Mark Lilla, writing in the New Republic, tells a fascinating anecdote, which occurred just a few years back, of an end-of-semester discussion that he had in his office with a bright student from Beijing that he taught at the University of Chicago:
[The student] was already well known in Beijing intellectual circles for his writings and his translations of Western books in sociology and philosophy into Chinese. But his inability to express himself in written or spoken English had frustrated us both in a course of mine he had just taken. I began asking about his summer plans, eventually steering the conversation to the subject of English immersion programs, which I suggested he look into. “Why?” he asked. A little flummoxed, I said the obvious thing: that mastering English would allow him to engage with foreign scholars and advance his career at home. He smiled in a slightly patronizing way and said, “I am not so sure.” Now fully flummoxed, I asked what he would be doing instead. “Oh, I will do language, but Latin, not English.” It was my turn to ask why. “I think it very important we study Romans, not just Greeks. Romans built an empire over many centuries. We must learn from them.” When he left, it was clear that I was being dismissed, not him. This conversation came to mind recently after I returned from a month of lectures and interviews in China. I had heard that Strauss was popular there, as was, to my surprise, Carl Schmitt, the Weimar anti-liberal (and anti-Semitic) legal theorist. The New Yorker had even run a piece that spoke of “the new generation’s neocon nationalists,” mentioning the interest in Strauss as some sort of disturbing development. . . . Strauss and Schmitt are at the center of intellectual debate, . . .
I find this whole anecdote, frankly, troubling. If you don’t know who Leo Strauss was, and his influence on contemporary “fight nihilism with nihilism” conservatism in the United States, see here. And if you don’t know Carl Schmitt, he was also an anti-liberal authoritarian intellectual. He wrote his most influential works during Germany’s Weimar period. And when the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, he joined the Nazi Party. Below is a taste of his writing, circa 1926 (from pgs. 334-335 of the excellent Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes). Observe how he drips with cynicism toward liberal ideals of democratic dialogue and compromise based in the exchange of reason and evidence among good-faith contending factions:
It is like a satire if one quotes [Jeremy] Bentham today: ‘In Parliament ideas meet, and contact between ideas gives off sparks and leads to evidence.’ . . . Who still believes in this kind of openness? And in parliament as its greatest platform? . . . The numerous definitions of parliamentarian which one still finds today in Anglo-Saxon and French writings and which are apparently little known in Germany, definitions in which parliamentarism appears as essentially ‘government by discussion,’ must accordingly also count as moldy. . . . The belief in parliamentarism, in government by discussion, belongs to the intellectual world of liberalism.
And liberalism, of course, is a very bad thing, a moldy thing, for Carl Schmitt. His alternative is what we might call today a We-the-People Tea Partier version of democracy: a populist leader channels the heartland conformist majority’s “spirit,” and vanquishes from the political scene corrupt and urban bourgeois liberals. Put more directly, what Schmitt means by “democracy” has nothing to do with elected parliaments, vulnerable dialogue, and Enlightenment ideals concerning reason and evidence in civic discourse, but with populist dictatorship. For Carl Schmitt, democracy is: (1) homogeneity, the expulsion of all that is heterogeneous; and (2) absolute control of a nation’s borders by keeping outsiders out:
Every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires therefore first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity. To illustrate this principle it is sufficient to name two different examples of modern democracy: contemporary Turkey, with its radical expulsion of Greeks . . . and the Australian commonwealth, which restricts unwanted entrants though its immigration laws, and like other dominions only takes immigrants who conform to the notion of a ‘right type of settler.’ A democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity.
What Karl Schmitt is saying here is something to be absorbed with sobriety, for recall that it is Schmitt and Strauss who are being closely read, according to Mark Lilla, in China:
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.”
Over the next generation, instead of friendliness between the United States and China, we could find that both countries’ political leaders are leaning their ears into the whispers of intellectuals weaned on the same anti-liberal and Herderian Machiavellians: Strauss and Schmitt.
Here’s an excellent primer on Leo Strauss via Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares:
And for a bit more reflection on this whole topic, here’s Sandy Levinson on John Yoo (President Bush’s intellectual justifier of torture) in relation to Carl Schmitt.