I am getting a hardish time from old friends, recently back in touch, who knew me long ago as a conservative. They’re amused to see my (admittedly pathetic) defense of liberalism. I thought it might be worth revisiting that former self, and where he came from. Apostasy is a perfectly legitimate choice, of course, and some of the world’s finest liberals (and neocons, for that matter) were once in the opposite camp. So then: this is why I chose to go camping where I did…
I went to university at the height of academic Stalinism. And I use that term quite literally: one of my philosophy professors headed up the Communist Party of Canada, and subscribed to Stalin’s omelet theory: that it’s worth breaking a few eggs (read: a few million lives) in order to make the perfect omelet (read: an unspeakably vicious dictatorship). His coterie included, of course, mostly blank thugs. In fact, it was interesting to see how Marxism worked on campus: it was very much like Scientology in how it preyed on the weak and the lost. If you were an emotionally disturbed student, a couple of steps away from a psychotic break, you were a prime target for the Marxist-Leninists, or the Trotskyites, or the neo-Shining Bolshevik-Gang-of-Path, or whatever faction happened to get to you first. And the end result was not pretty: I remember a renowned Israeli theorist (ironically, a Marxist) whose lecture was drowned out by a small mob of these recruits, who disagreed with a couple of the man’s conclusions — that Marx was, for instance, something of an imperialist. They stood at the door with eyes somehow both feverish and glazed, and shouted automatic slogans while handing out the usual numbing pamphlets. It was meta-embarrassing: hard for a Marxist to criticize a sociopathic clique whom his favorite thinker was responsible for creating in the first place.
These were the worst of the bunch, but there were plenty of other reasons to loathe the left. Political Correctness had just begun to rear its pimpled head, and the level of dialogue in student meetings was rapidly becoming benthic. I was dating a proud feminist who specialized in this brand of “discourse” (a popular word at the time, which roughly meant “saying the same thing, or else”). I recall a student politician trying to explain at a meeting that he had the students’ best interests at heart, to which my girlfriend hissed, “then why don’t you shut up.” I remember being impressed by this — what, chutzpah, fortitude, backbone? — but I’ve since come to see her type as repulsive. To be honest, I found the species repulsive even back then, but you go out of your way to admire somebody you’re dating. This was, I suppose, the Second Wave of feminism, which was something of a toxic tidal wave. (I quite like the current crop of feminists on campus, the Whatever Feminists, who don’t need to be shrill, because they’re actually confident; who find those early ideologues excruciating; and who would rather sport hip shoes than jackboots). When my university was surfing the Second Wave, I remember one meeting of the philosophy department where a three-hundred-pound woman sat glowering at the back of the room, prominently sporting a copy of “Fat is a Feminist Issue,” just daring anyone to say something inappropriate. In short: the left was a nasty bank, back in those days.
On the other hand, the conservative political theorists who dominated life at the University of Toronto were among the most beguiling figures I have ever met. I have since come to realize that he was a perilous demagogue, but Allan Bloom — who was in exile in Toronto at the time — was hypnotic. He had not yet written The Closing of the American Mind, but on campus he was already much much larger than life, either reviled or adored.
It’s easy to see the attraction. Before encountering Bloom, I don’t think I had really encountered thought. Most of my friends in high school imagined themselves intellectuals, and spent their stoned hours finding profundity in the lyrics of (Christ!) Genesis and Gentle Giant; whereas suddenly I was confronted with a man who was capable of presenting philosophy as a world-historical drama, as a terrifying battle whose stakes were immeasurable. Things mattered. Later I read Hannah Arendt’s letters, in which she spoke with awe about her first encounters with Heidegger, about her astonishment that such a man could even exist: “There is a teacher!” Bloom was not Heidegger, but he was a superb rhetorician, and he effectively channeled far more intelligent men (including his own teacher, Leo Strauss.)
The decision to move to the right was not difficult. The left was vile, and the right was seductive. I don’t remember there being much of a middle at the time — the only people championing liberalism were analytic utilitarians, bores to a man. While I never became a Straussian (I have come to suspect that you had to sleep with Bloom to enter the inner circle), I was very much a fellow traveler. Bloom — and Emil Fackenheim, and Thomas Pangle — rescued me from the banal.
I remember one of my high school friends picking up a copy of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling which I had on my desk. He read the first few sentences and tossed it aside with contempt: “This doesn’t even make sense.” And this philistine was of my more intelligent acquaintances. I quickly extricated myself from that ludicrous posse, and have never looked back. (Hilariously enough, many of them have since become the most shallow brand of economistic neocons.)
And so that is why I found myself a conservative. And I might have stayed that way forever, if I hadn’t finally met equally intelligent people who addressed the same great books, with the same sense of drama, but who didn’t carry the same political baggage. None of these people were in the philosophy department. When I think about it, I was probably cured of Bloom by architecture school.
The approach to theory that finally made sense to me was aesthetic rather than political. Looking back, I guess my attraction to the Straussians was always primarily aesthetic: they told a great story. The greatest story I had ever heard. And now I realized that there were architectural theorists, and film-makers, and literary critics, all telling the same story. As one superb thinker told me, “There are many doors to the Large Room.”
(This was Robert Jan van Pelt, who teaches in the architecture department at Waterloo, and who has become the world’s leading authority on Auschwitz.)
Many aspects of Straussian thought bothered me from the start. It required an approach to texts which was very much like an atheist brand of Christian fundamentalism: an exegetical insistence upon The One True Reading. Nothing is multivalent. Single words are always philosophical terms. “Virtu” in Machiavelli means virtue, even if it is translated as “cunning” or “wiliness.” (In fact, I agree with this particular instance, because the other translations are simply euphemistic, but in many cases the Straussian way involves making a text into a petrified textbook.)
Even more disturbing was the insistence that all metaphysical reasoning was simply a smoke-screen, set up to hide the inner meaning of the text, which was always political. Some smoke-screen! You had to suppose that entire books were written simply to lead lesser readers down the wrong path… and some of those books were rather large and impressive. Are we really meant to believe that Aristotle’s Metaphysics was a calculated red herring? It’s kind of ludicrous, when contemplated from a distance, but I was hardly distant. In fact, from my brush with the Straussians, I’ve begun to see how radical Marxists, for instance, are capable of feverish loyalty to the most patent absurdities. It’s the cult dynamic. It’s the excitement of belonging to a select group, the only ones who have access to the narrative.
The final break with the Straussians came when I recognized how inept they were when operating in the actual political sphere. A crucial tenet of Strauss’s doctrine is that the philosophers must ally themselves with the gentleman class, in order to preserve and safeguard their own subversive activity. This involves subtle manipulation: the philosopher is an atheist, but he must suck up to dominant politicians, however pious. The philosopher is intelligent, but he must ingratiate himself with the powerful, however ignorant. In short, Wolfowitz must manipulate Bush. Unfortunately, the first pol that the Straussians prominently identified as a crucial figure, the linchpin to the gentleman class, was Dan Quayle. Oops.
Repeatedly, when the Straussians step down from the ivory tower, they just get it wrong. Wolfowitz is certainly doing an effective job as the Machiavellian advisor to princes, but Jesus: look at his advice! Everything he has done has simply served to cause America terrible grief abroad, or to undermine the foundations of democracy at home. Hannah Arendt has pointed out that philosophers almost always get it wrong when they enter the real world — and in fact generally end up in support of tyranny. She wrote this in defense of Heidegger’s flirtation with Hitler, and she referred back to Plato’s embarrassing attempt to become math teacher to the tyrant of Syracuse.
The walking disaster that is George W. Bush is responsible for my final break with ideological conservatism. It is impossible to support this man, much less admire him. He proudly flaunts the worst of human attributes: avarice, numbing piety, slack-jawed stupidity wedded to absolute certainty. To remain a conservative, with this dangerous buffoon stalking the planet, is to abandon self-respect.
And so I have become, a bit late in the game, a liberal. I don’t regret the detour. It has been, if nothing else, a truly fascinating road. My liberal friends seem to have forgiven me (with attendant mockery); my conservative friends indulge me (while patronizing); and even I am amused by the transformation.
(If you still want to know me, you won’t by the time you finish reading Dysblog.)