Ever since the New York Times published a long article explaining that most of the architects of the Bush foreign policy are "Straussians," more and more journalists have been asking the question, "What the heck is a Straussian?" A number of common principles have emerged after these writers have examined the writings of Leo Strauss, the godfather of neoconservativism.
Straussian Principle #1 is the perversion of the idea of natural rights, as understood by John Locke and the American founding fathers. The natural law tradition holds that man possesses natural rights to life, liberty, and property and that the state is always and everywhere the greatest threat to these God-given rights. To the founders, this meant that government should be "bound by the chains" of the Constitution, to paraphrase Jefferson. If men were angels, there would be no need for government, Madison wrote in defense of the Constitution. But men are not angels, Madison continued, which is why government power must always be limited.
Strauss (and his followers) rejected this view of natural rights in favor of Plato’s philosopher-king model of government: Eliminating restrictions on state power is fine as long as that power can be wielded by an elite few who can pursue their own vision of "the public good." As David Gordon has written, "Straus, while favoring what he considers to be the classical and Christian concepts of natural law, is bitterly opposed to the 17th and 18th Century conceptions of Locke and the rationalists, particularly to their . . . championing of the rights of the individual: liberty, property, etc." Far from advocating limited government, Strauss was a proponent of unlimited state power in pursuit of "nationalism" (as are his American neocon followers).
Straussian neocons tend to repeat the words "prudence and moderation" ad nauseum, to the point of absurdity. In all their critiques of my writings on Lincoln some of the most apoplectic criticisms have been over my "failure" to acknowledge Lincoln’s alleged prudence and moderation (as though waging an unnecessary war that killed 620,000 Americans was either). (Eric Root of the John Lock Foundation even went so far as to condemn me for failing to pontificate upon these Magic Straussian Words while admitting that he had not even read my book!)
These buzz words are merely deceptive euphemisms for "unlimited and unconstitutional executive branch power." Strauss himself was fond of praising British imperialism and Caesarism for their supposed "prudence and moderation," just as his contemporary followers are now using these same words to praise the Bush administration’s foreign policy (of which they are the main architects!).
This is obviously why the Straussians have labored so furiously to make Abraham Lincoln even more of a cult figure. He essentially declared himself dictator, suspended habeas corpus, mass arrested thousands of political dissenters, shut down hundreds of newspapers, ordered the murder of New York City draft protesters by federal troops, deported an outspoken Democratic Party opponent, Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, censored all telegraph communication, nationalized the railroads, confiscated private property, rigged Northern elections, and waged war on civilians as well as combatants. The reason he gave for these shocking acts of tyranny was to destroy the secession movement and abolish the voluntary union of the founding fathers. Or, as he deceivingly put it, "to save the Union."
Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to replace the American republic with an empire that would rival Great Britain’s. To accomplish this they invaded the Southern states, killing one out of every four white males of military age, and pillaged, plundered, and burned their way through the South, destroying its economy.
There could be no better role model for aggressive, dictatorial, militaristic nationalism, which in fact is Straussian Principle #2. Strauss believed that human aggression could only be restrained by a powerful, nationalistic state (See Jim Lobe, "Leo Strauss’ Philosophy of Deception," Alternet.org, May 19, 2003). He believed that such an omnipotent state can only be maintained if there is an external threat, "even if one has to be manufactured." This is why Straussians believe in perpetual war, and is another reason why they have formed a cult around "the church of Lincoln," whom they hold up as "the greatest statesman in history." Lincoln manufactured many "threats," including the truly bizarre notion that representative government would perish from the earth if the Southern states were permitted to secede peacefully. In reality, peaceful secession would have been a victory for self-government, keeping in mind that neither Lincoln nor Congress ever said that they were launching an invasion for any reason having to do with liberating the slaves.
Straussian Principle #3 is aggressive lying. In "Leo Strauss’ Philosophy of Deception" Jim Lobe noted that Strauss believed in the necessity of "perpetual deception" of the ruled by their rulers if nationalistic objectives are to be achieved. Straussians routinely claim to possess unique understanding of the "hidden meaning" of history and historical documents, which is often directly at odds with the plain historical truth. This is all a part of their perpetual campaign to confuse the public and keep it ignorant of their political designs.
A good example of this phenomenon is the "special meaning" of the Declaration of Independence that Straussians claim to have discovered. The Declaration declared to the world that the colonists were seceding from the British Empire, but Straussians incredibly insist that it is an anti-secessionist document because Lincoln quoted the "all men are created equal" phrase in the Gettysburg Address. They repeat Lincoln’s tall tale that the Declaration made the Union "perpetual" even though the states describe themselves in the document as "free and independent."
The Declaration announces that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and that whenever governments become destructive of the peoples’ natural rights it is the duty of the people to abolish the government and replace it with a new one. That is exactly what Jefferson Davis announced he intended to do in his First Inaugural Address, yet the Straussians claim that it was Lincoln, not Davis, who was upholding this principle.
Even though the free and independent states ratified the Constitution to create the federal government as their agent, Lincoln held that there was never any such thing as state sovereignty because "the Union is older than the states." This of course is impossible, since the union of two things cannot be older than either thing that it is a union of.
Straussians tell us that Lincoln had to destroy the Constitution in order to save it, that he was a great humanitarian who nevertheless waged war on civilians, he favored equality even though he loudly denounced racial equality throughout his lifetime, and a thousand other deceptions.
Straussian Principle #4: Fake religiosity. Several of the journalists who have recently written about Strauss have noted that he was a proponent of a greater role for religion in affairs of state, a position that has endeared some Christians to the neocon movement. But Strauss’ position was that the political rulers and the intellectual elite (philosopher kings?) need not be bound by religion themselves; religion was primarily a propaganda tool to be used to get the masses to acquiesce in state intervention on behalf of aggressive nationalism. As Ron Bailey of Reason magazine has pointed out, "Neoconservatives are pro-religion even though they themselves may not be believers."
Once again, Lincoln is the perfect Straussian role model. Lincoln never joined a church and was opposed by almost all the ministers of Springfield, Illinois, when he ran for president. He was infamous for his dirty jokes and even his criticisms of Scripture. There is no explicit evidence that he ever became a Christian, and some of his contemporaries even believed that he was probably an atheist. As James Ostrowski has written ("DiLorenzo vs. His Critics on the Lincoln Myth," LRC Archives), the "church of Lincoln" is "the church of a man who had no Church."
Lincoln was nevertheless brilliant in his use of religious language and images to mesmerize Northern audiences, especially the hyper-puritanical New England Yankees and their upper Midwest brethren. After launching a war that he apparently thought would last only a few months, Lincoln distanced himself more and more from responsibility for his own decisions by invoking religion. By the time of his Second Inaugural, when over a half million young American men had been killed in the war, he was to the point of absolving himself entirely from any responsibility for all the war’s death and destruction. He declared that "the war came," as though he had nothing to do with it, and said that it was all out of his hands and a matter of God’s will. He theorized that God was punishing America for the sin of slavery. This argument was nonsensical on its face, however, since it ignored the fact that some 95 percent of all the slaves that were brought to the western hemisphere ended up outside the U.S., where no such "punishment" was being executed by the Lord. Why would God punish Americans for the sin of slavery but no one else?
In his Second Inaugural Lincoln quoted at length Mathew 18:7 and Luke 17:1 in order to make the argument that both North and South were being punished for the sin of slavery. This in itself is, well, Straussian, since Lincoln claimed to know the "inner meaning" of God’s Word.
As Charles Adams writes in When in the Course of Human Events (p. 205), "Lincoln’s Jehovah complex gave the war a psychopathic Calvinistic fatalism, with God directing the whole affair and punishing both North and South for tolerating slavery." The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young men, the killing of civilians, the massive theft of private property, and the burning of entire towns by federal soldiers would continue until God decided otherwise. "Not even the maddest of religious fanatics," Adams writes, "ever uttered words to equal Lincoln’s second inaugural address."
Lincoln’s cynical political manipulation of religion was the perfect Straussian subterfuge. It was the perfect propaganda tool for sugarcoating a bloody and imperialistic war of conquest. Little wonder that contemporary Straussian neocons think of Lincoln as "the greatest statesman in world history": He was an extreme nationalist; an enemy of constitutionally limited government and genuine natural rights; a skilled political conniver, manipulator and deceiver; and a phony religionist. Perfect.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of the LRC #1 bestseller, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Forum/Random House, 2002) and professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland.
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