State of the Union

Straussians Talk Amongst Themselves—in the NYT

Quinn Dombrowski

I had hoped that the recent commentary on the “Legacy of Leo Strauss” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review at least referred to my study Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America. I also believed that the reviewer, Steven B. Smith, would have remembered that in 1986 I had written for TLS a favorable assessment of his work on Hegel as a legal and political thinker. What is more, my monograph includes generous references to Smith’s Hegel study. Perhaps he would return these acts of random kindness by giving yours truly a mention.

Unfortunately, Straussians rarely respond to their critics, and their preferred situation for making responses at all is when some far-left dunderhead attacks them as fascists. In fact, they are not fascists but embattled liberal democrats. They also represent, as I suggest in book (perhaps while understating the problem), a uniquely leftist form of militarism, which is akin to the militant commitment to universal rights that one finds in Bolsheviks and Jacobins.

One of the elements binding together Strauss’s followers is the acceptance of certain hermeneutic principles for reading selected political texts. Despite the impression Smith gives that Strauss’s texts are enjoying dizzying popularity throughout the world, in reality they are seen as weird by most scholars outside their own parochial school. About a third of my book is an attempt to make sense to what may appear to be coded interpretations intended for the initiated. My most widely read reviewer (indeed one of my very few reviewers), Kenneth McIntyre, used his comments about my book to lace into the anti-historical and what seems to McIntyre utterly arbitrary interpretations that Straussians impose on Plato, Locke, and other political thinkers. The English politics scholar Quentin Skinner has famously done the same. And scores of American historians—soon to be followed by the Canadian scholar Grant Havers, who has written a book on the subject—have observed the tendency of Straussians to ignore the Protestant and culturally specific aspects of the American Founding. If these sectarians ever get around to responding to their scholarly critics, there is one hell of a lot for them to do; and as Andrew Sullivan observed in a blog noting McIntyre’s complaints, it may be high time for a group that he studied with at Harvard to defend themselves as scholars, not merely as a cult. Read More…

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Syria’s War Redraws America’s Political Map

The current debate about whether the president should take military action against the Syrian regime after Assad’s alleged use of chemical warfare against his people has taken a noteworthy turn. Those who oppose military intervention entirely or insist on making it contingent on congressional approval do not break down into the usual partisan categories. Broadly speaking, those who oppose immediate presidential intervention, or intervention generally, are a growing combination of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Standing with them is now more than half of the American public.

Among the prominent opponents of intervention are Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, all outspoken small-government conservatives and U.S. Senators who are concerned about constitutional restraints on presidential powers. These figures are making common cause with people on the left, who insist that the UN, not the U.S. government, should handle the Syrian crisis. For leftist critics, our country has domestic concerns that are more pressing than meddling in another country’s civil war. Significantly, opponents of intervention, right and left, see no “American interest” at stake in Syria.

Those on the other side, led by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Congressman Peter King of New York, and the Rupert Murdoch media empire, believe that Obama should be bombing Syrian military installations without congressional approval and trying to overthrow and replace the Assad regime. Those who favor intervention typically endorse a far-reaching involvement in Syria that goes well beyond destroying chemical weapons facilities. From their point of view, the Obama administration has compromised American credibility by not taking decisive action to remove the Syrian government. It has also dishonored the “democratic values” that the U.S. should strive to bring to other nations. In a ringing statement of this creed, Brookings Institute fellow and a leading neoconservative theorist Robert Kagan delivered a speech last week, affirming the need for a global American presence aimed at nurturing democratic institutions worldwide. Kagan, who was a major rhetorical influence on the foreign policy of George W. Bush, views the Obama administration as retreating into an isolationist posture that betrays what the U.S. has stood for internationally for the last hundred years. Read More…

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No Half Measures Against Political Correctness

A nationwide organization, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), is waging a crusade for academic freedom against expanded federal guidelines on sexual harassment. In a letter of explanation sent last month to the University of Montana, the Departments of Justice and Education have now defined harassment in such a way as to make every student and faculty member subject to government investigation. Sexual harassment has now been expanded to cover “verbal conduct” that the listener considers offensive. This new definition goes beyond the guidelines issued by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in 2003, stipulating that speech could only be treated as actionable if it went beyond “the mere expression of views, words and symbols that some person finds offensive.” According to the earlier definition, such an offending act “had to be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable person in the alleged victim’s position, considering the circumstances, including the alleged victim’s age.”

FIRE is treating the Obama administration’s revised guidelines as a direct, deliberate attack on the First Amendment’s right of free speech. The guidelines require university administrations to enforce speech codes that, according to FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, illegitimately limit what students are allowed to say to each other and to their professors. If the academic administration fails to play along, it can suffer a variety of penalties, including the curtailing of funds from the Department of Education, government investigation, and lawsuits. This form of blackmail is clearly intended to restrict the already severely limited right of speech on American campuses.

Allow me to underline for the millionth time my revulsion for Political Correctness, in all its odious forms. In the remarks that follow, I am not defending this obscenity that has, perhaps irreversibly, poisoned American higher education. And as someone who fought this demon (unavailingly) for many decades, I may be the last person on earth who can be accused of consorting with it. But certain circumstances must be brought up in order to grasp our current problem.

It is debatable whether anyone’s First Amendment right has been violated since the actors in this case are aware of and at least implicitly agree to the limits placed on their freedom when they become part of a college. They are working at institutions that are steeped in nutty ideology; and if the kids and their parents miss this message when they take a tour of the campus, they will be pounded with it during orientation week. Although there are schools that don’t hammer you over the head with multicultural nonsense, most consumers don’t opt for those products. Let the buyer beware! They are certainly not the victims of misleading advertising. And since the overwhelming majority of college-age students voted for this presidential administration, this constituency is getting exactly what it endorsed.

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Thomas Sowell’s Genetic Fallacies

Although I have not read Thomas Sowell’s latest book Intellectuals and Race, a discussion of its contents in his April 23 column makes me less than eager to read it. For years I enjoyed reading Sowell’s commentaries, and his early research showing the economic progress of American blacks before the passage of federal antidiscrimination laws had a powerful effect on my own scholarship. A black who rose from what today would be considered poverty, Sowell offers proof that the most solid advances in the standard of living of American blacks took place before the Civil Rights era and were mostly unrelated to government actions. Since then Sowell has attacked all affirmative action and set-aside programs for minorities not only as unfair to those who become the new victims of discrimination but also for not being helpful to those groups that are seen as deprived. He has shown that relatively affluent minorities, particularly middle-class women, have benefited disproportionately from government attempts to mandate quotas.

Unfortunately Sowell in his latest books engages in his own political correctness. It is a form of that illness that has infected the American conservative movement, and it may be an overreaction to a charge that has come from the left, branding conservatives or Republicans (they are not necessarily the same) as racists. In reaction to this charge, Sowell seems to be denying entirely the effects of genetic inheritance. He tells us that black football players are hardly ever kickers, despite the fact that blacks are not “genetically incapable of kicking a football.” The question left begging is whether the positions football players are assigned are unrelated to inherited strengths, for example, girth or running dexterity or the power of someone’s foot. Is what we achieve in life or on a football team entirely a matter of what we choose to do or be?

Sowell also gives us faulty history when he tells us that the belief that “some races are inferior to others … led to such things as eugenics and ultimately to the Holocaust.” There were many reasons that people preached eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the belief in racial inferiority was not usually a prime concern here. Eugenicists, like modern social engineers, were trying to create designer-made children, and ads that I’ve seen in progressive New York publications calling for sperm donors to produce “gifted children” fully coincide with the aims of the eugenics movement. Read More…

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Are Americans More ‘Socialist’ Than Europeans?

Although I’ve been critical of my state’s current governor, it’s usually been to twit him for not cutting budgets sufficiently. While Tom Corbett is spot on in wanting to privatize Pennsylvania’s liquor monopoly, he should not be trying to feather the nests of other public employees by promising to pay off teachers with the proceeds gained from selling state-owned liquor stores. It seems wrong to mix something as desirable as privatizing liquor sales with something as silly as paying teachers to instruct adolescents in the proper use of alcoholic beverages. Let parents or some voluntary group do the instructing!

Unfortunately I’m not at all on the same page with most residents of the Keystone State, who presumably dislike Corbett for being a budget cruncher. According to the latest Franklin and Marshall poll, Corbett, who enjoys only 26 percent approval, may be the most hated governor in Pennsylvania history. It seems nothing he does is really popular: you’d think everyone but state employees working in the state-owned liquor stores would be applauding Corbett’s proposal to privatize liquor sales. After all, state residents, according to extensive studies conducted by Commonwealth Foundation, are paying 50 percent more on their liquor purchases than people in surrounding states.

Strangely enough, the privatization plan resonates positively with only 52 percent of those polled. I suspect that once this idea was linked to the supposedly stingy Corbett, a plan that otherwise would have been immensely popular lost part of its appeal. It apparently makes no difference in terms of his popular standing that Corbett’s state budget, given rising costs, is still higher than previous budgets, if not nearly as high as the one Governor Rendell would likely be giving us. There is nothing to suggest the governor will slash our extravagant pensions for public employees.

This situation illustrates for me a general problem facing this country, perhaps even more critically than is the case in other Western countries. Unlike Canada or Germany, which have large welfare states but are willing to economize, in the U.S. voters just want more and more social programs, and politicians are too cowardly or ideologically driven to say “no.” I’ve never accepted the idiocy pushed on Fox News that the U.S. is a “right of center” country, but I also never realized until recently how undisciplined we’ve become as a government-dependent society. Other social democratic countries focus attention on soaring public debts. We by contrast just ask the state to pay for more stuff, which in the end we finance out of our earnings or cover with Chinese loans.  I don’t believe for a moment this problem is confined to minorities. The 74 percent of those surveyed who are against our minimally penny-pinching governor includes far more than minority discontent.

I began noticing this intensified craving for more and bigger government programs during my later years as a professor. It was obvious by then that my students associated the welfare state with endless goodies, of which education loans would be only the first in a string of expected favors. I came to understand why the young, once employed, didn’t resent paying disproportionately for benefits for retirees. They imagined they would be getting even more loot from the state once the time came for them to retire.

Notice my argument is not that we return to being a constitutional society with a strictly limited government. The hour for that is long over, and I may be in a diminishing number of those who regret that’s the case. I just wish we became a better disciplined social democracy, like Canada, which does better in reining in unsustainable government costs. As a free-market economy the U.S. now lags behind at least ten other countries, according to the Index of Economic Freedom, and has been falling during the last five years. The contention that unlike Europeans we don’t accept a large welfare state is malarkey. What makes us different from other “progressive” societies may be the reason they can provide cheap socialized medicine and we probably couldn’t. Other countries expect less from their governments and in return for being looked after as wards of the state recognize there are limits as to what the state should be doing for them.

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What’s Wrong With “Human Rights”

Some god-terms that issue from the media, and which I had the misfortune of hearing incessantly as an academic, make me wince as soon as they come out of someone’s mouth. Among these particularly obnoxious terms are “social justice,” “fairness,” and “sensitivity,” all of which drip with righteousness and dishonesty.

The term or concept that lately has been causing me the most visceral pain, however, is “human right.” The pain became excruciating last week, when I heard Fox News commentator Juan Williams insist that gay marriage is a human right. If Williams had his way, the Supreme Court would impose recognition of this arrangement on every hamlet in this country. That’s because he thinks it’s “fair” and in any case required by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I’ve no idea how the Fourteenth Amendment can require the imposition of a marital practice that differs from how marriage was understood since the beginnings of human societies and up until a few years ago in this country. It is possible to see why the Fourteenth Amendment might be invoked to uphold the right of every American taxpayer, whatever his color, to use the public facilities he or she pays for. But how can it require, except by an act of judicial usurpation, that all Americans be forced to recognize as marriage a cohabitation arrangement between people of the same sex. Supposedly this entails a right that must be equally protected. Right to what? Presumably of anything that those involved decide to call marriage and then oblige everyone else, on pain of punishment, to accept as such.

What happens, however, if those who wish to experiment with new forms of marriage decide that it would be a good idea to practice incest? Does that too become a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment? What about group marriage, a practice that’s already being tried in Holland? Is that too protected by our constitution, according to Juan Williams? The answer is that incest and group marriages may be entitled to legal protection against discriminators, if Williams decides to characterize them as human rights. What the hell—two more rights added to the list really won’t muddle the term “human rights” any more than it’s already been muddled. And in fact the term has now been reduced to a rhetorical trope that is meant to impress the listener with the moral seriousness of the person who pronounces it.

My objection to the term is not based on moral relativism, since I don’t pretend to be a moral agnostic. I could think of at least one right that all people should be entitled to and which government should provide: it’s Thomas Hobbes’s single example of a natural right, which is to be protected by government against violent death. But who believes in what rights is not the point here.  I am arguing against the use of human rights bombast whenever some individual, institution, or state wishes to express a political preference or a program of social reconstruction. Just make your arguments and let the listener decide. Further, I don’t object to listening to moral arguments against societies that do horrible things. Mention what the leaders of these societies do and then leave it to others to decide whether your indictment is correct. Saying that what you deplore violates human rights fills space with noise without contributing anything substantive to human knowledge. For example, if someone shows me that the Taliban stones women to death if they’re seen talking to young men to whom they’re not married, that’s a sufficient indictment. In no way would the speaker be strengthening his brief by adding that the Taliban “violates human rights.”

I would also make a traditionalist case against human-rights language. Whereas most of us in the same society up until a few decades ago could have agreed on what actions were right and wrong, human rights are more subject to change than traditional moral verities. Their validity depends on political and cultural winds; and it is foolish to believe that one can bridge the breakdown of moral or social consensus throughout the Western world by resorting to a new universal ethic based on “human rights” or “democratic values.” There are sharp and even growing differences in our society about fundamental behavioral questions, and appeals to supposedly universal rights language will not likely heal these divisions. Significantly, both those who favor and those who oppose the right to abort a fetus shower us equally with human-rights rhetoric. That practice settles nothing of importance, except for allowing the speakers to feel good about their cause and about themselves for upholding it. Read More…

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Hagel Gets a Sensitivity Litmus Test From the Neocon Press

I’ve no idea how former Nebraska senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran Chuck Hagel became President Obama’s preferred nominee for the job of Secretary of Defense. But when I learned about Hagel’s prospects, I was delighted. A social conservative with a skeptical view of America’s mission to convert the rest of the world to our current version of democracy, Hagel is someone I’ve long admired. Indeed I was hoping his campaign for president would take off four years ago. (Alas, it didn’t.)

For about a week after Hagel’s name surfaced as a possibility for Secretary of Defense, I was also hoping that his nomination would sail through the Senate effortlessly. I no longer think that’s the case. The Log Cabin Republicans yesterday took out a full-page New York Times advertisement to attack Hagel, who once voiced objections to having those who are openly gay serving in the military. He also objected to the muzzling of free speech in what looked like hate speech laws. His opponents have scolded him for being deficient in sensitivity, and in our politically correct democracy that may be the worst possible offense that any mortal could commit.

Leading the charge against Hagel has been the neocon press, with the Weekly Standard out in front of the pack. It seems that Hagel has fought with AIPAC and even once misspoke when he referred to his trouble with “the Jewish lobby.” He later took this back and stated that he meant “the Israeli lobby.” It’s not that the former Senator has disagreed consistently with Israeli policies, and most of the time in the Senate he came down with the rest of his party behind the Israeli government. But Hagel has expressed reservations about his party always lining up on one side in the Middle Eastern conflict and has suggested this degree of partisanship weakens the credibility of Republicans as possible peace brokers. Hagel also made fun of those Republicans (such as Lindsay Graham and John McCain) who went beyond the lobby in their enthusiasm for everything the Israelis did. McCain was rewarded for his cheer-leading with about 20 percent of the Jewish vote in a presidential race against the most pro-Palestinian Democratic candidate in U.S. history.

The neocons have gone after Hagel for being anti-Israeli and by implication anti-Semitic. They’ve also pulled out every charge that the left might care to feature about Hagel being a social reactionary who is too far on the right to represent us as secretary of defense. The neocons (including Fox News contributors) have attacked him repeatedly as a homophobe. But their main charge has been that Hagel once had kind words for the 95-year-old South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, at a birthday party Hagel and other senators attended. Supposedly Hagel made it appear that he was cool with Thurmond’s one-time segregationist record by praising the then almost senile senator’s “life well lived.” Apparently he should have pummeled the decrepit Southern lawmaker instead.

Reading this kind of slime (there is no other word for this invective) I almost feel relief that Obama was reelected as president. The thought of that weathervane Romney presiding over a government packed to the top with Bill Kristol’s buddies is far more frightening than any reckless spending program Obama has inflicted on us. I shudder to think that the main resistance to the leftist media and educational establishment in this country is coming from Bill’s boss and kindred spirit, Rupert Murdoch, who pays for Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. It is appalling that the “conservative” opposition is being funded by this Australian media baron, who is “conservative” on only one issue, an aggressive foreign policy.

The neocons are too powerful for GOP propagandists and establishment conservative journalists to defy. If they decide to pull the right leftward once again, they’re likely to get their way. It won’t be the first time they’ve prevailed. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the neocons upend Hagel while winning applause from both the social left and Christian Zionists in the GOP. I may be wrong, but after having seen the neocons win almost every battle they’ve entered for more than 30 years, I would be astonished to see them lose. Here’s hoping for a change in their fortunes, however, as we go into the New Year!

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Romney Is an Impediment to ‘Burkean Conservatism’

Pace Dan McCarthy’s hope about the possible implications of a Romney victory, I think it may be time to hear counter-arguments. Although Dan is right that Romney holds no principles, and although the neocon form of aggressive liberal internationalism may not enjoy huge approval outside of Fox News junkies, this does not justify the belief that Mitt will grow into a “Burkean conservative.” As someone who has written widely on European conservatism, I do not find any connection between Burke’s political world and ours. Burke had no use for democracy and human rights ideology and was openly contemptuous of regimes driven by the ideal of equality.

What Burke loathed however has become our political culture; and given our population base it appears unlikely that we’re going to return to the ideas put forth by Burke in his tract against the French Revolution. We can move to the right or to the left in terms of our time but it is doubtful that we can reclaim the legacy of those who were addressing a situation in a very different age on the basis of no longer accepted principles of hierarchy and authority. On this point I’ll take my stand with Sam Goldman and Karl Mannheim, rather than with those “cultural conservatives” who cherry-pick the past in search of a few nice phrases with which to dress up their political choices. We should be discriminating about what we learn from earlier times and be aware of what for better or worse, is no longer applicable, unless we wrench it out of context. Like the Bible, I say “Let the dead bury the dead” as I hear all the selective adaptations of the words and thoughts of past statesmen.

But beyond the semantic problem, it also seems to me that there wouldn’t be anything significant pushing Mitt toward some variant of Taft Republicanism even if he does get elected. As I point out in a postscript to the French edition of Conservatism in America, the disproportion between the neoconservative media empire and its opposition on the old or libertarian right is so immense that it may be wishful thinking to imagine that we’re talking about a real confrontation here. The non-aligned right, or whatever we choose to call it, has not been given a place in the political conversation; and even if we occasionally piggyback on to a congenial presidential candidate, that hasn’t made up for the marginalization we’ve suffered at the hands of the media left and the establishment right.

Unless there is this dramatic change in the balance of power, it is unlikely that a President Romney would feel obliged to heed our admonitions. More likely, he’ll remain with those neocon handlers who now surround him in a smothering embrace. This is truly the path of least resistance for someone who shies away from principled stands and who rarely delves into political thought. Even for something as vacuous as a GOP presidential candidate, Mitt stands out as a particularly empty vessel. And what goes into that vessel will be determined by those who exercise influence in the GOP and the national media.

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Immigration, Islam, and Europe’s Jews

Despite my usual agreement with Sam Goldman on historical questions, I beg to differ with him in his judgments about what kind of alliances European Jews should be making in view of the anti-Jewish sentiments that is now apparent among many Muslim immigrants. In my view, Jews would do best supporting those parties, typically on the right, which favor limiting Muslim immigration into Europe. Jews should also unconditionally oppose attempts by the European Left to allow the introduction of Sharia Law into European society, under the guise of religious freedom. It is also in the interest of Jews here and in Europe to reciprocate the good will being offered by traditional Christians. Jewish communities, particularly in Europe, should give up their atavistic prejudices against “goyim” masquerading as a commitment to total, state-enforced secularism (of course except for non-Christians). Christians are by far the best allies Jews can find, as opposed to the multicultural Left that has unleashed the immigration problem and are working knowingly or unknowingly toward the further Islamicization of Europe and toward the elimination of what remains of a Western Christian civilization.

Sam’s eagerness to ascribe anti-circumcision and anti-Jewish ritual slaughtering laws to rightwing anti-Muslim groups, which supposedly disdain Jews as well as Muslims, is misdirected energy. The laws he criticizes have considerable support on the left. Liberal Democrats are now introducing an anti-circumcision law in San Francisco, and those engaged in this act have absolutely no interest in persecuting Muslims. The proposals to ban ritual slaughtering in Sweden came from the country’s very leftist socialist party; and the anti-circumcision law in Germany resonates strongly with the socially radical Greens and the Party of German Socialists. Although the Nazi Party once favored such legislation, at least partly for anti-Semitic reasons, for several generations it has been the European Left that has been most strenuously opposed to such “inhumane” practices as Jewish ritual slaughtering and circumcising infants. There is nothing new about the Left’s association with these views. They were expressing them in the 1950s and 1960s, before Muslims entered Europe in large numbers.

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Eugene D. Genovese, R.I.P.

The justly renowned social historian Eugene D. Genovese died yesterday at the age of 82 in Atlanta. His death followed several years of dealing with a worsening cardiac ailment and with a jolting loss in 2007 from which he never recovered. This was the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth (Betsey), who was his frequent collaborator on books and whom he celebrated after her passing in moving memoirs. In my professional opinion, Genovese may have been the greatest social historian this country has given us; and the fact that he wrote like a dream makes his accomplishment even more noteworthy. In Roll, Jordan, Roll, a work that won the Bancroft Prize in 1974, The Political Economy of Slavery, and The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, Genovese presents an unsurpassed analysis of the mindset of the once dominant planter class in the Old South. Although Genovese wrote his early works as a Marxist and his later ones as a Catholic traditionalist and an avowed man of the Right, it is sometimes hard to distinguish his writings in terms of these personal changes. There is something which from the current political perspective is remarkably reactionary about Genovese’s oeuvre, even in those books he published as a Marxist who once came out openly for the Viet Cong. But that was when it was still possible to be a left-wing radical without having to be politically correct.

Absent from Genovese’s work is the tiresome moralizing that now characterizes academic historiography. Even in his most radical phase, he wrote admiringly about the antebellum Southern slave-owners, who believed deeply in their right to rule. This doomed class, which would give way in the Civil War to the dominance of the capitalist bourgeoisie and to the victory of free labor, did not lack for courage or manliness, according to Genovese. The planter class however represented the past, one that was destined to fall to the capitalist North, which eventually, Genovese hoped as a Marxist, would be overthrown by world socialism. By the way, Marx and Engels did not exhibit any of the tender feelings for the Southern side that one finds in their onetime follower.  They saw the Civil War, like our liberals and neoconservatives, as an unvarnished struggle between Good and Evil.

Read More…

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