Nobody shares all their private complaints with an audience, but how do we know how much to share and with whom? Certainly, in the name of various kinds of shared commitments, it seems best to hash out your differences in private: a team of magazine editors need not disclose every editorial dispute to an article’s author; a couple’s well-being is usually best served by avoiding arguments in the presence of the in-laws. But how far does the strategic logic behind these decisions extend into public intellectual life? Should we attempt to publicly air disagreements with those who are, broadly speaking, on the same “side” of a political, social or spiritual debate as we are, or should we shelter those disagreements from public view in the name of some greater good?
In our issue 18 “Letter on Denialism,” we criticized the habit among leftist and liberal commentators of denying the existence of political projects that have become the targets of right-wing criticism (e.g. “cultural Marxism,” “political correctness,” “identity politics,” etc.), as opposed to defending, evaluating or proposing a new vocabulary for discussing them. We received plenty of thoughtful responses—both supportive and critical—including those who questioned the logic or accuracy of our argument. But given the article’s emphasis on what we saw as a counterproductive tendency to evade the prospect of substantive disagreement in liberal and leftist publications, perhaps the most challenging current of criticism had to do with the questions raised above. This was the charge that, regardless of whether what we said was true or persuasive, the potential “costs,” to quote one of our interlocutors, of publicly airing our criticism of progressive rhetoric were such as to render the practice inadvisable and possibly self-incriminating. Another commentator expanded on the point: although criticizing others on one’s side was permissible in “the smaller circles of the university, scholarship, conversation, and personal writing,” he wrote, the “political-intellectual public sphere” was a place where intellectuals should be singularly focused on “positioning” themselves to achieve their political objectives. In fact, our refusal to appreciate the impermeability of the wall separating the private (or semi-private) and the public spheres was enough to raise the suspicion that we were not operating in good faith: that we were trolls or “crypto-conservatives” who, under cover of pretending to want to improve progressive discourse, really hoped to undermine it.
It is useful to see such an argument spelled out. The assumption that public intellectual life is mainly about positioning helps explain some peculiar features of our public conversation, such as the extent to which it rewards posturing and selective criticism. But the rigid distinction these commentators drew between how we ought to talk to our trusted allies and how we should speak when we suspect we are being listened to by those without similar educations, political assumptions or moral fortitude, is also revealing in another way. It suggests the ascendency among some leftist intellectuals of a public vs. private distinction that has traditionally been thought of as a product of elitist conservatism.
The most prominent modern exponent of the idea that thinkers should sharply distinguish between private wisdom and public rhetoric is the mid-century German émigré and political philosopher Leo Strauss. Although he remained aloof from electoral politics, it was Strauss’s skepticism about the possibility of a truly informed or thoughtful public that made some think of him—long before he was conjured from the dead as the puppet master behind the second Iraq War—as the archetypal “crypto-conservative.” In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Strauss pointed out that while philosophers had always considered it “a safe venture to tell the truth one knows to benevolent and trustworthy acquaintances,” many of the ancients had remained cautious about what they could reveal in public. In some cases, this caution was a response to the possibility that a tyrant might kill them. More relevant to thinkers in modern liberal democracies, however, was what Strauss presented as the ancient wisdom that the public needed to be shielded from ideas that threatened to undermine social norms and customs—including the customs that reconciled them to their proper place in the social order. Plato had been clear about this in the Republic: in his ideal society, the philosopher-kings would employ “noble lies” to justify what he saw as the ineradicable inequalities stemming from human nature.
Few modern thinkers would have the audacity to speak of “noble lies.” Since the Enlightenment, Strauss noted, conservatives and liberals alike have looked forward to a time when “practically complete freedom of speech would be possible or … when no one would suffer any harm from hearing the truth.” Strauss pronounced this faith naïve. Public education, he suggested, was unlikely ever to bridge the chasm in natural ability separating society’s “elect” few from its “vulgar” many. But Strauss noted something peculiar: many of his contemporaries, who proclaimed their faith in the enlightenment of the common citizen in theory, in practice betrayed their skepticism about the ability of the many to bear the burden of frank conversation. “Every decent modern reader is bound to be shocked by the mere suggestion that a great man might have deliberately deceived a large majority of his readers,” Strauss wrote. “And yet [the ancient philosophers] were perhaps more sincere than we when they called ‘lying nobly’ what we would call ‘considering one’s social responsibilities.’”
What is the “social responsibility” of the intellectual? For Strauss, the thinker’s public duty was primarily to do no harm: even if he disagreed with his society’s political and religious conventions, he ought to keep his objections private for the sake of stability. Many left intellectuals turn this claim on its head: their job, they say, is not to maintain convention but to upset it in the name of a better future. Hence the emphasis on education and consciousness raising as part of a broader “war of position”—as it was called by the influential Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci—against hegemonic ideas and institutions.
On its own, this seems to suggest that the left intellectual has little in common with the Straussian. But a distinction should be drawn between two ways of thinking about this war of position. It is one thing to believe that strategic political persuasion or “framing” are unavoidable aspects of public intellectual life, or even to argue that in certain circumstances they are morally obligatory. It is another to maintain that this is the only acceptable way for intellectuals to engage with their publics, and therefore to actively oppose the impulse—including in oneself—to communicate in any other manner. We might therefore say that the left intellectual becomes the left Straussian when they decide that, in addition to sometimes filtering their own public speech to advance an ideological agenda, they’re additionally responsible for “protecting” the public from being exposed to conversations not disciplined by political strategy. To the extent that their own ideas are not already disciplined by such a strategy, they limit discussion of them to close friends and sympathetic colleagues.
This instinct can appear admirable. The left Straussian may after all be laboring—as Strauss claimed philosophers had done for centuries—in the service of a noble cause. But it remains hard to see how left Straussianism’s protective logic, if left unchecked, can avoid coming into conflict with other values modern intellectuals claim to hold: an opposition to elitism, the promotion of equality and the belief that everyone is equally capable of using reason to decide what is true or good. Especially on the left, these values would seem to promote a starkly different ethic of public conduct—an ethic grounded in the belief that we owe our readers the same honesty and respect as we owe our friends. This is the ethic that informed our “Letter on Denialism,” as it does the editorial principles of this magazine more generally.
That such an approach registers as controversial today is one indication of the growing influence of left Straussianism in intellectual media and culture, and especially on Twitter, where one can find the most glaring evidence of the strenuous and sometimes savage efforts to dictate the rules of public engagement. In recent months, the responses to Angela Nagle’s putatively “left” case for strong borders in American Affairs and Andrea Long Chu’s attempt to question the connection between the right to transition and the promise of happiness in the New York Times both made for vivid illustrations of the dynamic. In each case, thoughtful criticism of an author’s argument—for being confused, or incomplete—was overshadowed by the left-Straussian assertion that, regardless of whether the argument was true or reasonable, it was “irresponsible” for the author to make it in public. (Sometimes the charge is explicit, as when it is claimed that the argument will be used by political adversaries; more often it is indirectly expressed through attempts to disqualify the article from public consideration, likely by misrepresenting it or its author.) In the case of Richard Marshall’s interview of the philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith, for 3AM magazine in March, the first phase was skipped entirely as Lawford-Smith’s comments on sex and gender identity were judged threatening enough to necessitate first the interview, and then the entire website, being removed from public view before any response could be presented. (The site returned to life days later, with no trace of the offending interview.)
Those who engage in such tactics would never endorse Strauss’s hard distinction between the elect few and the unthinking many—at least not explicitly. But the care they take to pre-screen intellectual material indicates that they share his dark foreboding about the “costs” of public intellectual conversations reflecting rather than repressing the complexities of private ones. Attempting to marginalize or disqualify intellectual arguments itself implies a gap between the commentator, who trusts themselves to evaluate the arguments in question, and their imagined audience, who is assumed to lack either the tools or the ability to do so unaided. Left Straussians may not believe that they are philosopher-kings but they repudiate, in practice and increasingly even in theory, the possibility of the philosopher-reader.
Most leftist intellectuals are not left Straussians—nor, as should be obvious, are the majority of those with elitist tendencies leftists. Skepticism about the ability of the public to think, whether based in a belief in natural inequality, or in the ideological mystifications of religious faith or consumer capitalism, is a constant in the history of political thought. But in a cultural landscape where college administrators and the federal government battle over the words allowed on college campuses, publishers rely on “sensitivity readers” to vet the imagery in young-adult novels and Facebook’s “Supreme Court” decides what political speech to permit on social media, the rise of left Straussianism does reinforce, from the corner of our culture one would expect to be most invested in doing the opposite, a much broader tendency toward public infantilization.
The imperative to resist this tendency—and not only in private—has nothing to do with civility, manners, the fantasy of “free inquiry” or some procedural concern for “discourse.” It is in the first place a matter of basic intellectual decency. But at a time of renewed investment in the ideal of a society rooted in democratic deliberation on the left—and therefore in what Astra Taylor calls, in her new book on democracy, a “philosophical public”—it ought to be obvious why the issue is also an urgently political one. On the same grounds that we object to the privatization of so many other aspects of our collective life, we should object to the privatization of disagreement.
Strauss was not alone in insisting that, given how easily common people are overwhelmed by base passions, democratic deliberation is neither possible nor desirable. The need for an intellectual and political vanguard has for much of history been taken as common sense, and still today many “democratic” societies remain in thrall to hierarchies of intellect: they call them the European Commission, or the Cato Institute, or Yale Law. Those who want to move beyond such hierarchies tend to focus on deposing the people who sit at the top of them. But the quest for truly democratic self-government would seem to require, in addition, a commitment to resisting the always-tempting incentives to reimpose those hierarchies in our own way. Can we maintain public intellectual spaces where we trust audiences to be as capable of judging and evaluating arguments as we are? The answer may determine whether we are justified in imagining a citizenry whose convictions would be based on something more durable than correctness.