Saturday, January 29, 2011

Claremont Institute, part II: the few who are fit to receive the message

Ten months ago, Claremont Institute bestowed its "Statesmanship Award" on Dick Cheney. Tom
Fuentes served as MC.
     "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."

     ...Back to Tom Fuentes’ Claremont Institute.
     CI is a “think tank,” and so it publishes works of scholarship by some of its fellows (see Claremont Institute Fellow Publications), including William Bennett—the former EdSec/Drug Czar/“Virtue” guru and high-stakes gambler—and government professor Harry V. Jaffa.

     FOUNDING-FATHERISM. Generally, CI supports works by thinkers who view the Founding Fathers as underappreciated and unfairly criticized (“political correctness,” doncha know) geniuses.
     One such work is Vindicating the Founders, by Thomas G. West. In its review, Library Journal opined that
West … aims to defend the U.S. Constitution and the men who drafted it in 1787 from the accusations of sexism, racism, and prejudice against the poor. West writes from a conservative perspective, and, as he frequently pauses to remind the reader, his arguments are learned and logical. However, this is a deeply flawed book. West writes in a supercilious and dismissive tone. Worse, he digresses far afield to introduce his ideas on contemporary issues, which have almost nothing to do with the founders; his chapter on the family is simply a compendium of current conservative views and he rarely mentions the founders, who said and wrote little on the subject….
     No doubt, others take a more favorable view of this work, but this was the first review that popped up in Amazon, so there.
     But CI isn’t just promoting Constitutional originalism and some goofy Founding Fathers hero worship. It’s Straussian—which is to say (evidently), it is neo-conservative.

Harry Jaffa
     If CI has a living intellectual leader, it is Harry Jaffa (b. 1918), one of the organization’s two “distinguished fellows.” Jaffa was a student of philosopher Leo Strauss (1899 - 1973), the so-called “father” of neo-conservatism. (The execrable Paul Wolfowitz was yet another student, or disciple.)

     So what is Straussianism? [See post scripts.] I’ve come across a 2004 article by Katherine Yurica ("The Despoiling of America"; I’m still trying to nail down who Yurica is) that purports to explain Strauss’s philosophy and the philosophy of his students, including Jaffa.

     THE SPECTER OF DOMINIONISM. I should explain that Yurica’s chief concern is not Straussianism but the philosophy of dominionism, which Wikipedia defines as “the tendency among some conservative politically-active Christians, especially in the United States, to seek influence or control over secular civil government through political action.”
     Sound familiar? Wikipedia continues: “The goal [of dominionism] is either a nation governed by Christians, or a nation governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law.”
     Yurica is very worried about dominionism. I’m trying to figure out whether I should be too. (I’m not so sure.)
     DtB has often had occasion to discuss Orange County’s own Howard Ahmanson, Jr., the super-rich right-winger and pal-o’-Fuentes who funds such Neanderthalic projects as the Discovery Institute and Proposition 8. You’ll recall that Ahmanson has espoused something very like dominionism. Recently, we excerpted from an article in which his wife, Roberta, is quoted as asking, what would be so bad about theocracy? (What would be so bad about it?)
     Howard Ahmanson, of course, is on the Claremont Institute’s board of directors. Ahmanson’s wife, Roberta Green Ahmanson, is on the Claremont Institute board of advisors. So the place is seriously Ahmansoned up.
     —OK, so back to Yurica. In her piece about dominionism/Strauss/Jaffa, she writes:
Leo Strauss … was a Jewish scholar who fled Germany…. He eventually … taught political science at the University of Chicago. He is most famous for resuscitating Machiavelli and introducing his principles as the guiding philosophy of the neo-conservative movement…. [You’ll recall that Karl Rove’s hero is Machiavelli. The Machster was also an idol of Rove’s mentor, the stunningly nasty Lee Atwater.]

...Strauss’s family of influence extended beyond his students [Harry Jaffa, et al.] to include faculty members in universities, and the people his students taught. Those prominent neo-conservatives who are most notable are: Justice Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, Irving Kristol and his son William Kristol, Alan Keyes, William J. Bennett, J. Danforth Quayle, Allan Bloom, John Podhoertz, John T. Agresto, John Ashcroft, Newt Gingrich, Gary Bauer, Michael Ledeen and scores of others, many of whom hold important positions in George W. Bush’s White House and Defense Department.

To understand the Straussian infusion of power that transformed an all but dead conservative realm, think of Nietzsche’s Overman come to life. Or better yet, think of the philosophy most unlike Christianity…. Strauss admits that Machiavelli is an evil man. But according to Strauss, this admission is a prerequisite to studying and reading Machiavelli: the acknowledgement is the safety net that keeps the reader from being corrupted….

Leo Strauss
In one of the most important books for our times, Shadia Drury’s Leo Strauss and the American Right, [Drury] undertakes to explain the ideas behind Strauss’s huge influence and following. Strauss’s reputation, according to Drury, rests in large part on his view that “a real philosopher must communicate quietly, subtly, and secretly to the few who are fit to receive his message.” Strauss claims secrecy is necessary to avoid “persecution.”
. . .
Strauss’s teaching incorporated much of Machiavelli’s. Significantly, his philosophy is unfriendly to democracy—even antagonistic. At the same time Strauss upheld the necessity for a national religion not because he favored religious practices, but because religion in his view is necessary in order to control the population….
. . .
[Strauss’s Student, Harry Jaffa:]

For four days in 1986, from July first through the fourth of July, Pat Robertson interviewed neo-conservative Dr. Harry Jaffa, a former student of Leo Strauss, on the 700 Club show. The topic was the importance of the Declaration of Independence. Joining with Jaffa was Robertson’s own man, Herb Titus, the Dean of CBN’s School of Public Policy. This series of interviews was one of the most important philosophical moments in the development of the political agenda and political philosophy of the Dominionists.

Robertson found in Harry Jaffa, the champion he needed, whose reasoning would influence how the Constitution should be interpreted by conservatives and would provide a “Christian” view of the establishment of the United States that excluded the secular social contract view. Harry Jaffa would influence both Clarence Thomas (who would be appointed to the Supreme Court by President George Bush senior in 1991) and Antonin Scalia (who would be appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan on September 26, 1986).
. . .
Though Harry Jaffa speaks with a high minded sense of political righteousness, Shadia Drury exposes his Machiavellian side. Like Strauss, he “clearly believes that devious and illegal methods are justified when those in power are convinced of the rightness of their ends.” Jaffa and Robertson saw eye to eye on more than one topic: for instance, Jaffa like his host Pat Robertson, found Oliver North to be a hero (and by extension Michael Ledeen) when both North and Ledeen went around the law to provide military aid to the contras....
     Now, I’m not sure what to make of all of this. Is obnoxious dominionism, as Yurica describes it, powerful or potentially powerful in American society? (And does it even exist to any significant degree?) Is Claremont Institute to be understood in relation specifically to dominionism, or to its less theocratic form—and not just in relation to “Founding Fatherism" and Constitutional originalism? And is Straussianism really as Machiavellian as Yurika suggests?
     Maybe CI is the home of this infernal philosophical intersection of ideas. If so, CI may be the key to explaining Tom Fuentes, that pious but Machiavellian misanthrope.
     Well, I’ll be working on this.

P.S. (6:35):

     For better or worse, my training in philosophy (very “analytic,” as they say) neglected consideration of “philosophers” of Strauss’s sort. I don't know much about him or his "school." So I decided to investigate Strauss a bit. I turned to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I have found to be quite good.
     SEP’s article about Leo Strauss—written by religious scholar, Leora Batnitzky—does refer to the professor’s reputation as the “father” of neo-conservatism and the notion that the Bush Administration's disastrous Iraq policy is somehow Strauss’s fault. Batnitzky has little patience with such claims—her case is very plausible. But what about the perhaps related notion that Strauss advocated or recommended Machiavellian “mass deception”?
All of these issues aside, the most persistent and serious misunderstanding of Strauss is that he promotes mass deception. On this reading, Strauss suggests that the masses simply cannot handle the truth and are in need of a class of political elites who, while themselves pursuing the truth, support the noble lies necessary for any society to function. If this was Strauss's view then, as Moshe Halbertal has recently and rightly noted, Strauss or “the Straussians are…naïve in believing that genuine elites can be trusted. Trusting the existence of a selected group of wise men who are devoted to the collective good, and who are freed from ambition and self-interest because of their pursuit of truth, is as crude as the belief in a society where masses disappear and deliberation and reason control human's political choices” (CR, p. 163). Halbertal calls Strauss's conception of esotericism “instrumental” because it “focuses on the harmful results of the dissemination” [of the truth] (CR, p. 149).
     Naturally, if Batnitzky is correct, the charge of an embrace of deception may nevertheless be apt for some of his students and followers. I mean, Jaffa lauded Ollie North. And he hung out with the likes of Pat Robertson. It is impossible to imagine Strauss doing that.
     But I just don’t know.
     More reading….

P.P.S. (7:15):
Shadia Drury

     I looked up author Shadia Drury, on whom Yurica relies. She is a Canadian academic (political science) who, in 2005, was elected to fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada. Sounds good.
     On the other hand, her criticisms of Straussians has attracted much attention and harsh responses from colleagues:
Several leading political philosophers consider her attacks of on Straussians to be entirely unfounded. In his 2009 book, Straussophobia: Defending Leo Strauss and Straussians against Shadia Drury and Other Accusers, Peter Minowitz argues that Drury’s work is “plagued by exaggerations, misquotations, contradictions, factual errors, and defective documentation.” Thomas Pangle, former professor of political philosophy at Yale, has described Drury's writings on Strauss as simplistic, incompetent, and unscholarly.

She has also received criticism as a result of her latest book where she examines "two equally arrogant and self-righteous civilizations confronting one another". In Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche, Drury regards the contemporary political problem as "thoroughly Biblical." "Each (civilization) is convinced that it is on the side of God, truth and justice, while its enemy is allied with Satan, wickedness, and barbarism."….
     I dunno. Now I've gotta figure out whether Minowitz and Pangle are credible.


     Minowitz and Pangle are serious academics. On the other hand, they are Straussians. The more I read about Strauss and the Straussians, the more I like Strauss and the less I like Straussians (or at least some of them; also, read about Pangle's notorious tenure battle).
     Here's an interview with Minowitz that sheds some light on the debate over Strauss and the nature of his legacy: Harpers. I recommend it.
     I had my suspicions about Ms. Yurica's essay, and I'm beginning to think that the problem is that she's either a non-academic attempting to tackle some difficult philosophy or (less likely) she's some sort of academic who is just too unfamiliar with philosophy to read it fairly.
     But that isn't to say that her theses are mistaken. It could be that both are true: she's unfair to Strauss but she's right to worry about Straussians (such as Jaffa), neocons (who sing Strauss's praises), and dominionists (who really are scheming, deceptive bastards).
     Sheesh. Ain't scholarship a bitch?
     For a related discussion, you might want to read Chomsky's views about democracy and the notion of "engineering of consent" by elites. I'll try to find a good link for you, if you are unfamiliar with that.

Pretty dry—unless you're listening:


     I just came across a Nation article, from October, by Kathryn Joyce (At Claremont Institute, Christine O'Donnell Was Taught ABCs of Homophobia). It describes Harry Jaffa’s stunning homophobia:
Political orthodoxy lessons for Lincoln Fellows come from Institute associates, including Jaffa, a Lincoln scholar … who continues to be one of the Institute's most prominent faces. Other notable Institute mainstays include …William Bennett, a fellow Straussian who made headlines in 2005 for suggesting black abortions could lower crime rates, and Ken Masugi, who became a speechwriter for Alberto Gonzales. But it's Jaffa who has shaped the culture of the Institute—so much so that Institute followers are nicknamed "Jaffanese Americans"—and one of the core values he's inculcated is a venomous homophobia.

In a series of similar essays stretching over decades, Jaffa's chief mode is using Lincoln or other founding fathers to further antigay arguments, charging in "the premier publication" of the institute's Center for the Study of Natural Law, that the same natural understanding of morality that declares slavery wrong, because of the natural understanding of shared humanity, also must declare homosexuality wrong, because of the natural understanding of differences between the sexes. If sodomy is not condemned as unnatural, Jaffa wrote in a 1993 debate over a book review, then nothing is unnatural, and nothing is wrong. The resulting slippery slope from accepting gay rights, he has argued in numerous articles and letters, would justify slavery, genocide, cannibalism and, predictably, the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin. Not one to shrink from bombastic analogies, in 1989 Jaffa contributed an article for the Claremont Colleges' weekly magazine, Collage, composed of an imagined conversation (modeled, he explained, on Thucydides) between Ted Bundy and a victim, wherein Bundy justifies murder and rape because other biblical sins, namely sodomy, were no longer condemned by society….


  1. Someone has been doing his homework this weekend.


  2. "I'm beginning to think that the problem is that she's either a non-academic attempting to tackle some difficult philosophy or (less likely) she's some sort of academic who is just too unfamiliar with philosophy to read it fairly."

    One might make the same criticism of the author of this blog. If he wants to understand Jaffa (who is like 90, by the way) and Strauss, he needs to do something more than piling names together and connecting them with allusions and aspersions. If you want to know what Strauss is about, read Strauss. His work is important because he contradicts historicism in arguing that we can indeed see past our historical horizons, but this requires a very rigorous and sustained encounter with the books of ancient political philosophy. Failing that-- if we are incapable of that-- yes, we will be narrowly constrained by the foundational truths of our own regime, which in democracies are democratic, and tend to the extreme view that everyone indeed does have the same access to truth and no one can known something someone else could not possibly know-- intellectual egalitarianism-- the very shaky ground from which Strauss, poorly understood and caricatured, is derided today. Oh gosh, he thought some truths weren't for everyone! The wizard behind the curtains! Nazi propagandists! Etc.

  3. I'm not convinced that the students of Strauss understood him well. But many in Rumsfeld's Pentagon "Office of Special Plans" were followers or students of Strauss. Strauss was also a student and admirer of Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist, which complicates things a bit. Here is a 2003 New Yorker article on Rumsfeld's Straussians by Seymour Hersh:

  4. Well, JP, the author of this blog (not me!) is an extremely well-trained and careful professional philosopher. Guess what: even those of us who haven't read the entire tomes of philosophers can intelligently discuss their primary theses--especially when we do so with the humility and acknowledgment of limitations evidenced repeatedly and clearly here by BvT.

  5. JP: By your logic, it appears, only those who have labored through Strauss’s works (with the proper guidance, of course) are entitled to discuss his ideas and influence, even cautiously. Surely that view is too extreme.

    If you are familiar with philosophy, then you will be aware that many philosophers and their followers lay claim, or have laid claim, to the kind of “importance” you assign to Strauss. (In my younger years, I gave the later Wittgenstein that kind of importance.) But they can’t all be right. (You see? I’m not a relativist after all!)

    This inclines me to suppose that it is quite possible to be ensconced in an abstruse philosophy and to suppose that those who are not similarly equipped are sadly cut off from a profound truth—that is, a truth that is not really The Truth at all.

    As I said in my post, the more I read Strauss, the more I like him. I will continue to read him. But I have read and studied many philosophers. I do not expect to become a "Straussian" (certainly not a "west coast" Straussian), but who knows.

    In the end, it may be true that certain important truths are esoteric. I do not dismiss the idea out of hand. I am not the dyed-in-the-wool "egalitarian" you take me to be.

    But it is a dangerous thing, isn't it? One can suppose that one has at long last laid eyes on the Forms--and be mistaken.

    Is that notion--of crucial political truths known (or appropriate only) to the few--a part of the Claremont Institute culture? Surely it is fair to ask that question.

    And if it is, how does that notion manifest itself in the political endeavors of those who are of that culture?

    Are they elitists? Paternalists? Platonic noble liars? Do they only pretend to believe in consent?

    Surely these are fair questions, fairly asked.

  6. That's crazy to see Dick Cheney getting a "statesmanship award". It gives me the willies.

  7. If you want to read the full version of Shadia Drury's assesment of Leo Strauss, SKIP Strauss and the American Right. You should buy or borrow her earlier book, "The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss." Even with real flaws, this is the single best companion book for any uninitiated student studying under Straussian professor(s).


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