The Moment of Truth — June 6, 2009

Politics and “Strauss at Midnight”—Part 2: The Useful Idiots

And welcome to part 2 of what is turning out to be a series of two essays on the politics of the play, “Strauss at Midnight.” I wrote the play, which is being produced by Theater Oobleck in association with the Department of Cultural Affairs. “Strauss at Midnight” opens this Thursday night. Theater OobleckThe title of the play refers to Leo Strauss, a controversial figure over the past eight years or so. Whether justly or unjustly a topic of controversy, it’s hard to say. Leo Strauss was a professor of political philosophy or political theory or philosophical something at the New School in New York City. He also taught at the University of Chicago, where one of his students was Allan Bloom, author of the reactionary polemic against what is alternatively called “multiculturalism” and “relativism,” The Closing of the American Mind.

I found Bloom’s book to be in part an attempt to discredit the campus anti-Reaganite movement, specifically the anti-war movement whose actions sheltered refugees from US backed juntas, paramilitaries and dictatorships in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, and effectively prevented a US invasion of Nicaragua. If Bloom’s book wasn’t intended to provide an intellectual backbone to the jingoistic, pseudo-patriotic “Morning in America” Reaganite program, it did anyway, and that certainly qualifies Bloom as a “useful idiot.”

In part 1 I described the 1980s as a period in which a conservative movement was revitalizing through the above-mentioned pseudo-patriotism. It seems bizarre that the progressive movement, whose leaders in the 1960s were murdered in cold blood at a rate of about three every two years, could only be squelched by a revitalized conservative, or “neo-conservative” movement, but the disgrace to everything right-of-center wrought by the revelation of Richard M. Nixon’s copious crimes was so great that, even with so many assassinations of leaders, the progressive agenda emerged as dominant in the public square of the 1970s. The thing that killed it was the recession brought on by the controlled shortage of oil. The administration of Jimmy Carter was mainly done in by the oil companies.

What is meant by multi-culturalism in Bloom’s schematic is whatever Bloom believes are the deficiencies of the post-1960s academy: lack of intellectual rigor, lack of appreciation for the greatness of Western culture, denial of the existence of an absolute truth, and an inability to tell the difference between evil and good.

In my opinion, Bloom’s book fails miserably in its attempted indictment. While reading his chapter decrying the lack of intellectual rigor in the academy, in which he lamented, for example, that students no longer chose a single foreign language or culture to really study and master, I was living with two undergraduates who spoke and read fluent Chinese and had lived in China for a combined four years at least. Another of my housemates had lived in India for two years and studied Hinduism in depth. She was also studying Nepali in preparation for a year or two journey in Nepal.

This is not to say I never saw annoying and disgusting weaknesses in the academy. In a women’s studies survey class a lecturer claimed that Freud’s theory of the formation of complexes in early childhood was entirely and solely derived from the case of “Little Hans.” And our section instructor, Alice Hamer, was a complete idiot. Nevertheless, incredibly brilliant women came out of such programs, many of them fascinated with Freud.

Intelligent students are not necessarily wounded by the ignorance some of their instructors. Bloom’s assumption that he was not one such at-times-ignorant instructor seems a bit—no, it is—self-serving. Missing from his knowledge was an appreciation for the actual successes of the academics he denounced. If he ever met my friends, with a few exceptions it was on their way to learning from other mentors. They never became part of his clique and so didn’t register as important, I suppose. This doesn’t mean they didn’t learn anything from him. They just weren’t converted by him, which seemed to be a requirement for earning his approval.

The last three complaints of Bloom, lack of appreciation of the greatness of Western culture, denial of the existence of an absolute truth, and an inability to tell the difference between evil and good, seem to be woven into one, and the misguided nature of this complaint involves an anecdote Bloom relates in his book, ripped from the headlines as it were. He writes of a woman who had to sneak into Iran to rescue her daughter from her Iranian ex-husband, who had kidnapped her. Bloom found it not just amusing, not just laughable, but somehow a dangerous symptom of relativism that this woman claimed to have gone to Iran not just to rescue her daughter but also to “understand” the Iranian culture.

I suppose there is something to be mocked there. Why bother understanding someone who’s kidnapped your child and refuses to allow you access to her, forces her to wear a veil and takes away her human rights because of her gender? Understand such people? Ha! What kind of candy-ass relativistic multicultural hippy-dippy BS is that?

Hilarious, really. But Bloom’s specific area of expertise was Plato. And in The Republic, Socrates has a discussion with his friend Glaucon about how one ought to treat one’s enemies. I won’t try to lead you through the entire chain of Socratic reasoning, but I will say this: Socrates would have loved that woman who went to rescue her daughter. Socrates would have considered her marvelously open-minded, and if Socrates championed anything it was openness of mind as a way of approaching the world. Aside from overlooking the strategic brilliance of the idea that one may learn how to thwart the harmful actions of one’s enemies by understanding them, Bloom was an intellectual traitor to the very origin of what he claimed most to treasure.

In the previous essay I discussed the attempt by Reaganism to bring back the Cold War mentality, and how fighting so-called “proxy wars” in smaller countries, especially in Central America, did little to weaken the USSR but rather gave their leaders fodder for propaganda, while also adding to the economic might of the US military-petro-industrial complex. If Reagan was sincere in his efforts to bring the Soviet Union down, he was definitely playing the useful idiot to those around him who were reaping the benefits from the continued Cold War. It was a crushing blow to those interests when the Soviet bloc did fall. George H.W. Bush, whose diplomatic liaison April Glaspie had promised Saddam Hussein the US would look the other way were Iraq to invade Kuwait, used Saddam’s imperialist folly as a reason for announcing that, despite the fall of the greatest evil empire in history, Americans could forget about anything like a “peace dividend.” Money was still going to go to the military and its suppliers and co-conspirators, and that was the end of that.

What, if anything, did Leo Strauss’s ideas have to do with Bloom’s usefulness to the neo-con program of restoring a black-and-white Cold War attitude and restoring the idea of war to respectability? It can’t be denied that Strauss saw Soviet communism the same way Reagan claimed to. And he regarded any intellectualism that attempted more sophisticated analyses of the Cold War situation with loathing. He considered those who did not see the necessity to put denunciation of communism before ambitions for world peace or palliation of poverty to be dangerous, and he attacked their thinking as lacking something important, something importantly human.

They lacked something importantly human. It’s this very wounding of one’s enemies in the essence of their being that Socrates reveals to be most harmful in his dialogue with Glaucon. To injure one’s enemy in his humanness, to decrease the quality that makes him human, is to in the end injure oneself.

Now, read what Leo Strauss, Bloom’s teacher, says about modern political science in his book on Machiavelli—that, if Renaissance readers of Old Nick had him wrong, painting him as a mere godless villain, the moderns also had him wrong, but their wrongness lacked the spiritual foundation the earlier wrong-headed readers brought to their wrongness. When Strauss speaks of his intellectual nemeses, it is always in terms not just of their ignorance of facts but of their ignorance of themselves, and of a spiritual lack. Missing the spiritual aspect. Lacking a soul. Therefore not entirely human.

In his strategy of defeating what he saw as a wrong idea, he himself operated using a wrong idea, and to my mind, if Bloom is evidence of what Strauss communicated to his students, Strauss lacked the self-knowledge that would have prevented his student from revealing himself as a hypocrite and lending his useful idiocy to a blossoming neo-conservatism that has brought the United States of America as close to self-destruction as it has ever come—and one that continues to dehumanize its political antagonists.

For the record, the idea that there is no absolute truth is not a modernist invention. The Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, was a champion of open debate on spiritual matters because he was an atheist. Even the Vedas speak of the possibility that whatever it is that rules in Heaven does not necessarily know everything. And then, of course, there was Socrates.

As for good and evil, the idea that they are inextricably woven together is as old as Taoism, which is easily as old as Socrates. Humans have remained entirely human from the time they first became human until today, regardless of this or that stance on truth or morality. Strauss’s fear that progressive political thinking might render the West too weak to fend off Soviet barbarism was certainly warranted by what he witnessed at the end of the Weimar Republic as Germany failed to defend itself against the powerful violence of Nazism. But his fear was in fact fear, not anything more glamorous. He denounced modernism out of fear. I wonder what Socrates had to say about conclusions reached through fear. Maybe Allan Bloom knew. Or maybe he didn’t want to know.

When it comes to what role Strauss might have played in the formation of the neo-con movement, I believe his guilt can at worst be that of communicating an evaluation of the worth of progressive thought that was malformed by fear. Whatever use was made by the neo-cons of his ability to denounce progressive political thought is only his responsibility insofar as he himself wielded his abilities irresponsibly. I believe he did. But that’s as far as it goes. He communicated an attitude more than anything else, an attitude supported by love for philosophy, and with certain buzzwords and packed ideas stemming from the way love and his fears combined. The neo-cons would have been neo-cons no matter what. They would just have had to use a different and perhaps inferior weapon against adversarial ideas. It’s not Strauss’s fault they chose the right weapon. It’s just Strauss’s fault for making it.

That’s pretty much it. At the least builders of the atomic bomb, most of them anyway, were contrite about it. They weren’t the ones who blew up Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Strauss is less culpable for the neo-cons in my opinion than the atomic scientists were for Hiroshima. But his attitude toward what has now become known as progressivism was a model for the neo-con rhetoric we’ve been subjected to over the past eight years, rhetoric that recently resulted in the murder of a physician.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!