Reading Mansfield

A reader writes:

Unless I am not in on the joke, Mark Kleiman's "Straussian" reading of Mansfield makes no sense. It is either inane or a deliberate reductio ad absurdum of Straussian interpretation.

Kleiman writes:

"It is a core Straussian belief that in times of maximum political danger philosophers dare not, for their own sakes and for the sake of the community, tell the truth in plain language. Instead, they must conceal the truth under elaborate cover, and especially under cover of its opposite."

Maximum political danger? For whom? Mansfield?! Get real! No one is going to execute him, imprison him or even ostracize him for criticizing Bush (Mansfield lives in CAMBRIDGE!). Strauss' notion of esoteric writing applies to contexts in which a philosopher can realistically expect genuine persecution for speaking or writing openly. (Think Socrates, Plato, Spinoza, Hobbes, etc.) To act as if this were the case in 2007 America is a delusion fit of mewling self-importance. Or just plain intellectual cowardice.

Kleiman concludes:

"So, Mansfield, in his adopted character of an apologist for Bushism, reveals the Bushite project of ruling in defiance of the law as fundamentally tyrannical, fundamentally unlimited, and defensible only from a position of partisan bad faith. And of course, if challenged, Mansfield would deny all this, and dismiss the above interpretation as fanciful, which is the normal reaction of the uninitiated to Straussian interpretations of classical texts. Brilliant!"

The only way this would be "brilliant" would be if Kleiman is satirizing Mansfield and the contortionist reversals of Straussian "close readings." Which, like Freudian readings, are impossible to refute because, of course, you're repressing or you're not an initiate to the art of reading between the lines.

I mean really: Mansfield is supposedly the apostle of manliness. What manly lover of republican virtue and open debate would resort to such a tortured, timid tactic as the one Kleiman suggests? Republican (small "r") civic virtue demands that we speak our minds in times of relative safety - and even in peril. Are we really to believe that Mansfield is dressing up "in his adopted character of an apologist for Bushism"? Please!

The fact is, Mansfield supports Bush's expansion of executive prerogative. It is of a piece with everything he has been writing in recent years about virtue, leadership and manliness. Simple as that. Everything Kleiman quotes could much more easily be interpreted to support the self-evident thesis of Mansfield's essay. To claim otherwise is to brand Mansfield a buffoon or a coward. He may be the former, but I doubt the latter.

PS: I am not speaking from ignorance. Mansfield was my teacher in the early 80s. Not everything he says or writes is esoteric in the Straussian sense!

In this debate between Mansfield students, I fear this email is the most on-point, although I'd dearly like Mark to be correct.