Being Judgmental

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

A question that my recent comments (and those of my good friend Claes Ryn) pertaining to Strauss and the Straussians continue to elicit is whether some distinctions may be in order between Strauss and his disciples or between generic Straussians and their Claremont cousins. The Jaffaites have trailed their Straussian cousins in showing enthusiasm for the war in Iraq and for Bush’s democratizing mission there. Indeed the Jaffaite political commentator Charles Kesler has even warned the administration against bringing democratic values to societies that are not yet ready to accept them. Another maverick Straussian, Francis Fukuyama, has gone so far as to deplore America’s "hegemonic ambitions" in the Middle East, while nonetheless describing himself as a "Wilsonian" who advocates a foreign policy based on "human rights." It is also possible, or so it might be argued, that were Strauss still around, he would be raising at least some objections to the policies pursued by his self-declared disciples. Why should we simply assume that this prolific classicist, who engaged perennial theoretical issues, would be supporting those who invoked him for American expansionist purposes?

My response to this last question is that the family resemblance between Strauss and his students is too great to justify a change in my settled opinions. Nothing in Strauss’s dossier after he came to the U.S. would lead one to believe that he did not agree with how his disciples represented his ideas and their political implications. Although Strauss disagreed strongly and openly with other political thinkers, I am unaware of any objection that he raised concerning his students’ use of his thought. Although some anecdotal reports seem to indicate that Strauss was politically less of what his students became, it is hard to find confirmation for any of them. That he was both a New Dealer and unforgiving toward those who did not hold his views on the Middle East, are descriptions that one encounters among those who were (or had been) close to him. I somehow doubt that he and Midge Decter would have found much to disagree over.

As for the dissenting Straussians, who, we are warned, should not be confused with Ryn’s "New Jacobins," at least some exaggeration may be at work here. Most of these putative good guys are rhetorically indistinguishable from the bad ones. Up until about a year and a half ago, Fukuyama was leading the charge to embroil us in foreign adventures. Despite his now publicized reservations about the Iraqi War, which he once talked up in the national press, Fukuyama continues to distil the same Wilsonian moonshine that has been around since our first crusade to make the world safe for democracy. Moreover, there is something silly about the Jaffaites now parading as quasi-peaceniks because of their reservations about the recent ambitions of other Straussians. For decades now the Claremont Review has been the voice of a bellicose human rights ideology and has happily justified every past use of American force to achieve global equality. That some of these revolutionaries have balked over the extent of the present American involvement in Iraq is to their credit but is not enough to dispel their well-earned impression as fire-eaters.

This brings me to my final point, which is the need for the Old Right not to be overly indulgent toward those who have turned the conservative movement into a distributor of FOXNEWS agitprop. Just because a few Straussians express second thoughts about the Iraqi adventure or just because Strauss himself may not have fed the neocons all of their platitudes, does not mean that we should welcome suspect figures as old friends. For one thing, apparent Straussian dissenters, starting with Fukuyama, may be looking to take their place in a line of media darlings. This includes those "moderate" neocons who may be more acceptable to the liberal establishment than the war-intoxicated Bill Kristol and the mouthy Fred Barnes. Like most neocons, the apparent dissenters are not exactly daring critics of the welfare state and have now broken from their camp on the war, in the direction of the mainstream media. Is it not possible, particularly in the case of the new media hero, Francis Fukuyama, to sniff opportunism at work? Two, it not clear why those who have created the propaganda justifying a welfare-warfare state are to be viewed as nice fellows because they do not support a conflict that most of their earlier value-statements could easily serve to justify. When a few Claremont-affiliated journalists went after Ryn for mistakenly attributing to their group W’s revolutionary rhetoric, my response was puzzled amusement. It really doesn’t matter how these folks are now reacting to the American invasion of a foreign country. More significant is what they and their guru had been saying for forty years about America’s liberating role in the world.

It is also a sin against those who have suffered for truth on the right (and alas I have known all too many of them) to hand out pardons to their former adversaries upon the first sign of a qualified second thought. Allow me to express my displeasure at how some who should know better have taken to fawning on WFB after his rococo laments about the Iraqi invasion. It’s as if Buckley had done nothing for the last sixty years to mould the kind of conservative movement that he now deplores. It’s also as if he had done zilch to marginalize and humiliate those who had warned against his transformation of that movement. All we’re supposed to notice is how he is scolding his beneficiaries for not being quite to his liking. All of this reminds me of aged former Stasi agents in Germany going through the motions of selling themselves as advocates of minority rights, after having jailed and tortured critics of the communist regime. The only thing that I find more outrageous than Mr. Buckley’s foul treatment of those on the right who had ceased to be fashionable, is his octogenarian reinvention of himself, achieved by belatedly browbeating those he had brought to power. If we are looking for allies and kindred spirits, we should take into account more than someone’s recently expressed second thoughts on Iraq or what his teacher may or may not have said during a conversation fifty years ago at the University of Chicago. There is no substitute for long-standing reliability and, above all, integrity. For those of us who remember how Mel Bradford, Murray Rothbard, and other men of honor fared among movement conservatives, it will take more than rhetorical flourishes to erase the impressions formed over decades.

April 19, 2006

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism.

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