A reader writes:
Just an observation from your post yesterday, "Who Let the Dogs Out?" A key passage comes near the end, when you write of neoconservatism's "deeply hidden contempt" for the democratic West.
This really is where the intellectual connection to Leo Strauss is worth noting. The entire Straussian project is premised on a thoroughgoing critique of modernity — see especially Strauss's essay, "The Three Waves of Modernity." Modernity starts with Machiavelli and Hobbes and Locke, moves through Rousseau, and ends with Nietzsche (and implicitly Heidegger). That is, a nefarious break with "the ancients" occurred in the early modern period that set in motion a decline towards historicism, relativism, and nihilism. This is the theoretical backdrop to significant elements within neoconservatism; it is premised on this critique of modernity, on the possibility of impending doom, on the inability of "modernity" to sustain itself.
So neoconservatives, cynically and instrumentally, tend to defend and deploy "pre-modern" virtues and institutions — the military, war, and martial virtue; and reactionary religion ("Biblical religion"). These push against the trajectory of modern life, and thus (supposedly) stave off the decline they are convinced is always already underway. They do not try to sustain modernity from within, to reconcile, say, faith and modernity, but rather see modernity as something that needs counterweights, that needs to be pushed back against at every turn. So you purposefully cultivate certain elements that are in reaction to modernity — you push for war to fend off the decadent "softness" of modern liberals, and you make alliances with the religious right.
You can see why Irving Kristol, as editor of the CIA-funded magazine, Encounter, rejected an essay from Michael Oakeshott. The essay? "On Being Conservative." Neoconservatism, especially at its most Straussian, is in every important way un-Oakeshottian. Your writings of late bear this out, I think. In a way, you are re-enacting a quarrel between two of the great political philosophers of the 20th century.
I sure am. The Oakeshott-Strauss divide is the core faultline in conservatism. As an Oakeshottian, I'm a believer in modernity's strengths and endurance, just as I believe that religious faith can and will integrate and come through modernity's challenges. Straussians tend not to trust modernity, and many feel contempt for it; they always feared that the West was too decadent to defeat Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, just as they are deeply doubtful that the West can outlast Islamism. And the point of the West, for them, is not the freedoms it provides the masses (how crass) but the space it affords the philosophic elites.
Hence their instrumental belief in war as a virtue, in torture as a Machiavellian necessity, in primitive forms of politicized Christianity as a ballast against Islam. They are almost all value-free atheists who long for an ancient world that can never return. I'm a believer who lives for the future and is perfectly happy in a fractured, diverse, multi-cultural present. Not just that: I think that system is stronger than all the rest.
If we do not lose faith in it.