TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Obama, the Straussian

As opposition to the Iraq War mounted on the Left, a myth began to circulate about the purported secret influence of the political philosopher Leo Strauss in some of the inner circles of the Bush administration. To explore the origins of the allegation would be an adventure in itself: there is some indication that the thesis was first promulgated by Lyndon LaRouche and then amplified in the mainstream media, in Europe and the United States (Le Monde and the New York Times). Is journalism just serial plagiarism? To be sure, there were some kernels of truth: Paul Wolfowitz did truly study at the University of Chicago, where Strauss taught, and . . . well, that’s where the hard evidence abruptly ends and the narration begins. The half-knowledge that Strauss was a conservative thinker (though hardly a “neo-conservative”) and that he had something to do with esoteric philosophizing in relation to political power: this was enough to impute the workings of a nefarious Straussian cabal as a red-blooded conspiracy theory of the Bush administration. It was a great story for everyone who preferred not to think. The paranoid style in American politics, the anxiety about secret plots and shadow governments, had finally moved from the kooky right to the center-left.

The Strauss libel comes to mind at this point for two reasons, one minor and one major. The minor reason: it provides a good example of the inconsistency in public judgment. If it was deemed fine (and even, in a counterfeit way, intellectual) to connect Bush to Strauss, whom he never met, why is it wrong (and even an ugly “guilt by association”) to inquire into an affinity between Obama and Ayers, whom he did know? I care about the Ayers connection as little as I care for it, but I do note with shocked bemusement the double standard of accusation. The suggestion that Bush foreign policy was informed by Strauss’s reading of Aristophanes just doesn’t sound right, but that connection was treated as convincing, while pointing out Obama’s involvement with Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, is viewed as bad taste. (Note: Dohrn and Wolfowitz, aspiring politicos both, studied at the University of Chicago at the same time, but the venue is regarded as pertinent only for him—she gets a pass, even though it was the precise moment of her Weather Underground radicalization.)

The major reason: the fragment of Strauss’s philosophy that was ripped out of context and used to impugn the Bush administration involves the assertion of a need for esoteric teaching. In the love of wisdom and the pursuit of truth, the philosopher has to be cautious and even secretive because of the risk of offending the holders of unexamined opinions. Clarity can endanger the philosopher and the whole project of truth-seeking by outraging the public. The historical trauma was the execution of Socrates, a fate that the philosopher can only avoid by wrapping knowledge in secrecy and seeking the protection of power. However, for the recent misreaders, Strauss’s presentation of the relationship of philosophy to power becomes (weirdly) a model for the suggestion that the Bush administration intentionally said one thing, such as “WMDs,” and “really” meant another: blood for oil. One hardly needs to work through Leo Strauss to describe the capacity of politicians to use deceptive speech.

Yet this discrepancy between meaning and saying, which only by the wildest stretch of a feverish imagination maps onto the press statements of the Bush administration, defines no one’s rhetoric better than Obama’s. What he says can be vague and imprecise (“change”), so we don’t know what he means specifically. Or what he says “changes” its “meaning” depending on circumstance: he promises to sit down with Ahmadinejad without preconditions, but then we learn that that isn’t what he meant; or he insists that Jerusalem stays the undivided capital of Israel, until he decides to change the answer. No doubt, some of this may be a result of his lawyerliness, the professional malformation to parse meanings with Clintonian delicacy, a rhetorical style that puts him at odds with the populism of common sense. Or: as some say, “he’s just being a politician” (but hardly a Straussian). In that account, this is business as usual, rather than “change.”

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But the Straussian twist is this, and certainly much more than just a Chicago connection. Some conservative fence-sitters make the argument that Obama does not mean what he says, indeed that he is in fact better than what he says, because he means something else. What he says is only what the public needs to hear for him in order to win the election, such as the promise to rewrite NAFTA unilaterally; his staff already announced that he will do nothing of the sort. Just kidding! Similarly on foreign policy and on taxes, so these optimists assert, his moderate or conservative instincts are just camouflaged by the progressive rhetoric needed to get the votes. We should not judge him by his words but by his advisors, the company he keeps (but not the company he kept). In this argument, he is not really as liberal as he votes, but rather at heart a conservative Machiavellian. Although there is little in his record to corroborate this estimation, some reluctant adherents insist that he is not the Pelosi liberal he sounds like but in fact a scion to the Daley machine, which they see as preferable. In this view, Obama is the philosopher who would be king and therefore knows that knowledge has to be concealed. Perhaps there’s some evidence for this in his demonstrable and professorial aversion to populism.

In my view, this rescue attempt is not compelling, even if it does capture some of Obama’s rhetorical persona. It amounts to the argument that we can believe Obama because he is deceptive (the reverse of which is: we should mistrust McCain because he is too clear). Distrust is the grounds for trust, in this through-the-looking-glass world: Obama’s credibility turns out to be a function of one’s ability to pretend that he means little of what he says. This is hardly robust democracy, which is exactly where Strauss’s esotericism kicks in. There are important ideas at stake in the election, and significant policy distinctions, but there is also a competition between rhetorical styles: between elaborate sophistication, which can appear sophistic, and an effort to perform “straight talk.” The language of expertise is in debate with the language of experience, whereby expertise implies theory-driven change, while experience holds on to (or, pejoratively, “clings”) to loyalty.

This also sheds a different light on the Ayers discussion. More important than Obama’s collaboration with Ayers, on which the public debate has focused, has been his willingness to disclaim and abandon his acquaintance in the face of pressure. Loyalty and sophistication do not mix, especially when you know which way the wind is blowing. It was the same pattern with the Reverend Wright: after initial hesitations, he dumped him too to weather the storm. No friendship easily withstands the force of political exigency, not even a friendship with a trust-fund baby like Ayers, Richie Rich turned revolutionary because he always had enough to support a radical lifestyle and to buy get-out-of-jail-free cards. No sacrifice is too great, if someone else is the victim.

It’s who you know—until you betray them.

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