Sometimes it's hard to believe that humans keep repeating the same follies,
as though successive generations learn nothing from the insanities of their
predecessors. The problem of history involves its affinity for paradoxes:
Someone, often a philosopher or a person acting like a philosopher,
articulates a version of how the world works. People then amplify this
version and improvise solutions to the problems that were described.
Marxism, authored by Karl Marx, (who held a Ph.D. in philosophy,) is a good
example. Marx predicted that the downtrodden masses of workers who were, in
1848, working at near-starvation wages in the factories of the
industrialized world, would rise up and throw off their shackles.
Technology would free them from dehumanizing work and they would go on to
create a workers' paradise.
That vision would inspire others, long after Marx's death, to take actions
that would result in millions of deaths in the name of collectivization and
under the banner of Communism. A totalitarian state emerged in place of the
workers' paradise, and the spirit of oppression that arose in the culture
of the Soviet Union may seem inconsistent with its initial objectives, but
it was not at all unusual in the annals of history. People who come to
believe that they have found the answers to their culture's problems are
willing to go to any lengths to pursue their beliefs.
Communism was a revitalization movement because it sought to correct what
it perceived to be an historical imbalance of power and to set things
right. A movement that shared the idea that the people of a culture had
been wrongfully denied their rightful place in history arose in Germany
after World War I. Although Hitler came to represent Nazism's claims that
the fate of the earth would be determined by struggles between and among
races of people, the underlying principles of Aryan superiority and
eugenics had been popular in Europe (and America) for generations. The race
theories which were so popular three generations ago sound odd to educated
people today, as does the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat, but
these were two of the movements which drove the sorrows of the 20th
Such movements are in play today, and are driving the history of the times.
Militant Islam has its philosopher, and its followers are urged to believe
that the Muslim world is threatened by an immoral West, that human beings
have usurped what is rightfully the power of Allah to create laws for
humans, and that states which do not follow the rules of God are
illegitimate and should be overthrown and replaced by states that follow
Koranic law which was, they believe, authored by God.
The philosopher is Sayyed Qutb, an Egyptian who was executed for leading
radicals against the Egyptian state and whose book, "Milestones", ranks
with "Mein Kampf" and "Das Kapital" as among the most influential books in
world history. It is written entirely within the context and confines of
Islamic thought and it urges that Moslems are morally superior to
Westerners and calls for a revival of Islamic principles, which he defines
as an unquestioning embrace of the text of the Koran. The specifics of the
militant Islamist movement are peculiar to its origins, but the pattern is
familiar. The philosopher articulates a grave danger to the people of that
culture and then offers an extreme pathway to regain the glory to which the
constituency is entitled. People who are convinced they are doing the work
of God can be inspired to make any sacrifice, commit any outrage, in
service to their cause. The Communists were inspired in that way, God
notwithstanding. So were the Nazis.
Leo Strauss was a philosopher who believed that the ancient Greek
philosophers had it right, even more than modern philosophers. He is an
extremely complex writer who is unlikely to inspire the masses, but his
ideas do appeal to a narrow group of people who believe they know how the
world works and this sets them apart from mortal men. They are now called
neo-conservatives, many of their leaders like Paul Wolfowitz and Alan Bloom
are Straussians, and they have captured the American government. Strauss
taught the lesson from the trial of Socrates was that Socrates was guilty,
philosophers know the truth (as Socrates knew the truth about the gods) and
the truth can be subversive. Society is better off if people do not know
the dark truths the philosophers know about the culture's myths. To address
this contradiction, the wise ones must speak in a kind of code that only
they understand. Strauss thought he found such a code in the writings of
the ancient Greeks. He also believed that Plato was right when he said the
best government would be composed of philosophers, the most educated and
philosophically versed in the land.
Since Plato wrote the Republic, people have not tended to want philosophers
to run their government. It was a rare moment at the founding of the
American republic that a group of men included members who had a claim to
being intellectuals: Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Adams. It hasn't
happened since. The neo-conservatives who have become high-profile players
in the Bush administration - Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz. Richard
Perle, Douglas Feith, Lewis "Scooter" Libby and many others - are
Straussians. The lessons they seem to have extracted from Strauss's
teachings are selective. He was secretive, and so are they. He could
rationalize giving people who didn't really need to know the truth
information that was not accurate. He would use lying as a tool of
statecraft, wielded by self-appointed intellectual elites who, as
philosopher politicians, were entitled to govern without the impediments
often imposed by messy democracies composed of people who were incapable of
appreciating the wisdoms of their betters.
No one would accuse Mr. Bush of actually reading Strauss. Strauss, like
Marx and Qutb, makes powerful if impractical arguments about how to
proceed. His movement, like the others, is a revitalization, and like the
others, lacks a pragmatic center. No one should doubt, however, that all of
these people make persuasive arguments if one accepts the premises upon
which they are built.
The thing about such movements is that their adherents are very
enthusiastic that they alone have come to enlightenment.
To every question, the preferred ancient Greek philosophers proposed there
could be only one correct answer. This was understandable in the context of
ancient Greece, but it's a tough go in modern Iraq. To the question, "What
do the Iraqi people want?" Socrates might have thought that given the same
amount of information every Iraqi would make the same choices. The Kurds,
the Sunnis, and the Shi'ites will all agree because there is only one
correct answer and it happens to be the same correct answer favored by the
philosophers on the Potomac. They think pluralism is for sissies. On this
point, the Straussians are in agreement with their natural and historic
enemies, militant Islam, whose followers also believe they have the
solutions to all their problems and there is only one correct answer about
where the future of Islam lies and they believe the infidels in Washington
haven't a clue.
The Straussians have an army at their back, and they were itching to use
it. Militant Islam believes all secular governments should be overthrown.
These kinds of movements have brought about misery and disaster for
centuries and there seems to be no end in sight.
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.