At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

A Review of Paul Gottfried’s “Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America”

posted by Jack Kerwick

From talk radio to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity, National Review to The Weekly Standard, what is popularly understood as “the conservative movement” has no short supply of voices.

But what few people—and even fewer people among self-avowed “conservatives”—ever bother to ask is whether the popular understanding of conservatism is an accurate understanding.  That is to say, are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their colleagues on the airwaves and in mainstream publications really conservative?

One person who has spent decades asking—and answering—this question is Paul Gottfried.  He raises it once more in his most recent book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.  


And it is within this work that the author resolves this key question with a definitiveness that is obvious for all with eyes to see: the contemporary expression of “the conservative movement,” Gottfried declares, has little to nothing in common with “the Old Right” of yesteryear.

In other words, most of today’s self-described “conservatives” are nothing of the sort.  They are, rather, neoconservatives.  As such, they compose a movement, yes, but a movement that is scarcely continuous with any recognizably right-wing tradition.  On the most legible reading of it, as Gottfried amply demonstrates, the contemporary “conservative movement” is nothing more or less than another variation of leftism.  Indeed, the author cleverly, and provocatively, characterizes it as “the alternative left.” 


So what does any of this have to do with the twentieth century philosopher, Leo Strauss?

Readers may recall the frequency with which the name of Leo Strauss was bandied about by the adversaries of the Republican Party, particularly its leftist nemeses, during the presidency of George W. Bush.  Strauss had already been dead for over forty years by the time that Bush was first elected to the Oval Office, and yet, thanks to the diligence of the latter’s objectors on the left (and, in some instances, elsewhere), Strauss’s name had acquired ominous connotations as it was linked with the hated Bush administration.

Gottfried is quick to point out that the relationship between, on the one hand, Strauss’s ideas and, on the other, Bush and “the conservative movement,” is as exaggerated as it is misunderstood. However, Gottfried is equally quick to underscore that for as erroneous as most accounts of this connection are, there nevertheless is a connection.


To put it simply, Strauss’s ideas in the arena of political theory, the ideas that he bequeathed to his students—what Gottfried refers to as “the Tradition”—constitute the intellectual ornamentation for neoconservative foreign policy, i.e. a policy aimed at the promotion of “liberal democratic values” the world over.

This drapery in turn consists, first and foremost, of a peculiar hermeneutic—a way of reading texts, specifically philosophical texts. It is this hermeneutic, Gottfried insists, that functions as the lynchpin in the Straussian worldview. 

According to Strauss and his students, the classics of Western philosophy admit of essentially two types of readings, one that is exoteric, and one that is esoteric. The former is the text’s surface reading; it expresses what the author appears to be saying.  However, although it is discernible to only the few, it is the latter, the esoteric meaning of the text, that reveals its author’s true intentions.


It is at this juncture that the lay reader may find himself lost.  What, he may find himself thinking, does a disputed academic literary theory, favored by a long deceased scholar, have to do with neoconservative foreign policy?  How can something so obscure have any bearing upon something as immediate and topical as politics?

The reader in this situation doesn’t have to wait long before Gottfried relieves him of his confusion: “the secret” meaning of each text discloses its author’s alleged fondness for “liberal democracy!”  As Gottfried notes, “Strauss and his students seem to be reading their own liberal, secularist values into those whom they praise as ‘philosophers.’”  The subjects of Strauss and his students, however long ago they lived, invariably “seem to replicate the cultural mindsets” of their interpreters.


That is, whether it is Plato or Locke, in the hands of Strauss and the Straussians, their thought, emancipated from the contingencies of place and time, is enlisted in the service of such purportedly timeless and universal ideals as “liberal democracy.”   

And this is the main (but not the only) problem that Gottfried has with the Sraussian hermeneutic: it is essentially a device by which Straussians can engage in what Michael Oakeshott once characterized as “retrospective politics.”  Gottfried writes: “It is for me inconceivable that anyone would be sufficiently attracted to Strauss’s hermeneutic, particularly as pursued by his disciples, unless that person is also drawn to certain political systems.”

Gottfried concedes that Strauss was a man of immense erudition, and he confesses as well to being especially taken by some of Strauss’s earlier work, and even “entire chapters” in what is perhaps Strauss’s most controversial political-philosophic work, Natural Right and History.  In keeping with the remarkably respectful tone of his critique, Gottfried also underscores that, in his judgment, Strauss’s program, though deserving of criticism, has been exploited and corrupted by more common place minds.


Still, the fact of the matter remains that the Straussian program is deserving of criticism, for it is not, at bottom, a philosophical program at all.  Rather, it is, ultimately, political in character.  As Gottfried remarks, Straussians have been able to “misrepresent as philosophical inquiries that are often homilies about American liberal democracy.”

These “homilies about American liberal democracy” have dovetailed seamlessly with the purposes of neoconservatives.  Yet, as Gottfried notes from the outset, Straussians benefit as much from neoconservatives as vice versa: their relationship is “symbiotic,” as he says.  In fact, the protestations of Straussians to the contrary aside, “the nexus” between the two camps “is so tight that it may be impossible to dissociate” them “in any significant way.”  He observes that while “neoconservatives draw their rhetoric and heroic models from Straussian discourse,” Straussians in turn “have benefited from the neoconservative ascendancy by gaining access to neoconservative-controlled government resources and foundation money and by obtaining positions as government advisors.”  Gottfried adds that it is “hard to think of any critical political issue that has divided the two groups.”


Indissoluble from the categorical importance that neoconservatives and Straussians ascribe to the ideal of “liberal democracy” is their categorical repudiation of what they call “relativism” and/or “historicism.”  Indeed, these are two sides of the same coin.  Hence, even if the average politically engaged citizen had never before heard of Strauss, he has heard his voice whenever he has heard Bill Bennett or Sean Hannity or any other “conservative” commentator decry the evils of “relativism.” 

Gottfried as easily disposes of Straussian talk of “relativism” and “historicism” as he does such talk of “liberal democracy.”  First of all, there are no consistent relativists, for even the most ardent of self-declared relativists can never seem to bring their theory to bear upon their own views.  Secondly, what Strauss and his disciples describe as “relativism” and “historicism” is nothing of the sort.  If “relativism” is supposed to refer to the position that each perspective is as good as any and every other, or the position that there are no objectively grounded truth claims, or if it is supposed to entail the denial of universality, then those who stress the historicity and tradition-constituted character of political and cultural life—thinkers like Burke (Burke!)—are most certainly not the “relativists” that Strauss and company make them out to be.  


Gottfried’s book is an academic treatise. Yet the author’s prose renders it readily accessible to the educated, but non-scholarly, lay reader who is interested in familiarizing himself with what is no doubt one of the most sober, least ideological, and, importantly, most respectful analyses of the enduring influence of the thought of Leo Strauss on neoconservative politics that has yet to be composed.


The Church: Behind the Times and Ahead of Them

posted by Jack Kerwick

On Friday, August 31, former archbishop of Milan and one-time candidate for the papacy, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, passed away at the age of 85.

Cardinal Martini was hailed as a “progressive.”  Upon listening to the last interview that he gave before his death—and that was released this past Saturday—it becomes immediately obvious that his reputation was well deserved. 

In reference to—what else?—its millennia-old injunctions against divorce and contraception, as well as its equally old rituals, Martini stated that the Catholic Church is “200 years behind the times.”   He also contended that its much publicized pedophilia scandal should provoke the Church to “admit its mistakes” and embark upon a path of “radical change [.]”  The Church must now take “a journey of transformation.”


One very good thing is to be gotten from America’s experience with its 44th president: if we didn’t realize it before, more of us (though, sadly, not nearly enough of us), now know that from such words as “radical change” and “transformation,” nothing very good is likely to come.

Self-styled “progressives”—leftists—can’t resist speaking along these lines.  The residents of contemporary Western societies generally, and historically young America specifically, have long since fallen in love with the concept of change.  Change signifies aversion to the old and desire for what’s new and novel.  Knowing this, leftists exploit these vague, often inchoate associations in their quest to, not reform their civilization, but remake it into something bearing little to no continuity with its current self.


When Martini calls for the Church to engage in “radical change;” when he beckons it to undergo a “transformation,” he is in effect calling for it to extinguish itself.

He calls for its death.

Leftists, like Obama, who want to “fundamentally transform” the United States, want to end the country of their forbearers and substitute for it a new country made in the image of their own ideology.  And as goes America under leftists like Obama, so goes the Catholic Church under leftists like Martini.

Change that is radical and/or fundamentally transformative undercuts identity.

Of course, as for change itself, there is nothing in the least objectionable about it.  In fact, it is frequently desirable and, at any rate, unavoidable. But for gradual, incremental change, the Martinis and Obamas of the world have no use. 


The 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church is a history of changes—a not inconsiderable number of which have been reasonably dramatic.  The second Vatican Council is the most recent of such wide reaching reforms that the Church has enacted.

However, change, even dramatic change, is not what Cardinal Martini wanted.  Reformative change is not what he had in mind.

Martini wanted radical change. He wanted transformation. The Cardinal wanted the same thing that all leftists want: creative destruction.  He wanted to destroy one institution and replace it with something that he could build—or at least seem to be able to build—from scratch.            

Martini can now join the ranks of the Church’s critics from over the centuries who, in so many words, have expressed his conviction that it is “behind the times.”  Yet when we consider the fate of her critics who did indeed keep up with the times by following them to the place to which all times pass, it can only be judged a good thing by her children that the Church refused to accept her detractors’ advice.


It has been quite some time since anyone with even a shadow of wisdom has come to recognize this counsel for the folly that it is. An institution that has managed to not only endure, but to grow, over the span of 2,000 years and within a staggering variety of cultures the planet over doesn’t need a lecture from this or that generation on self-preservation. 

Such an institution is indeed in a sense behind the times.  Yet it is also ahead of and among the times.  This is the secret to its longevity.

Anyone who doesn’t know this—even if he is a Cardinal—doesn’t know the Church.






Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and the GOP

posted by Jack Kerwick

Not unlike any other politician, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney can use every vote that he can get.

As the events of this past week’s Republican National Convention amply demonstrate, Romney and his party are doing all that they can to reach out to demographic groups—independents and moderates, single women, blacks, Hispanics, “the youth vote”—whose members ordinarily lean more heavily toward Democrats. But, interestingly, there is one group that currently resides within the Republican Party that they are endanger of losing.

That group consists of Ron Paul supporters.

And what an energized, enthusiastic bunch it is.

The only problem for Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, is that these Paul supporters aren’t in the least enthusiastic for the GOP ticket.  In fact, they are reaching—or have already reached—the verge of voting for a third party candidate.


Ironically, the Texas Congressman’s devotees, though encompassing all age groups, are comprised predominantly of young voters—i.e. exactly that demographic that the Republican Party is laboring indefatigably to attract.

Yet these voters and other Paul constituents seem poised to jump the GOP ship—a move, they say, that their own party has provoked them to make.

For one, the party establishment caused quite a ruckus among, not just Paul’s supporters, but its base when it decided this past week to rewrite its rules for counting delegates.  This decision had the effect of slicing Paul’s number of delegates significantly.  And this in turn diminished the influence that he otherwise may have been permitted to assert at the convention.


In other words, Paul supporters are miffed at the GOP for the same reason that radio talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and others were miffed: in rewriting its rules, the GOP establishment succeeded in suppressing those voices—Paul supporters, Tea Partiers, social conservatives—within its ranks that threatened its objective to woo moderates.

Secondly, although Paul was apparently offered an opportunity to speak at the convention, the offer had conditions attached. The speech would be drafted and approved by the convention planners, but, just as importantly, it would include an unqualified endorsement of Romney on Paul’s part.

The retiring Paul passed on it.

Finally, while the RNC honored Paul with a video tribute, this decision generated controversy among establishment Republicans, leading the conservative movement’s flagship publication, National Review, to publish a denunciation of the video. In an article appearing in its on-line edition (National Review Online), “The Problem with Paul,” Jamie M. Fly and Evan Moore write that it was “a mistake” to honor Paul.


Referencing the truncated convention schedule, the authors lament what they perceive to have been a “missed…opportunity” for the convention planners “to reverse the ridiculous and regrettable decision made by the Romney campaign to feature a video tribute” to Paul. 

Fly and Moore concede that because of the number of delegates that Paul won, and because of his supporters’ propensity to be particularly “vocal,” it is not unreasonable that the Romney campaign should strive to avoid giving offense. “Concessions have already been made to them [Paul supporters] on extraneous issues during the drafting of the platform,” and “a speaking slot has been given to” Paul’s “son, Senator Rand Paul [.]”  However, Paul’s critics conclude, “paying tribute to Representative Paul is a step too far.”     


Fly and Moore, as if to disabuse Paul and his supporters of all doubts regarding their fellow partisans’ feelings toward them, add that “instead of honoring Paul on the way out, the delegates inTampa should be cheering his departure.”  They explain that Paul “has left a legacy of extremism and falsehoods that need to be driven from the party, not embraced by it.”

“It’s important to remember how far outside the mainstream Paul and many of his supporters are,” the authors continue. The views of Paul on which the authors set their sights, as Paul’s supporters and their opponents have by now come to expect, pertain to foreign, not domestic, policy.

It is Paul’s foreign policy vision that has elicited the ire of the Republican Party and its spokespersons in the media (like National Review Online).  Fly and Moore are incensed specifically about Paul’s position on the issue ofIran. 


Paul accuses the GOP of once again “beating the war drums” in its rhetoric regarding a nuclear-armed Iran.  Neither the CIA nor the IAEA, according to Paul, have said that Iran is on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon, and under the rules of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is permitted to have nuclear weapons anyhow.  He ridicules the degree to which Republicans particularly remain “obsessed with Iran and the idea that Iran is a threat to our national security [.]” 

Fly and Moore criticize Paul for allegedly painting “a picture of a peaceful and benevolent Islamic Republic that has never actually existed.”  They also refer to his argument as an “apologia for the ayatollahs” and judge it to be “as absurd as it is dangerous.”  Furthermore, they contend, “it is wholly irresponsible for anyone who aspires to national leadership” to take the position that Paul takes.


Paul’s objectors also allude to his “trail of similar factual errors and conspiracy-mongering on issues ranging from the defense budget to America’s position overseas, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even the origins of the attacks of September 11, 2001 [.]”

Fly’s and Moore’s charge to the contrary notwithstanding, it has now been years that poll after poll has shown that Paul’s views on these foreign policy-related matters are very much within the mainstream.  Moreover, inasmuch as Republicans persist in their belief that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are worthwhile endeavors, that our interventionist foreign policy had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and that we should remain on course with interventions in Iran, it is they who appear to be “far outside the mainstream.”


In 2006 and 2008, Americans voted Republicans out of power in overwhelming numbers.  President George W. Bush retired from his second term with an approval rating hovering at about 30%.  While multiple factors doubtless accounted for their fatigue with the GOP, key among them was their weariness with what an ever growing number of Americans came to see as two regretful, avoidable wars in the Middle East.

Current polls establish that they have not changed their minds on this score, for foreign policy registers low among their concerns.

If this year’s RNC was any indication, none of this is in dispute: the 2012 Republican National Convention was the first such convention in 60 years that excluded all explicit references to war.

It would be premature to conclude that Ron Paul’s promise that his movement would one day “become the tent” of the Republican Party is now coming to fruition. In any case, though, his influence is felt.

Romney, not unlike any other politician, may want to place some stock in that.

originally published at The New American


Obama’s Lost Credibility

posted by Jack Kerwick

The Republican National Convention is now over, but the race for the presidency isn’t over by a long shot.

The Obama campaign spared not a moment to respond to Paul Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s speeches.  Yet its reply was at least as negative in character as it accused Ryan’s and Romney’s speeches of being.  Rather than speak to the substance of their rivals’ remarks, Barack Obama continued the same assault against the Republican candidates’ characters that he has been waging for months.

In fact, even before Ryan and Romney gave their speeches to the RNC, Obama tried to undermine their credibility.  On Tuesday, he cautioned audiences at college campuses in Iowa and Colorado against believing anything that his opponents say.  “They will just fib,” Obama stated.


He continued: “Sometimes they just make things up.” But this they can afford to do, Obama explained, because “they’ve got a bunch of folks who can write $10 million checks, and they’ll just keep on running them.” 

According to Obama, such is his opponents’ disregard for the truth that they are brazen enough to explicitly express their disdain for it. He remarked: “I mean, somebody was challenging one of their ads—they made it up—about work and welfare.  And every outlet said this is just not true.  And they were asked about it and they said—one of their campaign people said, ‘We won’t have the fact-checkers dictate our campaign. We will not let the truth get in the way.’”

For all of the accusations of dishonesty that he hurls against his rivals, Obama should take care to attend to the boulder in his own eye.  Not only have the very fact-checkers that he cites debunked several of his own ads, Obama’s account of the Romney campaign’s response to fact-checkers is dishonest.


Neil Newhouse is the Romney campaign’s pollster.  While Newhouse did indeed say that his team refuses to permit fact-checkers to “dictate” their strategies, he never said anything about refusing to accommodate truth. What he actually said is that the so-called “fact-checkers” are as ridden with their own prejudices and biases as is anyone else. “These fact-checkers come to those ads with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs.”

Obama’s chief strategist, the notorious David Axelrod, said on Thursday—before Romney’s speech—that Romney and Ryan have supplied the public with nothing more or less than “a compendium of demonstrable lies.”  The President’s critics—and fact-checkers—can say the same thing about him. 


In not so many words, they have said the same thing about him.

Politics is a dirty sport, it is true, and politicians can be expected to hurl insults and untruths.  However, it is not for nothing that the Obama campaign has been charged by its critics with engaging in ruthless, unscrupulous Chicago-style politics.

From the outset of this campaign season, even prior to Romney’s victory in the Republican presidential primaries, Obama made it clear that his sole objective would be to “destroy” Romney.   At this time last year, Politico first reported that “Obama’s aides and advisers are preparing to center the president’s reelection campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background [.]”  It quotes “a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House” who said that “unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.”


When it is considered that Obama is closing in on the completion of his first term in office and the economy over which he presides is in worst condition than the one he inherited, it makes sense that he should engage in the politics of personal destruction.  But the allegations of dishonesty that he makes against Romney are at risk of falling flat because of his own strategy.

The lion’s share of his resources Obama has invested in depicting Romney as a “vulture capitalist.”  As everyone now knows, Romney was the CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity firm, for several years. Obama has been relentless in his campaign to fashion an image of Romney that would recall Michael Douglas’s Wall Street character, Gordon Gekko.  Gekko was a money hungry gazillionaire whose insistence upon putting “profits before people” eventually landed him in prison for two decades.


Yet the truth is that there isn’t a shred of evidence to substantiate Obama’s contention that Romney is anything at all like Oliver Stone’s villain. In fact, several distinguished Obama supporters have said as much.

From Newark Mayor Corey Booker to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, from former President Bill Clinton to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Democratic politicians repudiated Obama’s assaults against Romney and Bain Capital with all of the readiness and forcefulness mustered by Republicans.  They all recognized Bain to be a good company and Clinton went so far as to commend Romney for his “sterling” business record.

Even Obama-friendly territories like ABC, CNN, and the fact-checker for The Washington Post couldn’t refrain from exposing the bogus nature of Obama’s charges. 


None of this stopped the Obama campaign, though.  More recently, one of its SuperPAC committees released an ad in which it held Romney culpable for the death of a steel worker’s wife.  According to the ad, Bain closed a steel factory while Romney was at its helm.  Because of this, the employee no longer had medical insurance to care properly for his terminally ill wife.

In spite of being over the top on its face, the ad is off for another reason: Romney wasn’t even at Bain during the time in question.

A couple of weeks ago, Vice President Joe Biden went beyond linking Romney to unjustified homicide to associating him with slavery. 

Addressing a largely black audience inVirginia, Biden said that Romney’s economic policies would have the effect of putting “y’all back in chains.”


Biden later said that he was talking about the effects that the business-friendly policies of Romney will have on the middle class.  But given the audience to whom he made his remarks and the contrived drawl with which he made them, it was clear to all who were paying attention what he was trying to imply.

Obama never held the moral high ground.  But even if he did, he has long since ceded it.

originally published at The New America 





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