Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Strauss and the American Dilemma

Richard H. King’s “Rights and Slavery, Race and Racism: Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Dilemma,” appears in a recent issue of Modern Intellectual History, and is very interesting and informative. It was provocative for me on several levels. For this very reason, I have some objections to make, and some comments to note.

First of all, and perhaps this is a bit unfair, it seems to me to replicate a ‘Straussian’ method. This is to say that it isolates a tradition of texts, and reasons based on careful reading of what the texts are trying to say. Context (the civil rights movement) comes in to the picture only as an opportunity for the development of this Straussian tradition in its continued consideration of basic, foundational issues. This limitation is not a problem, exactly, except in as much as the article makes, or gestures at, claims for the importance of Straussian thinking to conservatism in America in general—in particular the conservative occupation of the territory of color-blindness.

Of course, Strauss and his ‘heirs’ have been important. But it seems to me that linking Straussian thinking to the broader context of conservative (and otherwise) political thought and cultural commentary would give us a purchase on this shift King points to in from a support in the early 1960s for black nationalist movements—essentially for separatism—and the later endorsement (in the 80s and 90s?) of color-blind policies. Does, as King suggests, this shift in the Straussian camp simply mirror a broader shift among conservative commentators and intellectuals in this period? If so, why did it take place, and was the cause the same for the conservatives of principle as it was for those of tradition? This line of questioning might, I think, trouble the relatively clean tradition of principled conservatives (Straussians) King has constructed.

At a certain point in the article, King gives us a paragraph on the anti-psychological bent of the Straussians. As a result, he says, they are essentially unable to discuss the psychological effects of slavery and racism on individuals—this comes in the context of Herbert Storing’s essays on Frederic Douglass and Booker T. Washington. I am, myself, allergic to psychological discussions of this sort. In my experience they are either reductive or novelistic. In any case I don’t trust them. But I wonder if it would be possible to link, or at least seat next to one another at the dinner table, a Straussian history of political philosophy, and some sort of cultural studies-type discursive approach to race and racialization. It seems to me that the latter approach becomes absolutely necessary once mass media are introduced, and that, in fact, tectonic shifts in modes of representation could have significant explanatory power in the slow-democratic polity of the past half-century.

One of the fascinating problems that King discusses, and that I would love to hear more about, is how one conceptualizes the relationship between the founding and the Civil War. This opens an enormous and hoary debate about narrative, which I would like to leave mostly to the side. In this particular instance, I wonder how much contingency is permissible within a Straussian telos. More concretely: of course, in a very banal sense, it is impossible to deny that the Founding and the Civil War are related. But in what way, and with what necessity? Is this kind of narrative series a place in which Straussians might be pushed on the source of meaning of texts? It has always seemed ridiculous to me—especially ridiculous—to claim any kind of transcendental status for the original constitution (even, as is more pertinent here, for the Declaration of Independence). To honor the document is to forget the nation. Or, as I imagine Rousseau would say—I have been reading Du contral social, it’s amazing, perhaps more on it later—this is to put the law which made the government in the place which can only be occupied by the sovereign, which is to say the general will, the people. I’m sure Strauss would have a devastating answer to this objection, but it seems to me clear that you cannot pretend to read the Declaration of Independence as thought the Civil War had never happened, as though Lincoln’s Gettysburg address did not reach into the older text and changed it. It follows, I think, that contemporary political meanings of this and other texts must be highly historically conditioned. It is impractical beyond conservatism to refuse to see this.

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