I have been listening to Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side* and it has gotten me thinking about how intellectual history may and may not help explain exactly what happened over the last eight years of our nation’s political life. Mayer’s book is excellent and I heartily recommend it as a chronicle of much of what went wrong in the prosecution of the so-called War on Terror. But though Mayer’s book largely concerns the power of ideas—such as the novel legal theories that underwrote so much of what the Bush administration did—Mayer largely avoids intellectual historical explanations for these ideas.
Mayer, instead, focuses on personality and temperament as the central factors in explaining why Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, and the other architects of the “War on Terror” acted as they did. Thus we get thumbnail biographies of these and other figures that aim at explaining their habits of mind. Now as William James reminds us, the history of philosophy (and, I think, of all human thought) “is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments.” Nonetheless, when Mayer describes how, when the Bush administration announced its military tribunal policy, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights was immediately reminded of an old Reagan-era Heritage Society volume entitled Mandate for Change, which apparently contained many of the Bush administration’s future policies as desiderata, I wished that Mayer had spent more time exploring these–and other–intellectual roots of the Bush administration’s policies.
Of course over the last eight years there has been no shortage of popular explanations of the Bush administration that focus on intellectual roots. But these explanations often take the form of fairly crude scapegoating. Take, for example, the idea that Leo Strauss was pulling the strings of the Bush administration from beyond the grave, an argument made on stage by Tim Robbins’s Embedded , on the TV screen by Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary series The Power of Nightmares, and in numerous newspaper articles. Now I happen to think that Straussian political philosophy did play some role in the backstory of the Bush years. But that role is much more complicated than the often Dan-Brownish version that became part of our public culture. And Strauss was hardly the only important intellectual influence on the Bush White House.
As the Bush Administration fades into history and, with any luck, its extraordinary veils of secrecy are slowly lifted, I wonder how large a role intellectual history—and intellectual historians—will play in forging an understanding of its actions.
* I know that some people like to describe listening to an audio book as “reading,” but much as I love audio books, it’s not reading. I should say that I’m about a quarter way through the book, so this post should very much not be read as a review.