One of the more popular conspiracy theory stories circulating right now concerns those insidious Straussians -- people who owe their thinking to an eminent, if somewhat obscure, philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago for several decades -- working their hawkish influence on the Bush Administration. James Atlas wrote a perfectly fallacious lead article for last Sunday's New York Tims Week in Review section, depicting Paul Wolfowitz -- who studied under Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss -- as a pseudo-Roman warrior with a copy of Leo Strauss's On Tyranny under one hand. The article is totally fallacious, because Wolfowitz's ideas about foreign policy can't really be linked that heavily to Leo Strauss and Wolfowitz is not the principle architect of foreign policy. He is also the only Straussian in the administration. Most fallacious is the beleif that Straussians are somehow "right wing" which isn't true. Yes, there is a conservative tilt. But many are totally non-political and teach "the great books." Some are actually rather liberal -- William Galston is a prominent Straussian and quite liberal. He was also a member of Clinton's administration and was a top advisor to ol Bill. So, another slime job by the New York Times. And Seymour Hersh in this week's New Yorker tries his hand as well at the Straussian mud-sling, but he's a little more deft than poor Atlas.
Nicholas Antongiavanni had some perceptive and amusing comments about this liberal media Strauss obsession:
Okay, I read the Hersh piece. It’s bad! Not as bad as Atlas’s, but then Hersh didn’t devote enough space to Strauss to make as many errors.
Hersh ropes Strauss into a run-of-the-mill article about interagency in-fighting. Why are people at the Defense Department suspicious of intelligence and analysis they get from other agencies? Because they’re Straussians, and as such believe that only those trained in the mysterious art of esoteric reading [for which Straussians are famous] are capable if interpreting mysterious intelligence! This is a stretch to say the least. (Though I am reminded of the time that someone--I think it was Kojève--asserted that Strauss’s method, while like detective work, was unlikely to result in a conviction. Strauss responded that he would be satisfied if his arguments did no more than induce suspicion of a crime where before there had been only the assumption of perfect innocence.)
Ultimately, what’s more interesting than Hersh’s view of why Strauss is influential is the question: Why is the media so obsessed with demonstrating that Strauss is influential? I have thought about this a little, and come up with several possible explanations. Not sure which I prefer, but here they are:
It’s News! Most Americans have not heard of Strauss. When a reporter first hears of Strauss and realizes that Strauss has all these followers whom the reporter has heard of, a little light bulb goes on. Aha! I now know something others don’t! I must tell the world!
So That's What They’re All About! Reporters love to ascribe hidden, sinister motives to people they don’t like. This allows them to feel more justified in their dislike. (It’s not that I’m biased! These guys really are bad!) This belief is also what keeps the “news analysis” business alive and thriving. Just reporting what people say and do does not take too many column inches and is not much fun. Writing about what they really think and what they’re really up to: that’s fun! That’s how you get on TV! In Washington, of course, the reporters are liberal and the Straussians are conservative so, ispo facto, the reporters don't like the Straussians. But you can't get much milage out of simply calling someone a conservative. There are too many of them for that to be shocking. And (let's face it!) some are even valued sources whom it would be foolish to offend. But defining "Straussianism" in sinister terms and then calling someone a Straussian and can go a long way.
It’s a Conspiracy! There is nothing reporters love so much as a conspiracy. A good conspiracy can make a reporter's career. Look what one did for Bob Woodward! Plus, conspiracies are rare. The ratio of actual conspiracies to conspiracy theories is impossible to calculate, but is no doubt quite low. That makes uncovering a real one that much more of a status symbol. Now, unlike most conspiracy theories, the Straussians-Run-the-World theory is slippery enough to be all but impervious to falsification. Nixon either did or did not try to cover up the Watergate break-in. Follow the money, and a hard answer is available. Woodward would have ruined himself if, after 18 months of dogged reporting, he was only able to nail Donald Segretti and Gordon Liddy. But journalists can write that Straussians-Run-the-World on the vapors of hearsay and innuendo and just dare people to prove them wrong.
How Did He Do That? Reporters—especially Washington political reporters—love influence, partly because it’s the bread and butter of what they cover, partly because they wish they had some. The type of Washington figure that fascinates them the most is the “grey eminence,” the behind-the-scenes power broker who doesn’t need a high-profile job, shuns a high profile generally, but who everyone knows can nonetheless get the President on the phone at the drop of a hat. The idea of someone like Strauss—who never worked in government, never lived in Washington, and never lunched with Kay Graham—exerting so much influence (from beyond the grave, no less) both fascinates them and arouses tremendous envy.
Can I Join? Now, I don’t believe that most journalists who become aware of Strauss want to become Straussians. Too many hard books to read! Plus, those people are geeks! And worse, conservatives! And yet . . . Modern journalists do like to think of themselves as intellectuals--actually, as a special breed of intellectual who has shunned the comforts of the ivory tower to use their gifts and their learning to benefit all mankind in the cause of justice in the rough-and-tumble real word. Many of them have read—or at least were assigned—the books in the Straussian canon. They feel in their bones that whatever status they have in some way depends on their having something intelligent to say about said books. When they realize that there are these other folks who seem to really know something about these books and who also work in the real world, they get intrigued. The fact that these folks seem to be part of a secret society is all the more intriguing. What’s the secret? Can I know? Not that the journalists want to join, necessarily. I’ll bet that relatively few of the thousands of journalists who went to Yale had any real desire to join Skull & Bones, for instance; in fact I have little doubt that they publicly scoffed at the idea. And yet. . . the mystery! The élan! Something about the notion of esotericism works the same magic on the journalistic mind. Secret teachings, you say? Dangerous thoughts accessible only to the worthy, eh? I could figure it all out if I wanted to. Or could I . . . ?
That’s Not Fair! Pulling them in another direction, however, is the burning sensation that there is something terribly elitist and anti-democratic about the whole Straussian thing. Esotericism is by definition an exclusive doctrine. Seen from the outside, the Straussians seem awfully clannish. They don’t much respect the work of non-Straussians. They have their own schools, their own foundations, their own . . . wait, that’s taking us in a different direction. Anyway, journalists think of themselves as the arbiters of fairness and the guardians of democracy. Even if they don’t believe that Straussians have genuine insight into the mysteries of existence, they believe that the Straussians believe this of themselves. Since it is a short step from this to believing that genuine insight gives one a title to rule, even the possibility of said belief is unacceptable and must be exposed, ridiculed and—if necessary—punished.
Knock That Smirk Off Your Face! To the extent that some Straussians really do believe that they have special insight into the mysteries, it can make them seem smug and insufferable—especially to a journalist gnawed by self-doubt. There’s nothing like a printing press or a TV camera to knock a pompous know-it-all off his high horse!