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June 05, 2005


George W. Bush, The Burgeoning Conservative Nexus and The Evangelical Crusade: Revisiting Leo Strauss

The Young Hare: Albrecht Durer
A recently released Amnesty International report accused the Bush administration of condoning "atrocious" human-rights violations, in turn diminishing its moral authority and displaying a global model that encourages abuse by other nations.

The accusations cited the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the manner in which prisoners have been kept in detention at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba), and the return of prisoners to countries known to practice torture as evidence that the United States "thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights."

In Bush's subsequent White House news conference, he commented: "I'm aware of the Amnesty International report, and it's absurd. It's an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that is (sic)--promotes freedom around the world. When there's (sic) accusations made about certain actions by our peope, they're fully investigated in a transparent way. It's just an absurd allegation.

In terms of the detainees, we've had thousands of people detained. We've investigated every single complaint against (sic) the detainees. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of--and the allegations--by (sic) people who (sic) were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble--that means not tell the truth. And so it was an absurd report. It just is. And, you know--yes...."

There was a strikingly self-righteous and cavalier tone in Bush's suspiciously simplistic dismissal of Amnesty International's fundamental questioning of the present American regime's basic moral grounding. This was quite troubling and aroused further thoughts for me.

It reminded me of a recent article that talked about three kinds of conservatism: the conservatism of faith, the conservatism of doubt and the conservatism of fundamentalism. The conservatism of faith was commonly dominant in Republican discourse. This conservatism states conservative principles, framed as eternal insights into the human condition, as a matter of truth. These truths are assumed to be universally valid and true.

The conservatism of doubt, on the other hand, wonders how anyone can be sure of whether his/her view of what is moral or good is actually true. Such conservatives are not nihilistic anarchists; their alternative is a skeptical, careful, prudent approach to all moral questions. They are suspicious of anyone claiming to hold the absolute truth, and instead openly recognize the moral and cultural pluralism of a democratic society.

Alarmingly, however, the Bush regime, perhaps under the influence of the evangelical religious movement, seems to have embraced the conservatism of fundamentalism. This is a type of conservatism that sees itself as a vital and powerful crusade. Crusades, however, are not means of persuasion; they are means and strong forces of coercion. Thus, it is no accident that the new Republicans stress getting rid of obstacles to their objectives: within the court system, the mass media, and through political gerrymandering the electoral landscape to ensure that few opponents, including presidential nominees, will have any future in the Republican party.

There is an often forgotten subtext to this whole movement, and this is that one of the most influential men in the emergence of Republican power and its movement toward a quasi-religious crusade is said to be the late Leo Strauss, the German immigrant political philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago during the 1960's and 1970's. The power of Strauss's students, and those who have in turn studied under them, upon the growth and direction of the Republican Party in Washington is a well-documented fact. His followers have been credited with providing American neoconservatism with its distinctive qualities: its emphasis upon crisis, its aversion to liberal tolerance, its rejection of pluralism, its insistence upon nationalistic superiority, its religiousity, and more.

However, far less is known about the degree to which these Straussian power brokers have misunderstood his teachings and distorted his legacy. Strauss actually had little to do with promoting a particular political party, nor any model of political "crusade."

For Strauss, being conservative implied, more crucially, that optimal political actions depend upon proceeding with a kind of thoughtfulness characterized by careful introspection and depth, as well as being deliberative, cautious, attentive to detail and non-impulsive. He was not known to teach adherence to one American political party or another. Strauss was more interested in examining the great political writings of the past and teaching his students a "new" way to read important texts. He was well known for repeatedly appearing in front of his classes and venturing to minister to his own as well as to his students' ignorance by simply asking, "What does this mean?"

Dr. Strauss's openness to the virtue of prudence was accompanied quite naturally by a sense of wariness: keenly cautious, attentive and watchfully prudent. A testimonial to this sense of wariness was the copy of Durer's famous watercolor, "A Young Hare," that he had on his office wall. He particularly liked the picture, he said, "because the hare sleeps with its eyes open."

It has been said that great minds are often, if not always, as great in their simplicities as in their complexities. Strauss greatly admired Winston Churchill's historical work, "The Life and Times of the Duke of Marlborough." In line with this, Strauss revealed his capacity for simple directness perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in his eulogy of Churchill:

"The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power. The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant--this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time."

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