Downward with the "Times", I

The editorial pages of The New York Times have been working overtime lately to keep one’s sense of amazement in top form. We were reminded of this again on November 28 when Brent Staples, the resident black militant on the editorial board of the Times, published an “Editorial Notebook” denouncing the philosopher Leo Strauss for spreading the gospel of anti-democratic elitism. We recommend sitting down before reading the piece. As an example of what happens when ignorance joins forces with demagogic rage it is hard to beat. Mr. Staples begins by asking “What caused the Holocaust? Was it Fascism … ? Was it that Germanic fixation on racial superiority and ‘purity’? Or was it the Enlightenment and those dirty rotten idealists, Hobbes, Rousseau, Franklin and Jefferson? Blame the Enlightenment and you’ve chosen the right villain—at least in the eyes of Leo Strauss.”

Our unofficial poll suggests that the typical reponse to Mr. Staples expostulation, at least among those who are actually acquainted with Strauss’s thought, begins in puzzled incredulity and moves on quickly to indignant outrage. Strauss, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Reich, taught at the University of Chicago for many years. By the time of his death, in 1973, he had become one of the most beloved and influential teachers of his generation. Mr. Staples himself attended the University of Chicago—it’s a rare Staples column that doesn’t mention the fact, and, sure enough, we learn in this piece that he “began … doctoral studies” there in 1973. It happens, though, that Mr. Staples never studied with Strauss or his students. Nor is it clear that he has ever read Strauss: he acknowledged elsewhere that his notions of what Strauss stood for came largely from attacks on his thought that appeared in The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

Mr. Staples writes that “Strauss’s students had to gasp when he said that Hitler had sprung full blown from the Enlightenment presumptions that all people were created equal and that society was better governed by reason than slavish devotion to tradition.” No doubt they would have gasped—had Strauss said any such thing. But these sentiments are completely at odds with Strauss’s published works, and Mr. Staples offers no evidence whatever for ascribing the idea that “Hitler had sprung full blown from the Enlightenment” to Strauss’s teaching. Indeed, blatant misrepresentation seems to have become a Staples speciality. Many readers will remember his intemperate attack on the novelist Saul Bellow in The New York Times Magazine last year. Mr. Staples never studied with Bellow, either—but that did not prevent him from denouncing Bellow, too, as an elitist and worse.

In his article on Strauss, Mr. Staples graduates to outright fabrication. “Leo Strauss contended that the Philosopher Kings (himself included) were born to rule, servants were born to serve and that only disaster came of letting the rabble get above its station.” Where in Strauss’s corpus is this contention to be found? Mr. Staples doesn’t say—for the simple reason that his assertion is pure fantasy. On the contrary, Strauss believed that liberal education, which teaches us to listen to what “the greatest minds” have to say, is necessarily “a training in the highest form of modesty, not to say of humility”—hardly appropriate training for Mr. Staples’s cartoon version of a Philosopher King. Mr. Staples insists that “Strauss … was unapologetically elitist and anti-democratic.” Hence his note of alarm when he warns readers of the Times that Strauss’s ideas “have crept into vogue in American politics.” But in fact, Strauss was a passionate partisan of liberal democracy, believing it to be “the only decent and just alternative available to modern man.”

These last words are from a tribute to Strauss written by the late Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind and a close student of Strauss’s work. Mr. Staples asserts that “Strauss appealed to the conservative elite because he viewed the status quo as an expression of divine will.” More or less the opposite is the case: Strauss, like many of his students, devoted himself to the question of what constituted the best political regime precisely because he believed that the status quo was deficient. But mentioning “the conservative elite” is Mr. Staples’s entrée to attacking a handful of prominent students of Strauss’s thought: Allan Bloom (who for several years has been a favorite target of the adolescent Left), the social commentator Thomas Sowell, and Judge Robert Bork, another favorite target of left-wing animus. Mr. Staples also attacks in passing the late William A. Henry, III—not that Henry was influenced by Strauss. He wasn’t. And he was a liberal to boot. But he did have the temerity to write the recent bestseller In Defense of Elitism, which for Mr. Staples makes him a kind of honorary Straussian—in other words, a “conservative,” that is, an evil man.

Which is worse, Mr. Staples’s ignorance? or his malice? He writes of The Closing of the American Mind that it “offers the vantage point of the Philosopher King staring down his nose at the commoners.” But anyone who has bothered to look into that book knows that Mr. Staples’s characterization is a kind of intellectual libel. In the preface to The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom noted that any real teacher will recognize that his primary task is to assist his students to “fulfill human nature against all the deforming forces of convention and prejudice.” Only a very common intelligence indeed could come away from Bloom’s profound meditation on the fate of that task in our troubled times with Staples’s vulgar notion of its governing spirit. Mr. Staples’s entire commentary reads like a garbled transcript from a parallel universe: the names are the same but the thoughts are unrecognizable.

But it is when he comes to his peroration that he really skids off into political never-never land. “Once it was taken as common sense that good influences transformed wayward children into good citizens. These days, it is just as common to hear it asserted that prison and the death penalty are the only crime prevention. Lurking here is the presumption that criminals are born, not made. Why not fry them at the outset, before they break the law?” Is there a single true statement in this list of hyperboles? Mr. Staples does not explicitly attribute these grotesque ideas to any particular individuals, but he builds up a pattern of association that leaves the reader in no doubt about whom he has in mind. The “dark view of human potential” he conjured is, he writes, “poised to become a central feature of this country’s social policy.” Translated into normal English, this means that the stunning Republican victory last November is a harbinger of social and moral catastrophe.

The “antidote” that Mr. Staples offers for these manifold evils is a “fresh and frequent reading of the Declaration of Independence.” Always a laudable prescription, to be sure—and one that Leo Strauss would certainly have endorsed, even if he would have been dubious about the rhetorical panic that led Mr. Staples to recommend it. But when he is not turning over the pages of the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Staples may wish to look into the writings of Leo Strauss. We are thinking in particular of Strauss’s essay “What Is Liberal Education?” Noting that the word “culture” comes from the Latin cultura, which means first of all a tilling or cultivation of the ground, Strauss writes that “if we contrast the present-day usage of ‘culture’ with the original meaning, it is as if someone would say that the cultivation of a garden may consist of the garden’s being littered with empty cans and whisky bottles and used papers of various descriptions thrown around the garden at random.” Brent Staples’s rant is part of the noxious harvest of the blighted, anti-cultural landscape that Strauss laments.

Downward with the "Times", II

It has been observed that as long as one can say “This is the worst,” something worse may yet appear. These days, it sometimes seems that The New York Times has set out specially to illustrate the truth of this bit of folk wisdom. Brent Staples’s ignorant outburst about Leo Strauss was low, very low. But was it the absolute nadir? We found ourselves asking this on December 11 when we opened the Times and found an unsigned editorial called “In Praise of the Counterculture.” It was an unpleasant way to start off a Sunday.

One thing is certain: the Republican landslide in November has deeply shaken the editorial staff of the Times. We remember hearing about the reporter who, back when Richard Nixon was first elected, was in a state of shock: “How could he have been elected?” she asked. “I don’t know a single person who voted for him.” Yes. Well. And so it is now. Just about the first thing that Newt Gingrich did after the November rout was to criticize the counterculture bequeathed to us by the Sixties. The editorial staff at the Times could not believe their ears. Everyone they know is a spiritual child of the Sixties. What sort of Neanderthal would dare to criticize that glorious decade and the hedonistic, anti-establishment culture it spawned?

Spluttering about “an excess of Republican triumphalism” (but exactly how much “triumphalism,” we wondered, would the Times wish to allow Republicans?), the writer of this splendid effusion told readers that “the party’s new leaders have decided to make ‘counterculture’ into a pejorative.” Which seems to us more or less like saying that the party’s leaders have decided to make the nighttime dark. To hear the Times tell it, the 1960s and 1970s marked an American Renaissance: the shackles of tyranny had at last been thrown off, love and freedom and creativity blossomed: the lark was on the wing, God was in his heaven—well, perhaps not God: that’s who folks like Ronald Reagan are always talking about—and all was right with the world.

We think this sounds ridiculous, too. But that, apparently, is what the editors of The New York Times believe or profess to believe. Item: “Only a few periods in American history have seen such a rich fulfillment of the informing ideals of personal freedom and creativity that lie at the heart of the American intellectual tradition.” Again: “The 60s spawned a new morality-based politics that emphasized the individual’s repsonsibility to speak out against injustice and corruption.” And once more: the counterculture “was a repudiation of the blind obedience and reflexive cynicism of politics as usual.”

Gee. Where were we when this spasm of virtue took hold of the country? We thought that the Sixties were about drug abuse, the breakdown of the family, the ruin of the inner city, renewed racical and ethnic conflict, the degradation of popular culture, the wholesale attack on intellectual and artistic standards, the decline of public schools, sexual license, widespread anti-Americanism, and a generalized ethos of entitlement that has been the ruin of countless individuals and a crippling burden on the public purse. That, anyway, is a list of some of the things we remember.

The Times says that the “excesses” of the counterculture are easy to parody. Actually, they’re not, because any absurdity that one might offer by way of parody is almost certain to have been eclipsed by some kindred absurdity in real life. In any event, it’s hard to know just what would constitute “excess” for the editors of the Times, since it is precisely the excesses of the counterculture that so beguile them. Beguile them to such an extent, in fact, that they they seem to have gone into an ahistorical trance. The jury is still out on what counts as the most blithering passage of the Times’s editorial, but we confidently put forward this cheery snippet —we were talking about the counterculture, remember: “its summery, hedonistic ethos then and now reduced modern puritans to fits of twisting discomfort. America is still close enough to the frontier experience of relentless work and danger to view any kind of fun with suspicion.”

Shall we repeat that? “America is still close enough to the frontier experience of relentless work and danger to view any kind of fun with suspicion.” If there were some kind of cosmic fine that could be levied against journalistic fatuousness, it ought to be imposed with treble damages for this specimen. Among other things, it is a calumny upon fun, of which, we feel called upon to inform the editors of the Times, there was plenty before 1968.

This was not the only instance in which the author of that editorial felt called upon to trifle with the the historical record. We are also told that the “spirit of the age, like the tactics of the antiwar movement, was shaped by the civil rights movement.” But of course it was the breakdown of the civil-rights movement and its replacement by the demand for “black power” that informed the tactics of the anti-war movement on college campuses and (lest the editors of the Times forget) such little picnics as the Democratic Convention of 1968. (Remember the Chicago Seven?) The Times tells its readers that the influence of “60s individualism”—what we might prefer to call “60s narcissism” —“fostered a psychological movement” that “enabled people in emotional torment to ask for help without being stigmatized. It gave people in dead or abusive relationships permission to break out.” What, were psychologists, counselors, and divorce invented in 1963, too, at the same moment when, as Philip Larkin memorably told us, sexual intercourse first arrived upon the scene?

The Times concludes its eulogy for the counterculture by portentously asking whether many Americans would like to return to “the dictatorship of the majority culture.” We do not doubt that American society had its share of problems before the advent of the counterculture. But given a choice between the traditional liberalism of the 1950s and the tyranny of the Times’s politically correct radical agenda, we would not hesitate to choose the former.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 5, on page 1
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