Monthly Archives: May 2003

perils of fame

I received this year’s edition of The Higher Education

Exchange today, with an interview of me by

David Brown. The interview starts with me worrying about academics

who pursue fame. I think that the desire for fame is a major motivation

in academia; in fact, status and fame seem to be professors’ main selfish

goals. (Curiosity is one of their main unselfish motives.) I’m interested

in this because I think that both the pursuit of fame and its attainment

can have distorting—even corrupting—effects on scholars. I also

think that fame goes to the already famous in a way that’s unfair and

that undermines meritocracy in the university. This would be a good subject

for a serious philosophical article, I believe.

a debate about reading

Yesterday, our high school class interviewed a 30-year veteran teacher

at their school, mainly about racial issues. He said—among other

things—that people in his home county (Montgomery, MD) read, whereas

young people in Prince George’s do not. They just watch television, he

said; and if they read, it’s "trash." Montgomery is predominantly

White; Prince George’s is majority Black. After he left, I asked the students

what they thought about this particular comment. Some were evidently offended

and suspected that the teacher was relying on racial stereotypes. Others

thought that he was factually correct. We held a debate on the question:

"Do people read more in Montgomery?" I said that I honestly

didn’t know, but that I wouldn’t jump to conclusions just because Montgomery

is whiter and richer than Prince George’s. One male student who was offended

by the comparison said that girls read in Prince George’s—although

boys don’t. This comment received a lot of assent.

discipline or cooptation?

Here is an issue that arose several times at last week’s Argentine/US

conference on deliberative democracy. Citizens who are given the power

to deliberate and make formal decisions often learn about legal, political,

and economic constraints and recognize the necessity of making changes

one step at a time. They tend to drop their radical ideas and become critical

of outsiders who do not understand the process that they have mastered.

There are at least two ways to interpret this change in attitude:

First, we could say that giving citizens real power is a form of civic

education. Deliberators develop discipline and an understanding of real,

unavoidable constraints. They gain the skills, knowledge, and networks

needed to make tangible improvements in their communities. Civic

Innovation in America, by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland,

is (partly) the story of some "sixties radicals" who gained

civic skills and discipline by working within democratic institutions,

and thereby become highly effective agents of change.

Alternatively, we could say that incorporating citizens into a system

of constrained deliberation co-opts them. The process is biased in favor

of moderate, meliorist policies and cannot embrace radical proposals.

Yet there are good arguments for radical change, especially in a country

like Brazil, where the world’s most interesting experiments in deliberative

democracy take place in the context of massive inequality.

the erasure of a people

According to Amos Elon’s review of Queen Noor’s autobiography in

The New York Review of Books (May 29, p. 7), the Queen once suggested

to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife that it would

be good if Israeli textbooks stopped spreading the "propaganda"

that Palestine in the 1940s was "a land with no people for a people

with no land."

"What do you mean?" Mrs. Netanhayu replied. "When the

Jews came to this area, there were no Arabs here. They came to find work

when we built cities. There was nothing here before that."

I find this retroactive erasure of a population truly chilling. (Mid

East Web, while obviously not an impartial source, provides plausible

statistics on the demographics of British Palestine.)

Leo Strauss in the news

Leo Strauss and his proteges, the "Straussians,"

are again in the news. Jeet Heer writes in the May 11 Boston Globe:

Odd as this may sound, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo

Strauss, a controversial philosopher who died in 1973. Although generally

unknown to the wider population, Strauss has been one of the two or

three most important intellectual influences on the conservative worldview

now ascendant in George W. Bush’s Washington. Eager to get the lowdown

on White House thinking, editors at the New York Times and Le Monde

have had journalists pore over Strauss’s work and trace his disciples’

affiliations. The New Yorker has even found a contingent of Straussians

doing intelligence work for the Pentagon .

In the International

Herald Tribune, William Pfaff calls Strauss "the main intellectual

influence on the neoconservatives," listing as Straussians: "Deputy

Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon’s Office

of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott

Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan

and William Kristol."

In her 1988 book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, Shadia Drury

argued that Strauss was not really a cultural conservative committed to

natural law and transcendent truths; he was actually a nihilist who promoted

conservatism as a golden lie for the masses. Some of John Gunnell’s articles

from the 1970s and 1980s had reached similar conclusions. In my 1995 book,

Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis

of the Humanities, I sharpened this analysis somewhat by arguing


  1. Nietzsche was a duplicitous or esoteric author, teaching public doctrines

    (such as Will to Power and Eternal Return) that he did not believe,

    because he feared the impact of the nihilistic Truth; and

  2. Strauss was systematically and profoundly influenced by Nietzsche’s

    conclusions and methods of writing. Thus he was a Nietzschean, if anyone

    deserves that title.

Then, in Something to Hide (1996), I

published a comic novel about a conspiratorial group of nihilists/conservatives,

loosely based on Leo Strauss. However, given the level of suspicion that

Straussians now provoke in some quarters (e.g., among followers of Lyndon

Larouche), I should say that I find the actual Straussians curious and

sometimes interesting, but not dangerous or malevolent.

Here is the section from my 1995

book in which I assemble evidence for the hypothesis that Leo Strauss

and Allan Bloom were Nietzscheans.