A review of Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, by Anne Norton
Too often, between so-called Straussians and other scholars there prevails only a dialogue of the deaf. Although Anne Norton might seem qualified to ameliorate this situation, unfortunately she has not done so here. And her intention is too obviously poisonous to merit a friendly reply.
Norton's strategy for attacking Straussians isn't new; it was pioneered by European journalists. Here's how it works. Rather than take on Leo Strauss (bigger game than you can handle!), pay him some measure of lip service. You may even distinguish between his "students" (few and good) and his "disciples" (many and bad). Having thus established your fair-mindedness, you blast the "disciples" (the Straussians) for not living up to the standards of the Master.
Norton, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, brings little that is novel to this strategy, except for a personal twist. As it happens, she actually spent her formative years at the University of Chicago studying with Straussian teachers, hobnobbing with Straussian students, and (last but not least) being trusted by Straussians. Odd that in her litany of Straussian errors Norton never comments on this one.
Not that she ever actually was a Straussian; no, this is a kiss-and-tell book by someone who won't admit to having kissed. She never sought the confidences of Straussians; apparently her insatiable appetite for learning led them to confide in her against her will. Even so, her book resembles those anti-Catholic tracts so popular in 19th-century America, e.g., Strange Confessions of Maria Monk, or Thirty Years in a Convent. Norton too has escaped to tell her lurid tale.
Although the book is devoid of humor or irony, it is comically self-important. Norton leans hard on the war on terror, which by the end of the book will stand revealed as a Straussian plot. And she has an obligation to explain it all to us (however painful the task for her), because she was a witness to history, and her memories must not be allowed to fade into blackness. (Shades of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.)
Norton even whacks us with the Socratic injunction "Know thyself." But has she followed it herself? Does she even grasp her real motives in writing this book? She assures us repeatedly that they were the highest, but if there was just one little thing that she might have learned from her studies with students of Strauss, it's that nothing is so dangerous as the conviction of one's own high-mindedness.
Early in the book, Norton cites Strauss himself that in democracy every intellectual movement owes an accounting of itself to the public. Fair enough. But what has that to do with her? She's not a Straussian; her book offers not self-disclosure but merely the trashing of an enemy. Criticism earns moral credit especially when it's self-criticism, and of that this book contains not a glimmer.
Norton seems unaware that this typical exercise in academic self-promotion reads just like one. Only our Anne always got it right; only she grasps the big picture. Only she can lecture non- Straussians for maligning Strauss (the better, of course, to confirm them in their fear and loathing of Straussians) while lecturing Straussians for having remained in tutelage to him. Mostly, though, she praises herself for her role in bringing Social Justice to the University after its dark night of Exclusiveness.
She really warms to this last theme. She is delighted to be the cheerleader for her generation and the new world of diversity that it claims to have brought us. Perhaps I didn't put that quite right. Cheerleaders are perky; Norton is unrelentingly preachy.
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The structure of Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire is fairly simple: Norton proceeds from one Straussian transgression to the next. After the expected frisson of indignation has subsided, she reels us back in to the academically approved opinion. This is a perfectly sensible format for a book that speaks to the already persuaded.
Yet despite this colorful riot of Straussian malfeasance one can't help feeling that the book is mostly composed of filler. Apparently Norton is confident that we just can't get enough of her wisdom, because she lectures us on absolutely everything, from the role of the mass media to the unpleasantness of postmodern warfare to the moral perils of America's relationship with Israel. In fact, this fierce enemy of dogmatism proves to have fixed opinions on everything under the sun.
The second half of the book is devoted mostly to the left-liberal boilerplate critique of neoconservatism. (Cursed be those who would drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge! Horrors that anyone should have contemplated the tactical use of nuclear weapons!) I'll give Norton this much credit: she's every bit as indignant as if she were the first to denounce these enormities. She musters similar talking-points passion against the Bush Administration's foreign policy. There's no point in either recounting her critique or in responding to it, inasmuch as we've all rehearsed these points so many times by now.
What then of those pages that actually concern the Straussians? For someone supposedly so expert in her subject, Norton gets an awful lot wrong. Here I choose three litmus tests, matters I know that I know better than she does. (In each case I was there and she wasn't.) These were the life and thought of the late Allan Bloom; the 1966-1969 crisis at Cornell; and the political career of my old friend William A. Galston, a former student of Bloom and leading Democratic Party intellectual. In none does her account pass muster.
Galston poses a problem for Norton, because although a Democrat and a liberal he doesn't go around bashing Straussians. She tries to dispose of him scornfully, in a sentence of three clauses every one of which is factually mistaken. Galston did not "move a short distance to the left" to gain entry to the Democratic Party—he remained where he had always been, a principled liberal and loyal Democrat. In remaining where he had always been he did not "move further than a good Straussian was permitted to go"; no one ever suggested banishing Galston because he was a Democrat (as were almost all of the Straussians at Cornell). And the "[Democratic] party had not moved considerably to the right" at the time that Galston assumed an active role in it: he assumed that role out of concern that it had moved too far to the left, as confirmed by the pasting that Walter Mondale had just received.
Bloom is a special case, for Norton as for so many others. He is the heavy of her piece: "Bloom, far more than Strauss, has shaped the Straussians who govern in America. Bloom taught both the most powerful and the most vociferously ideological of the Straussians." Apart from this dubious claim, she has little new to say about Bloom, but exudes such obsessive personal hatred that she should take it up with her analyst. Much of her tirade against Bloom depends on her reading of his celebrated book The Closing of the American Mind (1987). The typical reader might look for references to check her claims. He won't find them, here or elsewhere. Perhaps Yale University Press is broke and can't afford to print footnotes anymore. How convenient for Norton, whom it frees from providing documentation for charges that could be politely described as libelous.
I'll begin with the hideous claim that Bloom yearned for a university without women, blacks, or other non-whites. Nothing in Bloom's book or his life supports this conclusion. Bloom was indeed frightened of women, but recognizing this as a defect he struggled mightily to overcome it. He loved dearly his female students at Chicago and they have remained loyal to him ever since. Norton doesn't mention this. Similarly groundless is Bloom's supposed aversion to non-whites. Yes, he opposed affirmative action, which he thought bad for those who practiced it and bad for those upon whom it was practiced. As for non-Westerners, their influx into the academy was a matter of great joy to him: he particularly delighted in his Islamic students.
Bloom was a great teacher, which Norton grudgingly acknowledges. She claims, however, that the crisis at Cornell embittered and extinguished him. She conveniently fails to mention the decade in Toronto that followed, where, if anything, he achieved even greater triumphs. And her insistence that he failed as a teacher at Chicago clashes with his own view that he attracted some of his very finest students there.
The gravest of Norton's claims is that "later (i.e. after Cornell)… [Bloom] participated in a politics of censorship and intimidation." Really? How? When? Where? Against whom? No amplification is offered, and of course no documentation.
Norton intones that Closing announced "the conservative position in the emergent culture wars." But Bloom was never a conservative, and he wrote the book as a liberal addressing liberals. The initial reviews in the liberal press were favorable, and conservatives championed the book only when liberals commended it to them by turning against it. Bloom was a lifelong Democrat who revered Roosevelt's New Deal as the peak of modern American politics. (One thing he shared with Strauss was that both voted for Adlai Stevenson.) Shortly before his death in the fall of 1992, Bloom exhorted me to support Bill Clinton. He insisted that only the Democratic Party had consistently met the challenges of the 20th century.
Like many Democrats nurtured on the New and Fair Deals, Bloom did oppose the party's McGovernite turn, which saddled it with bad policies and weak candidates, initiating its sorry slide from ascendancy into its present debility. (Bloom looked to Clinton to halt that slide.) But to fight for a sensible liberalism is not, contra Norton, to be a Republican in disguise. Galston is only one of several Straussians who have worked for (or even run as) Democrats, but of course you won't learn that from Norton. (For the record, I too am a Democrat, not that I'm happy with the party as it is.)
As to what Straussians think, what sort of work they do, what they understand themselves to be defending (not a "canon"), their views toward non-Western cultures and students who originate in them, their attitude toward popular culture and the value of interpreting it, their attitude toward the insights of postmodern thinkers; on all these topics the errors pile up like snow in a blizzard. Norton even commits some clear cases of mistaken identity. Donald Kagan will be astonished to discover that he's a Straussian; Richard Perle and David Frum have a similar surprise in store for them. And how about Zalmay Khalilzad, the proof of whose Straussianism is that he once underlined a sentence in a book by Alexandre Kojève? Ah, but who had lent Khalilzad that book? Norton, that's who! Q.E.D.
Norton finds much in the writings of various Straussians with which to disagree; that makes two of us. And she raises some valid questions. It's just that behind every question lurks a thirst for character assassination.
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As her title indicates, Norton makes much of the supposed Straussian influence on the Bush Administration's foreign policies. Here we encounter the best-known Straussian in public life, Paul Wolfowitz. He's absolutely crucial to Norton's case because despite her huffing and puffing about Straussian influence in Washington, he remains the only supposed Straussian (and Bloom student) to achieve real importance as a policymaker. But is he much of a Straussian, or a Straussian at all?
I've known Wolfowitz for four decades. Yes, Bloom impressed him at Cornell, but he also kept his distance from Bloom, as he did during his graduate years at Chicago, too. Wolfowitz is no ideologue, and neither "Straussian" nor "conservative" begins to describe him. For most of his life he was a Democrat, and he has always looked up to such fighting Democratic liberals as Truman, Acheson, Scoop Jackson, and Sam Nunn.
I'll readily admit that I supported the Iraq war and still do. I regard the recent successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the hopeful stirrings among the Palestinians, as welcome vindications of it. But I don't support it as a Straussian. A pro-war stance is one for which Straussianism is neither necessary—are Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman, and Joseph Lieberman all Straussians now?—nor sufficient. My admittedly unscientific survey suggests that roughly as many of my Straussian friends and students opposed the war as supported it. They were wrong, but Straussians are as free to be wrong as anybody else, and I don't deem them any less Straussian for our disagreement on this matter.
Apart from my own judgment that the war was appropriate, I make no claim that Strauss would have supported it. Readers of the Claremont Review of Books will recall Thomas G. West's careful essay on this subject in the Summer 2004 issue ("Leo Strauss and American Foreign Policy"). Deferring to him, I'll say only this: Would Strauss have supported the bold gambit of extending liberal democracy by draining the Augean stables of Islamic tyranny and theocracy? Yes—if he had accepted the long-term necessity of so doing in order to defend the existing liberal democracies in this age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Would Strauss have accepted that necessity? You'd have to ask him, and he's been dead for 31 years. The question is whether we accept it (obviously, I do), a decision that can't depend primarily on a reading of Strauss.
There are serious arguments against this war, and Norton repeats some of them. On the whole, however, her book saves the worst for last. In her penultimate chapter, "Athens and Jerusalem," she contrasts Strauss's position on that issue with certain contemporaries'. She claims that he saw the problem of Athens and Jerusalem as that of reason and revelation, which as such embraced Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity. This problem defied political resolution, generally and in particular through Zionism. She quotes extensively from an essay by Strauss on Hermann Cohen—and presents, as the views of Strauss, Strauss's description of the views of Cohen.
For Straussians on the other hand, so she claims, the resolution of the problem of Athens and Jerusalem is entirely practical, and consists in America's unwavering support for Israel. This policy thus implies an antipathy to anti- Semitism that is itself anti-Semitic, for Arabs too are Semites; though Strauss loved and studied Muslim thinkers, Straussians hate "Arabs and Muslims" and have made them "the targets of unrestrained persecution." She offers no evidence for this absurd assertion, unless you count Harry V. Jaffa's characterization of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority as a "gangster regime." Never mind all the brave Palestinian reformers who, concurring in this view, braved murder at the hands of Arafat's thugs; Norton knows anti-Arab prejudice when she sees it. In any case, this gross Straussian campaign of persecution of Muslims apparently culminated in the deposition of Saddam Hussein.
Let's return to the question of Strauss's own views. Norton conveniently fails to note that despite his insistence that there could be no political solution to philosophical and theological problems, he never wavered in his support of Israel and Zionism. Nor does she display any awareness that her fanciful notion of anti- Semitism mirrors that of Arab propagandists, who are fond of denying that their murderous slanders of the Jews qualify as anti-Semitism— for aren't Arabs, too, Semites?
Nor does Norton mention that Strauss himself more than once identified the term "anti-Semitism" as no more than a confection of late 19th-century German Jew-hatred. In those days a pseudoscientific term rendered anything respectable. Hatred of Arabs never played the slightest part in it. Can she possibly be ignorant of this?
Norton fiddles while the Twin Towers burn. Her suggestion that we could all get along with Islam if it weren't for the closed mindedness of Straussians would be laughable if it weren't ludicrous. In Toronto alone in recent years three manifestly Straussian students have resolved to dedicate their lives to the study of Islamic thought. How many of Norton's own students have done so?
She contrasts Strauss's affirmation of Islamic philosophy with Straussians' (or neocons' or George Bush's) supposed crusade against Islam. But Strauss praised Islamic philosophy, not Islamofascism. Norton stresses that Baghdad was once Farabi's city: "my story ends here, as the city where Farabi taught Strauss is occupied by those who call themselves his students." Yes, and Rome was once the city of Cato the Elder, but try finding him there today. If I understand Norton's argument correctly, it's that Saddam's removal was an intolerable insult to the dignity of medieval Baghdad's philosophers.
Norton ends her book with some airy queries concerning the future of American democracy as "the questions on the ground in Baghdad." Darned if our troops haven't found other things on the ground there. Just as I was reading Norton's book they discovered something dumped in the streets of Fallujah. It was the body of the saintly aid worker Margaret Hassan, disemboweled and otherwise mutilated. The "question on the ground in Baghdad" is whether the brutal killers who have long held so much of Islam in thrall will gain a signal victory there or suffer a signal defeat. The American (and supposedly Straussian) "occupiers" have rallied those Iraqis determined to defeat them. The awesome recent election has confirmed the depth of that determination. Whose side are you on, Ms. Norton? Do you really figure Al-Farabi for the ally of Al-Zarqawi?
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Norton's book will have a short shelf life. Subsequent events in the Middle East have already overtaken it entirely. Her book faithfully reflects a particularly unpleasant moment in American intellectual life. The liberal Left, more hegemonic than ever in the academy, watches helplessly as its power ebbs in society at large. It has no idea how to stop the bleeding. Precisely because Straussians are so vulnerable to attack within the university, they make great scapegoats for explaining the events outside it. Michael Moore couldn't elect a president, but the academics who had lionized him can still police opinion in their own backyard, all the while jawing about diversity. Objectively speaking, as the Marxists like to say, such intimidation of anyone who would hire a Straussian is the goal of Norton's book.
This won't help the Left politically. It really has to ask itself just why it has done so badly, lately. It should practice what Norton preaches and actually make an attempt to know itself (and the American people, while it's at it). The timing of the book's publication was unfortunate: in the aftermath of the Kerry defeat it reads like the whine of a very nasty loser.