The New Macchiavelli? Leo Strauss and the Politics of Fear

MediaThe New Macchiavelli? Leo Strauss and the Politics of Fear
Michael Enright: Now if you’ve never heard the name of Leo Strauss, don’t worry, he wasn’t a household name in 1962. He wasn’t one at the time of his death in 1973. Nor is he now. But according to some, the ideas of the German-Jewish philosopher now have the effect of shaping the government of the United States, especially with the mandarins of its foreign policy and its so-called War on Terrorism. Strauss is a deeply divisive thinker, who has inspired so many followers and detractors that it’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart. Shadia Drury is both a scholar and critic of Strauss. She has written two books about the man and his thought, Leo Strauss and the Political Right and The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss.  Professor Drury joins me now from Regina, where she teaches Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Regina. Good morning.
 
Shadia Drury: Good morning, Michael.
 
ME: What is it about Leo Strauss that has inspired so many adherents and so many detractors?
 
SD: Strauss was a very important thinker, but he’s not a great thinker. He’s a very influential thinker. It’s quite different to talk about being influential versus being a really great thinker. He had only a handful of ideas that he borrowed largely from Macchiavelli, Freud, and Nietzsche. What makes him appealing, and I think he was appealing to me as a graduate student, is that political science was so impoverished at the time that he came along that he rightly said, “You know, political science fiddles while Rome burns, doesn’t talk about anything important or the essential things.” He had an appeal in the sense that he came from Germany and his whole experience, escaping from the Nazis, his whole experience of politics was extremely dark. He rightly realized that politics was a very dangerous matter— it’s a matter of life and death—and we just don’t take it seriously here in North America. I think he wanted to bring that seriousness to it that’s very enlightening and appealing, and I think rightly so.
 
MK: Let me ask you an impossibly difficult question, then(?). Can you summarize for us the kind of core of his political philosophy, his political thinking. In essence, what was he about, Leo Strauss?
 
SD: As far as his politics, it came out of his experience in Nazi Germany. He saw the world, basically, as made up of groups that are pitted against each other in mutual hatred and animosity. You either destroy your enemy or you’re destroyed by your enemy. Political society has to be organized in a way that makes the enemy very paramount, always somehow in view. Only the prevalence of the enemy will keep people united, will keep them together, will keep them strong. So, if you don’t have any enemies then you better follow the advice of Macchiavelli and invent some. That’s exactly what you find in the Bush administration.
 
MK: He has a kind of Hobbesian view of the world, and of human kind, and of what we’re about. It’s bleak, it’s dark and violent. Is it?
 
SD: Yes, but there is a sense that it’s much darker than Hobbes and his solutions.
 
MK: Darker than ‘the war of all against all’?
 
SD:  Yes, but the solutions are not Hobbesian at all because many of Hobbes’ solutions have to do with rule of law. Whereas, Strauss’ solutions are the only way that you can inspire hedonistic and slothful people to fight and die for their nation is to unite the nation with god, and with justice and with the absolute. So that nationalism and religion had to be united. The closer that you allied them the more likely you were going to get the military strength and people willing to die and sacrifice themselves for their country.
 
MK: But the odd thing is he didn’t think much of religion as a way of thinking. He thought it was kind of silly.
 
SD: Well, I think he had a huge respect for it as a political tool. But, he called it a noble delusion and a pious fraud. But you needed these kinds of frauds. A lot of his disciples don’t necessarily understand these things, they see only the surface Strauss as someone who believed in these things. You find, for example, in the Bush administration, you find the Neo-Conservatives who are very much influenced by Strauss. People like Paul Wolfowitz, Abraham Schulsky, William Kristol, all of these are very prominent figures within the Bush administration. You can see the language of Strauss right in the speeches of George W. Bush. When Bush says something like “The Hand of God is guiding the affairs of this nation.” This is really a Straussian alliance of religion and politics that is reflected in those speeches. Or when Bush portrays the struggle between America and her enemies as a struggle between good and evil, between civilization and terrorism, democracy and tyranny, freedom and oppression. The concept of the enemy is paramount. There is complete truth to it, politics is a deadly game. At the same time, the alliance of religion with it makes it even more deadly. This is what I argue in my recent book, Terror and Civilization. That it’s not just Islam that’s disastrous for politics, that Christianity can be just as deadly. When he talks about the enemy, for example, it’s true that we have enemies, it’s true that America has enemies. But if you become too paranoid about the enemies, you exaggerate the enemy. As you see with this administration, there’s so much fear in the Bush administration. You hear them say, “Well, let’s kill our enemies before they do anything to us.” As if to say, “Let’s kill them before they even become our enemies.”
 
MK: That’s pre-emptive in the extreme, isn’t it? You wrote, at one point, that he believed a polity, or specifically the U.S., should be ruled by a pious elite, I think was your phrase. That he believed in elites, he wasn’t a populist. Am I right in saying that he wasn’t really much as a democrat?
 
SD: He was neither a liberal nor a democrat.  He is an elitist, of course, and he is anti-democratic. It’s the kind of elite that he has cultivated that really bothers me. It’s an elite that I see as unscrupulous, duplicitous, doesn’t care about ordinary people, doesn’t care about duracity (?). That’s what worries me. But Strauss had some very true things to say about Democracy. That democracy is a very dangerous form of government because it opens itself up to tyranny of the majority; it opens itself up to the rise of demagogues. Strauss knew that it was in the context of a democratic regime in Weimar that Hitler emerged supreme. Strauss has a fear, and a rightful fear, of democracy and the fact democracy is vulnerable to this rise of demagoguery. At the same time, what is his solution? His solution seems to me to be worse than the disease.
 
MK: Which would be?
 
SD: His solution is to create, in his own words, an aristocracy in the midst of mass society. To have an elite of supposedly wise individuals who know the truth, who know what people need, who know what kind of noble lies and pious frauds they need. To rule behind the scenes.
 
MK: I’m in conversation this morning with Professor Shadia Drury. She teaches political science at the University of Regina, she holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Justice. We’re talking this morning about Leo Strauss, the German-American philosopher at the University of Chicago, who has been taken by many of the leading hawks of the Bush administration as a philosophical hero. Leo Strauss was a German Jew who ended up leaving Germany. Before we talk about his Jewishness and how it shaped his thinking, I want to play a clip. This is from a lecture entitled Why We Remain Jews, at the University of Chicago, the year is 1962. This is Leo Strauss as he recounts a life-altering event as he was growing up in a German village:
 
Leo Strauss: I believe I was about 5 or 6 years-old, in some very small German town, not to say a village. I saw in my father’s house, Refugees from Prussia, after some pogroms which had happened to them…women, children and men. At that time it could not happen in Germany. It’s true, we lived in profound peace with our non-Jewish neighbors and such things as pogroms would have been absolutely impossible. I sensed for a moment that it could happen here. It went to my bones, if I may say so. Now, I turn to my subject.  The main title, taken by itself, implies that we could not remain Jewish. That there might be record(?) reasons for not remaining Jewish. The clearest _expression of this view was given by Heinrich Heine, the known poet: “Judaism is not a religion, but a misfortune.” The conclusion from this premise is obvious, let us get rid of it as fast as we can and as painlessly as we can. But it is impossible not to remain a Jew. It is impossible to run away from one’s origin. It is impossible to get rid of one’s heart (?) by wishing it away.
 
MK: That’s Leo Strauss in 1962 at the University of Chicago. Shadia, let me ask you this…clearly, he seemed to be deeply scarred by the anti-semitism of Germany pre-World War II, even though early he says clearly that he didn’t think that it could happen here. How did this inform his opinion of his view of the public, of the masses, and about the government itself?
 
SD: He thought of Hitler as a manifestation of democracy when it’s not controlled like a proper elite.  He thought of Hitler as a manifestation of the masses themselves, who are really enemies of the superior few. There is a sense in which he was right, the Jewish minority was a somewhat exceptional minority in many ways. There was a lot of envy of the success of the Jews since their emancipation. Strauss’ view of his experience, of Weimar Germany, was not ‘it happened there, and therefore it could happen here in America.’ This is where he saw America as in very much great danger because it was a liberal democracy. Of course, he didn’t take into account the fact that it had much deeper roots in liberalism, and it’s not just democracy. It was the liberal element of our democratic regime that actually protects it against the kind of abuses that democracy is really clearly inclined towards. I really particularly like his essay, Why We Remain Jews, because it’s an essay he did not publish himself, it was posthumously published. It was a lecture that he did give, but it was a very uncharacteristic lecture in which he speaks in his own name. He usually doesn’t do that, and he doesn’t beat around the bush. All of these things were apart of what you rightly think, that he was scarred by his experience. When you think, ‘well, you can’t stop being Jewish because, even when you try to stop being Jewish, well then…’ For example, as many Jews did in Spain, when they’re kicked out of Spain in 1492, some of them converted to Christianity but then they were just called Christian-Jews, or Jewish-Christians. The Inquisition chased after them if they changed their underwear on Saturday or something. ‘Oh, that was Jewish activity.’ But he’s quite right that the Jewish problem represents, what he calls, the human problem. That we’re always going to have these kinds of massacres, we’re always are going to have people who are discriminated against, who are outlaws, and that’s the nature of politics. But he actually encouraged that kind of clickiness of peoples, not wanted to open up and integrate.
 
MK: Alright, if take his argument that deception is the norm in politics or that the noble lie is the way that society should function or a government should act and we look at the disciples of Leo Strauss within the American administration—I don’t want to beat up on George Bush, but is it fair to say that the public pronouncements of these people you have to take with a grain of salt? Like weapons of mass destruction. In other words, are using the noble lie do you think as a technique of policy and politics in the U.S.?
 
SD: Well, Abraham Schulsky, who studied with Strauss. He was the Director of Special Plans.
 
MK: That was in the Pentagon, Rumsfeld set that up.
 
SD: It was created by Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense. It was created to find intelligence that would justify the war in Iraq. Schulzsky published a piece of work, an article, in an obscure collection where he said he learned from Strauss everything he knew about politics, and what he learned from Strauss was that ‘Deception was the norm in politics.’ Not the exception, not just lying to the enemy but the norm in politics, which is lying to your own people. I think that kind of things is destructive of democracy. I agree with Strauss that democracy is a dangerous form of government but, I think, to make deception the norm in politics is actually to invite the worse abuses of democratic government. To destroy trust, once you destroy trust between the people and the rules, you do destroy the basis of democracy. That’s what happens, it destroys the basis of democracy. We know now that the intelligence that Schulsky found was not only false but actually fraudulent. There was no connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida because Saddam Hussein is a secular dictator. There is no way Saddam Hussein would give Al Qaida any weapons of mass destruction because the first person they would use it on is him.
 
MK: Alright, but couldn’t some people within the Pentagon, within Secretary Rumsfeld’s office, with Wolfowitz’s office, take 9/11 as an act of certification of what Strauss is taking about? In other words, it’s the ‘I told you so event.’ There is an enemy out there, they do want to kill us, and we’ve got to go out there and kill them.
 
SD: Except that Iraq didn’t have anything to do with 9/11.
 
MK: Aside from that, aside from that small point…You’ve written extensively about Leo Strauss and you’ve written books and articles and people know as someone who is critical of some of his ideas. How have Strauss’ followers responded to your critiques? Are they angry at what you’ve done?
 
SD: I’m publicly denounced and privately adored.
 
MK: How does that work?
 
SD: I’m kind of a cult within a cult, it’s really embarrassing. But Strauss’ students love my books because they’ve helped them understand Strauss, understand their Straussian professors, understand themselves. So they tell me, anyway, in their letters. They’ve sent me unpublished materials marked with clear instructions ‘do not distribute to suspicious persons.’ If I’m not suspicious I don’t know who is. They’ve sent me letters, gifts, dissertations, tapes, transcripts, the tape you’re playing right now is one of them.
 
MK: Are we dealing with a cult here?
 
SD: Definitely, definitely. We’re definitely dealing with a cult, because it’s not about a good education. People who sort of float through the Academy, go from one Straussian professor to another Straussian professor. A lot of the Straussian professors do not even like their students to take courses with other people who are not Straussian because they might get intellectually confused, which is probably the case.
 
MK: Infected by non-Straussian thought.
 
SD: Right. To listen to people like me maybe criticize his ideas.
 
MK: Do you, in your studies, have you seen any impact of any evidence of Straussian influence in the political landscape of Canada?
 
SD: Only insofar as Strauss has influenced the Neo-Conservatives. Neo-Conservatism is a rising phenomena certainly Neo-Conservatism is the inspiration behind the Reform & Alliance Party. Now it is a component, but not the entire part, of what is now the Conservative Party in Canada. It’s an American import, Neo-Conservatism. We like to Canadianize it and call it the Calgary School, but it’s really the same old thing. Some of the Straussians in Canada, and there are a lot of Straussians in Canada, it’s a big phenomena in Canada. Whenever I travel in the States and give lectures, people always ask me how it is that a Canadian came to write the only two books that are critical of analysis of Leo Strauss. The answer is simple—Alan Bloom, who was Strauss’ most famous disciple, who wrote The Closing of the American Mind, spent most of his academic career at the University of Toronto which produces 90% of the Ph.D.’s in Canada. As a result, there are Straussians in every University in Canada.
 
MK: Well Shadia, if you told me three years ago I’d be interested in Leo Strauss I would’ve laughed at them. But, after reading some of things that you’ve written and some of the papers and stuff about the guy, it’s fascinating. Do you think you’re going to be invited to the next Leo Strauss Admiration Society?
 
SD: No, not at all. What I think Strauss has done, though, and we see it much more clearly in the United States. Strauss really had too much confidence in the ability of a clever elite to manipulate the masses. I don’t think Strauss would be happy about everything that’s going on right now. I think he’d be very dismayed about how un-esoteric, how un-secretive his own disciples are in government. The fact that their names are known, the fact that his name is very much in the news all the time, in the New York Times writing articles like Leo-Conservatives. He would be very dismayed that they weren’t as secretive as he would’ve liked for them to be.
 
MK: I’m glad we got his name out in this conversation. Thank you so much.
 
SD: Thank you.
 
MK: Good to talk to you again.
 
SD: Ok, bye for now.
 
MK: Bye. Shadia Drury holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina where she teaches Political Science and Philosophy. She was in our studio in Regina this morning.
MediaThe New Macchiavelli? Leo Strauss and the Politics of Fear