June 12, 2005

Charismatic Intellectual Leaders

As I've said before, I am not dismissive of the Kevin MacDonald-Neocon theory of eugenic breeding for scholarship among medieval Jews. I just think that now that MacDonald's theory has become the favored alternative among Jewish intellectuals to the Cochran-Hardy-Harpending theory of greater survival among the children of the wealthy, it's time for the MacDonald theory's supporters to show how much quantitative evidence can be assembled in its favor. It's not enough just to indicate that the direction was favorable for the evolution of intelligence, but some effort must be made to show that the magnitude of the eugenic affect was large enough to matter.

Still, there is a sense in which the MacDonald-Neocon theory of eugenic breeding to produce argument-winning rabbis has some intuitive plausibility in that Ashkenazis don't seem adapted just for business success but also for the kind of intellectual combat that is sometimes inimical to making money. I'm not sure that we see that combination in other middle man minorities with a talent for business, such as the Armenians. This Ashkenazi tendency is probably just cultural, but it sure is long lasting.

Personally, I find this Jewish "culture of critique" highly appealing. The inevitable question, it brings up, though, is whether Jewish cultural tendencies should be the only ones completely excluded from any critique by outsiders. I can understand the argument that Jewish vulnerability should mean that Jewish cultural traits must remain above analysis, but in the 21st Century that stance seems historically obsolete.

MacDonald, for all his sins, does point out something highly important for understanding the modern world, something extraordinarily obvious but which I had never noticed before reading his account a half decade ago: the importance of extra-rational charisma in the appeal of egomaniacal, messianic intellectuals like Marx and Freud to younger Jewish students. Over the last 150 years, secular Jewish intellectuals have repeatedly reproduced the traditional brilliant rabbi-student relationship in launching powerful cults. Among the more recent examples have been Ayn Rand (see Murray N. Rothbard's hilarious 1972 article "The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult"), Susan Sontag (see Terry Castle's hilarious 2005 article "Desperately Seeking Susan"), and Leo Strauss (see the unintentionally hilarious 2003 article "What Leo Strauss Was Up To" by two true believers, William Kristol and Steven Lenzer).

Kristol, who seems like a non-wacko on TV, and Lenzer wrote in the normally level-headed Public Interest about how only Strauss possessed the secret decoder ring to understand what the great philosophers of the past actually meant.

"Strauss set himself a remarkable task: the revival of Western reading, and therefore, of philosophizing. Strauss claimed that he had rediscovered a forgotten kind of writing, and that for almost two centuries the proper manner of reading the greatest works of the past had apparently disappeared. If Strauss in fact rediscovered the art of writing, then he made possible the revival of Western letters. If Strauss's work is sound, he made it possible for us today to appreciate great books in the spirit and manner in which they were written. And the almost universal vehemence with which his rediscovery was initially denounced and ridiculed by the scholarly world demonstrated just how completely this art had been lost. No passage of Strauss's more vividly captures what was entailed by this rediscovery than his account of Machiavelli's art of writing:

"'Time and again we have become bewildered by the fact that the man [Machiavelli] who is more responsible than any other man for the break with the Great Tradition should in the very act of breaking prove to be the heir, the by no means unworthy heir, to that supreme art of writing which that tradition manifested at its peaks. The highest art has its roots, as he well knew, in the highest necessity. The perfect book or speech obeys in every respect the pure and merciless laws of what has been called logographic necessity. The perfect speech contains nothing slipshod; in it there are no loose threads; it contains no word that has been picked up at random; it is not marred by errors due to faulty memory or to any other kind of carelessness; strong passions and a powerful and fertile imagination are guided with ease by a reason which knows how to use the unexpected gift, which knows how to persuade and which knows how to forbid; it allows of no adornment which is not imposed by the gravity and the aloofness of the subject matter; the perfect writer rejects with disdain and some impatience the demand of vulgar rhetoric that expressions must be varied since change is pleasant.'"

In other words, if there is anything that seems imperfect in the writings of famous old philosophers, it's not really imperfect. It's all part of the plan. It's actually part of a secret code that Strauss alone has decoded to discover the philosophers' inner meaning.

Where have you heard this kind of thing before? In chain e-mails offering you a new way to ferret out the secrets of the Bible or Nostradamus or the Great Pyramid! It's the kind of thing that led Madonna to the Kabbalah. In short, Strauss was a charismatic crackpot.

Strauss's claim that from 1750 onward the great philosophers' secret technique of writing was understood by nobody (and "nobody" includes some fairly sharp guys like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) except of him is crackpottery of the highest order. So is his insistence that the great philosophical books of the past were written in "perfect speech." C'mon, they were written by human beings. Indeed, some of Aristotle's most important works may not even be written by him, but are merely compilations of his students' notes on his peripatetic lectures. They sure don't sound perfect when you read them. Further, the vast majority don't exist in original form. All we have are transcriptions by monks and Arabs.

Strauss could have been a character from a Jorge Luis Borges short story. That he was instead a life-changing influence on a group of men as influential as Kristol Jr. seems worthy of its own Borges story about a crackpot scholar whose bizarre take on reality takes on a reality its own.

What's actually odder, though, is the hunger you see in Kristol Jr. and other worldly, powerful neocons to be true believers in the Strauss cult.

A reader writes:

A good book I don't think I've ever gotten anyone else to read is Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter's "Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians, and the Left." It's basically about where the '60s radicals came from. They break it into two groups, leaders and followers. Did the studies, has statistics, etc. And he shows pretty convincingly that nearly all the leaders were Jewish kids, while most of the followers were Christian kids.

If I remember right, the Jewish kids came from mommy-dominated households that usually supported the kid's political activities. Many of these families turn out to have had backgrounds in Communism or extreme leftism of one sort or another, so the kid wasn't breaking with family tradition, he was doing what they always did. Rothman's pretty convincing when he writes about how leftism and radicalism served these families as replacements for the Judaism they'd lost, and he paints a picture I found convincing of millennia of Jewish experience -- shtetls, persecutions, fervent Orthodoxy, argumentation, etc -- suddenly finding itself in America, where it's free, and they aren't persecuting it. So you had all these wild-eyed, charismatic, brilliant people, suddenly without the compression of traditional life. What to do with all that fire and brilliance? Answer: Marx, Freud, civil rights, etc.

Interesting that he doesn't talk about the Jewish kids or families being smarter than the Christian kids, just more fiery, Messianic, charismatic, and supported by their families in it all. I came away with a picture in my head of these brilliant Jewish kids kind of performing for the family and the ethnic group, and (probably without thinking about it) somewhat at the expense of ... America. (Rothman's view of this isn't far from Macdonald's, even though Rothman is Jewish.) Feeling they were doing America a favor by taking her apart.

My friend XXX XXX certainly had a lot of these qualities -- was charismatic, funny, brilliant, a born performer. And had a kind of messianic-therapeutic, "transformative" view of what art could or should be. It was very galvanizing, looked like loads of fun, you wanted to go and do likewise and ask XXX's opinion about everything, including yourself -- but if you followed XXX's advice, you'd inevitably wind up in a terrible state. Your life would fall apart.

My experience with therapy in NYC was similar. I wanted some practical advice, but wound up in this long wrangle with everything and then some. The idea seemed to be that you had to dismantle your entire personality, and that this would liberate something, and then you'd go be a big success. I found that the approach just left me inert. (Of course, the therapist was doing quite well for himself.) All of which does make me ever-so-slightly sympathetic to the idea that these brilliant Jews give out advice that's almost designed to cripple the people it's given to. All the while claiming it's for everyone's good, and charging a pretty penny for doing so. I could never accuse them of being anything but well-meaning. But I had to learn to see through the posing, the fiery eyes, and the preaching. My wife and I often joke that what therapy is really about (and what it's genuinely good for) is letting Jewish clients talk about themselves for an hour, and then get back to being workaholics. Not a model that meant anything to me!

Many of the Jewish radical kids went on to do very well for themselves. Rothman says that the '60s Christian radical kids by contrast were earnest. They came from Daddy-dominated households, and the families were usually ticked off by the kids' rebellion. Which meant that the kids weren't performing for the family's approval; they were acting out their own drama, and many of them wound up cut off from their families. (I seem to remember that that's where a lot of New Age Christianity came from -- hippies who'd lost their way, basically, and who needed to establish a relationship with a new Daddy.) Cut off from money and advantages too: many of the Christian radical-kids wound up not doing well for themselves.

Anyway, I found "Roots of Radicalism" a fabulous and enlightening book. Made more sense of the '60s for me than anything else I've ever read or seen.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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