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Hullabaloo


Thursday, April 28, 2005

 
Born To Rule

Billmon has written a wonderful review of Shadia Drury’s book, Leo Strauss and the American Right which I urge everyone to read. I was reminded of a conversation I had with my older brother (the smart one in the family) about fifteen years ago. We were listening to Newt Gingrich smarmily intone about God and family values on CSPAN and my brother turned to me and said, "They want to repeal the enlightenment." I thought, as I have often thought in my life, that my brother was full of shit. And as has often been the case, I was wrong. When the neos really started to flex their muscles back in the late 90's it was clear that they were, shockingly, hostile to the enlightenment. I had many an argument with libertarians(which I have since abandoned for lack of hours in the day and cells in the brain) trying to tell them that the modern Republicans think John Stuart Mill was a dangerous radical and that the American constitution is a piece of toilet paper.

I would only add a couple of thoughts to Billmon's extremely interesting post. The first is that I think one of the untold stories with the neocons is how they have put post-modern techniques in service of pre-modern ideology --- and how that may undo them. That is to say that while they fully believe in their own inate superiority, they have quite masterfully used modern marketing and business techniques to sell the exact opposite concept to the public --- that everyone is master of their own destiny. As Billmon puts it in his piece, they believe "the people just need their opium" and they decided that the opium of the modern era was an illusion of freedom. At the same time they introduced the idea that we need more traditional values and that we should have no taxes but high spending, culture of life and culture of war, and a myriad of impossible to reconcile ideas. (It's possible that they originally thought to supplant opium with confusion.)

The problem is that when you have consciously created several competing discourses out there in the ether, it becomes quite difficult to control them. The concept of the winner writes the history may be true --- but it's damned hard to do it in real time. It's just not a simple as it used to be to round up the rubes and tell them what they believe. And I don't think this Elmer Gantry Salvation Show is going to fix it. They are part of the entertainment industrial complex with an agenda all their own.

Billmon also says:

One of the Straussians’ most important innovations has been to reconcile their brand of elite conservatism with Southern fried demagogic populism ala Huey Long and George Wallace. That’s a pretty radical concession for a movement with its mind (or at least its heart) planted firmly in the fifth century BC. But it's solved the traditional dilemma of old-style conservatives in America: How to win power in a society that has no landed gentry, no nobility, no established church – none of Europe’s archaic feudal institutions and loyalties.

The rationale – or rationalization – for the populist ploy is that the common folk are a hell of a lot less liberal (again, using the Enlightenment definition of the word) than what the Straussians like to call America’s “parchment regime” – that is, the ideas and principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The masses want their opium, in other words, and with the right guidance, will happily sweep away the liberal elites who have been denying it to them.


This makes quite a bit of sense in another way as well. There actually is an echo of feudalism in America, isn't there? It's in the Lost Cause confederacy. In that sense, there is a lot more in common between the Straussians and the southern demagogues than might be readily apparent. Just as the feudal lords and the church could be counted upon to keep the masses in line, the right wing decendents of the old confederacy can be counted upon to also answer smartly to their higher authority and serve their leige lord.

As I mentioned, however, the southern church is going to cause some problems. Not because it doesn't agree that they and their allies are preturnaturally gifted with the ability to govern the masses as they see fit --- but because they are not truly organized around a hierarchy. The religious right is a bunch of loosely affiliated entrepreneurial businesses, not a top down corporation. They are quite nicely sharing the overlord duties right now, but I do not expect that human nature has been repealed. With power will come competition among them. In fact, it may end up being a world wide wrestling, NASCAR flame out, free-for-all, right in front of God and everybody.

And lest we forget, it was that bullshit that led to the enlightenment in the first place.

The problem for the Straussians and the Southern feudalists, I think, is that both the Po-mo marketing and the religious right fervor are taking on lives of their own. It's getting away from them. And I think it is because neither modern media with its diffusion and reliance on sensation and spectacle, or evangelical religion with its newfound populist insistence that it actually knows better than the party mandarins, are controllable in the long run. These are not entirely manageable or malleable cultural instruments the way that feudal institutions were. I'm sure the right would like nothing more than to institute these feudal institutions in the US --- it's clear that William F Buckley and his confederate bretheren veritably yearn for it. But America is not a very good cultural fit for these ideas. Mega Churches are circus tents, not cathedrals. And we fought a very bloody war already, essentially over the idea that the Southern aristocrat knew what was best for everyone.

I don't believe that there is any putting the enlightenment genie back in the bottle. But I do believe that that is what they are trying to do and the result is going to be a mess beyond our imagining --- as Billmon says "insane, potentially catastropic."

My smart brother, by the way, emigrated for good back in 1996.



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