Friday, December 17, 2010

Irritating Infatuations with Strauss and Schmitt: Mark Lilla New Republic


Mark Lilla has an amazing piece in the most recent ed. of The New Republic here (gated - I can e-mail to interested friends) that seizes on a tide of neoconservative thought among China's students/intellectuals. (This despite the magazine's own hawkish foreign policy turns in the last few years, under Peretz. Ugh, anyway. Lilla points to an excellent article by Evan Osnos two years ago. A key moment is probably his meeting Strauss disciple Harvey Mansfield on tour, baffled by why he is a big deal in China, but nevertheless wearing a "honey colored panama" and loving it.) 

There was a running joke when I was in Cambridge about working on Karl Schmidt, an obscure medievalist, as Carl Schmitt has also become mindlessly vogue among trend-driven, chain-smoking intellectual historians. (Or as Lilla says,"the short, elusive books by this once Nazi collaborator have attracted Western radicals too soft-minded for Marxian empiricism and charmed by the notion that tout commence en mystique et tout finit en politique.") So at first the title was funny for seeming somewhat obscure, then it wasdepressing.

Choice quotes:
Strauss and Schmitt are at the center of intellectual debate, but they are being read by everyone, whatever their partisan leanings; as a liberal journalist in Shanghai told me as we took a stroll one day, “no one will take you seriously if you have nothing to say about these two men and their ideas.”
"Students of a more conservative bent actually agree with much of the left’s critique of the new state capitalism and the social dislocations it has caused, though they are mainly concerned with maintaining “harmony” and have no fantasies (only nightmares) about China going through yet another revolutionary transformation. Their reading of history convinces them that China’s enduring challenges have always been to maintain territorial unity, keep social peace, and defend national interests against other states—challenges heightened today by global market forces and a liberal ideology that idealizes individual rights, social pluralism, and international law."
"...for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own..."
The core of it - how educated young intellectuals are, distressed with China's progress, whipping away from liberal ideas and seizing upon soveriegnty and "cultural nationalism" as an alternative- I see as intimately connected with two other debates. First, this background gives far more context to the "universal values" debate that was in the background of LXB's Nobel Prize, so I think its quite timely given the recent ceremony. What are the consequences of an rising Chinese intelligentsia that firmly holds political liberalization in opposition to sovereignty, and begins to situate that within the narrative of modern Western philosophy? Second is the public philosophy debate. I have been thinking (not alot but some) about Daniel Bell's work, which by some accounts has tried, in reaction precisely to this first question, to sketch out a sort of softer "neopaternal NeoConfucianism" as a public philosophy for China's 21c.  The last para from Lilla implies that that this little dance of proto paternalism isn't far off from proto fascism, whichever way you spin it.

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