To save precious space in America’s most important journal, I will refer to the subjects of this book as neocons.  To make fine distinctions between academic and activist Straussians, as the author sometimes does, is akin to saying Marx is not to blame for his disciples.

Having long admired Prof. Anne Norton for her brilliant book on antebellum social thought, Alternative Americas, I was eager to see what an erudite, fair-minded liberal had to say about the monsters who now dispose of our blood and treasure.  I am not entirely disappointed, nor entirely satisfied.

Norton is well situated to assess her subject, being a political scientist (University of Pennsylvania) who, while no Straussian herself, is nevertheless familiar with the doctrine of Straussians and personally acquainted with many of them from her time at the University of Chicago.

The neocons have had a lot of exposure—that is, they have been the object of numerous exposés—lately.  (Anyone who thinks that exposure will lessen their power underestimates both their adaptability and the intellectual and moral shallowness of the American ruling class.)  What this study adds to the picture are the (obvious now that it is pinned down) kinship of neocon “thought” to European fascism; an appreciative description of real American conservatism and how neoconism fails to resemble it in any respect; and an eloquent meditation on how our past mistakes and current weaknesses as a people have set us up for our present peril.  After all, it was under the sainted Ronald Reagan that the neocons and their doctrine first got their hands on the levers of power, while Teddy Roosevelt is their exemplary hero.  And much of the public seems to be as morally deadened by remote-control war as are our leaders.

So, Norton’s take is well worth attention and gives us yet another perspective on our troubles.  I find fault in two respects.  First, she takes these people too seriously as wise readers of the major texts of Western civilization.  Her evaluation is nonsense.  They are phonies in this respect as in all else.  Ask any classicist or historian.

Second, while rejecting the evil neocon vision of American Empire, the author seems to hold to one of her own that is much more wholesome, but perhaps just as unrealistic.  She regrets the neocons because they have befouled her own liberal America.  In this America, the degenerate riffraff marching on Selma are equated as heroes of democracy with the men who went ashore in Normandy, and Muslims are happy participants in a free society.  The worst thing about the neocons, however, is not that they are intolerant of feminists and Muslims.  It is that they are wasting the blood and substance of the American people, for whom they care no more than Robespierre cared for the French, or Hitler for the Germans.  Their “New American Century” is not even American.


[Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, by Anne Norton (New Haven: Yale University Press) 235 pp., $25.00