Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The sage of the wild west posted by Richard SeymourOne of the hair-raising ideas raised in Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares was that Leo Strauss, philosopher of the "crisis of the West", was addicted to the television show Gunsmoke. In that Western series, commended by no less a figure than John Wayne for its realism and adult take on American history, James Arness plays Marshal Matt Dillon, a handsome Aryan type who is always forced by his job to arrest or kill people illegally. You can see a typical denouement here, in which a cowardly killer played by Charles Bronson is shot in cold blood by the Marshal:
In its day, this horseshit was as popular as The Simpsons. What Strauss reportedly like about this show was that it reminded Americans of the existence of 'good' and 'evil'. The image of an elitist thinker indoctrinating his Chicago University caste in the finer points of Kojève, before speeding home to thrill to a comically simple-minded Western series, cannot but be bathetic. Yet, the confluence between the political philosophy of someone steeped in interwar European radical rightism (see the infamous 'letter', check his support for Vladimir Jabotinksy, and his ingratiating himself with Charles Maurras), and lowbrow culture in 1950s America is unsurprising. What Gunsmoke depicts is a political order driven by a sense of perpetual crisis, in which adherence strict moral probity threatens extinction. Universalism would be contemptible and self-defeating in such a polity, unless it was the sort of ethnocentric 'universalism' retailed by neoconservatives. Whatever differences Strauss had with Schmitt, he wholly accepted the 'friend/enemy' distinction as a realistic description of how politics worked. Egalitarianism would just as quickly finish off what remained of civilization on the frontier, since it would punish excellence and protect the base. The Western epic or miniseries mirrors the obscurantism of the Straussians in another sense, by cleansing history and politics of social struggles. The categories that matter are obviously not those of race, class, work and production (about which most intellectual production remains tactfully silent), but those of law and chaos, the Marshal and the mob. The 'Indian Wars' are there, but the traces of racial genocide are expunged - it is a sort of kitsch holocaust denial for children. The figure of the mob, moreover, is proof of Strauss' conviction that Nazism is the result of a surfeit of democratic egalitarianism. More importantly, the work performed by such productions was to reboot national mythologies, precisely those noble lies which Strauss endeavoured to protect and defend, and which he saw the value-free social sciences and their lax relativism as undermining (thus leaving American civilization susceptible to the communist threat). Strauss liked Gunsmoke because he liked the frontier state, its hierarchies, the seige mentality that it produces (Jean-Francois Drolet refers to as the "crisis-driven habitus" that he sees as constitutive of the neoconservative milieu), and what we have become accustomed to calling "moral clarity". I just wonder whether this means that the influence of Strauss is over-stated. Neoconservative intellectuals could exert influence only because of a favourable mass culture, only because their rightist, authoritarian, imperial assumptions were deeply embedded in American culture long before a German Jewish emigre started lecturing about Platonic excellence.