Feb 5, 2015

The usefulness of Harry Jaffa's feuds

Internal disagreements are bad for politics. Group infighting isn't particularly productive in the pursuit of power, as politicians have known from Russian revolutionary Alexander Kerensky (who declared "no enemies to the left") to conservative champion Ronald Reagan (who said his 11th Commandment was "Thou shalt speak no ill of any fellow Republicans").

Infighting is good for political philosophy, though. Philosophical issues are clarified in internal struggles in a way they almost never are, otherwise. 

Harry V. Jaffa is particularly interesting in this regard. The late conservative,  a political philosopher who got involved in politics, was always ready and willing to feud with friends. 

He believed, according to the editors of the conservative Incollegiate Review, "that truth is more important than friends." Politics is usually the business of making common cause, finding co-belligerants, and preferring the practical victory to the principled loss, but not for Jaffa. For him, politics was a kind of theology. Deviations were heresy. As William F. Buckley quipped, "If you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him."

If this makes Jaffa sound cantankerous, that seems to be right. Larry Arnn, a student of Jaffa's who is now president of Hillsdale College, recalled that Jaffa's quarrels with friends were sometimes a main subject of his graduate seminars. "He drove some students away," Arnn said:
He was absent-minded and didn't always have a glorious lecture ready for class. In fact, generally, he did not. And he loved to bring letters that he'd written to people like William F. Buckley, and you know, everybody famous. And he loved it when he got a letter back, because then he could write him another one and point out why they were wrong. And he would read that out and talk about he'd kicked their tail and why they were wrong. And a lot of students were impatient with that. But the ones who studied with him understood that there was something going on there, and we may be too young and stupid to understand it, but we should listen.
At least part of what was going on in those exchanges, it would seem, was the articulation of basic philosophical questions at the foundation of Jaffa's politics. Those disagreements highlighted foundational questions about what conservatism is, and what it values. In those debates, conservatism itself was thought to be at stake. In a way that fights over public policy can't, the somewhat esoteric disputes within conservative discourse end up clarifying and defining conservatism.

Harry Jaffa
Jeet Heer, writing in the socialist magazine Jacobin, examines one of Jaffa's major feuds.

A student of Leo Strauss, Jaffa dramatically split with some of Strauss' other students, including the great defender of "great books," Allan Bloom. The West Coast Straussians, led by Jaffa, forged a union with the religious right. The East Coast Straussians were more elitist.

According to Heer, the internal division among the Straussians can be traced to the question of homosexuality. Jaffa was adamantly opposed homosexuality as unnatural and immoral while Bloom, himself gay, saw himself as part of a homosocial and homoerotic tradition in higher education. He believed in a roomy closet. There were cultural differences here that connected, also, to divergent understandings of the problem of relativism. Or, rather, divergent understandings about what to do in response to the diagnosis of relativism.

For Bloom, the answer was academic. For Jaffa, the answer was political.

"Having eloquently portrayed the disastrous consequences of relativism," Jaffa wrote of Bloom, "he does not advocate a return to those standards of human conduct implied in its rejection."

Heer writes,
Jaffa's virulent homophobia wasn't a personal peculiarity but a crucial condition for realizing the alliance between West Coast Straussians and the religious right that he desired. By adopting a crude homophobia that the more cosmopolitan East Coast Straussians would blanch at, Jaffa was able to rally followers in the grassroots activist right . . . . 
The divide between the West Coast Straussians and their East Coast brethren is ultimately social rather than philosophical: the West Coast Straussians work with evangelical Christians interested in moral crusades. East Coast Straussians are more likely to serve in Washington think tanks or as Pentagon consultants. The Republican right, with its elite and populist faction, is thus replicated in the two warring Straussian schools.
Whether this division is ultimately more social of philosophical is a matter of debate. Jaffa very much saw it as a philosophical dispute. One could not defend natural law without opposing homosexuality. "Nature is the ground of all morality," he wrote, "but maleness and femaleness is the ground of nature .... The so-called 'gay-rights' movement is then the ultimate repudiation of nature and therewith the ground of all morality."

(The extent to which the religious right has and hasn't accepted this West Coast Straussianism, and specifically the theory of Natural Law as the grounds for morality, is a separate but very interesting question).

A second but related fight that Jaffa had with his fellow conservatives was over Abraham Lincoln. Charles Kessler, a student of Jaffa's, said the Lincoln was seen by many on the right as a tyrant, or at the very least much too fond of government power. There was a debate over whether "Lincoln saved the American republic or ruined it." Jaffa took the former position on Lincoln.

As Jaffa understood, the dispute was about history, but really, again, about natural law. This feud was fought in the pages of William F. Buckley's magazine, National Review, and pitted Jaffa's Straussianism against a tradition identified with Russell Kirk.

Reflecting on the fight, Jaffa wrote:
My Lincolnian perspective had not been represented in National Review. As far as Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, Jeffrey Hart, or Garry Wills, were concerned, John C. Calhoun, not Abraham Lincoln, was the hero of the American political tradition. For Calhounites, state rights, not natural rights, were the source of constitutional rights. And state rights could and did justify both slavery and Jim Crow. Kirk's Conservative Mind made the rejection of the Declaration the key to the American political tradition. According to Lincoln at Gettysburg however (and Leo Strauss in Natural Right and History), the nation at its birth had been dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. This proposition had not been a favorite of editorial writers at National Review. Buckley could not openly endorse my flat opposition to his editors, but he made sure that what I had to say was published.
As Jaffa saw it, the genius of Lincoln, as seen in the Lincoln-Douglass debates, was to recognize how natural law puts moral limits on majorities. This, for Jaffa, was essential to the conservatism that opposed Jim Crow racism and redistribution of wealth. "A vote for slavery could not justify slavery," he wrote, "any more than a vote of the poor could justify plundering the wealthy." This was also key to understanding the conservatism of the American revolution, which was founded on a "transhistorical" claim that "all men are created equal." The only other options, as Jaffa saw it, were versions of moral relativism, which ultimately ended in the nihilism of might-makes-right politics, whether that be democratic or dictatorial.

The Kirk tradition was more conflicted on the question of these absolutes. Kirk's conservatism held as a founding principle the existence of an "enduring moral order," but also, as a close second, that customs, conventions and continuity were to be preferred over philosophical abstractions.

In practice, this meant a preference (not to put it too strongly) for the racist social order of Jim Crow over the utopian ideals of human equality.

Jaffa saw this as heresy, a betrayal of true American conservatism, which was a fidelity to the transhistorical claims of the Declaration of Independence. Maybe Kirkian conservatism was more European. Jaffa once noted that "European conservatism throughout the nineteenth century--and beyond--was an attempt to restore the anchien régime. When it crossed the Atlantic before the Civil War, it substituted the defense of slavery for the defense of anchien régime."

That's not what one typically says about one's friends. It's impolitic, at least. But that was Jaffa, and his way of getting to the philosophical questions at the foundation of politics.

Larry Arnn says that Jaffa's legacy was that he "turned the conservative movement back towards the true roots of the United States, and back toward the laws of nature and of nature's God." That's probably an overstatement, but it does seem that Jaffa, who took as a point of pride that he could be a hard man to agree with, had some very philosophically productive feuds.