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Sunday, January 27, 2008

An historic day

Yesterday's crushing victory for Barack Obama in South Carolina was certainly historic from the viewpoint of the past--and portends an equally sweeping change in November.

I have recently been re-reading one of the greatest-ever works of American history, Allen Nevins' The Ordeal of the Union (whose eight volumes, I was amused to discover, began appearing in 1947, the year of my birth.) The first four volumes, on the years 1850-60, could only be compared, it seems to me, to Henry Adams' History of the United States under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which is another favorite of mine. Nevins researched every private collection of papers he could find and spun an extraordinary narrative. In any case, having read the chapters on 1850, I was struck that, even then, two southern states stood out as the bitterest defenders of slavery and the first to threaten secession. They were Mississippi--and South Carolina. Until just yesterday I saw no evidence that anything had changed very much. South Carolina continued to elect Strom Thurmond, a symbol of white supremacy for most of the second half of the twentieth century, right up until 2002 when he retired on the eve of his 100th birthday, and as Bob Herbert noted the State Capitol features not only a Confederate flag, but also a statue of Pitchfork Ben Tillman, as blunt a post-bellum racist as the south ever produced. Mississippi, as my son discovered in two years teaching in the Delta, is nearly as segregated as it was fifty years ago. That Barack Obama could have won the Democratic Primary with 55% of the vote--beating Hillary Clinton among women and men--simply boggles the mind, and leaves no doubt that time, births and deaths have evidently created a new South Carolina. In perhaps the most staggering statistic of all, Barack Obama won a majority of white Democratic voters under 29. John Edwards, the most economically radical candidate, won the white vote between 29 and 59; Hillary Clinton won only those over 60 (and evidently beat Edwards only because she was the second choice of the black electorate, which made up slightly more than half of the total.

Yet perhaps the more historic news involves a comparison of this primary with last week's Republican one, which was equally hard fought. South Carolina has voted for a Democratic President,only once since 1960, in 1976--but 442,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican primary, as against 535,000 in the Democratic. The figures in New Hampshire and Iowa, both of which were hotly contested in the last two elections, favored the Democrats even more dramatically. The two most significant elections of the twentieth century were 1932, when FDR swept the West and made significant inroads in the Republican East, and 1968, when the Democrats lost the entire South (except Texas) to either Nixon or Wallace. If these trends continue then 2008 could be equally astonishing and equally significant.

I have no doubt that Obama would be a far stronger candidate in November than Clinton for two somewhat related reasons. First, as I have already suggested, she would be scandaled half to death by the Republicans. But more importantly, she (like John McCain on the other side) is the old folks' candidate, and the young folks, bless their hearts, will decide the election. They did the same in 1932 and 1936 (in the latter year, fully 90% of the 21-35s may have voted for FDR.)

Obama's victory is bound to energize the African-American vote in states like New York, Missouri, and Tennessee (and to discredit black leaders in New York who tried to play it safe and jumped on the Clinton bandwagon.) But the candidates, all of whose resources have been depleted in the opening skirmishes, now face ten extraordinary days, the most dramatic days in American politics in a very long time. That, perhaps, is the most exciting fact of all--not since 1960 has the United States experienced such an extraordinary contest. I suspect a great many young Americans will remember 2008 the way my generation does 1960, as the beginning, really, of their political lives.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

And now, Obama

Having given Hillary Clinton a plug on Monday, I would now like to do the same for Barack Obama by recommending that everyone watch his Monday speech at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church, available here. It confirms that he could be the most inspiring orator in our national politics since JFK, and bodes well for his candidacy--if the country can actually get to see him in this mode. The video has drawn an enormous audience on youtube.

I am off to a conference in a few minutes and should be posting again late Sunday.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Ray of Hope

Today is the Martin Luther King holiday, and over the weekend Senator Hillary Clinton gave a long interview to David Leonhardt of the New York Times. One might have expected her (based upon the campaign to date) to use this forum for more discussion of inclusiveness, identity politics, and King's dreams, which to my disgust have become the almost exclusive focus of the campaign as she has once again become the front runner. That is not, however, what she wanted to talk about. Instead, showing herself at her policy-wonk best--and adding an impressive sense of history--she discussed the relationship between the U.S. government and U.S. economy over the last sixty years, in terms that would have been right at home in your average column by Paul Krugman or, if I do say so myself, right here at historyunfolding.com .

The government, Senator Clinton says, simply has to play more of a role in regulating the economy to restore both political and economic balance. She wants the top marginal tax rate to go back up to 39%, where it was in the pre-Bush days. (David Leonhardt, the Times reporter who interviewed her, mentions that the top rate was 70% in the 1970s, but for some reason he doesn't mention that it was over 90% in the 1950s. ) She talks about the role unions played in creating the postwar middle class, and the greater responsibility corporations showed towards communities in those days. And she talks about the need to reduce obscenely high executive compensation (the best way, of course, would be to go back to 90% tax rates, say on incomes over $3 million per year, which would have a healthy effect on professional sports, too.)

Nor is this all. Senator Clinton has interesting ideas for an anti-recession package--she wants to focus on subsidies for heating oil (as a New Englander whose bills have doubled, I can only say "amen,") and on the subprime crisis. And for that she has truly radical proposals, involving the freezing of interest rates. That reminds me of progresssive attempts to stop foreclosures of farms and houses during the New Deal, efforts that provoked howls of Republican protests of "anarchy" because such measures impaired the sacred obligation of contracts. I suspect we shall hear more such howls in the future.

It is one of the great collateral benefits of saying what one thinks that one can take credit for changing one's mind when new data appears. I haven't been very friendly to Senator Clinton here, although I have made it clear that I would certainly vote for her in November were she the candidate. If however she continues to focus on these themes, I shall do so with genuine enthusiasm. Not only is she showing that she has thought about these issues, but she is doing exactly what our contemporaries so seldom do--she has reached back into the past and acknowledged the ways in which our parents' world was genuinely superior to ours. (She deserves all the more credit because this is a particularly unusual thing for a Boomer feminist to do.) I might suggest that, if she secures the nomination in the near future, she might spend some time in Washington introducing the bills she plans to push if elected. That might even get the press and the public to pay some attention to what was happening in the Congress!

This is, of course, only a straw in the wind--but it is a very welcome one. I have rapidly been losing interest in the campaign, but this interview has reawakened it. Bravo, Senator Clinton.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Subscription update

Alas, the original code I inserted about subscriptions led to a different blog than this one--but the problem has been corrected. Simply put your email in the feedblitz logo (under the profile and list of books at the right), follow instructions, and you will receive an email whenever I make a new post. Sorry about the confusion.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Economic crisis, political rebirth?

The week's economic news makes clear that a new flock of chickens--not perhaps as large as the one that appeared in 1929, but large enough--is finally coming home to roost. The credit collapse that has begun in the housing market (and, the papers tell me, threatens to spread through unpayable credit card debt) is lowering employment, and it may get much worse. Like the two previous crises in our national life (1860-8 and 1929-45), it has been largely brought about by the unbridled ideological or economic excesses of a Prophet generation--the Transcendentals (b. 1792-1821), the Missionaries (about 1863-1884), and now, the Boomers (1943-1960.) Born into as secure an environment has humankind has been able to create, such generations begin disrupting it in young adulthood, have eaten away the foundations by mid-life, and, as they reach elderhood, have to try to find a few surviving members who can help build a new order with the help of the younger generations.

The critical issue for the Transcendentals, of course--the one that dwarfed all others in importance--was slavery. The text of the Constitution shows that the Founding Fathers had regarded slavery as an embarrassment and an anomaly, and they carefully avoided referring to it by name, much less defining more than one legal class of "persons." The Founding generations had already banned slavery in the Northwest Territories before the Constitution was adopted, and much evidence suggests that, as Transcendental Abraham Lincoln later claimed, the Founders hoped that by confining slavery, they could make it disappear. Their children, however, rejected such a practical view. Southern Transcendentals were arguing by the 1830s that slavery was a positive good, perhaps the highest form of civilization, while their northern contemporaries started a militant abolitionist movement and, eventually, the new Republican Party. The compromising spirit that had swept the issue under the rug in 1820 and again in 1850 eventually passed away along with the older generations, leading in 1860 to the split int he Democratic party between northern moderates and southern fire-eaters, Lincoln's election, secession, and civil war. Fortunately, perhaps, subsequent Prophet generations have not had to deal with a clash between two totally different ways of life, fought with a large portion of the United States as yet largely unsettled and unorganized. Unfortunately, for reasons too complex to take up now, the Civil War merely reunited the Union and abolished formal slavery, without really making the former slaves citizens for more than a very brief period for another century.

The Republican/Northern victory in the Civil War also enshrined free markets, high tariffs, and cheap unorganized labor as orthodoxies, and they remained so until the 1890s, when the Missionary generation began to make its mark. Progressivism, which did not change all that much during the first two decades of the twentieth century but did at least enshrine the idea of government as a benevolent regulator of the economy, challenged that orthodoxy, but by the 1920s it appeared to have burned itself out. Meanwhile, on Wall Street, the Missionaries were busily designing clever new schemes to inflate markets and values, including insider trading, very low margin rates (creating a massive credit pyramid), and a generally unregulated market. The 1920s saw several cycles of boom and bust (most notably in housing and in Florida land values) before the great crash of 1929-32 wiped out credit all over the country and brought us nearly to an economic halt. Missionary Herbert Hoover refused to regard the Depression as anything but a temporary aberration, and turned in the last two years of his term to solutions that made things even worse. Roosevelt in 1933 came into office without any real program or settled ideological view of what had to be done, but showed a determination to try almost anything to get the country back on its feet. Although he had only intermittent success against the Depression, he fundamentally changed the role of the government and opened the way to the mass organization of industrial labor. The drafting of more than ten million men during the war and the benefits they were granted when they returned home did as much or more than the New Deal to create a new, much more egalitarian America.

Boomers, stimulated by their GI parents' greatest mistake, burst upon the scene in the late 1960s, repudiating all the basic principles of their parents' culture, morality, and foreign policy, while taking their domestic achievements entirely for granted. They also transformed the universities and colleges they were attending, and the humanities have been declining at an accelerating rate ever since. But their real impact only became clear during the 1990s, when they achieved a plurality in the House of Representatives in 1994. (They now have done the same in the Senate.) Perhaps because left-wing Boomers had concentrated on academia and popular culture, right-wing ones turned out to have more success in politics. From 2001 until now they have taken advantage of their own determination and a series of unpredictable events--the Florida vote in 2000 and 9/11--to undo most of the New Deal and the foundations of American foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century.

They have also been at work, obviously, on Wall Street. Many Americans do not realize the extent to which the elite American educational system has become a mechanism for identifying our brightest young men and women and funneling them into the upper layers of our financial and legal system, where they begin working 80-hour days, frequently to pay off the tens of thousands of dollars of debt they have accumulated during college. In the last twenty years they have busily designed new financial instruments, such as sub-prime mortgages and the securities that have "backed" them. We should keep in mind that this relentless drive by people who are already rich by any standard to gain yet more money is behind our present predicament--and that it will be harder to climb out of it because the mass of people who really need more money have been getting less and less of it. The Boom generation of managers has also avenged their missionary grandparents by finding new weapons against organized labor--most notably, the weapon of outsourcing.

It is not clear that the political process is ready to deal with the crisis. Last week, Boomer Mitt Romney, who fallaciously claimed that he would bring manufacturing jobs back to Michigan, defeated Silent John McCain, who courageously recognized that those jobs are not coming back. On the Democratic side, as John Edwards fades, identity politics have taken the place of any serious discussion of issues. The question I have been pondering is whether Barack Obama, who will turn 47 this year, is really the counterpart of Abraham Lincoln (who was 51 in 1860 when he was elected), or of John Charles Fremont, the 43-year old Republican candidate in 1856, who was defeated by Compromiser James Buchanan. (If McCain should beat Obama, the parallel would be exact.)

Having been born in 1947, I count as an early Prophet--and I can now see how front-loaded the benefits of such a status were. I enjoyed the best of the postwar era, and above all, I lived through the whole exciting Awakening as a young adult. But my middle years have witnessed a steady decline of every American institution, including the ones I care about the most--my own profession, and national politics. I am not surprised that my two favorite Missionaries, W. E. B. Dubois (b. 1868) and Charles A. Beard (b. 1871) found themselves totally out of sympathy with the direction of national life by the time they reached seventy, and died isolated and embittered. Having learned to understand this particular recurring cycle, I am heartened to think that I can live to see thing turn around before (like them) becoming so disillusioned as not to even recognize the change. But we may have to wait a good deal longer all the same.

Note: Earlier versions of last week's post referred to a purported conversation in Israel between Benjamin Netanyahu and President Bush, supposedly reported by Israeli radio. The two men did meet, and you can read about what supposedly transpired all over the blogosphere, but no actual news source has confirmed it as yet. (I don't know if I have any readers in Israel, but if I do, your input would be appreciated here.) Meanwhile, the Israeli press reports that Mahmoud Abbas, our chosen Palestinian instrument, has threatened to resign because Israeli strikes in Gaza and the West Bank are embarrassing him so badly in the wake of Bush's supposed peace initiative. That story, as far as I can tell, has been unreported here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The US and the Muslim World

The election campaign has generally knocked President Bush off the front pages, which is undoubtedly just as well from his point of view, but he is now back in the headlines with a well-publicized trip through the Middle East, desperately trying to salvage something from his major foreign policy effort. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing to be happy about and very little prospect of any real good news before the end of his term.

The President, to begin with, stopped in Israel and Palestine to try to encourage the peace initiative he began in Annapolis in December. Ironically, he is now finishing his two terms just where Bill Clinton finished his--in a desperate attempt to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Thanks to his own policies, however, he can offer much less to the Palestinians than Clinton could, and they are much less able to accept it. The President reiterated the major change that he made in our policy towards that conflict in 2004--that we agree that Israel will keep any land that it has been able to settle, that changes in "the 1949 armistice lines" will have to reflect "facts on the ground." He has opened the door to financial compensation for Palestinians (and, it would seem, their descendants) who left their homes in 1948, although it is not clear who would pay it. He has also said that the new Palestinian state must be contiguous and truly independent, but it is not clear whether that means Israel really has to dismantle its networks of roads barred to Palestinians, checkpoints, and military outposts scattered through the West Bank.

The whole initiative is characteristic of the Administration's style, its tendency to lay down the law about anything that is happening in the world without the slightest regard for the impact of its pronouncements upon foreign leaders--even those thought to be its friends. Israeli Premier Olmert, who seems to be doing his best to go along with the President, leads a very shaky coalition, and today's Israeli papers report that he is falling out with Defense Minister Barak over the contentious issue of settlement outposts which Israel promised to remove four years ago. Another minister may soon resign over the talks. The situation is little better in Palestine, where the President in 2002 called upon the people to "elect new leadership." President Bush's chosen instrument in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, is in a much weaker position than Yassir Arafat was eight years ago, partly because he never had the same stature and partly because of the election that we insisted upon having and then in effect repudiated in early 2007. Hamas, which won the election, now controls the Gaza strip. It seems very unlikely that anything will come of these talks--except, perhaps, further radicalization on both sides.

Another interesting tidbit has leaked from the Israel trip: as Fred Kaplan has called to our attention in Slate, the President told Prime Minister Olmert that he rejects our own intelligence community's views about the moribund Iranian nuclear program and thinks we are being tricked. His faith in his own judgment--which as I argued a week ago seems to be closely allied to neoconservatives' faith in themselves as Platonic philosopher-kings--remains unshaken. His remarks to Netanyahu, apparently, were no aberration.

The President seemed rather quiet and very tired in Iraq, where he met, of course, with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, and was asked about possible further troop withdrawals. This is what he said.

"General Petraeus made it clear to me that, from his perspective, that conditions on the ground will be that which guides his recommendations. And I made it clear that's what I want. In other words, our General has got to understand that success in Iraq is critical. In other words, that ought to be the primary concern when it comes to determining troop levels, and no better person to ask as -- on how to achieve success in Iraq than the General in charge of Iraq.

"So that's what we discussed about -- he didn't talk about specific levels; he talked about continually assessing the situation on the ground, and will report to Congress in March. I wanted to assure him that any decision he recommends needs to be based upon success. That's what happened the last time around -- when we were failing, I said, what's it take to -- what do you need to win, not lose? What is it we need to -- what troop levels do we need to make sure that we can achieve this objective?

"And a lot of people thought that I was going to recommend pulling out, or pulling back. Quite the contrary; I recommended increasing the number of forces so they could get more in the fight, because I believe all along if people are given a chance to live in a free society, they'll do the hard work necessary to live in a free society."

On the one hand, the person one needs to ask how many troops we need is General Petraeus; on the other hand, the President didn't ask him that. He also seems confused; he is now the recommender, not the decider, to judge from the last paragraph. But the bottom line seems to be that troop strength on January 19, 2009 will probably be just what it was on January 1, 2007, if not a bit higher. And meanwhile, what have we accomplished?

What we have done, as far as I can make out, is to substantially increase the effectiveness of our occupied rule by co-opting some Sunni tribes, including some which were formerly part of the insurgency, and making them at least temporary allies. This is classic imperialist technique, the same one used by the British and French in various parts of the Muslim world for centuries. It has always been very hard to tell how large Al Queda in Iraq was, and it is very difficult for me to believe that it could have shrunk by over 50% in just a couple of months. I suspect that instead we have used weapons and money to bring some of our enemies over to our side. The good news is that this has reduced violence, especially against Americans (it is a lot harder to tell how much it has reduced it among Iraqis.) The bad news is that it's hard to see where this could lead, unless we really are going to occupy Iraq for decades. The Sunnis still dislike the government (as does nearly everyone else by now, since it is totally ineffective, as General McCaffrey, retired, just reported after returning from Baghdad.) Nothing has been done to resolve internecine conflict, except the forced movement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, which has made areas more religiously homogeneous. If the United States does substantially pull back its presence then sectarian conflict will presumably resume. Meanwhile, there is plenty of trouble between rival militias in Shi'ite areas, too--but General Petraeus has never regarded that as part of his problem.

Meanwhile, it is time to take up the assassination of Benazir Bhutto which, sadly, is yet another unintended consequence of American foreign policy.

Partly because of its desire to find a client in every trouble spot and partly because of its naive obsession with democracy, the Bush Administration in numerous areas--Palestine, Pakistan, and Iraq--has begun searching for the elusive miracle man, just as we did in the Philippines and South Vietnam half a century ago. Such a person would be strong, effective, pro-American, and democratic, but it seems hard to find leaders who pass more than one of those tests. Pervez Musharraf has not been effective against Al Queda in Pakistan--indeed, it is not clear to me that he wants to be--and he is only continuing his rule in defiance of his country's own laws. The United States evidently decided that we could improve matters by securing Bhutto's return and creating some kind of national unity government (a step which the President has determinedly avoided here at home, I might add.) Bhutto, to put it mildly, was never the champion of western values that some people wanted her to be. Her clan functioned like others in that region, corruption charges against her and her family had plenty of foundation, and she was bound to further inflame Islamic militants, if only because of her sex. But the United States government, apparently, insisted upon her return. She immediately survived a first assassination attempt but not a second. No wonder the President looked genuinely shaken when he came out to comment on her death.

Afghanistan, too, is having serious problems, and I frankly cannot see anywhere in the Muslim world where the Administration has had any success building up pro-western or democratic factions--the policy the President has just enunciated once again in Qatar. The effects of our policies have sometimes been slow to mature but they have been uniformly negative. This will severely challenge the next President, whoever it is. I have been continuing my modest researches into the work of Leo Strauss, the patron saint of neoconservatism, and they do a lot to explain how we got here. Strauss had an intense dislike for empiricism or positivism--the attempt to determine how things really are--because he saw it as a distraction from the contemplation of the eternal, absolute good, which President Bush has now identified with democracy. I shall have more to say about this in future posts.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has put herself back into the race. I wish that she could have done so thanks to definite positions on issues, rather than by showing some unexpected emotion, and I share the view of Marianne Pernold Young, the 64-year old New Hampshire woman who asked her the critical question, that the attention it aroused is "shocking." The cable networks gleefully seized upon it as a new way to debase discussion of the election. There is much more I could say, but I would like to comment on a historical misstatement (as I see it) that Senator Clinton made, when she said that LBJ, rather than Martin Luther King, had to take credit for the civil rights act of 1964. Both deserve some credit, but she did not give enough to John F. Kennedy, who of all Presidents deserved the most. King and the rest of the civil rights movement, as Robert Kennedy explained in 1964-5 oral history interviews, had brilliantly forced the Kennedy Administration to face the issue--and particularly the issue of public accomodations--by their campaign of civil disobedience. Lacking the resources to protect demonstrators, RFK explained, the Administration had no choice but to try to meet their demands--and it was JFK, not LBJ, who introduced the act in the extraordinary month of June 1963. LBJ could hardly turn back when he became President, although he brilliantly capitalized on Kennedy's death to get the bill through the Senate with the help of clever legislative management. It was Kennedy, as Jackie Robinson (a Nixon supporter in 1960) recognized, who became the first President to take on the whole complex of civil rights issues head on. Both Clinton and Obama should be asking themselves if they will be able to provide that kind of leadership on issues like taxes, immigration, and Iraq. I hope so.

P.S. There is some doubt as to whether Netanyahu actually made the statement attributed to him above. The Israeli press confirms that Bush, after originally leaving Netanyahu off his schedule, did meet with him. But no authoritative source confirms the nuclear remarks, which are all over the blogosphere. I'll give it a couple of more days to see if anything turns up.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Primary night

You read it here first (8:20 eastern time.) If the exit poll was correct, Obama won by one point, 39 to 38%.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Origins of neoconservatism

I am naturally tempted once again to talk about the Presidential race, but since anything I say will be outdated within about 80 hours, it might be better to remain silent. Meanwhile, I promised everyone a post about Pakistan, but that, as it turns out, will wait, too. A great many new people (over 600, actually) have shown up here thanks to links from my brother Charles at radaronline.com and Eric Alterman at mediamatters.org, both of whom mentioned my analysis of Bill Kristol while commenting on his appointment as a New York Times op-ed contributor. That led me this week to carry out a long-delayed resolve and begin to look into what neoconservatism is. This has been a very brief survey, based on one collection of essays by its legendary founder, Leo Strauss—but I think you will agree that Strauss’s writings do provide a lot of clues to what we have been living through for the last seven years.

The book which I secured through our local library system was Leo Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern(Chicago, 1968.), a collection of essays. It is not an easy read. Like most modern intellectuals (Michel Foucault comes to mind), Strauss assumes an aura of authority by writing complicated sentences and posing intricate oppositions and parallels—a technique that makes him difficult to attack because he is difficult to approach, while at the same time giving those who adopt his views a sense of intellectual superiority. Yet time and time again the essence of his thought shows through, usually in comments on Plato and Aristotle, whom he clearly regards as the foundation of western thought. Here are a few examples.

One essay, “The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy,” is a commentary on a man named Havelock, who attempted to discover a kind of modern liberalism within ancient Greek culture—an enterprise which Strauss rejected on both scholarly and political grounds (he clearly despised modern liberalism.) It includes the following statements:

“Closer inspection shows that there are at least three ways of life corresponding to the three kinds of men: those who understand by themselves, those who listen to the former and obey them, and those who understand neither by themselves nor by listening to others.” (p. 36) This rather striking typology, which Strauss claims to find in the works of Hesiod, seems to me to explain a great deal about the shameless political tactics of the modern Republican party in general and neoconservatives in particular. They see themselves as among the intellectual and moral elite who have achieved real understanding, and thus it makes perfect sense both to sell a war based upon weapons of mass destruction that did not exist (because, as neocon Paul Wolfowitz explained, that was the motive it was easiest to get the American bureaucracy to buy), and to accept the support of Evangelical Christians who expect Jews to be destroyed at the time of the Second Coming, since they are merely one type, and a particularly useful one, of the benighted masses. Above this passage looms the idea of an enlightened elite to whom the destinies of humankind must be consigned—a recurring theme, as we shall see.

Strauss returns to this theme just a few pages later (39), paraphrasing a passage from Plato on the Greek myth of Kronos and Zeus. ”This account, which makes use of truth, tells even today that not men, but a god or the immortal mind within us, must rule over men if the city is to be happy. Here men are indeed said to have led a blessed life under Kronos, but the conclusion from this is not that one must long for the lost age of Kronos, but that, in the decisive respect, the bliss of that age—rule of the divine—is equally possible now.” Happiness for us all depends on relying upon “the immortal mind within us,” which a few intellectuals have been fortunate enough to have the chance to cultivate. Strauss continues this discussion on the next page: “Plato knew that most men read more with their ‘imagination’ than with open-minded care and are therefore much more benefited by salutary myths than by the naked truth.” Perhaps we should stop wondering why the Bush Administration’s explanations for its policies are so self-contradictory and obviously simplistic, or why Bill Kristol, as I showed, has repeatedly been so eager to proclaim the victory of democracy in Iraq. Casting inspiring myths upon the waters is more important—especially in public—than trying to discover the truth. (I’ll come back to that point later.)

Concluding his review 30 pages later, Strauss explains why he has spent so much time attacking what seems to him such a bad book: “Books like Havelock’s are becoming ever more typical. Scholarship, which is meant to be a bulwark of civilization against barbarism, is even more frequently turned into an instrument of rebarbarization. As history suggests, scholarship is, as such, exposed to that degradation. But this time the danger is greater than ever before. For this time the danger stems from the inspiration of scholarship by what is called a philosophy. Through that philosophy the humane desire for tolerance is pushed to the extreme where tolerance becomes perverted into the abandonment of all standards and hence of all discipline, including philological discipline.” Granted that I might characterize a great deal of contemporary scholarship in the same way, I still recognize here a basic principle of neoconservative foreign policy—a complete intolerance for different world views and policies. To tolerate a communist or Islamic regime is a compromise with evil, which is why John Bolton liked to say, “I don’t do carrots.” It is interesting that George W. Bush, who has never been an intellectual, finds exactly this aspect of Strauss’s thought so congenial and is so eager to apply it not within academia, but on the world stage.

Strauss’s contempt for the common man emerges again in “Marsilius of Padua,” an analysis of a medieval philosopher whom he calls a Christian Aristotelian. “The problem of how to reconcile the Aristotelian principle (the men dedicated to the most noble practical activity ought to rule in their own right) with the Christian principle (the activity of the priest is more noble than that of the gentleman) could seem to have been solved in the clearest and simplest manner by the doctrine of papal plenitude of power. . . .Marsilius avoids that conclusion . . .Marsilius does not dispose of the difficulty by accepting Aristotle’s assertions according to which democracy or the rule of the vulgar is a bad regime and the farmers, artisans, and money-makers, who constitute the vulgar, are not in the strictest sense parts of the commonwealth.” (p. 189). Now I have no real credentials as an Aristotelian scholar, but I have certainly been exposed to a very different version of Aristotle’s political views—that he identified three kinds of government, rule by one man, rule by the few, and rule by the many—each of which could take either a benevolent or useful form. Monarchy could degenerate into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into mob rule. Men may differ, and I cannot be sure, if this is what Aristotle says, but I feel very strongly that it is what Thucydides thinks, it is what Rousseau thinks, and it is what I think. Strauss, however, obviously believes in rule by an elite, and neoconservatives do too. The same theme emerges yet again in the essay, “An Epilogue,” an attack on modern, as opposed to Aristotelian, political science. “Hence Aristotelian political science views political things in the perspective of the citizen. Since there is of necessity a variety of citizen perspectives, the political scientist or political philosopher must become the arbiter, the impartial judge; his perspective encompasses the partisan perspectives because he possesses a more comprehensive and a clearer grasp of man’s natural ends and their natural order than do the partisans.”(206) The idea that one’s self-identification as a “political scientist or philosopher” might become a screen for partisanship does not seem to have occurred to Strauss.

The same essay—actually an extended attack on the relativism, as Strauss saw it, of modern political science--argues repeatedly for an absolute moral code: “The denial of the common good presents itself today as a direct consequence of the distinction between facts and values according to which only factual judgments, not value judgments, can be true or objective.” Illustrating this point, he argues (p.215): “. . .everyone knows what follows from the demonstration, which presupposes the begging of all important questions, that there is only a difference of degree between liberal democracy and Communism in regard to coercion and freedom. The Is necessarily leads to an Ought, all sincere protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.” One can however accept the moral superiority and greater justice of liberal democracy (of which, as we have seen, Strauss could hardly be described as an enthusiast) while at the same time recognizing Communism as the expression of actual aspects of human nature—or rejecting attempts to stamp it out militarily as likely to do more harm than good.

It is obvious, even though it has become unfashionable to mention it, that neoconservatism bears some relationship to Zionism, even though most Jews are not neconservatives and many neoconservatives are not Jews. Judith Klinghoffer, who qualifies as a neoconservative herself, showed in a book on the Six Day War how American Jewish neoconservatism initially emerged after 1967 because that war had shown that the United States was one of Israel’s few remaining friends, and that in turn required the United States to pursue an aggressive, muscular foreign policy. And thus, I was naturaly intrigued to discover the following passage in the book’s last essay, a “Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion:” which Strauss had written in the 1920s when he was still living in Germany..

“To realize that the Jewish problem is insoluble means never to forget the truth proclaimed by Zionism regarding the limitations of liberalism. Liberalism stands and falls by the distinction between state and society or by the recognition of a private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law, with the understanding that, above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere. . ..The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require the legal prohibitions against every kind of ‘discrimination, that is, the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state. . . .There is a Jewish problem which is humanly soluble: the problem of the Western Jewish individual who or whose parents severed his connection with the Jewish community in the expectation that he would thus become a normal member of a purel liberal or of a universal human society and who is naturally perplexed when he finds no such society. The solution to his problem is return to the Jewish community, the community established by the Jewish faith and the Jewish way of life—teshubah (ordinarily rendered by “repentance”) in the most comprehensive sense.” (230-1.)

That “liberal states,” in the sense of states with modern legal systems that promise equality before the law, have not always protected the rights of Jews does not in my opinion render them hopelessly suspect. They (including the United States) have not always secured the rights of black people, women, homosexuals, or even those given to vigorous expression of their First Amendment rights either. But they have in my opinion have done the best job of protecting rights of any regimes that have existed in recent history, and their principles remain the only ones, in my opinion, that give us any hope of living together and enjoying those rights. Meanwhile, I recently took a look at a book by a prominent neocon, Elliot Abrams (for the last few years the NSC staffer responsible for the Middle East) entitled Faith or Fear: How Jews can Survive in a Christian America, which made exactly the same argument that Strauss made in the last sentence quoted above. That Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have the right to order their own lives according to laws handed down millennia ago I do not question; that this is the only way to happiness I reject.

While I have obviously only scratched the surface of the subject of the ideological origins of neoconservatism, I am struck by how easy it was to find the inspiration for much of our current foreign policy. I hope others will do a more systematic job—even though there suddenly seems to be at least a reasonable chance that we shall be following other principles in another year.

But meanwhile, this analysis gives us a new way to look at the New York Times' hiring of Kristol. The editors have repeatedly defended it on the grounds that they are offering a diversity of views. But would the views of a man who believed himself to be one of a tiny elite qualified by a proper understanding of politics to dictate to the rest of us, eager to spread myths that will secure support for his positions, and contemptuous of the average man's ability to understand the issues we face, really belong on the op-ed page of the leading newspaper of what purports to be a democracy? The answer to the question of whether that is the way Kristol sees himself, I think, can be found in his own writings. In any case, "such men are dangerous."

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Results!

Those of you who've been with me at least since November 2006 know that instant election results are a specialty here at historyunfolding. Although some votes remain to be counted, I'm going to comment on Iowa--because I'm delighted. The victory of Mike Huckabee and the very probable (at this point) victory of Barack Obama--and the bare probability of a third-place finish for Hillary Rodham Clinton--send an overwhelming message: the country is fed up with the establishment of both parties and is eager to say so. Turnout was very high, especially among the Democrats. We are, I venture to say, finally in the new era that Strauss and Howe predicted. The establishment is dead--r.i.p.

Obama is now five points ahead with about 80% of the precincts in. He has won. I am thrilled, and not just because he is my candidate--barely. Hillary will try to recoup in New Hampshire and South Carolina--but if she does, I suspect Edwards will pull out and endorse Obama (who may become more confrontational in his rhetoric) before Super Tuesday, leaving him in a very strong position.

We have the next ten months to find out what our great republic is still capable of. I can't wait to find out.