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Damon Linker on Philosophy and the Far Right
A low bureaucrat comments on the high
Damon Linker is a pundit who works for a non-partisan open society NGO called the Niskanen center, and who participates on a weekly podcast for The Bulwark, a centrist publication launched to counter the various pro-Trump publications like American Greatness. I had no idea who Linker was until I learned Steven Pinker had blocked me on twitter and headed over to review his timeline, where I discovered a tweet promoting an article series by Linker on “Philosophy and the Far Right”. From there I learned that Linker had also blocked me. This social ostracism on twitter connotes a status and power differential!
Despite its title, the series is not philosophical but more an opinion piece about personalities associated with the mid-20th century philosopher Leo Strauss. The article includes short profiles on a series of alt-right e-celebs.
As an outsider in both status and philosophical background, I’m never sure what to make of the whole Straussian “thing”, except to conclude that it does seem to be a “thing” in the sense that it’s not so much a philosophical school as it is a high-status mystical social club with rules of decorum, institutional strongholds, sacred texts, etc. The Linker article reinforces the accuracy of this perception for me.
Under Linker’s approach to philosophy, peer review becomes Peer review rather than the review of arguments and evidence by peers. Peer review through gossip is fine, of course. People are always judging and being judged by others. But one shouldn’t mask Peer review with the veil of disinterested philosophy and science.
Linker begins his series by observing that while the Straussian approach to philosophy (reading philosophy and taking it seriously instead of reducing it to historical contingencies like class conflict or “different ways of knowing”) could be dangerous because it exposes students to anti-democratic ideas, this never seemed to be a problem for Linker or his classmates in graduate school. He speculates that this was the case for two reasons. The first is that when he was in school in the ‘90s, the triumph of liberalism was so certain that extreme politics had little allure.
This is humorous to me because this was probably the same era during which the infamous Straussian bogeymen from the undignified Bush Jr. presidency, whose extremist political agenda was documented by paranoid leftist authors like Shadia Drury, were attending grad school.
It’s also humorous given that the academic radicalism that inspired contemporary leftist identity politics, and which has in turn catalyzed reactionary radicalism since 2016, was being nurtured in universities during the ‘90s. Thanks in part to the quietist prudence of “centrists” like Straussians, we are now suffering the consequences of ‘80s-‘90s leftist culture war academia.
The second reason that Linker and his fellow students weren’t seduced by extremist philosophy was because their Straussian professors taught them the lesson of Glaucon from Plato’s Republic. Linker says the lesson of Glaucon is a long and drawn-out argument but assures the reader that it’s persuasive. The conclusion Socrates draws in dialogue with Glaucon is that one should not seek fulfillment in politics but rather philosophical introspection, to transcend one’s “political hopes”. Linker explains that Straussians are not trying to groom anyone into extremism:
“I took seminars on Plato’s Gorgias, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and plenty of other radical books. But I never got the impression that my peers and I were being groomed to embrace the political extremism we encountered in these texts.”
Nietzsche, Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and some other modern bad guys, went against the lesson of Glaucon and “longed for a total transformation of politics and society following from their own philosophic ideas.” Linker and his fellow students concluded that these thinkers’ “more extreme political positions” were “almost certainly misguided and indisputably imprudent.”
“Extreme” is of course relative to political context. The ancients adored by Straussians wrote treatises justifying slavery and other “extreme” political positions, and yet Straussians are the teachers of prudence and moderation today.
Some Straussians rely upon prudence to justify not engaging with or adopting such “extreme” arguments, while others are so convinced that the ancients couldn’t have believed anything other than what our civil religion demands today that they contort themselves like priests and scribes to compose apologia. Like ancient Judaeans and Christians “proving” to pagan scholars that Moses already knew everything that the pagan philosophers discovered, or in some cases that the pagan philosophers actually were Judaean themselves or at least in secret dialogue with them, so some Straussians will convince themselves that ancient pagan philosophers were devotees of the American civil religion.
Philosophy for Straussians thus seems to be a lifestyle that helps individuals gain self-understanding and live the good life by undertaking a sort of elitist resignation from politics:
“One of my teachers once somewhat ironically described politics as babysitting writ large—an activity too insignificant to occupy the mind of a serious human being.”
While Linker concedes that he didn’t adopt this extreme form of political resignation, he states that it did convince him to approach politics from a position of “moderation” and “ironic detachment”. Unfortunately, his subsequent political assessments of the e-celebs in his article suggest anything but moderation and ironic detachment.
In Linker’s series I see the hallmarks of social class dynamics, in particular the management of social membership through censure, gossip, and ostracism. I see very little philosophy or analytical engagement by Linker with the ideas he lampoons. It’s something I’ve observed in passing engagement with modern Straussian thought, but more importantly in contemporary policy discourse across the political spectrum.
Instead of engaging with ideas and arguments, the great social disincentive of shame - the anxiety produced through guilt by association and through fear of making a scene - is pumped to strengthen conformity and exclude known heretics and social isolates.
While I understand that taboos are necessary under any civil religion, I distinguish observing taboos from taboo enforcement rituals that are masked by a veneer of disinterested legitimacy - in Linker’s case, by the legitimacy of a Platonic argument about self-knowledge and the lesson Socrates taught about politics. As an outsider, I detect here an overwhelming concern with people, their personalities, and their personal lives. Ultimately, I detect the petty interpersonal politics of the village masquerading as an ironic aloofness from unsound (or at least imprudent) philosophy. Here’s why.
The profiles strangely insist upon listing the educational pedigree of each e-celeb. This seems unnecessary given that the article is about Straussian philosophy, and Linker could’ve simply stated that the relevant e-celeb studied under such-and-such Straussian professor. This suggests Linker is in some sense concerned with the social status of each e-celeb.
The profiles rely upon associating the e-celeb with taboos. Instead of addressing philosophical arguments made by the e-celebs or the philosophers who influenced them, Linker attempts to diminish the social standing of the e-celebs by pointing to the taboo political associations of some of the philosophers. For example, instead of demonstrating the unsoundness or imprudence of the philosophy of Russian Philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, Linker, using the ironically-detached rhetoric of moderation and prudence, points to Dugin’s “full-throated encouragement of Vladimir Putin’s brutal, imperialistic war against Ukraine.”
Linker further compares Dugin’s political philosophy to the idealized version of National Socialism endorsed by Martin Heidegger. Thus, the e-celeb is bad because Dugin is bad because his political philosophy sounds like a political philosophy endorsed by Heidegger, which is bad because it endorsed a form of National Socialism, which is taboo.
In another strange profile, Linker denounces an e-celeb for having a funny podcast because fascists were known for combining humor with political philosophy.
The profiles focus on showing the uncouth behavior of the e-celebs. For example, Linker is scandalized that one e-celeb publicly “demanded that Black Lives Matter and several prominent black figures (including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina) “learn their place” and “take a knee to MAGA.”” Linker goes on to denounce this same e-celeb for calling him “low status” on Twitter.
For Linker, these personalities are “making a scene” and, according to the logic of gossip, tarnishing Straussianism by association while also making the world unsafe for philosophy, which can never agree with the arguments of the e-celebs for some unexplained reason.
The unexplained reason is I think exposed by Linker’s attempt to dox one of the e-celebs. The obsession with doxxing among journalists and academics is interesting to me. They have an overwhelming desire to strip away the ring of gyges that is anonymity, inspect the anon’s life for impieties, and expose anons to the social consequences that befall anyone who says taboo things under their real name. In a sense, the real ring of gyges in contemporary America is strictly observing and enforcing taboos, since doing so guarantees that the gaze of the doxxer and/or journalist will not fall upon you and uncover your own private injustices.
Therefore, the unpersuasive reason you aren’t supposed to endorse the philosophies of these e-celebs, for Linker, is that it’s his job to observe and enforce taboos. His series is ultimately about reminding readers that a list of personalities is bad because they traffic in ideas which have been designated as taboo, and because their public behavior is uncouth.
The cautionary tale I learned from Socrates, as a non-Straussian, is that the mob is never prepared to handle the edgy counter-cultural conclusions of the philosopher, and moreover that the mob will seek to punish him for drawing those conclusions in one way or another. In this case, Linker represents a more refined extension of the mob.
Postscript on Straussianism
Linker concludes that the professors he mentions aren’t responsible for the taboo ideas and behavior of these e-celeb students. I’m not sure I completely agree. I think the perpetuation of Straussianism depends upon a sort of equilibrium between the moderate gentleman-philosopher who preaches taste and moderation, and whose name nobody will remember, and the bombastic, unsavory sophist who pursues a high-profile political life. Moderate Straussians benefited from that allure during the Bush years and they’re benefiting from it again now.
I generally get the impression that despite being a philosophical school, Straussians produce very little (if any) philosophy. This was not the case with their teacher from what I’ve read (Natural Right & History and a few lectures). Strauss himself developed a series of novel arguments against reductionist trends in historical philosophy and sociology and even engaged with Anglo-Analytical contemporaries like A.N. Whitehead. Strauss’s modern epigones seem like they’re more dedicated to recapitulating these arguments in new contexts solely to protect a philosophical “tradition” and its ethics against relativism.
As Linker himself explains, the unphilosophical nature of Straussians is partly by design. Because of Strauss’s contention that older philosophers were not mere byproducts of historical or social contingencies, he encouraged the close reading of their texts to divine their timeless truths. Unfortunately, this ended up turning philosophy into an exercise in the religious exegesis of old philosophical texts. By religious I mean that the scholarly efforts of Straussians are not necessarily about analyzing old philosophical arguments to ascertain their validity and soundness but rather about interpreting their connection to other texts in the tradition, their relationship to contemporary politics, and to protect them against reductions of philosophy to historical or social contingencies.
In effect, Straussians often are a special kind of defensive intellectual historian, which means they defend the authority of historical personalities and texts they revere. Indeed, the point above about apologia is consistent with the religious analogy Linker raises. This is interesting to me as a sociological phenomenon: the output of Straussians reflects the status-jockeying of an elitist group that prefers favorably re-presenting itself for different audiences over real philosophy. Sometimes Judaeans and Christians wrote apologia while other times they recoiled into contemplation of their laws, depending upon the situation.
In light of this understanding of Straussianism, I was surprised to briefly be invited into their thing during The American Mind’s symposium on Bronze Age Pervert. The American Mind is a publication produced by the school of Straussians descending from Harry Jaffa, the Claremont School, to whom Linker moderately refers as “Claremonsters”, because they dared to take a political position against elite consensus.
At the time, my twitter account was mostly dedicated to documenting my alcohol abuse and low-status civil servitude. The American Mind nonetheless allowed me to promote an article I had written that was emphatically “historicist”, to borrow one of their pejoratives, and even to plug John Murray Cuddihy’s sociological reduction of Leo Strauss himself (never forget that Cuddihy’s chapter on Marx is entitled “Persecution and the Art of the Writing”).
The sort of intellectual magnanimity demonstrated by The American Mind here seems more consistent with the spirit of philosophy.