Tuesday, December 13, 2011
The Exegesis of Deceit
One of the steadiest hums of our time is liberal indignation at the dishonesty of the Right. On any given day, you can hear the shock and disbelief: How can they say that? Don’t they care about getting the facts right? Don’t they realize they are being inconsistent? Last week it was the Romney campaign ad that deliberately and even crudely misquoted Obama. This morning I wake up to Krugman “truly amazed” at the way Paul Ryan would cite commodity prices on the way up and ignore them on the way down. May I suggest that there is a method to this deceit and that being shocked is not an adequate response?
Let’s talk about Leo Strauss. Strauss was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who taught at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s. He was a classicist and did not write or speak much about modern politics or social theory. You won’t find in his work a set of instructions for the conservative movement, and those who want to demonize him will be disappointed. Nevertheless, his teachings as filtered through his students had a profound impact.
The cartoon version of Strauss, which is broadly correct, goes like this: The great philosophers of the past, each in their way, were led by the force of logic and experience to a dangerous insight, that no social or cultural arrangement can substitute for the necessity of virtue, and that only a small minority of individuals are truly virtuous. (One can imagine how a refugee from the Third Reich might come to that understanding.) Those who perceive this truth must write deceptively, since the unworthy masses, if they sense that they are being judged unworthy, will persecute the truth-teller. Strauss provided readings of the canonical texts that claimed to show they functioned on two levels, as decoys for the average reader and secret wisdom for the initiate. His classes attracted smart, intellectually ambitious students who thrilled to the notion that they were getting the real inside story about philosophy, politics and culture.
What matters is not Strauss per se, but how his message was transmitted through his followers. As is well known, a number of prominent conservatives studied under him directly, and a much larger group was exposed to a less rarified version of the theory under the tutelage of second and third generation Straussians at colleges and universities from Claremont to Harvard. As Strauss’ teachings passed from hand to hand, the strategic role of dishonesty grew and became more mundane. According to the vulgar version, democracy is a myth. Freedom and morality can be safeguarded only by the enlightened few, and deceit is central to their method. (John Galt, anyone?) Indeed, there should be no shame in being called out on a lie: to be shown to have lied in the service of a higher principle is to be honored, even though only those in the know will understand.
As strategic deceit filtered down from Plato and Machiavelli to the average poli sci major, a powerful discovery was made, that the ability to lie without shame is an immense personal resource. We know, after all, that people often lie in order to advance their interests—has anyone been entirely clean in this respect? Nevertheless, most of us are ruled by shame: when we are shown to have lied we become embarrassed and abandon the strategy. How much more powerful it would be to not feel shame at all, to smile at the ones who have called out the lie and say, “That’s nice, and what are you going to do about it?” The experience of “virtuous deceit” in personal life, not to mention political activism, was intensely empowering.
My reading is that contemporary movement conservatism in the US is imbued with the philosophy and practice of principled dishonesty. It is worn as a badge of honor by activists. It is impervious to efforts to evoke shame. If a particular lie loses its value because it has become overexposed, you simply switch to a new one. Because most people assume that shame is universal, and that no one would tell a lie if others knew they were doing it, they are vulnerable to the few who lie without shame. It is a suit of armor that the factual arrows of naive liberals cannot pierce.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that conservatives are necessarily wrong and those on the left necessarily right. There are times when Dinesh D’Souza is factually correct and Naomi Klein is in error. The difference is that Klein is not cynical about truth; she writes what she really believes, whether or not her beliefs are warranted. D’Souza will not say this in public (Straussian discourse is always on two levels), but he separates the “inner” truth of his politics from the arguments he makes for it, and utilizes the freedom to say whatever will advance his cause.
What has gradually transpired in the past few decades is that movement conservatism has captured the Republican Party, fundamentally altering mainstream political discourse. The rest of us haven’t figured out yet what to do about it.