January 24, 2012
While Gottfried’s book documents the Straussians’ rise to the halls of power, he doesn’t speculate as to why this group became so influential. How did they become the neoconservatives’ intellectual codpiece?
For one, the Straussians use the familiar technique of ignoring their most serious critics while engaging with loonies who make them look better by comparison. It is difficult to lose an intellectual battle in which you refuse to engage. They also have a worldview that’s fairly appealing to modern Americans. While I find most of their political ideas to be silly, their affection for classical authors makes them more appealing than the available academic alternatives. Harking back to my original exposure to Bloom, I can understand the appeal. Since the Straussians vocally and vigorously defend their favorite version of Western Civilization, one could mistake their views for something resembling common sense. While casting Locke as a secret atheist FDR Democrat is unappealing, it seems better than depicting him as a secret Marxist feminist or a racist sexist man-pig, which is the type of intellectual Twinkie peddled in contemporary academia. I find it difficult to accept that “historicism” is an inherently “nihilist” idea, but when confronted with historicist and relativist excesses, I’m tempted to take a bite of that particular Straussian MoonPie.
For all the attempted demonization of Straussians as occult fascists, it is easy for a Straussian to look upon himself as a “good guy.” The Straussian worldview’s soft leftism is widely popular in the general population. It has been a component of mainstream American ideology for decades. Lionizing FDR and Lincoln as heroes effectively lionizes the contemporary American ruling class. The power of the “good guy badge” shouldn’t be underestimated. Most people can only abide demonization when compensated by some other moral bauble which allows them to feel superior to their accusers. Status games are tremendously important in selling ideas.
While many high-profile Straussians are intellectually accomplished, Straussian dialectic makes only modest cognitive demands on its adherent. This is important when trying to market worldviews to modern students. An actual understanding of Spinoza and his relevance to contemporary life is difficult. Parroting some nonsense about Spinoza being an esoteric atheistic social democrat requires very little imagination, bravery, or knowledge. Esotericism in general is the refuge of nincompoops, whether it takes the form of Freudian penis jokes, feminist interpretations of classical writers, or being able to smugly marvel at the glories of a Mondrian painting which looks like lavatory tiles. Esotericism allows one to wallow in feelings of superiority over the rude masses without actually knowing anything. Dispensing with historicism also unburdens the Straussian from familiarity with too many difficult or inconvenient historical facts. This method of thinking is appealingly simple and makes very few serious demands of the would-be Straussian intellectual.
Gottfried’s book provides a balanced overview of Straussian ideas, their historical context, and their position in political and academic life. It is not a vehemently critical polemic and is far more respectful in tone than what I’ve written above. Professor Gottfried engages with Straussian ideas in meticulous detail and with gentlemanly reserve. He doesn’t attempt to fit Strauss and his followers with jackboots, as the unbearably daffy Shadia Drury and her fellow travelers do. As such, his book is likely to please nobody with an emotional attachment to the subject.