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5/27/2004

Harper's Magazine the pernicious influence of Leo Strauss

I am frustrated by Harper's Magazine. It is a great publication, frequently plumbing the depths of American society in ways that no other magazine, except perhaps the New York Review, can match. Yet its impact on the public psyche is woefully discounted, not by the quality of their work, but by the magazine's refusal to develop an on-line presence. Certain features - the Harper's Index in particular - are almost preternaturally suited for on-line circulation and recirculation. Such things quickly become viral, disseminating the name of the magazine far beyond the band of people that would ceteris paribus frequent its pages.

What gets lost in the magazine's stubborn ludditism is of much value. Last month's Thomas Frank article on the Midwest's masochistic adoption of conservative doctrine is a case in point - the rhetoric of that article would have sunk into the institutional memory of the liberal blogosphere, if only it had had a chance.

The month's Harper's is no exception, particularly its great Earl Shorris article on Leo Strauss. Sy Hersh mentioned the Abram Shulsky channelling of Strauss in directing the Office of Special Plans. Other publications, including a firewalled NYT article, have emphasized the Straussian origins and intonations of the Bush administration and neoconservatism.

Shorris takes the conversation a bit further, providing a crypto-analysis of Strauss' infamously opaque ouvre, and how it has translated into action in the current administration. He provides background necessary for understanding Strauss' psychology: the anxiety of fleeing Nazi Germany, the betrayal by his patron Heidegger, his never-forgotten Socratic lesson that ideas are dangerous things to be left in code.

Strauss's fear of the Hemlock, coupled with his inveterate Germanness, explains the deliberate difficulty of his writing:

Leo Strauss is more difficult to read than almost anyone, including Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Joyce at his most involuted and eloquent. The reason for the difficulty grows out of Strauss's intent: He believed in what you and I would call bad writing...Here was a man who did not want to be understood by any but the few, his disciples. Obscurantism is a conceit, and it is an old technique." [66]
Shorris notes the centrality of contradiction to Strauss' philosophy, then explains them with examples from our regime:
Contradictions are not lies: they are nonsense, unreason. An axis of evil made up of countries that cannot be connected along any imaginable axis is a nonsense statement. A constitutional amendment banning marriage between people of the same gender would pit one part of the Constitution against several others - more nonsense. And when a State of the Union speech has for its peroration the problem of athletes using steroids, nonsense appears to be a preoccupation of the state.

A government would collapse if it spoke nothing but nonsense. Under George W. Bush the government has learned to speak on two levels at the same time. What appears to be nonsense to most people makes perfect sense to those who are initiated into a way of thinking abd a certain set of references, many of them biblical. From the constant use of the word 'evil' to subtle reference to the Book of Revelation, the favorite text of endtime thinkers on the Christian right, Bush's remarks and speeches had carried an esoteric message. [68]
The article goes on to note the Straussian idea of the "noble lie," or any lie that comes from the mouth of a noble. Obscurantism is premised on elitism: only the elite, the Platonic gold, will understand my writing - for those people, the fetters are off, they can do no wrong. Democracy, of course, gives power to those who don't deserve it, non-elites who would lead the country into mediocrity.

There is much more, and it is worth reading. If only I could link to it.

 

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