Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2004

Paul Craig Roberts on the Neocons

I just read Paul Craig Roberts’s review of Claes G. Ryn‘s America the Virtuous, in the Jan 2 TLS. Roberts, author of books like The New Color Line, has bona fide conservative credentials: Hoover Institution, Wall Street Journal, and so on. But he’s far more Edmund Burke than Leo Strauss:

The rise of a new Jacobin ideology…has captured the Bush administration and formerly conservative media, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, the Washington Times, and Fox News. Known to the world as neo-conservativism, this ideology is radical, not conservative. It appears to be conservative because, unlike cultural Marxists who find endless social and moral vices in American values and institutions, neo-conservatives find virtue.

Like the Cato Institute, who haven’t been big Bush boosters for a while, Roberts is enough of a libertarian to have it trump his traditional party allegiances. He’s not concerned with corruption, class stratification, or cultural divisons; he’s worried that the “neo-Jacobin” (i.e., Leo Straussian neo-conservatism) approach will be disastrous and wreck the country economically, militarily, and politically.

Listen to him bemoan the lack of an opposition to the neo-cons:

The alternative voice to the new Jacobins is that of postmodernism and cultural Marxism. This voice, strongest in the universities, is hostile to America and works against enculturation of its youth in traditional American values. As cultural Marxism does not resonate with the general population, it is not a political check on the neo-conservatives.

The description of academia is a little harsh, but I have to admire the pithiness of his assessment of its effectiveness.

But I do think he’s gone astray. With Richard Perle out at the Defense Policy Board and Paul Wolfowitz supposedly the next to go (keeping my fingers crossed there), he picks at the wrong part of Strauss’s agenda. Americans aren’t Romans and they aren’t anywhere near as keen on military adventurism; that would be the first chip to fall. Likewise the proclamation of American virtue over rest-of-world vice: it’s a useful rhetorical device, but the ultimate authorities (I would speculate: Rove and Cheney; maybe Rumsfeld, who had different axes to grind than the neocons) decided the adventure in Iraq was a safe bet, not an ideological necessity. Why else was there such a hard push to convince us all (citizens and executives alike) that Iraq would be a cakewalk?

The Roberts article is interesting to me because after all his excoriation of “conservatism” in America today, it still gives the movement some benefit of the doubt by assigning them some pragmatic motives:

The same pragmatic politicians who have no interests except their own re-election might, in fact, safe us from the world the neo-Jacobins have in mind.

Add “accumulation of unchecked, centralized executive power” to the list of interests. This is the Straussian principle–the presence of a totalitarian Platonic ruling class–that poses the most threat to Roberts’s libertarian agenda, and it&#x92s the one most likely to survive the downfall of neo-conservatism…or the downfall of the Bush administration. Here, I think Paul Krugman is totally on the mark:

There is no higher goal. Bush’s motivations are dynastic–to secure his family’s rightful place. While he may have some policy biases–like that “instinctive policy fealty” to the investment business–policy is basically there to serve the acquisition of power, and not the other way around.

The story of neoconservatism and the movement of a radical ideology to the center of the political establishment is more interesting than your typical power-hungry executive, but it’s secondary to, and I think separable from, the dominant theme of domestic control. Still, I have to respect a classical conservative desperate and consistent enough to end on this note:

Although most Americans are unaware of it, their best hope is that Iraqi insurgents succeed in driving the US out of Iraq, thus destroying Bush’s re-election.

What would Burke say?

3.1.1 The Situation

Maybe it’s reading The Guermantes Way under drastically different circumstances than the first two books, or maybe it’s that by the third volume, you can no longer see clearly back to the beginning of the entire work, nor can you see anything like the end. But really, The Guermantes Way seems like a tougher slog in general, because there’s no longer a clear narrative thread, and there is less philosophical substance (Proust having dispatched the idea of it in the previous two volumes) than previously. Instead, there’s endless parties with endlessly revolving characters, with no clear end and no clear direction.
That’s the way it reads for the first three hundred pages. There’s nothing to match the drama of Swann and Odette, and no passages as concentrated as those in the first section of Within a Budding Grove, though there are some nice bits in the later pages. They’re not enough to stave off the feeling that Proust’s leviathan has run aground and is flailing.
That’s not to say that it is not a compelling portrayal. Marcel, now a young adult, wanders through the upper social circles of Paris and sees characters, mostly seen before, dithering about in their own preoccupations. He does very little; he seemingly has no obligations. The rest of the crowd, including such past charmers as Cottard, Bloch, M. de Charlus, and Mme de Villeparisis, evince no development whatsoever, just a presentation of their often shallow selves. In “Swann in Love,” they provided the background tableaux against which Swann acted out his passions. Here, with Marcel considerably less involved and active than he was in “Place-Names: The Place” (in Balbec), there is only the peopled scenery. Marcel’s infatuation with the elite Guermantes clan, on display during a visit to the theater where he rhapsodizes over the Princess’s dress, and his concern with the art of the actress Berma: these things are the raw material of his memories, and they don’t resonate as earlier passages did because they are so particular to their time and place, shorn of passions that readers in which readers can recognize themselves.
This network of private, unique connections is what he’s after:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. And great fatigue followed by a good night’s rest can to a certain extent help us to do so. For in order to make us descend into the most subterranean galleries of sleep, where no reflexion from overnight, no gleam of memory comes to light up the interior monologue–if the latter does not itself cease–fatigue followed by rest will so thoroughly turn over the soil and penetrate the bedrock of our bodies that we discover down there, where our muscles plunge and twist in their ramifications and breathe in new life, the garden where we played in our childhood. There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. (89)

The problem with such an approach, as Proust intimates, is that without an external point of reference, with only an excavation of purely internal sensations and impressions, the relation of one’s own mind and memories to common, shared experience does not exist. In going over and over the shared experience in the first part of The Guermantes Way, he leaves readers very little to grasp, other than portraits of scenery.
It is not until three-hundred pages in, halfway through the volume, that the death of Marcel’s grandmother gives shape to what’s gone before. Given that the second part of the book accelerates rapidly, the contrast feels intentional. It serves to make the first part even more elusive.

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