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Bill Kristol condemns lying for political ends: Seriously

By Glenn Greenwald
Salon.com, 27 July 2009

On Fox News yesterday, NPR’s Juan Williams ... condemned President Obama for telling “lies” about the Gates controversy. That prompted this observation from Bill Kristol [“An Obfuscatable Moment” The Weekly Standard July 26, 2009], in which he ... quoted Williams:

Amid all the blather about “teachable moments,” I don’t recall anyone else making this simple but profound observation: “You can’t have a teachable moment if it’s based on a lie.” ...

... a moment in which everyone colludes to obscure the truth (which seems characteristic of most “teachable moments” in contemporary America) is not a moment of teaching; it’s a moment of deception, of misdirection, of obfuscation. Call it an obfuscatable moment.

It’s hard to remember a statement in American politics as deceitful and obfuscating as this one[,] from Bill Kristol ... pretending to condemn politically-motivated lies. ... the central political tactic of neoconservatism is the “noble lie” – exactly what Kristol self-righteously condemns here. The political philosopher most revered by neoconservatives, Leo Strauss, explicitly advocated such lies, as Philosophy and Political Science Professor Shadia Drury documented:

[Strauss] therefore taught that those in power must invent noble lies and pious frauds to keep the people in the stupor for which they are supremely fit. . . . Like the Grand Inquisitor, he thought that it was better for human beings to be victims of this noble delusion than to “wallow” in the “sordid” truth. And like the Grand Inquisitor, Strauss thought that the superior few should shoulder the burden of truth and in so doing, protect humanity from the “terror and hopelessness of life.”

Though that may be a bit of an oversimplification of Strauss’ views, ... Irving Kristol, the so-called Godfather of Neoconservatism, was a devout follower of what he understood to be Strauss’ belief that feeding lies to citizens is necessary for good political ends:

[Irving] Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. “What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that ‘the truth will make men free.’” Kristol adds that “Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol’s] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.”

Based on that understanding, Irving Kristol explicitly advocated that ordinary citizens be lied to for their own good and the good of society:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

As Professor Drury notes based on Bill Kristol’s writings on such topics, [Bill] Kristol himself ... is a “Straussian clone.” That’s why Bill Kristol’s public career is filled with too many lies to count. Lying is a justifiable tactic to them, which is what explains typical Kristol statements like this [“The 9/11 Commission and the Connection” The Weekly StandardJuly 26, 2004]:

What the Bush administration did say—and what so many reporters seem to have trouble understanding—is that Iraq and al Qaeda had a relationship that, by its very existence, posed a potential threat to the United States.

Another by-product of Kristol’s fervent belief in political lies was when he pretended to support evangelical Christians in the Terri Schiavo travesty (Straussian neoconservatives love to manipulate and inflame mass religious beliefs, especially Christianity, feigning sympathy with it, as the ultimate form of control) ...

This is what was always most striking (and revealing) about The New York Times’ hiring Kristol as a columnist (and The Washington Post’s immediately swooping him up after he was let go by the NYT): Kristol is someone who not only lies constantly, but who quite obviously believes in lying as a legitimate and important political weapon. In general, there are far too many instances of extreme hypocrisy and deceit in our political culture to bother noting them when they arise. But ... Bill Kristol – the living, breathing embodiment of deceitful propaganda – condemn the use of lies for political ends is really too much to ignore. ...

UPDATE:  AsCarolynC notes in Comments, the Straussian endorsement of “noble lies" is ... consistent with the two-tiered system of justice that dominates our political culture, as only some people – the elite – are permitted to tell such lies, while ordinary citizens who do so must be punished.

That Harper’s article [Harper’s Earl Shorris in July, 2004] also notes that Bill Kristol ... is a devoted Straussian. Indeed, when Kristol pretends to reject politically-motivated lies, that in itself is an example of a Straussian lie: Obama should be condemned for “lying" because he’s not noble, whereas Kristol and his comrades are free to lie because they are devoted to noble ends.

UPDATE II:  ... In addition to the above-cited Drury and Harper’s articles arguing that neocons reflect exactly what Strauss believed, here is a restrained and ... well-informed condemnation of Strauss from Harper’s Scott Horton. Horton notes that “even among those who love him, there seems to be a very catty rage over just who are the proper ‘Straussians’”; that “the Neoconservative movement ... properly claims roots in the writing and thinking of Leo Strauss"; and that Strauss, at least early on, “sees real appeal in fascism, Mussolini style.” Also according to Horton:

One of the pillars of liberal democracy is the embrace of the Rule of Law, and the notion that no one, even the ... Executive, stands above the law. For Strauss this idea was foolishness. . . . [To him] law spells weakness; law is a trick of the weak to tie down the strong. Hence, Strauss applauds the decisive leader who acts outside of the law to achieve his goals. ... the consequences of Strauss’ dismissive attitude towards the Rule of Law can be seen today in the Neocon advocacy of ... allowing the president to operate outside of clear criminal statutes (like FISA) as an aspect of his war-making powers.

And see here for some short though seemingly incriminating Strauss quotes (citation is here).

... As a contemporary political matter, [the debate over whether Kristol is faithful to Strauss or not] matters little. Leo Strauss isn’t subsidized by Rupert Murdoch to spew propaganda on Fox News and at The Weekly Standard; doesn’t write columns in virtually every major American newspaper and magazine; and doesn’t exert substantial influence in our political debate. Neoconservatives do. What matters is how they understand and embrace Strauss, regardless of whether that interpretation is or is not faithful to Strauss himself. As the excerpts from Irving Kristol make conclusively clear, neocons cite Strauss to support their belief that lies in pursuit of noble political ends are justifiable (indeed, Bill Kristol sits on the Advisory Board of the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago, along with Harvard Professor and Machiavelli lover Harvey Mansfield, who explicitly rejects the rule of law as a constraint on Presidents, or at least on George Bush).

That’s what matters: what neoconservatives believe. And what they believe is the virtue of political lies when spouted by certain people (themselves) in service of certain goals (their own), and relatedly, the complete absence of any limits on what they can do in pursuit of those “noble” goals.

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