The Bush administration, Leo Strauss, and noble lies: a retrospective

Published 30 December 2008.

Since we are nearing the end of a Presidential administration, it behooves us to take stock of what has happened over the past eight years.  One of the most important intellectual developments to have accompanied the Bush administration is the significant expansion of the literature on “noble lies,” as promoted by the cabal of neoconservatives in the Bush cabinet through their intellectual mentor, the political philosopher Leo Strauss.  This will be a diary exploring Strauss, “noble lies,” and the function such lies supposedly perform in our political culture.  I conclude by asking why “noble lies” are really necessary anymore.  Do we need them to protect ourselves from the truth about abrupt climate change?

(crossposted at Docudharma)

First: the literature on noble lies

One of the most important developments in political philosophy over the past eight years, a period thankfully coming to an end January 20 with the retirement of the Bush administration, is the expansion of the literature on the “noble lie,” a concept which appears in Plato’s Republic but which was more recently promoted by the political philosopher Leo Strauss.

OK, so who is Leo Strauss?  A brief quote from Wikipedia will suffice:

Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973) was a German-born Jewish-American political philosopher who specialized in classical political philosophy. He spent most of his career as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, where he taught several generations of students and published fifteen books. Since his death, he has come to be regarded as one of the intellectual fathers of neoconservatism in the United States.

There are plenty of pieces on the connection between the Bush cabinet and the philosophy of Leo Strauss, but do read these first: Open Democracy’s Noble Lies and Perpetual War, which grants the reader a short interview with Shadia Drury, writer of the excellent overview titled The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss.  As for the neocon/Bush connection, do look at Seymour Hersh’s piece “Selective Intelligence.”

There’s also the piece in Alternet: Leo Strauss’ Philosophy of Deception — although it seems to be largely an encapsulation of the Drury argument.

The whole controversy about Strauss and the Bush administration seems to be about three things: 1) Shadia Drury’s antagonistic reading of Strauss, which picks up various opinions voiced in Strauss’s books and attributes them to Strauss himself.  2) The Straussian allegiances of various neoconservatives (most notably Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky, two of the biggest architects of Bush’s Iraq policy, and William Kristol, cofounder of the Project for a New American Century and Bilderberg attendee).  3) the writings of Strauss himself, especially his seeming defense of secrecy and “noble lies” in Persecution and the Art of Writing.  My own opinion will lean toward a focus upon 3), and specifically upon the “noble lies” function.

UPDATED: I’ve decided to include the Xenos piece (as mentioned in the comments on Big Orange) in the list of must-read Strauss literature.

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Second: why the controversy is not about Strauss

Having read a good amount of Strauss over the vacation, I don’t think it makes much sense in pinning down Strauss himself on one doctrinal point or another.  The Drury perspective is certainly understandable, though I don’t see why Strauss would have to be anything more than an academic philosopher, or why Strauss’s disliking of liberalism (in the philosophic sense) would necessitate or justify any particular real-life crusade.  The main defense of Strauss was that he was a mere expositor of classical, Medieval, and early modern political philosophy.  This defense is, in its basic form, correct.

Moreover, I don’t think we need to adhere to Drury’s critique of Strauss, either.  Drury argues that Strauss believes in the “covert rule of the wise,” championing the interests of the advisers who whisper in the leaders’ ears.  The idea, she suggests, is to keep the masses occupied by warfare and religion (so they won’t engage the sins of liberalism) while philosophy becomes the exclusive domain of elites.  Drury argues in her book that she doesn’t object to Strauss’s elitism, but rather the sort of elite he cultivates:

I criticize Strauss for cultivating an arrogant, unscrupulous, and mendacious elite — an elite that has a profound contempt for the rule of law, for morality, for ordinary people, and for veracity.  It is not his elitism, but the kind of elite that he has cultivated that I set out to criticize. (xiii)

Drury suggests an alternative:

The best that any society can deliver is an honest ruling elite that respects the law, is grateful for its opportunities and privileges, mindful of the trust of its fellow citizens, and has ample regard for ordinary people — their common sense, their natural decency, and their right to equal protection under the law. (xiii)

Seen in this light, then, Drury’s critique seems rather decent — though it’s elitist — until we remember that the sort of mendaciousness despised by Drury is what got Bush, Cheney, Rove, and the neoconservatives two terms in the White House, on top of what they had already gained under Reagan and Bush I.  It worked for them.  It took the collapse of the financial sector to make the whole gang look bad enough to lose their hold upon power.  One who can’t criticize the elite rule of a supposedly democratic society should not reproach the elites for their means of attaining and holding power.

The neoconservatives have had such success because the advice of the elite philosophers (which Strauss puts on display) regarding the “covert rule of the wise” serves, in fact, in this era as an effective strategy for the attainment of power within the American political system toward the end of the 20th century.  The United States is an oligarchy run like a democracy, with a two-party system held together by bipartisanship, holding occasional elections in order to revalidate the bond between rulers and ruled.  The secret-keeping apparatus metastasized after World War II into a “National Security State,” intervening around the world for the maintenance of global corporate imperialism while persuading everyone that this activity somehow counts as “national defense” (or, more commonly, that they shouldn’t care.)  “Noble lies” are what passes as mainstream news today.  War, moreover, keeps the masses fixated on the war mentality, and thus upon their allegiance to the Commander-In-Chief and upon ideologies of nationalism even in an era of global governance.

The neoconservatives did not invent this framework — rather, they merely revitalized it for the sake of their own ascendancy to power.  In such circumstances what counts is winning elections and maintaining hegemonic authority, and it would be understandable in such circumstances if the elites did not see any need for abiding by standards of honesty or respect in their grasping after power.  If Strauss suggests that political philosophy is about manipulating the masses with “noble lies,” then, he is only repeating the “realpolitik” wisdom of the ages.  This excuse is valid for Leo Strauss, and for the elites.

It isn’t, however, valid for most of you, my readers.  Most of you are not part of the elite.  You’re therefore obliged to demand honesty and respect from government regardless of the enormous odds against any such manners becoming commonplace inside the Washington DC beltway.  The question about you is about whether or not you are effective in making such demands.  Therefore, I would here like to address the controversy over “noble lies.”  The question facing us about “noble lies,” as we await the retirement of the Bush administration, is one of whether or not you can clear your heads from the fog of “noble lies” that have justified the regimes of government so far, and recognize your own political interests in spite of them.

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Last: The question of noble lies

At the end of the second chapter of “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” Strauss argues:

Every decent modern reader is bound to be shocked by the mere suggestion that a great man might have deliberately deceived the large majority of his readers.  And yet, as a liberal theologian once remarked, these imitators of the resourceful Odysseus were perhaps merely more sincere than we when they called “lying nobly” what we would call “considering one’s social responsibilities.” (36)

All of this appears to be a sort of defense of “noble lies.” But note the grounds for this defense.  Strauss is saying that we are shocked by lies, yet we can nevertheless imagine lying as a “social responsibility” upon occasion.  Compare this with Shadia Drury’s expose of Abram Shulsky, the Straussian architect of Bush’s Iraq policy:

Shulsky was responsible for finding intelligence that would help to make the case for the war on Iraq.  We know now that the intelligence was misleading, exaggerated, and even false.  Shulsky has publicly declared that Strauss shaped his approach to politics in general and intelligence in particular.  He tells us that he learned from Strauss that ‘deception is the norm in political life.’ (xi)

Shulsky makes lying seem normal too.  Of course, Shulsky’s statement is tempered by his career in “intelligence.” — one can see from his book Silent Warfare that deception is standard procedure when dealing with  “adversaries” in the world of information warfare.  The question at hand, then, is one of whether Shulsky’s framework of “adversaries” and “deception” is really all that necessary anymore.

Histories of the concept of the “noble lie” typically begin with a citation of Plato’s Republic.  So why did Socrates, in the Republic, endorse the “noble lie”?  The critical passage in Plato is in the portion (Part Four (Book Three), p. 182 of the Penguin edition) on the Guardians, the protectors of Plato’s ideal city.  Here, Socrates suggests that the Guardians need to believe a “noble lie,” so they can do their job as the city-state’s cops well.  They are to be selfless, as Socrates wished, yet they are to believe in their own superiority so as to preserve the hierarchical social system of the Republic.  Thus Socrates invents a myth about how there are precious metals in everyone’s souls, and the Guardians have the most gold, so they deserve to lead.

My point, in bringing up all of these authors, is that in each case the “noble lie” is intended to protect 1) the state, and 2) the hierarchy of social relations within the state.  And that’s how defenders of the “noble lie” justify noble lies.  What we ought to be questioning, then, is whether these things, the state and the hierarchy of power, really need protecting anymore.  Or at least we could bother to ask whether the apparatuses of military hardware, bureaucratic domain, and “noble lies” which currently protect the state couldn’t use further paring-back in an era of abrupt climate change.

The state, as I’ve pointed out in a previous diary on abrupt climate change, has now metastasized into something which is a danger to itself and to the world.  Its original justification was to “provide for the common defense” — but is it really all that necessary to have  “702 overseas bases in about 130 countries” and “another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories” to accomplish the “common defense” task, in an era when no country on Earth is planning to invade the United States and when we could have dealt with al Qaeda as a criminal syndicate rather than with the “War on Terror”?  (And let’s not forget all of that carbon they burn…)

And let’s remember Sing C. Chew‘s warning about abrupt climate change:

Market optimism, regionalization, and globalization policies and practices will be pursued until ecological and natural limits are reached.  The “business as usual” approach will be fostered similar to what we witness in the palace-centered kingship economies that persisted at the end of the Late Bronze Age crisis (the second Dark Age (1200-700 BCE, in other words).  No doubt, as the catastrophes continue to mount as effects of global warming compound and recur, more stringent measures will be implemented to maintain economic, social, and political control.

In other words, we can expect the United States government to protect itself, sacrificing all else, until it, too, expires of the feckless policymaking and “noble lies” which it has inflicted upon the rest of the world.  Is this why we have government, and why we believe what our leaders tell us is true?

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