The Moment of Truth — May 23, 2009

Strauss at Midnight”—Part 1: In Cold Blood

And welcome to Part 1 in a series of essays discussing the background of the political issues in my new play. In about three weeks, my play, produced by the great Chicago company Theater Oobleck, in association with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, opens at the Department’s Storefront Theater in the loop. The play is called “Strauss at Midnight,” and the Strauss in the title is the classicist and political theorist who taught at the University of Chicago for a while, Leo Strauss. There are various reasons why the title character in the play is Leo Strauss, and they mostly have to do with neo-conservative politics. The main real-life figures in the play are Strauss, his student Allan Bloom, and Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow. Also appearing is Niccolo Machiavelli, author of the famous Italian Renaissance guide for heads of state, The Prince. Strauss wrote about Machiavelli.

Also in the play are fictional characters created by Neil Simon in his play The Odd Couple, and the character Virgil Tibbs from the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.

These essays will sketch out the deeper political framework behind the play. It is not necessary to master any of this material to enjoy the play. I am providing it for those who have followed This Is Hell and the Moment of Truth and would like to understand what the play has to do with what I do on this radio show. But I wish also to provide the following disclaimer:

You don’t need to read Leo Strauss, Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, Machiavelli, or see The Odd Couple or In the Heat of the Night to enjoy Strauss at Midnight, anymore than you need to read Shakespeare or Marlowe in order to enjoy Shakespeare in Love, or Sade to enjoy Quills, or On the Origin of Species to appreciate the drama of Inherit the Wind, or to have played seventy-six trombones to enjoy The Music Man. It may add to the experience, but it’s not at all necessary.

Strauss at Midnight is about the ongoing struggle between two forces: those who condemn us to repeat history, and the rest of us. The rest of us are represented by the world of “The Odd Couple,” and those who condemn us to repeat history are represented ultimately by Leo Strauss and his disciple Allan Bloom.

Saul Bellow is the artist caught between the forces of his social environment and the inevitable gravity of the artist’s moral truth.

Some of you are too young to remember the rise of Reaganism. Some of you are too old to remember anything. So take my word for it, for someone born in the early 1960s who grew up in the 70s, 1980 wasn’t the beginning of the end, it was the beginning of the unnecessary face-stomping of a dead dream.

The 1960s didn’t just die or fade away. The 1960s were murdered in cold blood. A little over a year after I was born, on June 11, (the date this year that “Strauss at Midnight” opens, as it happens) President Kennedy forced Governor George Wallace to allow two black students to enroll at the University of Alabama, and then gave his famous speech that led eventually to the Civil Rights Act. The day after that speech civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in cold blood by a bullet in the back. A few months later, President John F. Kennedy was killed by a bullet in the head. About 15 months after that, three Freedom Riders, one black and two Jewish, were murdered in cold blood in Mississippi. Less than a year after that, Malcolm X, having split with the Nation of Islam and denounced bigotry based on race and religion, was murdered in cold blood. On April 4 of 1968 civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in cold blood. Two months later, emerging as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination with large support from Latinos, blacks, and liberals, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in cold blood. In 1969, Fred Hampton, community activist and deputy chairman of the Black Panthers in Illinois, was murdered in cold blood by Chicago cops who raided his apartment in the middle of the night. In 1970 four anti-war protesters were murdered in cold blood by the Ohio National Guard. And thus ended the 1960s.

The 1970s were a battle for the carcass of the 1960s. President Richard Nixon, who presided over the final murders of the 1960s, wrote in his memoirs of having planned the Bay of Pigs invasion before Kennedy took office, a plan then urged upon Kennedy by those in the military and intelligence communities who wanted to go to war with Cuba, which effort led directly to the placement by the USSR of nuclear weapons in Cuba and brought the world closer to a nuclear holocaust than it’s ever come.

Nixon’s presidential career included applauding the massacre at Kent State as well as presiding over the destruction of millions of people and any short-term possibility for civil society in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He resigned in disgrace, having subverted the Constitution, bribed possible witnesses to and participants in the burglary of opposition party headquarters orchestrated either by him or merely for his benefit, and obstructed a federal investigation into his criminal acts. Further disgracing the Republican party, President Gerald Ford assured that Richard Nixon would never have to go to trial for his crimes. And yet, despite these disgraces, in 1980 the battle for the executive branch of the federal government was won by Reagan and his new conservatives, whose job it was to make sure that nothing could grow in the soil fertilized by the corpse of the murdered 1960s.

A symbol of social change from the 1960s, John Lennon, who had long since become as shallow a commodity as a Che Guevara t-shirt, was murdered in cold blood not long after Reagan was elected. We might call it the final assassination of the 1960s if we didn’t know that the 1960s had been murdered in cold blood a dozen times over long before. It was just some nut shooting a pop star. In 1981 another nut tried to assassinate Reagan himself, but he refused to die. “I conquered the 1960s!” he yelled from the shallows of his brief coma, “And I’ll be damned if I’m going to be murdered in cold blood like they were!”

The purpose of the Reagan presidency was to kill the memory of the Vietnam War, to restore anti-communist rhetoric to respectability, and to discredit or destroy whatever was left of protections for workers, consumers and the environment against the predations of far more powerful corporations.

The reason the new conservatives wanted to erase the memory of the Vietnam War was that many of them were invested in companies that made money from the military or were being helped in their political careers by those who did. The reason they wanted to make anti-communist rhetoric respectable again after its credibility had been severely wounded by the antics of Senator Joe McCarthy and by the fiasco in Indochina was that they wanted the government to invest in building huge weapons systems as deterrents against the Soviet Union (i.e. weapons that didn’t ever have to actually work). They also wanted to continue to fund and fight wars in Latin America under the guise of fighting communism, to facilitate easy access for US corporations to Latin American resources, and as another excuse to build up the military budget from which most them were paid or indirectly supported.

The reason they wanted to get rid of protections for workers, consumers and the environment was because those protections were seen as interfering with the rights of large corporations to pillage the planet and most of the humans living on it. This branch of their ideology merged with a crackpot economic theory called “libertarianism.” Libertarian think-tanks survive to this day, despite their ideas having been brutally discredited by economic collapses in South America and other parts of the world, culminating the current crisis in the United States. They continue to be supported by the same profiteers who were behind the rest of Reaganite policy.

The umbrella over all of these activities was the patriotic war against the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union. Even after the departure and attempted erasure of the murderous Stalin from Soviet history, the country remained hostage to a party of elites who terrorized dissidents, artists and intellectuals, spied on and fostered paranoia in their people, and ruled the economy almost exclusively for their own benefit. However, rather than actually attack the USSR, which would have caused World War III and actually tested the ludicrous technologies military contractors were getting fat from, the new conservatives were content to fight wars in Central and South America as if they were somehow part of a war against the Soviet Union. In turn the Communist Party could point to the USA as an imperialist threat to poorer nations. Thus the Evil Empire rhetoric served the unscrupulous elements in both governments.

To those who actually felt a moral urgency to speak out against Soviet oppression, Ronald Reagan was a hero. They didn’t realize how they were aiding the mutually sustained corruption among the most powerful of both nations. One of them was the renowned poet Joseph Brodsky, one the acolytes of the great oppressed dissident poet Anna Akhmatova. After defecting he was a vociferous voice backing up Reagan policy. I was present at one event where Brodsky shouted that those who opposed Reagan’s policies of supporting tyrannical governments did so only because they were afraid to confront “the true source of evil in the world, the Soviet Union.” Yet eventually even such a true believer as Brodsky realized he had been used by those who supported Ronald Reagan’s policies for the purpose of enriching themselves without regard for the butchery of the regimes they supported in Latin America or the way those policies legitimized Communist rule in Russia.

What needs to be clear, here, is that those who sincerely supported democratic change in the USSR were actually being used by greedy capitalists who had no stake at all in facilitating such change. Even Ronald Reagan may have been no more to these capitalists than another such “useful idiot.”

More on “useful idiots” in Part 2 of this series.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!