Saturday, May 21, 2005

An exchange: Strauss and the Neocons

I had one point that I wanted to clarify: you quoted Leo Strauss about "permissive egalitarianism." Since Strauss is considered the godfather of neoconservative philosophy, what do you think of the neoconservative philosophy in general? Do you think its premises (eg. society has to have an "other" to fight against to maintain a sense of community, liberalism is the problem as opposed to other forces, democracy can be imposed from the outside, etc.) are valid or not?

Look, Strauss has somewhat influenced my thinking and probably not in a way too terribly pleasing to some Straussians, I suspect. But I have a soft spot for him in my heart, I must admit. He has wonderfully stunning insights into most of the texts I am passionate about and many beautifully imaginative readings which forces one to be attentive to the context of texts.

Behind some of the more accusative tarradiddle targeting him, however, has been, I think, certain inattentiveness to the precarious conditions under which various authors have written throughout history. It doesn't take much simply to hover over various texts, presumptuous in thinking we understand the writers better than they understood themselves.

Intimate readings, on the other hand, require thoughtfulness and carefulness and one has to occasionally work multiple layers to get at some of the more central concepts. So I find Strauss in some ways indispensable. And his contributions to the debates on the malaise of modernity, and particularly about liberal education should not be avoided; nor could they be ignored.

Some translations of his works can be found in Iran. Labors of love, really. And I would suggest that geography does indeed affect one's interpretations at times. Two different examples and an observation of a more personal nature about the act of writing.

Much of the more recent belligerent (western) attacks on Strauss won't have much force if you are reading here. Do you really think anyone would rush to find him outrageous, or Straussians a "cult", for suggesting esoteric/exoteric dimensions to texts?

People go on to read our medieval poet Hafez everyday here looking for as yet another undiscovered layer or undisclosed meaning. And a central feature of Shi'ia theology has to do with a reading of the Koran dependent upon Zaher and Baten dichotomy. Fundamentally though, we should remember, Mr. Strauss attempts to get at the crisis of modernity by proceeding back to Plato through Al-Farabi. And Al-Farabi is one of us and we an heir to his tradition.

Conversely though, there isn't much one can do with some of the more reductionist interpretations of the political consequences of his teachings in the Iranian context if one isn't content with our present predicament or some of the possible choices.

Let's be blunt: I like my ancestors just as much as many of you on the outside fancy yours, I suppose. But the divine laws appear to me antithetical to justice. The engagement with His inscrutable will has resulted in the vanishing of wonder in our society and myriad meditations on His mystery and omnipotence has destroyed much of the concern with the order of things. So instead of the promised "deepening of the soul" we now have its near annihilation.

Can't very well be blaming liberalism, moral-relativism or historicism for the breakdowns in the social life here now, could we? So what is there to think? Is the tradition itself or this present form of our Republic or our (conventionally understood) foundational principles really defensible?

Put differently, the "covenant" hasn't done what it was supposed to do and precisely because of this failure, those who insist on "childlike simplicity"," obedient love" and "fear and trembling" should now leave our cities or confine themselves to the temple. I had never been satisfied with the Almighty's response to Job's questions to begin with. But Bam has definitively exhausted my patience altogether and for eternity.

And now a problem of transition. A strict, inattentive reading of the question of the best regime might lead us straight into the stinky shoes of the likes of Chalabi at best, although I can certainly see why some of the more rightwing, pious supporters of this Islamic regime are occasional Strauss readers. (check the Resalat newspaper)

As an aside, I think those Iranians should invite Mr. Bennett in for a tour of our "spiritual" land and together they should reflect upon some of the existing "decadence" and "cynicism," until such time as emotional exhaustion and fury disabuse the gentleman of his disenchantment with "boredom!"

And should Mr. Shulsky decide to join in on the fun, he too can experience firsthand some of the corrosive social consequences of the mindsets privileging the "analysis of adversarial intentions," instead of "details and uncertainties." We are all exceedingly good at that here.

And I should now offer an observation about the act of writing in more familiar terms. I have been writing this blog for about 16 months and in real life over the years have had a few different "traditional" publications. I actively read a number of real writers. I do express my concerns yes, but always in conversation with them. Some are never named. There are a few people I have been having some heated exchanges with. But we hardly ever acknowledge one another "openly" every time. This mode of entanglement you can see in all different more ancient cultures where the oral tradition has played a more central role. It has been very productive. Even more so than when I "lament" outspokenly. It takes work.

Because I have to think more seriously and find ways of articulating concerns that would address their conceptions and even though it might merely be in passing, in some ways it has been even more exhausting precisely because it has been so much more intimate.

Now to others who just quickly glance at this blog, a line or a paragraph might very well be irrelevant or not a very interesting one. And yes, quite a large chunk is both irrelevant and uninteresting. But for my (intended) interlocutor, some particular paragraph might be enough for our next bout. And I think that is an experience familiar enough to most writers.

And note please: even though the title of my blog reads "Guarded Observations" I am not by temperament subtle-- quite indiscreet and loud actually, and I am your run of the mill thinker. So just imagine what the creative, brilliant minds have been doing with this sort of exchanges over the many centuries. And seriously reflect upon what we deprive ourselves of the moment we assume our present mode of vulgar shouting matches which routinely pass as reading/dialogue is the only way to map out the preoccupations of those who still speak to us from a place in another culture and other centuries.

What all this out of the way I should now more explicitly say that I think Mr. Strauss is being unfairly blamed for the neocons adventures. More to the point, I have come to think Carl Schmitt's friend/enemy paradigm far more pertinent and here Strauss has some pointed objections aimed at the heart of Schmitt's construct of the Political which should be examined carefully.

So then about the neocons: it is important to initially take self-definitions seriously which is why we need to focus on what Irving Kristol has to say about foreign policy. This might help us get more of a sense for what is at stake here. According to the fellow, there has never been a definitive text we can call neoconservative on foreign affairs. But they all like Thucydides and as luck would have it that goes double for me.

So from here, I would make two quick observations. For Strauss, the city at war is inferior to the city at peace both in terms of humaneness and naturally of course degrees and modalities of human excellence. And I am not convinced here this is the way neocons conceive of things. But I can still keep an open mind on this.

And then there is also that central question of the cultural background of who it is that reads the text or when and where. And so, I've often wondered how the Melian Dialogue comes off, for example, if one reads it in Fallujah as opposed to Washington, and in Jenin as apposed to Jerusalem. And that leads straight to the heart of the more central part of the question.

The "genuine" Straussians--mostly gentle, civil and principled, (probably following in the footsteps of Strauss himself: "the philosopher will not hurt anyone. While he can not help being more attached to his family and to his city than strangers…his benevolence or humanity extends to all human beings with whom he comes into contact.") -- are probably leading intellectually satisfying lives in various Colleges cultivating souls and their version of "political activism" probably translates into contributing to the future health of their Republics by teaching and fostering a sense of citizenship that is contingent upon a functional moral compass and sharp, critical faculty of intellect.

What I think we have, on the other hand, in the sort of people loosely categorized as the neocons—i.e. the politically interventionist talking heads --are the theorists of Dominion. Incontinent, self-indulgent ruling elites (and I don't mean this necessarily and exclusively in a personal way) whose job it is to promote a particular version of national self definition that appears intricately bound with a position of geopolitical preeminence.

As practicalities of normal international relations go, as a number of different folk have pointed out, it doesn't take much to recognize that any ruling elite with enough clout and power would have ventured to fill the void brought about by the demise of the Soviet empire. They are thinking geopolitical grandeur long-term. And personally, when America is expanding to impose its new sense of Order on the globe, I would much rather deal with the neocons instead of say a Jacksonian America given the reactions American moves naturally elicit throughout a resistant globe.

Their rhetoric might have a tempering side effect--especially domestically, I think. But what is troubling for me is a lingering fear that often there is a cold logic to discourses and to the way historic events unfold.

Thus, I want all of us to be fully aware that even in a more generous, nuanced reading; that is, even when noting Schmitt's acknowledgment that "if physical destruction of human life is not motivated by an existential threat to one's own way of life, then it cannot be justified;" any defense of that way of life, and thus presumably "Democracy" itself requires (for Schmitt) "first homogeneity and second -- if need arises -- elimination or eradication of heterogeneity." And one shouldn't always wait for the punch line.

Subsequently, even as I go on to fully acknowledge that we have had more than our fair share of killing fields in the East, it is in the West itself that we witness some of the most brutal and systematic manifestations of barbarity as recent as half a century ago, notably in Auschwitz and Dachau and the Stalinist Gulags and psychiatry wards, and with Mussolini as well, I suppose. And witness also how the West was a major Saddam enabler when he was busy with some of his most barbaric butcheries. And also the callousness and the ease with which most tolerated the murderous sanctions regime in Iraq.

That combination of the theoretical paradigm at work here coupled with the lessons of the past century rings all kinds of alarm bells for me.

But enough depressing recollections for now. What I want to emphasize here is that I am not so naïve as to think when confronted with the competing claims of the perceived short or long term national security interests vs. the rhetoric of democracy, this generation of American elites would have the required fortitude to tolerate the uncertainty entailed by that period of democratic experimentation in the Arab/Islamic world (if/when they sense they can't set a "controlled fire") given the high stakes involved not only economically, but also and particularly because of the apparent lure of different murderous forms of Islamic fundamentalism in this region.

Consider also the history of their choices and interventions here and their preference for petty tyrants post WWII.

As for me, when faced with a choice between having to write in anonymity/not voting and living in (needless) fear vs. getting a relatively free press and voting for a lesser evil to represent some of my interests for any length of time, I would certainly choose the latter each and every time. I'll take whatever I can get.

But really, voting once a couple years democracy does not make, nor a more hassle free life; nor a blossoming of democratic ethos in any society or a just Order. And so once we start with a broader conception, I can't in good conscious consider democracy exportable at the point of guns and especially not overnight. In some ways, I even think it counter productive long term.

Post war trauma always unleashes insecurity which lets even the nastier genies of aggressive patriarchy, ethnic chauvinism/petty mindedness and fear-generated religiosity out of their bottles and these factors can be most destructive of the gradual blossoming of saner societies in the Middle East.

No comments: