All governments lie as I. F. Stone famously observed, but some governments lie
more than others. And the neocon Bush regime serves up whoppers as standard fare
every day. Why this propensity to lie? There are many reasons, but it is not widely
appreciated that the neocons believe in lying on principle. It is the "noble"
thing for the elite to do, for the "vulgar" masses, the "herd"
will become ungovernable without such lies. This is the idea of the "noble
lie" practiced with such success and boldness by Scooter Libby and his co-conspirators
and concocted by the political "philosopher" Leo Strauss whose teachings
lie at the core of the neoconservative outlook and agenda, so much so that they
are sometimes called "Leocons."
Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a Jewish-German émigré from the Nazi
regime who eventually landed at the University of Chicago where he developed
a following that has achieved enormous prominence in American politics. Among
his students were Paul Wolfowitz who has openly acknowledged that he is a follower
of Straus as has the godfather of neconservatism, Irving Kristol. Irving Kristol
begat William Kristol, the director of operation for the DC neocons, editor
of the Weekly Standard and "chairman" of the Project for the New American
Century, which laid out the plans for the Iraq War. (PNAC also opined in 2000
that a Pearl Harbor-like event would be necessary to take the country to war,
and one year later, presto, we had the strange and still mysterious attack of
September 11.) For his part Paul Wolfowitz begat Libby, in the intellectual
sense, when he taught Libby at Yale. Others stars in the necon firmament are
Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and lesser figures like Abram Shulsky, director
of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, created by Donald Rumsfeld. Shulsky,
also a student of Strauss, was responsible for fabricating the lies masquerading
as intelligence that were designed to get the U.S. into the war on Iraq. While
the neocons have a passion for the Likud party and Zionism, they also count
among their number not a few pre-Vatican II Catholics and an assortment of cranks
like Newt Gingrich and John Bolton and crypto fascists like Jeanne Kirkpatrick.
The list goes on and Justin Raimondo has documented it in great detail over
the years on Antiwar.com. But it is enough to note that Cheney's alter ego was
Libby, and Rumsfeld's second in command until recently was Wolfowitz. So both
Cheney, the de facto president with an apparently ill perfused cerebrum, and
the geezer commanding the Pentagon have been managed by younger and very prominent
Straussians for the past five years.
A superb account of the ideas of Strauss, his followers and his influence is
to be found in The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (hereafter PI) and Leo Strauss
and The American Right (hereafter AR), both by Shadia Drury, professor of politics
at the University of Calgary. Her account of Strauss's ideas and the prominence
they play in American politics today will give you chills or nausea, perhaps
both. As she says in PI (p.xii), "Strauss is the key to understanding the
political vision that has inspired the most powerful men in America under George
W. Bush. In my view men who are in the grip of Straussian political ideas cannot
be trusted with political power in any society, let alone a liberal democracy.
This book explains why this is the case." For those who wish to understand
the neocon agenda, Drury's books are essential reading. She is clear and thorough.
Of pertinence to "Scooter's" case and the pack of lies he was concealing
is Strauss's idea that a "philosopher elite" (i.e., Straussians) must
rule. Moreover they must do so covertly. As someone remarked before last Friday,
"Who ever heard of I. Lewis Libby?" a man who shunned the spotlight
and operated behind the scenes. The reason for such covert rule, or cabal, is
that the "vulgar" herd, as Strauss liked to call the rest of us, cannot
appreciate "higher truths" such as the inevitability and necessity
of wars in relations between states and even the utility of wars in governing
a state. So the covert elite must be certain that myths like religion or the
glory of the nation are not weakened for these are among the best ways to rule
over the ignorant herd and lead it into war. (Note that the Straussians themselves
are not religious. They are "above" religion, capable of dealing with
tough truths like man's mortality. But in their view, religion is a crucial
factor in governing in their view. Irving Kristol, following Strauss, tells
us that religion is "far more important politically" than the Founding
Fathers believed and that to rescue America it is necessary "to breathe
new life into the older, now largely comatose religious orthodoxies." (AR,
p. 148). Any religion will do except perhaps Islam, which is more or less
verboten, given the affinity of all leading neocons for Israel. Hence the neocons
readily embrace the ideology and leadership of Christian fundamentalism which
can keep the crowd under control and get them to march off to war and death.
The neocons are mainly interested in foreign policy, as was Strauss, but in
exchange for the support of the religious Right in foreign affairs, the neocons
line up behind the domestic program of the fundamentalists. It's a win win situation,
from their point of view
But useful lies of the grand sort like religious myth or blind nationalism
need support by lesser lies at crucial moments. And so we go to the "smaller"
lies like "weapons of mass destruction," the "smoking gun that
comes in the form of the mushroom cloud." And here too the elite has a
role to play. They are to use their "superior rhetorical skills" to
make the weak argument seem stronger. In other words the cabal not only has
to protect myths and manufacture lies but go to work in selling them. What Strauss
called "rhetoric," we call spin.
All of this comes down to one word: lying. But for Strauss, these lies are
necessary for the smooth function of society and triumph of one's own nation
in war. Hence for Strauss, the lie becomes "noble." This phrase Strauss
borrows and distorts from Plato who meant by a "noble lie" a myth
or parable that conveyed an underlying truth about morality or nature. But in
Strauss's hands the "noble lie" becomes a way of deceiving the herd.
Strauss's "noble lies are far from "noble." They are intended
to "dupe the multitude and secure power for a special elite" (AR,
One other idea of Strauss's bears on the situation of "Scooter" Libby.
How is the Straussian philosophical elite going to get from the halls of academe
to the corridors of power? This depends on good luck and the "chance"
encounter between the powerful and the Straussian. Here the contemporary neocons
go beyond Strauss and leave nothing to chance. It would even appear that they
look for the stupid, gullible or those who are mentally compromised. So William
Kristol becomes Vice President Quayle's chief of Staff, and Libby becomes the
right hand man to the addled Cheney as well as assistant to the Quayle-like
Bush. And there are many more.
Finally, Drury makes the point the Strauss and the neocons are not really conservative
at all. They are radicals, at war with the entire modern enterprise which makes
them turn to the ancients for their inspiration and even there they need
to distort the teachings of Socrates or Plato to make their case. But the Enlightenment
comes to us with the advance of science to which Strauss is also hostile. He
says that he is not against science as such "but popularized science or
the diffusion of scientific knowledge.Science must remain the preserve of a
small minority; it must be kept secret from the common man" (PI, p. 154).
But this is impossible. Science by its very nature is a vast social enterprise
requiring the widest possible dissemination of its findings. Any society that
puts a lid on this will fail, and so by natural selection, the Straussian project
is doomed to fail.
But before that happens the Straussians can do a lot of damage. As Drury says,
they "cannot be trusted with political power." But we can learn from
them the importance of boldness, not in the pursuit of the "noble lie"
but of the truth. And we must be certain that we are vigorous as we hunt them
down and get them out of power. In that effort Shadia Drury has done us a great
John Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He thanks Gary Leupp a regular on CounterPoint.com for pointing him to
Shadia Drury's books.