Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hinderaker v. Alter

Robert Alter has a review of a study of Leo Strauss in today's New York Times (online, free, I won't be giving them any money). The book is Reading Leo Strauss, by Steven B. Smith. Scott Hinderaker has a disdainful response at Power Line:

Alter crudely turns his praise of Strauss and Smith to immediate political purposes. According to Alter, Strauss "repeatedly argued against the very idea of political certitude that has been embraced by certain neoconservatives." Alter himself sounds a little too much in love with his own certitude for a guy who doesn't know what he's talking about.

I do not have nearly the knowledge required to say how much, if any, of Alter's review can be trusted, nor can I say how fair Hinderaker has been. But I suspect Hinderaker is on the mark because of one egregious passage in Alter's review:
"Throughout his writings," Smith concludes, "Strauss remained deeply skeptical of whether political theory had any substantive advice or direction to offer statesmen." This view was shaped by his wary observation of the systems of totalitarianism that dominated two major European nations in the 1930's, Nazism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union. As a result, he strenuously resisted the notion that politics could have a redemptive effect by radically transforming human existence. Such thinking could scarcely be further from the vision of neoconservative policy intellectuals that the global projection of American power can effect radical democratic change. "The idea," Smith contends, "that political or military action can be used to eradicate evil from the human landscape is closer to the utopian and idealistic visions of Marxism and the radical Enlightenment than anything found in the writings of Strauss."

Bracketed as it is by Smith's sensible remarks on Strauss, it is easy to overlook the shortcoming of Alter's conclusion and the passivity it imputes to Strauss.

The premise of one of Alter's conclusions is that Strauss was skeptical that his writing had anything to offer statesmen. Alter then states that this view was shaped by the totalitarianism Strauss witnessed in the '30s and '40s. (I assume this is taken from Smith's book and is essentially true, but don't know enough to say for sure; for my purpose here it can be assumed to be the truth.)

Alter draws a conclusion from these premises: "As a result, he strenuously resisted the notion that politics could have a redemptive effect by radically transforming human existence." He then says that this couldn't be further from the American neo-con belief that "global projection of American power can effect radical democratic change."

But there is no nexus between fascist efforts to dominate and American efforts to democratize, and I wonder how an educated person could make the analogy Alter makes. Alter's conclusion rests on the idea that the neo-con arguments for democracy are similar enough to the arguments of Bolsheviks that Strauss would reject the neo-cons. The analogy he bases this on is so glaringly unjust that this argument must be utterly rejected. The "redemption" totalitarians offer is the redemption of original sin through enslavement to a state comprised of already "redeemed" revolutionary minds; the democracy America offers is that redemption's precise opposite.

The intention of the socialist and fascist revolutionaries was the transformation of man into the into a creature perfected by state direction. The intention of American democratization efforts is to liberate people from those who might attempt to transform them, from those who might try to bend the a nation to the will of the state, be it a state represented by national socialist Ba'ath's or radical Islamic mullahs. The Bolshevik wishes to change mankind into something new and "perfected"; the American wishes to liberate that which man already is: a creature of free will and individual integrity, a creature that does not require the absolute direction of the state.

Time will tell whether Bush's democratization principle can be reliably applied to Muslim and Arab cultures, but it is grotesque to casually analogize it to the principles of totalitarian revolutionaries.

Alter's conflation totalitarians and neo-cons is so glaringly unfair that I am disinclined to trust the rest of his review.

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