|Begging for a Straussian Reading of Some Kind?|
“David Brooks’ column ‘The Thing Itself’ is just begging for a Straussian reading of some kind,” Yglesias begins. Even as a student of popular anti-Straussianism, I was initially at something of a loss to see what Yglesias was talking about.
Brooks’s column is–or perhaps one should say in deference to Yglesias “appears to be”–a celebration of outgoing Port Authority head Chris Ward and his, at least according to Brooks, extremely practical approach to rebuilding at Ground Zero. Brooks then uses Ward’s practicality-over-symbolism as a positive contrast to a variety of issues that Brooks argues have been dominated by “culture war” purism, e.g. the politics of gun ownership and Obama’s Green Tech initiative.*
Pointing out that the column’s title phrase (repeated in its body) is a translation of Kant’s Ding an sich, which is “unknowable and inexpressible,” Yglesias suggests that the column is thus really arguing something quite different:
The basic topic of the column is perfectly plausible here. A call for people to be more practical. But why link that idea specifically to Kant’s phrase, and then use it to call for us to do something that Kant says is impossible? I get a distinct air of Leo Strauss and the University of Chicago around this. Brooks is winking at those of us in the know to signal to us that there’s a deeper meaning afoot. The esoteric argument, I think, is that people necessarily engage with mass politics on a symbolic and expressive level rather than a practical way (voting isn’t very practical) so our endeavors are doomed to failure.
Why would an argument of the sort that Yglesias suggests Brooks is making have to be presented esoterically? How does it in any way contradict the explicit message of the piece? Far from challenging the conventional wisdom of our day, the idea that mass politics is inherently irrational and militates against practical solutions is practically a dogma of our nation’s punditocracy. And it certainly doesn’t contradict Brooks’s explicit praise for the practicality of an appointed official.
But there’s a more basic problem here. David Brooks isn’t a Straussian. Indeed, before I saw this piece, I would have told you that, in an era in which practically everyone on the right has gotten called a Straussian by somebody at one time or another, Brooks had the relatively rare distinction of never being so labelled. After all, Brooks seems more interested in the nonexistent salad bar at Applebee’s than in the “timeless questions” that Straussians concern themselves with. Even when Brooks considered questions of human nature in his latest book, The Social Animal, he turned to (poorly understood and popularized) neuroscience, rather than to Socratic philosophy, to explain it.
But then I discovered that Yglesias, at least, has been calling Brooks a Straussian for years. The 2005 Brooks column Yglesias focuses on in this earlier piece is even less “Straussian” than the one about Chris Ward. Written on the eve of President George W. Bush’s first Supreme Court appointment, Brooks starts by calling on Dubya to look for a “philosophical powerhouse,” then suggests Michael McConnell, whom Brooks praises for having a less strict understanding of the separation of church and state. Yglesias correctly points out that the column’s first argument–that Presidents should appoint smart people to the court–is not its most important, which is that the separation of church and state should be eased. But burying the lede as Brooks does here is hardly an example of esotericism, let alone Straussianism.
As far as I can tell, the case that Brooks is a Straussian is based on guilt by extremely vague association. He is Jewish. He’s arguably a neoconservative. He went to the University of Chicago.
However, Brooks majored in history. And, as readers of this blog are well aware, there’s nothing remotely Straussian about the History Department at Chicago…or for that matter about most departments at Chicago beyond Political Science and the Committee on Social Thought (even they include plenty of non-Straussians alongside their Straussians).
And what makes this column “Straussian”? It has a reference to a German philosophical concept that would likely go over the heads of many readers. It disparages democratic politics. And it does so in a way that doesn’t emphasize that argument.
But, like the earlier Brooks column that Yglesias called Straussian, this column’s argument is not an instance of esotericism in the Straussian (or for that matter any other) sense. Brooks disparages politics entirely openly in the piece. Chris Ward, whom he praises, notably didn’t get his job via election; he was appointed, first by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to another post, and then by Governor David Paterson, to his current one. Brooks does like to sugarcoat his often quite conservative arguments in moderate-sounding rhetoric. But, again, that’s not esotericism.
There are a number of pretty simple lessons here: Not all neoconservatives are Straussians. Not all graduates of the University of Chicago are Straussians. Not all elitists are Straussians. People besides Straussians sometimes make references to highfalutin’ German philosophical concepts. People besides Straussians try to tailor their arguments for their audience…and there are many ways to do so that do not involve esotericism. And people besides Straussians sometimes harbor anti-democratic political views.
But I also wonder whether we are beginning to see the term “Straussian” take a rhetorical journey similar to that which “deconstruction” took in the last quarter of the twentieth century. “Deconstruction” began life as a technical term coined by Jacques Derrida to describe his method of reading a text. It then entered popular language as a pejorative to describe any abstruse form of textual analysis. And then the pejorative connotation began to fall away. Today people often say “deconstruct” when they really mean nothing more than “analyze carefully.”
* This argument really is classic Brooks. Immediately after making a pseudo-moderate, pox-on-both-houses argument about the essentially dead issue of gun control, Brooks hauls out a standard, right-wing Republican talkingpoint about a very live issue: “President Obama’s Green Tech initiative has become a policy disaster — not only at Solyndra but at one program after another — because its champions ignored basic practical considerations. They were befogged by their own visions of purity and virtue.”