Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Imperial and Imperialism 

The rain poured steadily down, turning the little patch of Miguel's garden, a small grassy patch carved out of a rain forest a generation ago, into a swamp. The wind was blowing hard, and we had to weigh down the newspapers with our empty bottles of Imperial cerveza.

It was late. We had eaten dinner in the dining room of the Swiss hotel I was staying in, and then gone to the only real bar in town, Amigos. When the bar closed we went to a small disco where a young crowd danced to the music you hear in any disco, anywhere in the world. The young American girls dancing were in Costa Rica to build houses for the impoverished; the Costa Rican boys were in the disco to dance with young American girls. We were there to drink, and when they closed the disco we went back to Miguel's house to drink some more.

Miguel was a second generation Quaker, descended from one of the American Quakers who had left the States in the fifties for this place. America had just concluded one war and was gearing up for another, with fighting breaking out in some far off Asian peninsula. A group pacifist Quakers decided they had had enough, and relocated to Costa Rica, in part because it had no standing army.

The talk inevitably turned toward American foreign policy. Miguel was perplexed how conservatives in Congress and the White House had adopted the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson. I told him that I found the President and his closest advisors--Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld--to be completely inscrutable. The only people I understood in the Bush Administration were the political hacks who had got the President re-elected--once, not so long ago, I had been a political hack myself and knew the type--and the Straussian neoconservatives. Before I was a political operative, I had been a student of Straussians.

The political hacks don't really have policies except for one: whatever works. This doesn't need much explaining. The neoconservatives are harder to work out. How had a group of people who are obviously learned in the classics of conservative political thought, including Burke, Aristotle and Plato, have come to a conclusion--that there is one just form of government, democracy, and that democractic government is equally realizable for all people, at all times--that seems so foreign to the the conservative tradition? This was the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson and the progressives, not the policy of American conservatives.

To understand how the neoconservatives arrived at Wilsonianism it helps to know about how Straussians read ancient texts. In the nineteenth century the dominant method of interpreting the classics of Greece and Rome held that in order to understand these works it was necessary to know a lot about the history and culture of the society from in their authors lived. The values that informed the work were presumed to be historical, which is to say foreign to our contemporary way of thinking, and a great deal of historical knowledge was required in order to recover those values and an understanding of, say, Plato's Republic.

In the early part of the twentieth century this view was challenged by what would come to be known as post-modernism. The post-modernists pointed out that the knowledge of history necessary to understand the works of the ancients could only be derived from the works themselves. If this knowledge was necessary to understanding them, the project couldn't get started in the first place. The door to the values of the past was closed. The historicist approach was impossible.

Leo Strauss was one of those who sought to recover the value of reading very old books. His approach was not to defend the historicist method but to deny the requirement of history. Great books were timeless, in the sense that they did not require a lot of knowledge about history and culture to be understood. They could be read closely by the best minds of very different times because they had been written by thinkers who were not themselves prisoners of their age. He proposed a fellowship of thinkers that stretched across vast epochs and made reading the ancients possible.

Beneath the Straussian approach to reading was a metaphysical perspective. Understanding through the ages was possible because certain questions were permanent questions, questions that arose and applied in any age. What is the best way to live? What regime is the best? These questions remained permanent because all men shared a certain nature. In short, Strauss supported his recovery of reading with an appeal to a permanent human nature, a psychic unity stretching across generations.

The neoconservatives take this a step--a dangerous, vulgarizing step--further. If there is a universal human nature that makes reading the ancients possible in all times and all places, shouldn't this universal human nature also make democratic-capitalism possible for everyone? What seems to have happened is that the neoconservatives took the Straussian downgrade of the importance of history and culture for reading great books and applied it to the importance of history and culture for governing people.

The problem with this is that Strauss applied his way of reading only to the best readers reading the best writing of the best writers. It was highly elitist. The neoconservatives have popularized this by taking out its elitism and then applying it to an entirely different sphere of life, politics. In other words, they treat global politics as if it were philosophy, and treat entire populations as if they were philosophers. Unfortunately, philosophy is not politics and Iraq is not populated by philosophers.

"So neoconservative foreign policy is a category mistake, then?" Miguel asked.

"A category mistake is something you write in book reviews," I told Miguel. "The words you use when talking about mistake that results overthrowing a regime, spending billions of dollars and sacrificing the lives of brave, patriotic young men are: colossal fuck up."