Essay | Leo Strauss, Bigotry and the Blues

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Albert Murray and Leo Strauss

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The progress of equality is arguably the mainspring of modern political history. Alexis de Tocqueville considered the spread of equality to be the inexorable tendency of Western societies, and the 20th-century wars with Nazism and Communism can be interpreted as struggles over the principle’s validity and scope: Nazism fought to establish racial hierarchy in place of equality, while Communism fought to extend equality to the economic sphere, at least in theory.

The progress of equality has also been an engine of change within Western societies. Struggles to extend it have included the battle for democratic suffrage and the American civil rights movement. This last example, however, is a bit tricky. In the United States, for instance, while almost everyone 18 and over can vote in democratic elections, a cursory glance at the news is sufficient to see that bigotry remains a problem. And at first glance, the response likewise seems simple. Bigotry? Stamp it out. But how do you stamp out bigotry?

Consider the push and pull of the 13th Amendment, Jim Crow legislation and the civil rights movement. The 13th Amendment to the American constitution outlawed slavery, but it couldn’t mandate full equality for Black Americans. Despite the amendment’s ratification and the period of Reconstruction, a large number of white Americans still didn’t think and feel that Black Americans should enjoy full equality, so Jim Crow laws were enacted that imposed racial segregation and created unequal conditions between Blacks and whites in the American South. The civil rights movement extended the principle of equality by combining legal and political activism with moral engagement, and thanks to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, every American is now equal before the law. But it’s likewise clear that federal legislation hasn’t completely uprooted racist sentiments from every American, and it’s a question whether it ever could. Why? Because while legislation can assist in placing boundaries on certain behaviors, its capacity to penetrate thoughts and feelings is limited.

There are far-reaching implications to the law’s inability to penetrate thoughts and feelings and, as such, to uproot bigotry. In order to think through some of these implications, it’s worth turning to the writings of the 20th-century political philosopher Leo Strauss. Born in 1899 to a German Jewish family, Strauss came of age during the Weimar Republic, between the end of World War I and the rise of the Nazi regime. The liberal Weimar constitution recognized the equality of all Germans, but that recognition didn’t penetrate society. The Nazis became the largest party in the German Parliament in 1932, and Hitler, in an orderly democratic process, was named Chancellor in 1933. The rest is sordid history.

Confronted by the collapse of the Weimar Republic, Strauss was moved to meditate on European antisemitism and “the failure of the liberal solution” to “the Jewish problem.” Why did the “liberal solution” fail? “[T]he liberal solution brought at best legal equality, but not social equality,” he wrote, and “had no effect on…the non-Jews.” No matter what laws might appear on the books, those laws didn’t create social equality. The Jews weren’t accepted.

Reflecting on the European political landscape from the late 19th century through World War II, Strauss noted how the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, likewise began with “the failure of the liberal solution.” What was Herzl’s response to liberalism’s failure to solve the so-called Jewish problem? Herzl, a culturally assimilated Jew, embraced Jewish nationhood. After all, he says, “We are a nation—the enemy makes us a nation whether we like it or not.” Following Herzl’s train of thought, Strauss noted that the enemy’s opposition “is nothing to be deplored,” because, as Herzl likewise noted, “the enemy is necessary for the highest effort of the personality.” For Strauss, the emergence of political Zionism serves as a permanent reminder of “the limitations of liberalism”:

Liberalism stands and falls by the distinction between state and society or by the recognition of a private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law…To recognize a private sphere in the sense indicated means to permit private “discrimination,” to protect it, and thus in fact to foster it. The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require the legal prohibition against every kind of “discrimination,” i.e., the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state.

In the liberal state, Strauss argued, citizens in the privacy of their homes are free from government supervision. States that don’t respect the private sphere and seek total control—like Maoist China, or the Stalinist USSR—are totalitarian. Citizens in a liberal democracy can cultivate, in the privacy of their homes, a variety of beliefs and opinions, some tolerant, some bigoted. And that variety is simply the price that we pay for enjoying the freedom and protections of the liberal state. To understand the import of Strauss’s conclusion for present purposes, substitute “bigotry” for “the Jewish problem” and reread the passage:

The liberal state cannot provide a solution to [bigotry], for such a solution would require the legal prohibition against every kind of “discrimination,” i.e., the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state.

Put differently, the only way to end racism or bigotry or antisemitism would be to establish a state that lays down the law for what citizens must think and feel. What’s more, in the attempt to enforce that law, the state will necessarily police what people say and write. Which returns us to our original question: Can we end bigotry?

Unlike ruling regimes on the radical left, the liberal state doesn’t seek to police thoughts or feelings. It does, however, seek to curtail discriminatory actions (including those performed by the state itself). As for the question of speech, it’s possible to explore the tools at the liberal state’s disposal in confronting bigoted speech; for instance, legislating against “hate speech” that incites against a person or group while (in the American context) balancing such legislation with the First Amendment right to free speech. But such an inquiry would ultimately entail arguing over where to draw the line: How far does the right to free speech extend? The inquiry, by definition, wouldn’t touch upon the possibility of “ending bigotry.” Instead, it would assume the existence of bigoted beliefs and opinions, for the possible consequences of expressing those beliefs and opinions generate the need for “anti-hate” legislation in the first place.

In light of the limitations of liberalism and the stubborn fact of bigoted beliefs and opinions, it’s fair to conclude that a state without bigotry, including racism and antisemitism, is a utopia. And any practical political program that would aim to realize that ideal could only do so by destroying the distinction between the private and public spheres and aspiring to control the thought and police the speech of its citizens. Actually, in such a state there would no longer be citizens, only subjects. A state that undertakes that utopian project might be progressive, but it would surely no longer be liberal.

 

At this point, despair might seem to be a natural response to the stubborn persistence of bigotry. Despair, or perhaps a desire to shame the voices of bigotry, racism and antisemitism. At least to protest the fact that bigotry remains a problem.

A jarring, refreshing and invigorating response to the stubborn problem of bigotry, however, was offered by the Black American thinker and writer Albert Murray (1916-2013). At first glance, Murray and Strauss might appear to inhabit different intellectual-cultural universes. Strauss was a professor of political philosophy who primarily wrote on philosophy and theology, while Murray was an intellectual working outside the academy who wrote on literature and music. Indeed, I first encountered Murray through his writings on jazz, and it was only after many years of exploring and teaching those writings that I realized that, at a root level, deeper than any particular intellectual discipline, he and Strauss share fundamental attitudes and concerns. 

Strauss championed liberal education, whose aim he identified as “reminding oneself of human excellence, of human greatness.” Murray would have nodded in agreement. His writings are peppered with references to great books, and in a 1997 interview with Sanford Pinsker, Murray shared that “my conception…came from the great books of the world.” (Call it liberal education in action.) As for excellence, Murray embraced the role of cultural “elites.” When he concluded his 1994 keynote address before the Alabama State Council on the Arts by pointing out that “Most people obviously prefer all-star quality over mediocrity in sports. Why not in the arts?” one imagines Strauss nodding his agreement.

Most important for our story, both thinkers celebrated the virtue of fortitude, or resilience. They were acutely aware of the abiding reality of bigotry—for Strauss, antisemitism, for Murray, racism—but it didn’t define their self-perception. 

On confronting bigotry, Murray in effect picked up where Strauss left off. And in his writings on music, literature and culture, Murray offered a sustained reflection on facing adversity in a liberal democratic context—a heroic response that implicitly extends and elaborates Herzl’s recognition that “the enemy is necessary for the highest effort of the personality.”

Murray’s fundamental approach is to cast the challenges one faces in life as opportunities for heroic action: “We’re supposed to live life as if the dragon exists in order to make heroes.” This principle remains true even if the dragon happens to be a bigot. Fighting bigots is a given (that’s how you become a hero), but protesting their existence? Murray isn’t interested: “To protest the existence of dragons (or even hooded or unhooded Grand Dragons for that matter) is…naïve.” Naïve, because dragons are a part of life, and protesting isn’t going to change the (Grand) Dragon’s ways. Stated in less mythic, but no less powerful terms, Murray writes:

Heroism…is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles it overcomes. Thus the difficulties and vicissitudes which beset the potential hero on all sides not only threaten his existence and jeopardize his prospects; they also, by bringing out the best in him, serve his purpose.

Murray was well-aware that his heroic view cut against the grain of attitudes that were beginning to penetrate the liberal mainstream. Those attitudes don’t embrace stress and strain—struggle—as the condition for self-discovery and self-realization. Instead, he writes:

A social science-oriented intellectual…whose basic assumption is that life can be free of ambivalence, complexity and strife…proceeds as if there were actually environments antiseptically free from folly and safe against sin—welfare states, as it were, moderately taxed but well budgeted against social problems and therefore immune to personal conflicts.

Do “environments antiseptically free from folly” sound familiar? Listen to Murray again, this time from a 1990 interview:

One of the problems of welfare sociology is, it’s as if the underlying assumption—and it’s unexamined, I’m sure—is that you should remove all difficulties so nobody will have to struggle against anything.

Nobody having to struggle against anything? The notion of “safe spaces” didn’t exist in 1990, but Murray knew the trajectory of the times. His contrary view, simultaneously sober and joyful, was that, “the essential condition of man cannot be ameliorated, but it can be transcended…it is in the struggle that one finds oneself.” Sober, because he didn’t believe that political and technological progress could ever change the “essential condition of man.” Joyful, because “it is in the struggle that one finds oneself.”

Murray’s joyful embrace of life’s struggles received its full expression in his writings on jazz, what he called “blues-idiom” music, with jazz as the “fully orchestrated blues statement.” For Murray, jazz is much more than entertainment. Instead, it is a kind of wisdom tradition that transmits knowledge of life’s limitations while bolstering resilience. As Murray wrote, “Even in the best of times, the blues are only at bay.” To be clear, he continued, “The blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not.” Rather, blues music stomps the “blue devils” that go around inflicting misery on our lives. Hence the title of Murray’s classic study Stomping the Blues. Aside from the aesthetic pleasures that the music provides, Murray considered jazz to be a vessel and vehicle for preserving, celebrating and transmitting the tragic wisdom of the blues. That tragic wisdom understands that no amount of progress—technological, economic or otherwise—will ever change the fact that “life is at bottom…a never-ending struggle.” It understands that blue devils are, if nothing else, tenacious, just like dragons, including bigoted grand dragons, who, even as we speak, are plotting evil from the darkness of their caves, but whose evil designs set the stage for heroic action.

To avoid any confusion, it’s important to note that even though Albert Murray was far more interested in culture than politics, he didn’t ignore politics. A former U.S. Air Force captain, Murray called himself a Roosevelt Democrat. He assumed that “freedom as defined by the American social contract is my birthright,” and he supported and celebrated the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. In today’s terms, he would be a liberal, although not a progressive. 

However—and this is the crucial point—Murray’s hopes for the political sphere weren’t unrealistic. They were moderate. He understood that no political order, no matter how enlightened, can uproot bigotry, or stated differently, can exterminate the blues. He was no utopian. In fact, Murray’s sober approach can be considered an illustration of Leo Strauss’s observation that “Moderation will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectation from politics and unmanly contempt for politics.” 

Whatever the right response, from Albert Murray’s perspective the dragons should always be cast as opportunities for heroic action. Because at the end of the day, Murray, like Strauss and Herzl, understood:

Heroism… is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles it overcomes…

The enemy is necessary for the highest effort of the personality.

Aryeh Tepper is the director of publications at the American Sephardi Federation and a senior research fellow at the Azrieli Center for Israel Studies at Ben Gurion University. He is the author of Progressive Minds, Conservative Politics: Leo Strauss’ Later Writings on Maimonides.

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