It’s been almost one year since the romantic breakup that led to my on-air confrontation with a sadistic ex during a C-SPAN2 panel. That means enough time has passed to set aside any personal issues and, before leaving the topic behind forever, ask what the cold, analytical gaze of future historians will see in the panel, assuming they know no more of the grotesque personal details than the average witless comment thread participant – enough time to ask: For the student of philosophy, what framework might be most useful for understanding the panel?
And that’s where Leo Strauss, discussed in my review yesterday of Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea and himself reviewed five years ago on this blog, comes in. Among mid-century philosopher Leo Strauss’s most prominent pupils were (1) neoconservatism founder Irving Kristol, (2) relativism-denouncer Allan Bloom, and (3) the more obscure political scientist and poverty analyst Edward Banfield, all three of them believing in their different ways in the importance of the contrast between philosophy and the way the great mass of people actually think.
And, though it did not even cross my mind at the time, it just so happens that the four C-SPAN2 panelists, as seen from the viewer’s left to right, were, respectively, (1) an editor who often invokes Irving Kristol (the editor of the volume we were all discussing, in fact, which includes my essay “Conservatism for Punks”), (2) a writer whose interest in politics was initially sparked by Allan Bloom’s denunciation in The Closing of the American Mind of moral relativism of the sort espoused at Brown University at the time (that’s me), (3) an avid Edward Banfield reader and urban history buff (the ex), and (4) for good measure, an actual nice-seeming Christian conservative female who went to an explicitly Christian college located, believe it or not, in the basement of the Empire State Building.
(That fourth panelist would be crucial for the “startled onlooker” role if the panel were a comedy sketch but is not vital to the present analysis, except in so far as she’s a reminder of what lots of normal people who aren’t weighed down by layers of Straussian skepticism and second-guessing actually believe. More than one person reacted to the panel by saying I should have been dating her instead, but she’s married, and I’m not going down the religious-female road ever again, though Jesus can’t take all the blame here.)
Abstracting still further from the personal level, and risking sounding uncharacteristically Marxist, it’s interesting that the Strauss-student-of-choice of each of the first three panelists strongly reflects what might be called the “class ethos” of the panelist in question (upper, middle, and lower, respectively).
Without for a moment presuming to know the actual income levels of our respective families, I notice that
•panelist #1 (originally an Upper West Sider with a political mom and now a great gig at the heart of the conservative media establishment) likes the Strauss student who arguably created the elite-cultural-managerial impulse in modern conservatism (Kristol)
•panelist #2 (that’s me, my bourgeoishood surely reaffirmed at the end of yesterday’s entry) likes the Straussian author who sold the most books to the bourgeoisie (Closing of the American Mind was a bestseller back in the 80s) and who seemed to be defending the fairly mainstream and non-authoritarian idea that people ought to read good books and behave well even when their parents aren’t watching (Bloom), sentiments with which perpetually well-behaved panelist #2 wholeheartedly agrees
•and panelist #3 (who, unusually for a conservative-of-sorts, often likens herself to a class warrior on behalf of poor/populist/rural attitudes, even some very bad ones, some of them at least ostensibly originating from the Southern regions whence she came) loves the Straussian author whose career began with analysis of socially-dysfunctional rural villages in Italy, where he concluded that the poor, absent institutions such as churches and (ick) labor unions, would naturally turn to the Mafia and mob violence to fill the social vacuum.
Banfield seems to share the elite/Straussian attitude that the poorwill have bad morals without guidance, but his more Marxian-sounding solution seems to be to foster working-class solidarity – and to assume (again unusually for a conservative-of-sorts) that the well-behaved nuclear family may be a model best restricted to the more-stable upper classes, whereas autonomy does not work out as well for the savages at the bottom of the social ladder. An explicit emphasis on class differences was important to his thinking, whereas most conservatives genuinely want everyone to abide by the same moral rules.
(I’m all for civil society institutions, of course, but hate to see markets, as usual, getting stuck with the blame for disrupting “organic” social relationships, instead of government and criminals. Markets and mutual-aid societies and churches are all voluntary institutions, and government is the real common foe.)
Anyway, call me middle class if you like, but I think it’s proper and profoundly American to regard both the elite and the drunken proles with some suspicion and hope that the deviants of all nations will eventually aspire to open their own car dealerships, so to speak, and in the grand scheme of things, my way seems to be winning, to the betterment of all. (I don’t quite share the Times’ mania for getting more prisoners and last-minute DMV customers to vote either, by the way.)
I have concluding advice for Straussians of all classes, though:
•I would encourage prole-identified Straussians – not to mention Marxists – who carve all social analysis up into three classes to try thinking in ways completely orthogonal to that schema, at least once in a while. If I can do class analysis for a day, you can try thinking in terms of, say, centralization and individualism or something.
•To the Machiavellian elite, I will just say that if National Review endorses Romney again, as they did in 2008, I just hope they will be consistent enough in their Straussianism (which notoriously often takes the form of agnostics deferentially praising religion for the sake of social stability) to start writing glowing articles about Mormonism.
•And to all my fellow middle-class Bloom readers, I’d say we should be cautious about assuming he was completely free of the fascist taint C. Bradley Thompson detects in Straussianism. Thompson’s book on the topic caused me to recall the following troubling passage from the Summer 1989 issue of The National Interest (that’s the kind of thing my memory neurons are being used for), from an essay by Allan Bloom, one of several in that issue responding to Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history”:
To conclude, liberalism has won, but it may be decisively unsatisfactory. Communism was a mad extension of liberal rationalism, and everyone has seen that it neither works nor is desirable. And, although fascism was defeated on the battlefield, its dark possibilities were not seen through to the end. If an alternative is sought there is nowhere else to seek it. I would suggest that fascism has a future, if not the future. Much that Fukuyama says points in that direction. The facts do too.
Creepy. Again, I suggest starting a car dealership.