avid opponents of modern liberalism" or critical of modernity: David Schindler, Christopher Lasch, Alisdair MacIntyre, to name a few. To predicate Strauss' opposition to liberalism on his appreciation of Martin Heidegger seems to me rather specious, since nothing is offered to clarify exactly what Strauss admired about Heidegger or Nietzsche.

Further investigation would reveal that Strauss (who was a student of Heidegger) was impressed by his intellectual prowess (Strauss remarked of Heidegger "I had never seen before such seriousness, profundity, and concentration in the interpretation of philosophic texts"), and yet went on to protest Heidegger's capitulation and subordination of his philosophy to National Socialism. Strauss was likewise concerned by the prevalence of relativism, nihilisma and radical historicism in contemporary German philosophy and the inability of the social sciences to establish a bulwark against totalitarianism.

Kenneth R. Weinstein elaborates on Strauss' concern with Heidegger in "Philosophic Roots: The Role of Leo Strauss, and the War in Iraq" (The Neoconservative Reader pp. 199-212):

Strauss saw liberalism threatened theoretically by the philosophically informed belief, developed through modernity, that unaided human reason could not find permanent principles. Hitherto, Western thought had been shaped by what Strauss characterized as the tension between two most compelling alternatives for developing a comprehensive account of the whole: reason and revelation, or as Strauss put it figeratively, Athens and Jerusalem. Though Strauss left the Orthodox Judaism in which he was raised as a youth, he took the Bible seriously, saw revelation as offering the firmest foundation for morality, and criticized the atheism of the Enlightenment's more strident figures.

After early modern political philosophy, especially in the Enlightenment, unmasked the claims of revelation in the name of reason, late modernity took to unmasking the claims of reason. The growing importance ascribed to history in philosophy by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) meant that nature was no longer a standard for man. The rise of historical consciousness was especially a threat to the U.S., a regime based on the unalienable rights ascribed to man by America's Founding Fathers. Radical historicism, as seen in the writings of Friederich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Martin Heideggar (1889-1976), made the defense of intellectual rationalism and democratic republicanism increasingly difficult. Nietzsche's view that beliefs are values, mere creations, paved the way to cultural relativism as well as to nihilism.

In the face of the crisis of the West, in particular historicism and relativism, Strauss turned to the great authors of the past. In contrast to most contemporaries, Strauss sought to understand these thinkers as they understood themselves, not assuming that their ideas wer shaped or limited by the times in which they lived . . .

Mars' Hill Audio (Christian journal) profiles Strauss and this turn to the classical philosophers:
Strauss's most famous work is Natural Right and History (1950), in which he documents the rise and fall of the idea of natural right, or what is right by nature. Contemporary social science, Strauss argues, embraces both relativism and the distinction between fact and value. Thus social scientists today believe their work must be entirely value-free and objective. But, Strauss contends, this gives us no basis for the ultimate principles we choose. In keeping with his ancient-verses-modern dichotomy, the distinction between classical and modern natural right is of great significance to Strauss in Natural Right and History. Classical natural right claims the good life for man to be "the life that is in accordance with the natural order of man's being, the life that flows from a well-ordered or healthy soul . . . The perfection of man's nature." However, beginning with Hobbes, modern natural right finds the possibility of man's perfection wholly impractical, instead championing the instinct of self-preservation and the rights of the individual.
Weinstein's article further serves to counter the liberal portrayal of Strauss as "neoconservative war propagandist from the grave". According to Weinstein, while there are indeed distinct Straussian elements in the positions of some those supporting the war, one could just as well employ Strauss in building an intellectual case against it:
"Though many prominent Straussians supported the Iraq war in some fashion, a number of Straussians expressed doubts, both privately and publicly. In fact, there seem to be numerous theoretical justifications in Strauss' own understanding of politics to think that the anti-utopian Strauss might have been skeptical of parts of the enterprise of the war -- especially the notion that regime change would help, as some of the more exuberant supporters of the war believed, to bring democracy to Iraq."
Thomas G. West provides an example of a Straussian argument against regime-change in excellent fashion in Leo Strauss and American Foreign Policy The Claremont Review of Books Volume IV, Number 3 Summer 2004).

There are a number of other good articles to explore Strauss' thought as well as his relationship with / influence on the neoconservatives (and conservatives of other stripes) which I've recommended below.

* * *

In closing, I'd like to extend my sincere thanks to Dr. Hubert (and Stephen Hand). If not for them, I may never have been inspired to research this particular conspiracy or the works of Dr. Strauss.

Although Strauss does not appear to have a great influence (if any) on the thought of the distinctively Catholic "neoconservatives" (it was pointed out to me that Novak mentions Strauss' Natural Right and History briefly in On Two Wings, only in approving Brian Tierney's criticism of Strauss' theory of natural right), he nevertheless strikes me as a thinker I should becoming minimally acquainted with.

I wish to recognize the post Iraq: Just War?, following up on a recent discussion between Chris Burgwald and Dr. Hubert, which addresses in part Dr. Hubert's position on the war in Iraq and Catholic just war tradition. (Readers are also invited to peruse "The Catholic Just War Tradition and the War in Iraq" website for further resources on this important debate).

Finally, with respect to Dr. Hubert's liberal application of the "neocon" label, I think it would be beneficial to "tighten up" his case (as well as a guide to further discussion) by coming to a more concise definition -- that is to say, laying out specific criteria by which one can accurately identify a "neoconservative" and/or a "Catholic neoconservative" -- including a substantiated list of "neoconservative principles" operative in U.S. economic/foreign policy.

* * *

Related Links on the Straussian Neoconservative Cabal

  • Straussian.Net - a good place to start, if anywhere. The author, Jeffrey R. Wilson, has done a good job of documenting what he calls the "Straussian Conspiracy Wave of '03" (April - June 2003). I'd say Hubert & co. are a couple years too late?

  • What was Leo Strauss Up To?, by Steven Lenzner & William Kristol. The Public Interest Fall 2003:
    The only way to begin to understand Leo Strauss’s political thought is by studying his writings. This may seem a simple rule of common sense. Yet a glance at the current controversy over Strauss’s supposed influence on contemporary American politics and foreign policy suggests that this rule is easily ignored.

    The controversy turns on a legitimate question: “What was Strauss up to?” - or, more precisely, “What was Strauss’s intention?” But it would be misleading to attempt to understand Strauss by ascribing to him an influence, whether beneficial or nefarious, on current policy debates, and then inferring from the alleged influence what his aims really were. It makes far more sense to turn first to Strauss himself - that is, to his writings - in order to understand his political teaching. Then one might evaluate his intentional as well as inadvertent influence on today’s policy debates. . . .

  • Leo Strauss Natural Right and History (1953), by Hadley Arkes. First Things 101 (March 2000): 39-40. More of a reflection than a review of the book itself, but hey, it's Arkes (i.e., worth reading).

  • Leo Strauss: Conservative Mastermind, by Robert Locke. A critical appraisal of the philosopher and his ideas -- absent the hystericism of the left. FrontPage Magazine. May 31, 2002.

  • Leo Strauss and American Foreign Policy, by Thomas G. West. The Claremont Review of Books April 25, 2003. Contra Shadia Drury, Thomas West makes a case against American expansionism on the principles of Strauss:
    My impression as an outside observer is that Straussian influence in the administration has been grossly exaggerated. But let us assume for discussion's sake that it is strong. Since Strauss has been wildly accused of everything from being an admirer of Hitler to being a devotee of Wilsonian progressivism, I think it high time to clarify Strauss's understanding of foreign policy. I shall argue that although there is some common ground, Strauss's overall approach is quite different from that of Kristol, Kagan, and other prominent neoconservatives in and out of the administration. . . .
  • What Hath Strauss Wrought?: Misreading a Political Philosopher, by Peter Berkowitz. Weekly Standard June 2, 2003.

  • "The Leo-Conservatives, by Gerhard Sporl. Der Spiegel August 4, 2003.

  • Tim Robbins' Ghostwriter, by Terry Teachout. The Straussian Cabal's enginnering of the War in Iraq was alluded to in a play directed by Hollywood actor Tim Robbins (Imbedded), in which a character named Pearly White [named after prominent neoconservitive Richard Pearle] is made to recite a line attributed to Strauss . . . only the quote in question is totally bogus. Terry does some detective work and uncovers the source.

  • Straussian War Conspiracy Exposed The following exchange is taken from a "teach-in" sponsored by Bill Bennett's Americans for Victory over Terrorism at UCLA on April 2 and later broadcast on C-SPAN. (The full transcript is available on AVOT's website.) Two very shrewd students seem to have stumbled onto the Dirty Little Secret of this war . . .

  • "The Straussians are Coming!", by Clifford Owen. Claremont Review of Books April 28, 2005. (Review of Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, by Anne Norton. Yale UP, Sept. 2004). The author reviews yet another book -- apparently there is a market for exposé of the Straussian Cabal's inner circle.

  • The Real Leo Strauss. New York Times June 7, 2003. Jenny Strauss Clay, a professor of classics at the University of Virginia, defends her father's name in the face of his detractors.

  • "The Princely Protocols", Oct. 28, 2003. Responding to Shadia Drury's interview on the "Straussian cabal" in the Bush administration, Orrin Judd observes:
    Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the Left's fear of Straussianism is their insistence that its elitist anti-democratic aspect is a dark and jealously guarded secret. It is, of course, the classic conservative critique of democracy that such a system is not necessarily liberal--does not protect liberty. No one was better aware of this than the Founders, who wrote a rather anti-democratic Constitution and created a Republic, based on those of ancient times, rather than a pure democracy. In order to believe the Straussian disregard for democracy to be unique to them and a secret, you not only have to ignore the Federalists themselves, but folks like de Tocqueville in the past and both the more popular writings of the neocons, like Fareed Zakaria's Future of Freedom, and the best writings, like Robert Kraynak's Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, of those the Straussians have influenced.

    And, finally, David Cohen would like to inform us that We're All Straussians Now BrothersJudd May 11, 2003:

    Let's note a couple of ironies. The Bush administration, according to the popular press, is either helmed by an ignoramus with no intellectual curiousity, or it is controlled by several secretive cabals, including one whose inner circle are political philosphers. Liberals, who consider themselves, ipso facto, intellectuals, are entering their fourth decade on a rudderless ideological boat. Finally, it is liberalism, not conservatism, that believes that the world must be run by a small group of enlightened philosophical despots, who tell the masses (infected as they are with false consciousness) what they need to hear.

    I have to admit, though, that this is my path to religion. I have never had a direct revelation and have never felt G-d's intercession in my life (although I have lived a blessed life). Looking at history and at the current state of the world, I have decided, for reasons that have been rehearsed here many times, that religion, particularly if at odds with a powerful state, is necessary to secure our liberties. If that strategic religiosity makes me a Straussian, so be it.

NOTE: The conclusion of this post was edited on October 13, 2005]


lou smith


Not that I honestly think any RWNJ VOTER will read, much less understand any of this message, as they all have the attention span of a Nat, with the IQs of next to nothing! God help us through what lies ahead, if we don't defuse these people!