In his very generous, widely distributed review of my book on Leo Strauss and Strauss’s effect on the American conservative movement, Jack Kerwick observes that amidst our ideological division, my study stands out as “model of civility.” Apparently this judgment didn’t sit well with some commentors at freerepublic.com who weighed in against me as a nasty controversialist. Among my transgressions is to have defended the notorious anti-Semite Joe Sobran. Further, in my presumed attacks on Leo Strauss in a book that my ungrammatical critics never bothered to read, I besmirched a true patriot, who loved our liberal democratic government. Since Strauss defended what he thought America had been set up to represent, he must have been an authentic conservative, and it was therefore wicked on my part to challenge his political credentials. One critic even went so far as to describe me as driven by “anger,” that is, as someone who is no longer capable of rational judgment. This rant replicated almost word for word the unprofessional opinions that had been sent by a referee for an outline of my (then unwritten) book on Strauss that had been submitted to Yale University Press three years ago. Although my alma mater was about to give me a contract for the book Cambridge later brought out, after the receipt of the poison pen letter, the editor broke off negotiations.
These comments occasion certain thoughts, or more accurately, force me to revise certain preconceived notions. Up until a few days ago I had assumed that my adversaries in the conservative media simply ignored my critical writings. They treated me as an inconsequential rightwing kook, whom they had no interest in calling attention to. Last week I encountered a young gentleman who told me how at “conservative” youth conferences he attended, he was warned against my uncooperative attitudes. I was certainly a presence at these events, in the same way that Goldstein was in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. And I suspect I enjoyed about the same degree of popularity among the organizers as Big Brother’s straw man.
For the record, my well-prepped critics are wrong on two points, in addition to their egregious syntax. One, I never defended Joe Sobran as an “anti-Semite” or as a critic of the policies of the Israeli government, which for some of my critics are the same. I simply noted somewhere that Sobran was unjustly treated by the movement to which he had devoted his life. I never expressed approval of his judgments about Israel, which I do not happen to share. Two, my work on Strauss, which my detractors obviously never looked at, is every bit as civil as Jack Kerwick suggests it is. One would be hard pressed to find a single snide comment about my subject and in fact one encounters in the biographical sections many empathetic remarks about Strauss’s treatment as a scholar in Germany before he was forced by the Nazis to leave. I note parallels between my family’s experiences and those of Strauss and stress repeatedly the breadth of Strauss’s erudition. I have absolutely no idea how anyone but a driven fanatic could find anything demeaning about my descriptions.
My downfall with this book is that I’m not a Straussian or someone who interprets Strauss and his disciples as “conservatives.” Since as an intellectual historian I treat even classical Marxists with sympathy, the fact that I don’t characterize the Straussians or their master as conservative should not be viewed as an insult. But it may be a costly faux pas. Strauss’s more prominent disciples are used to being slobbered over in certain magazines conventionally associated with the right. Unfortunately for my sales, I don’t follow this party-line.