Thursday 14 August 2014

On not understanding politics: Leo Strauss and Gerry Hassan

One of the great advantages of anonymous blogging is that there is little need to pretend to more knowledge than one has. A degree of anonymity reduces (even if it does not entirely abolish) the pride and defensiveness that leads us to claim understanding where we do not understand. 'Blogging' as an activity is essentially ephemeral and experimental: unlike teaching or 'proper' publishing, there is less need to pretend that the product is finalized.

So I'm quite happy to admit that I don't fully understand Leo Strauss. I've been dipping into him for a good few years now. At the beginning, familiar with Myles Burnyeat's hatchet job on him (the original is behind a paywall but the reaction is available here) and the orthodoxy in left wing circles that he was somehow the fons et origo of America's neo-cons -and perhaps more straightforwardly that (almost) no one in the UK reads him- I read him more in the way that I desperately tried to read everything that might be remotely relevant to my area of study. Then I read a bit more and a bit more, in the expectation that I would finally discover the sort of anti-Grail that would reveal him to be the monster or fool that he undoubtedly was.

Well, as I said, that was a few years ago now and I've kept dipping in and I'm still waiting to find that anti-Grail. I'm reasonably convinced now that it doesn't exist and, whatever his pupils may have done, Strauss himself is simply a writer who has much of interest to say about the relationship between politics and philosophy. What precisely he says here is less obvious-and that's what I'm happy to admit I'm not clear about. I think we have a wrestling which embodies (as much as it describes) the inability of philosophy to absorb politics, and the inability of politics to absorb philosophy: a revelation of a tension that has to be lived and engaged with rather than abolished.

All thinking about politics (perhaps all thinking) is in medias res: the conversation has started before you entered the room. If the question is: 'How should I live?' the only philosophically ultimate answer is the Socratic admission of ignorance (which is not, note, the same as abandoning an attempt to answer the question). On the other hand, politicians have to make decisions. Moreover, democratic politicians have to persuade; and just as the teacher cannot teach without putting on a good face and disguising the inner gibbering idiot, so the politician cannot stand on the podium admitting their fundamental incompetence to control the uncontrollable. Strauss (I take it) like Gillian Rose wants us to live with/between that tension. Zizek (and if I do not understand Strauss, I do not understand Zizek and then some) on the other hand wants to escape the tension by some dramatic, revolutionary Act.

Well, as I said, I'm happy to admit I'm less than certain about those readings of Strauss etc. But the two broad positions clearly do exist outside the academy: the pursuit of the revolutionary Act which does not so much reflect as create politics; the pursuit of an uncertain, fully ungraspable reality. And so to Gerry Hassan, Scotland's leading public intellectual etc, who, as so often, raises good questions and then, perhaps, drops them too quickly:

Any successful political strategy has at times to address its weaknesses, and attempt to understand and diminish them. It should get inside the head and heart of its opponent's arguments and understand their emotions, rationale and logic. What it shouldn't do is what a major part of our debate has done: demonise and stigmatise the other side, whether it be Yes thinking the existence of 'Project Fear' is enough to show that all right-minded people should be on their side, to Better Together's inability to understand the legitimacy and appeal of independence (hence bogey words like 'separatism' and 'narrow nationalism').
Imagine if the independence cause were to offer in these last few weeks a different kind of tone and content. Picture Nicola Sturgeon before 18 September having the courage and conviction to stand up and talk about her own doubts and risks on independence. Think of the effect of Sturgeon saying that at times she too has had doubts and has felt uncertain about the project and idea of independence. This would entail her saying that she has at times had anxieties about the risks inherent in independence.

He's clearly quite right to point out the unattractiveness of much of the Nationalist presentation: there's absolutely no point in pretending that Independence is risk free and that fear or the Scotch Cringe is the only reason to vote no. As a political strategy, the public enactment of doubt, humility etc is indeed likely to produce some positive results for the Yes campaign. (There is, of course, another story to be told of the Better Together strategy of suggesting the sheer unthinkability of Independence by sneer and effortless superiority.)

But this misses the point. (Or at least a point.) And this is something that we can find in Strauss. The politician is not a philosopher: to take a position in a political campaign requires a persona, a front. It may well be that a persona embodying more doubt would be more attractive politically, would be more successful. But in the referendum campaign, there can only be two sort of political answer: Yes or No. Doubt, insofar as it figures, is something to be overcome, and the only possible narrative one of how it was slain or faced up to:

If, as is likely the SNP do not change tone and adjust content, irrespective of a Yes/No vote, they are going to have to consider embracing such an agenda post-vote. Here then is a suggestion to the SNP and independence cause. Have courage and believe in your convictions. Embrace the ideas of doubt, uncertainty and talk about the risks. That's what strong, courageous leadership and vision involves. [Hassan here.]

But there is another aspect of politics -not the campaigning, but the thinking about political things (ta politika; res publica) which is not oriented to direct political action. There is political philosophy which is the soil from which the campaign should emerge and be challenged. Here, the 'emotions, doubts and fears' that Hassan seems to want to treat as a therapist become cognitive responses to truth and the absence of truth, to be treated by philosophy.

I've said it before, but Scotland is severely deficient in that philosophical thinking about public things that is not directly oriented towards a campaign. In part, that is diagnosed (by Strauss) as the modern intellectual desert that is reached when the ancient understanding of human nature and the pursuit of its flourishing is abandoned. But it is particularly bad -worse than it need be- in Scotland. Without the background of think tanks, proper journalism, public engagement by the universities and rather better public intellectuals, any political campaign is going to be impoverished: you can't just switch on the public mind every five years or so and then put it back into the box. It's not so much that one can't point to isolated figures or institutions, but they remain isolated: there is a lack of critical mass.

And a fortiori the Catholic Church in Scotland. As Tom Gallagher put it recently:

There is a surprising lack of interaction between people in different branches of Church life, from education to parts of the media and the different offices of the Church. This makes it easier for political forces with their own agendas to muscle in and even try to bend parts of Church life to an essentially secular will.

Although that is, in part, a matter of political campaigning, I think the core of the problem is rather that lack of constant philosophical/theological thinking from which alone effective campaigning can result. And so, for example, the Catholic opposition to same sex marriage emerges from nowhere and sounds shrill and arbitrary even to many Catholics, instead of being the natural, irresistible consequence of our understanding of human beings and their place in society.

I'm reading Weigel's biography of St John Paul II at the moment. Remember that, during the crisis (a far greater crisis than I hope I'll ever have to face) of Poland's occupation by the Nazis and then the Communists, much of his energy was devoted to building up Polish Catholicism's intellectual and cultural life, for example, through amateur theatre. Without that cultural soil, politics and even theology flies around uselessly like tumbleweed.

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