Crises, Tidings, and Revelations: Undemocratic Vistas at the New York Times

In Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy launched himself into the spotlight with a warning to the nation that the Department of State employed 205 Communists. He declined to offer those names to the public. On November 28, 1994, Brent Staples revealed on the New York Times editorial page that our nation’s democracy is gravely imperiled by the “sinister vogue” of the late political philosopher Leo Strauss. Mr. Staples declined to offer the public one quoted word from, or reference to, Strauss’s vast oeuvre. He later told the Jewish Forward that he never studied with Strauss or his students: “He said the main sources for his column were attacks on Strauss in the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.” Among numerous other charges, Staples alleged (a) that Strauss was an enemy of the Enlightenment’s “democratic” attachment to equality and reason, from which Strauss thought “Hitler had sprung full blown”; and (b) that Strauss “viewed the status quo as an expression of divine will.”

For Mr. Staples, the evil Strauss did lives after him. Entitling his attack “Undemocratic Vistas,” Staples argues that Strauss’s “undemocratic” — or perhaps one should say, “unAmerican” — views were “elitist” and thus engendered a callous disregard for the poor in Strauss, his students, and all those influenced by them. That last group, according to Staples, includes Thomas Sowell, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, William A. Henry, “the conservative elite,” “college professors,” “political ideologues,” “conservative think tanks,” and “writers, economists, and jurists who were schooled at [the University of] Chicago.” The sinister group also includes, if I read Staples’ insinuations correctly, Charles Murray, Newt Gingrich, and anyone who voted Republican in the last election. Staples concludes that the “antidote” to the disease being spread is “fresh and frequent reading of the Declaration of Independence.”

The only difficulty with Mr. Staples’ argument is “the extraordinary medley, in every sentence, of outright ignorance, malicious calumny, and near-paranoiac fantasy,” as someone who both knew and even read Strauss puts it. Indeed, while Staples claims Jefferson’s Declaration for his own, had he so much as glanced at the cover of Strauss’s best-known work, Natural Right and History, in its standard paperback edition, he would have seen that it is entirely covered by the Declaration. Had Staples risked the book’s first paragraph, he would have discovered why the publisher chose such a design: Strauss begins the work by quoting the Declaration’s most famous passage and asks with some concern whether this nation still holds “those ‘truths to be self-evident’?”

Similarly, Staples asserts that Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind “parrots Strauss’s view that higher education ought to be the province of the golden few.” Had Staples made it to page 82 of Bloom’s book, he would have found Bloom lamenting the class distinctions that still exist “poisonously” in English universities. Staples adds that he, “black and poor,” fits “Strauss’s notion of rabble that didn’t know its place,” yet Terence Marshall, an admitted Straussian (and contributor to Crisis), recalls how Strauss encouraged his students “to study and write on black political thought over 30 years ago, well before it became an academic fad.” In fact, before the nation’s first black studies department was founded, Herbert J. Storing, a student and then colleague of Strauss at Chicago, devoted himself to the careful and respectful study of the political thought of black Americans. Marshall also remarks that Strauss often spoke to, and many of his students taught in, “the adult education program at Chicago for persons who, because of poverty, had not been able to obtain earlier the education in classical learning that their abilities allowed.”

If Staples cared to learn Strauss’s and Bloom’s views on liberal democracy, he might also have turned to the first two pages of a collection of Strauss’s essays entitled, Liberalism Ancient and Modern. In the book’s Foreword Bloom writes, “Leo Strauss is sometimes reviled as an enemy of liberal democracy by defensive and dogmatic liberals who cannot tolerate friendly criticism and who cannot be bothered to read what he wrote. Strauss, however, cautions us in this book that ‘we are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy.’ . . . He would recall us to the original understanding of such founders of modern democracy as Spinoza, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Jefferson that democracy with its orientation toward universal freedom is nonetheless meant to be a regime of virtue and even ‘an aristocracy which has broadened into a universal aristocracy.’ Strauss is therefore indeed a friend of liberal democracy when he summons true liberals to counteract [what he calls] the perverted liberalism that forgets quality, excellence, or virtue.”

Again, a mere perusal of the opening chapter of Bloom’s 1990 Giants and Dwarfs would have found Bloom insisting, “I have always been a supporter and a beneficiary of the movements toward practical equality.” The chapter closes with Bloom sadly surveying the undemocratic vista he sees in “the dominant schools in American universities,” which tell students “that rationalism has failed, that they should study non-Western cultures, and that bourgeois liberalism is the most despicable of regimes.”

As a student of several of Strauss’s students, I learned that both they and he teach the value of reason, the nobility of the Declaration, and the desirability of our liberal democracy. If one seeks fomenters of anti-democratic sentiment — persons who hanker after, in Staples’ words, “rule by a privileged elite” — one place one might consider is the New York Times itself, which published Walter Duranty’s deceitful apologies for Stalin’s rule and Herbert Matthews’ deceitful apologies for Castro’s rule. More recently, there is the editorial page’s already-infamous December 11 paean to the “counterculture” of the 1960s, whose relation to Jefferson’s Declaration may be summarized in one word, Amerika. And certainly there is a whiff of Orwell’s Thought Police in Staples’ reckless disregard for the truth. Nor, balefully, is his fanatical obscurantism unpopular: he assured the Forward that his colleagues’ reaction to his attack was “overwhelmingly favorable,” and those same colleagues did not permit any of Strauss’s distinguished students to challenge Staples’ lies. Staples also showed the Forward a letter he had received from Alfred Kazin praising his editorial and regretting that Staples had been, in Kazin’s words, “tactful about the influence of Strauss on Jewish neo-cons.”

But perhaps the best place to seek undemocratic vistas would be in the works of that great critic of the Enlightenment Martin Heidegger and his fashionable epigones, whose antipathy to reason and Western democracy is reflected in prestigious universities as well as prestigious newspapers. In this connection, we should question Staples’ assertion that Strauss called the Enlightenment the cause of the Holocaust. Challenged by the Forward as to where Strauss made this claim, Staples said it was in his “study of Spinoza.” Since Strauss wrote Spinoza’s Critique of Religion years before Hitler came to power, Staples presumably refers to the Preface he appended to the work’s 1962 English translation. In the intervening years Strauss, as a Jew, had had to leave Germany. And so, looking back, he does not fail to notice that in the 1930s the citizens of the liberal Weimar Republic gave way to Hitler. But in the Preface he notes that “the weakness of liberal democracy in Germany explains why the situation of the indigenous Jews was more precarious in Germany than in any other Western country.” Strauss was grateful to America for providing religious liberty and refuge, and in Natural Right and History he is concerned that Americans are abandoning the Declaration’s principles for “German thought.”

As Strauss notes in the Spinoza Preface, German thought continued to be hostile to liberal democracy even after the war: “in 1953, Heidegger could speak of ‘the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.'” Similarly, in the opening chapter to Giants and Dwarfs, Bloom recalls Heidegger’s “Nazism” and goes on to remind readers of the influential “Paul de Man, who introduced deconstructionism into the United States,” and who wrote, “as a young man, pro-Nazi articles.”

One could safely wager with Mr. Staples that present-day admirers of Heidegger and Paul de Man are more likely to read the New York Times editorial page than the works of Leo Strauss. There is no doubt, however, what Strauss thought of the Times. He once wrote a friend that his latest article had been written for his students: “I wanted to show them with an exemplary case what sort of rubbish is praised by idiots in The New York Times.”


  • Scott Walter

    Scott Walter is executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. He also heads Campion Consulting, which provides philanthropic consulting for donors in the fields of education, civic literacy, and aid to the underprivileged; and customized writing for nonprofits and businesses. A graduate of Georgetown University, Scott lives with his wife, Erica, and their four children in Maryland.

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