Like many other followers of Leo Strauss, the late Harry Jaffa, who died last month, demonstrated that an interest in abstract theory is perfectly compatible with a passion for practical politics. Jaffa’s scholarly works are explications of classic texts ancient and modern: Aristotle, Aquinas, the Constitution, the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Yet Jaffa was no Ivory Tower antiquarian, fully immersing himself in the thick of contemporary right-wing politics. He worked as a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and penned the lines that definitively capture the American right’s implacable intransigence: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Aside from the Goldwater connection, Jaffa was close to William F. Buckley and many in the National Review circle. In 1999, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hailed Jaffa’s wisdom. Not unexpectedly, Jaffa is being widely eulogized in publications like National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. Yet the panegyrics that Jaffa is receiving suffer from the fact that they take him on his own account, as a theorist of natural law and vindicator of Abraham Lincoln. They give little sense of Jaffa’s true political import.
The crucial real-world political fact about Jaffa was that he managed to marry the deeply secular Straussian tradition (which at its root is a modern variation of ancient skepticism in the vein of Epicurus) with the grassroots religious right. In showing that a form of Straussian thought could work hand in hand with bible thumpers, Jaffa crafted an unusual but lasting coalition.
It was a mutually beneficial alliance. Jaffa and his students were small in number but had academic prestige; the religious right was a genuine mass movement but could rarely make its points either in an academic debate or in a courtroom. Jaffa gave the religious right a language they could use in making arguments before judges like Thomas.
The fusion of Straussianism with popular piety was a controversial one. The Straussian movement itself divided in two, with formerly close friendships sundering. But many of the obituaries in the right-wing press are trying to paper over the intra-Straussian squabble by seizing upon the coincidence that Jaffa died on the same day as one of his longtime foes, Walter Berns, a fellow Straussian.
Before Strauss’s own death in 1973, the Straussian polis was an unusually cohesive one, a cohort of like-minded male students who both revered their teacher and believed that he was misunderstood and neglected by the outside world. Strauss enjoyed what he once called “the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in return.”
But in the decade after Strauss’s death, the Straussians divided along coastal lines like 1990s hip-hop. Jaffa became the head of the West Coast Straussians, while Berns was a distinguished member, although far from the top gun, of the East Coast Straussians.
The true head of the East Coast Straussians was Allan Bloom, once a close friend of Jaffa, who died in 1992. Berns and his East Coasters labeled Jaffa a “pest” for his persistent insinuation, in countless articles and letters to the editor, that they were sophists who cloaked their amoral worship of power under the guise of philosophy.
Yet right-wing pundits have focused on Berns and Jaffa’s coinciding demise instead of their enduring schism, even analogizing their deaths to the much-revered story of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the last of the Founding Fathers, who both expired on July 4, 1826.
“There’s a hint of Jefferson and Adams in the news that two learned titans, Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns passed away on the same day,” Jonah Goldberg wrote on January 12, echoing a tweet from William Kristol: “Cf. Adams and Jefferson. Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, two great students of the American republic, died a continent apart on the same day.”
More than a journalistic cliché, the comparison is a myth: Adams and Jefferson were friends who quarreled but patched up their differences before dying. No such reconciliation took place among the Straussians. Harry Jaffa remained a hated and divisive figure till the day he died. A querulous and often repellent man, his argumentativeness makes clear crucial fault lines not just among the Straussians but also the larger American conservative movement.
Jaffa was crucial in pushing for an alliance between elite intellectual conservatives, many of whom were secular, with the religious right. On one occasion, Jaffa was even interviewed by televangelist Pat Robertson on the 700 Club. But in pushing for this pact with the religious right, Jaffa alienated many of the more cosmopolitan Straussians, who saw the evangelicals and fundamentalists as uncouth rubes.
Perhaps the best way to understand the divisions between West Coast and East Coast Straussians is to look at sex, not a minor matter since eros is from a classical perspective crucial to education and philosophy (which, after all, is literally the love of wisdom).
The Straussian enterprise was, from the start, homo-social verging on homoerotic. From classic texts such as The Symposium, Strauss’ students learned that the highest human relationship they could attain was the friendships formed in the disinterested pursuit of truth through rational discussion.
For philosophy to occur, the young must leave their families and seek the company of the philosopher (the opening of The Republic is a parable to this effect). Strauss’s model for the student-teacher relationship is Socrates and Alcibiades: the tutor (an older man) offers wisdom, and the pupil in return offers pleasure of company with beautiful youth. Women, with their supposed biological urges and family partisanship, were at best secondary to philosophic friendship.
None of the Straussians so eloquently described the nature of this philosophic friendship as Jaffa. In the dedication page of his 1975 book The Condition of Freedom, Jaffa wrote about his student Billy Pedersen, who died fighting in Vietnam:
Billy Pedersen was one of my students at Claremont Men’s College.We had formed a friendship of the kind that young men and older ones sometimes do form when they are fellow hobbyists or fellow enthusiasts of a sport (bicycling in our case). Many mornings saw the two of us, before dawn, wheeling eastward through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. When the pace slackened, and when the ride was over, we talked constantly of a wide variety of subjects, most of them political. . . .
Billy Pedersen was a scholar, an athlete, an officer, and a gentleman. He was one of those ‘golden lads’ of whom A. E. Housman wrote, who went to war, not gaily, but without a doubt that freedom and duty spoke with a single voice.
If Billy Pedersen represented the ideal version of manly friendship, Jaffa’s break-up with Allan Bloom demonstrated the dangers. The two men had once been as tight as thieves and cowrote a book, Shakespeare’s Politics (1964), dedicated “to Leo Strauss our teacher.” The friendship between Bloom and Jaffa frayed in the 1970s, for reasons that became clear in a hostile review Jaffa wrote of Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind.
Bloom was a closeted gay man, but with the door half open. While he didn’t publicly announce his sexuality, it was known to his circle of friends. (I was aware of it even though I was on the fringes of Straussian circles as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto in the mid-1980s.) The famous Straussian division between esoteric and exoteric writing can itself be seen as a metaphor for the closet.
But for Jaffa, even leaving the closet door half open was a threat to the social order. In the Straussian journal Interpretation, Jaffa upbraided Bloom for not forthrightly condemning the evil of gay rights. He argued that Bloom’s
remarks about feminism, and the changing roles of men and women, for example, are dated not because they are mistaken, or irrelevant, but because in the intervening years the so-called “gay rights” movement, which Bloom hardly mentions, has emerged as the most radical and sinister challenge, not merely to sexual morality, but to all morality.
Jaffa went on to say that in the form of AIDS, “God and nature have exacted terrible retribution.” (It’s perhaps worth noting that Bloom would die of AIDS, so Jaffa was using a disease that would kill his former friend as a moral bludgeon.)
The difference between Bloom and Jaffa was a subtle one. Bloom was no crusader for gay rights. He just believed that in the privacy of the philosopher’s study, a homosocial pedagogy could discretely find homoerotic expression. Jaffa agreed that eros was essential for education but thought that for the sake of social stability, homoeroticism had to be sublimated into scholarship (and strenuous bike rides).
Jaffa’s vile review of Bloom’s book was one of the countless homophobic polemics he wrote in the last four decades of his life. In a 1989 essay, he compared consensual gay sex to the acts of serial rapist and killer Ted Bundy. In a 1990 essay, Jaffa wrote that “someone who does not see that sodomy is, in the decisive respect, as morally offensive as incest and rape” has no grounds for “distinguishing a Hitler from a Jefferson.”
Through some esoteric Straussian mumbo-jumbo, Jaffa was able to consistently maintain that the ancient Greek philosophers did not approve of same-sex love, a position that put him at odds with the great bulk of scholarship. (Jaffa’s homophobic writing, which is crucial in understanding his break with Bloom and the divide between the Straussians, was unmentioned in a long and celebratory New York Times obituary.)
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.
It’s not an accident that National Review conservatives ranging from William F. Buckley to Joseph Sobran constantly paid Jaffa tribute. Nor should it surprise us that scurrilous right-wing journalists like Dinesh D’Souza and Chuck Johnson took seminars with Jaffa.
Writing in 1985 in National Review, Sobran applauded Jaffa for providing a philosophic basis for social conservatism. “His attacks on the supposed ‘rights’ of sodomy and the like turn into an almost lyrical celebration of the role of eros in forming communities,” Sobran marveled.
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.
Jaffa’s chief value to the religious right was that he was a genuinely distinguished scholar who gave a sheen of intellectual respectability to their bigotry. Yet the scholarly value of his work, while real, also has to be carefully examined.
Jaffa’s 1959 book Crisis of the House Divided, a close reading of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, is rightly celebrated as a classic. Jaffa’s vindication of Lincoln politics is of note because it is a relative rarity on the right. Over the decades, Jaffa ably defended Lincoln from a host of neo-Confederate critics, from Willmoore Kendall (who saw Lincoln as a “Caesar”) to Mel Bradford (who compared Lincoln to Lenin and Hitler) to Thomas DiLorenzo.
But Jaffa only looks good compared to such fringe characters.
While Jaffa celebrated Lincoln, he had little use for Reconstruction. As he wrote in a 1965 essay in National Review, “Nothing so fundamental [as slavery and national unity] was being decided during the Reconstruction, and probably nothing so fundamental could have been decided then. . . . Full immediate political equality for Negroes was simply not one of those consequences [of the Civil War], and the attempt to make it one at the time was a political mistake by the Radicals.”
Jaffa added that the “presence” of the Constitution’s Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments “is not crucial.” For Jaffa, the nearly hundred years of Jim Crow segregation after the counter-revolution against Reconstruction was perfectly acceptable. Jaffa’s Lincoln is primarily a hero of national unity, the unifier of the house divided, with the overthrow of slavery a secondary concern.
Jaffa has received glowing obituaries in outlets both mainstream and right-wing. Against these encomiums, we need to remember what Jaffa really stood for: homophobia, the alliance between self-styled philosophers and religious bigots, and a circumscribed view of freedom that finds racial segregation an acceptable price for national unity.
If Jaffa is who the Right celebrates as their intellectual giant, their modern counterpart to Adams or Jefferson, then they are no better than him.