January 21, 2004

Persecution and the Art of Neoconservative Writing

Any number of people have remarked on the profound oddness of this op-ed in today's New York Times, by Richard "Prince of Darkness" Perle and David "Axis of Evil" Frum. The concluding passage, in particular, is very puzzling:

Saudi Arabia provides about 10 percent of the 80 million barrels of oil the world burns every day, and earns about $63 billion a year. If we were to cut our oil consumption by some heroic amount, say 10 percent, it would be a drop in the barrel. Assuming everything else remained equal, the Saudis would still take in $57 billion a year. That can pay for a lot more of the extremist ideology they have been buying.

Rather, we must prevail on the Saudis to stop financing the extremism that breeds holy warriors, young men willing to die in order to realize their vision of an Islamist universe. The United States is the main obstacle to this extremist vision, which is why we are engaged in a war on terrorism.

If the Democrats are serious about their stated analyses of the terrorist threat, then they need to tell America their plan to destroy the terrorists and change the policies or, if necessary, the regimes of the states that support them. In addition, they need to propose a policy toward Saudi Arabia equal to the magnitude of the Saudi problem. Such a policy would be based on this direct challenge: either the Saudis put an end to the direct flow of money from the kingdom to extremist organizations or else the United States will no longer have an interest in the continued tenure of the present regime.

Can the Democrats credibly convey this message to the Saudis? Will they fight terrorism rather than chase terrorists? These are tests that they have thus far refused to take.

What is so strange here is that fortunes of the House of Bush are deeply linked to those of the Banu Saud (Prof. Kleiman goes so far as to speak of vassalage), and, as Prof. Balkin explains, the Bush administration's actions have been quite the reverse of what Perle and Frum recommend.

Now, Perle and Frum are intelligent and articulate men, and presumably chose their words with care, especially when writing in a prominent place (the Times editorial page), especially in a highly-salient part of their text (the finale). We are forced, then, to one of two conclusions. (1) These words should be taken at face value, and their authors are delusional. (2) These words do not mean what they seem to mean.

In support of the first alternative, we have evidence that Perle, at least, has been wildly out of touch with reality in the past; for instance, this (not suitable for family audiences). But to reason in this way is to be merely inductive, even grubbily empirical; can we not be more elevated? Indeed we can. Consider that Perle, while not a student of the late Leo Strauss, admits to having been influenced by him. (About Frum, I don't know, and it doesn't seem worthwhile to check.) One of Strauss's more prominent ideas is the that of secret writing, expounded in many places, including the essays collected in his little book Persecution and the Art of Writing. The philosophers of ancient and medieval times, Strauss says, would hide their most controversial and provocative teachings --- the doctrines most likely to provoke the priests and the mob --- in plain sight, by writing in a deliberately obscure and contradictory way. An astute reader, knowing that the philosopher was intelligent, and skilled in writing, and chose his words carefully, would be led to meditate on these difficulties, and so grasp what was really being said. Stupid people would merely get confused, and the philosopher himself could honestly point to many places where what he wrote upheld conventional pieties. Prof. DeLong provides a brilliant illustration of the method in action, by applying it to Strauss's own book on Machiavelli.

Strauss, then, certainly taught about secret writing, and may well have practiced it himself (as DeLong suggests). Certainly he opened the door for anyone who read him. Re-examining Perle and Frum's op-ed in this light, as a piece of openly concealed writing, we are led inescapably to the conclusion that these two prominent members of the neo-conservative tendency are in fact denouncing Bush for his ineffective, indeed counter-productive, policies. Just as philosophers who depends for their livelihoods on church and king would not write openly about the mortality of the soul or the constitution of the ideal republic, these two, being so closely associated with the present administration, do not discuss its flaws in plain terms. But for those who have eyes to see, they are endorsing the eventual Democratic nominee, whomever he is, as the country's only hope for a serious security policy.

(Actually, Persecution is an interesting book. I'm not competent to evaluate Strauss's claims myself, but it at least seems plausible that some of the medievals were engaged in the kind of hidden writing he describes at least some of the time. I'm much more skeptical about antiquity. The claim that all the philosophers were saying the same thing, and that that thing was Ken MacLeod's "true knowledge" is downright stupid. But the latter points are not much in evidence, if at all, in Persecution.)

Update, 25 January 2004: This piece has been linked to by Brad DeLong and See Why, curiously without being picked up by track-back. The former says "Works for me", and I am duly honored. See Why suggests another possible ulterior motive to Frum and Perle's essay: if your superiors are guilty of P, accusing your opponents of P lets "you get across the idea 'P is bad. Let's avoid P,' without ruffling anyone's feathers". I think this suggestion also has merit.

A commentator on DeLong's post (I almost said "scholiast") points out that the economic analysis in the first paragraph is weird. He mostly focuses on the claim that reducing our oil dependence by ten percent would require "heroic" efforts. But it gets stranger: Frum and Perle ignore the fact that there are other claims on the Saudi oil revenues than bank-rolling Wahhabism, and indeed anyone who reads The Economist knows the Saudis are in long-term fiscal trouble, largely because their population explosion means their oil money is being spread increasingly thin. On top of it all, their calculation assumes no change in the price of oil following a major decrease in demand, which is the kind of reasoning which gets you a D in Econ. 1. The Straussian reading is of course plain: Making America more energy-efficient would not only not be too hard, it would have major, and favorable, strategic repercussions.

Finally, conversation with Kris and Mark Newman raises a very devious possibility. Frum and Perle may be writing to reach a reader who simply doesn't know anything about Bush's relations with the Saudis. Such a reader, seeing them attacking the Democrats for being soft on the Saudis, would probably get the impression Bush was taking strong steps to deal with Saudi Arabia --- why else would Perle and Frum bring it up? I'd bet that if you took naive subjects, exposed them to this essay and quizzed them about foreign affairs in a week's time, they'd be much more likely to say that the administration was taking a hard line towards the Saudis than would a control group. (The mechanisms are laid out elegantly in Sperber and Wilson's Relevance.) The beauty of this attack on their reader's understanding is that they don't actually say anything false, or even directly imply a falsehood; all the work is done by the reader's own presumption that Frum and Perle are arguing in good faith.

Learned Folly ; Modest Proposals ; The Continuing Crisis ; The Running-Dogs of Reaction

Posted by crshalizi at January 21, 2004 18:55 | permanent link

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