"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
(updated below – Update II)
On Fox News yesterday, NPR’s Juan Williams — who, just by the way, dutifully spouts GOP talking points more reliably than any Fox commentator other than Karl Rove — condemned President Obama for telling ”lies” about the Gates controversy. That prompted this observation from Bill Kristol, in which he head-pattingly quoted Williams:
Amid all the blather about “teachable moments,” I don’t recall anyone else making this simple but profound observation: “You can’t have a teachable moment if it’s based on a lie.” Another way of putting it might be to say that it’s not a “moment” that’s teachable, it’s the truth that’s teachable.
So a moment in which everyone colludes to obscure the truth (which seems characteristic of most “teachable moments” in contemporary America) is not a moment of teaching; it’s a moment of deception, of misdirection, of obfuscation. Call it an obfuscatable moment.
It’s hard to remember a statement in American politics as deceitful and obfuscating as this one from Bill Kristol, pretending to condemn politically-motivated lies. It’s not hyperbole to say that the central political tactic of neoconservatism is the “noble lie” — exactly what Kristol self-righteously condemns here. The political philosopher most revered by neoconservatives, Leo Strauss, explicitly advocated such lies, as Philosophy and Political Science Professor Shadia Drury documented:
[Strauss] therefore taught that those in power must invent noble lies and pious frauds to keep the people in the stupor for which they are supremely fit. . . . Like the Grand Inquisitor, he thought that it was better for human beings to be victims of this noble delusion than to “wallow” in the “sordid” truth. And like the Grand Inquisitor, Strauss thought that the superior few should shoulder the burden of truth and in so doing, protect humanity from the “terror and hopelessness of life.
Though that may be a bit of an oversimplification of Strauss’ views, Kristol’s dad, Irving, the so-called Godfather of Neoconservatism, was a devout follower of what he understood to be Strauss’ belief that feeding lies to citizens is necessary for good political ends:
Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. “What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that ‘the truth will make men free.’” Kristol adds that “Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.”
Based on that understanding, Irving Kristol explicitly advocated that ordinary citizens be lied to for their own good and the good of society:
There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.
As Professor Drury notes based on Bill Kristol’s writings on such topic, Kristol himself, just like his dad whose life he followed, is a “Straussian clone.” That’s why Bill Kristol’s public career is filled with too many lies to count. Lying is a justifiable tactic to them, which is what explains typical Kristol statements like this:
What the Bush administration did say–and what so many reporters seem to have trouble understanding–is that Iraq and al Qaeda had a relationship that, by its very existence, posed a potential threat to the United States.
Another by-product of Kristol’s fervent belief in political lies was when he pretended to support evangelical Christians in the Terri Schiavo travesty (Straussian neoconservatives love to manipulate and inflame mass religious beliefs, especially Christianity, feigning sympathy with it, as the ultimate form of control) and said this:
After all, we are a “maturing society,” as the Supreme Court has told us. Perhaps it is time, in mature reaction to this latest installment of what Hugh Hewitt has called a “robed charade,” to rise up against our robed masters, and choose to govern ourselves. Call it Terri’s revolution.
This is what was always most striking (and revealing) about The New York Times‘ hiring Kristol as a columnist (and The Washington Post‘s immediately swooping him up after he was let go by the NYT): Kristol is someone who not only lies constantly, but who quite obviously believes in lying as a legitimate and important political weapon. In general, there are far too many instances of extreme hypocrisy and deceit in our political culture to bother noting them when they arise. But reading Bill Kristol — the living, breathing embodiment of deceitful propaganda — condemn the use of lies for political ends is really too much to ignore. It would be exactly like reading Saddam Hussein condemn human rights abuses or Dick Cheney condemn torture or George Bush condemn lawbreaking or Michael Gordon condemn mindless, government-serving stenography or Cokie Roberts condemn conventional-wisdom-spouting punditry, etc.
UPDATE: As CarolynC notes in Comments, the Straussian endorsement of “noble lies” is completely consistent with the two-tiered system of justice that dominates our political culture (the subject of today’s first post), as only some people — the elite — are permitted to tell such lies, while ordinary citizens who do so must be punished. From Harper‘s Earl Shorris in July, 2004:
For Strauss, as for Plato, the virtue of the lie depends on who is doing the lying. If a poor woman lies on her application for welfare benefits, the lie cannot be countenanced. The woman has committed fraud and must be punished. The woman is not noble, therefore the lie cannot be noble. When the leader of the free world says that “free nations do not have weapons of mass destruction,” this is but a noble lie, a fable told by the aristocratic president of a country with enough nuclear weapons to leave the earth a desert less welcoming than the surface of the moon.
That Harper‘s article also notes that Bill Kristol, like his dad Irv, is a devoted Straussian. Indeed, when Kristol pretends to reject politically-motivated lies, that in itself is an example of a Straussian lie: Obama should be condemned for “lying” because he’s not noble, whereas Kristol and his comrades are free to lie because they are devoted to noble ends.
UPDATE II: I’m well aware of, and explicitly referenced, the debate over whether Kristolian neoconervatives faithfully summarize Strauss’ views or whether they distort them. Contrary to the assertions of several commenters, that debate is hardly clear-cut. In addition to the above-cited Drury and Harper‘s articles arguing that neocons reflect exactly what Strauss believed, here is a restrained and very well-informed condemnation of Strauss from Harper‘s Scott Horton. Horton notes that “even among those who love him, there seems to be a very catty rage over just who are the proper ‘Straussians’”; that “the Neoconservative movement  properly claims roots in the writing and thinking of Leo Strauss”; and that Strauss, at least early on, “sees real appeal in fascism, Mussolini style.” Also according to Horton:
One of the pillars of liberal democracy is the embrace of the Rule of Law, and the notion that no one, even the king or Executive, stands above the law. For Strauss this idea was foolishness. . . . Strauss applies this criticism to law; law spells weakness; law is a trick of the weak to tie down the strong. Hence, Strauss applauds the decisive leader who acts outside of the law to achieve his goals. Nevertheless, the consequences of Strauss’ dismissive attitude towards the Rule of Law can be seen today in the Neocon advocacy of jettisoning traditional norms of the law of armed conflict and in allowing the president to operate outside of clear criminal statutes (like FISA) as an aspect of his war-making powers.
As a former philosophy major, I could find that debate interesting if I wanted to, but it has little to do with anything I’ve written here. As a contemporary political matter, that debate over Strauss matters little. Leo Strauss isn’t subsidized by Rupert Murdoch to spew propaganda on Fox News and at The Weekly Standard; doesn’t write columns in virtually every major American newspaper and magazine; and doesn’t exert substantial influence in our political debate. Neoconservatives do. What matters is how they understand and embrace Strauss, regardless of whether that interpretation is or is not faithful to Strauss himself. As the excerpts from Irving Kristol make conclusively clear, neocons cite Strauss to support their belief that lies in pursuit of noble political ends are justifiable (indeed, Bill Kristol sits on the Advisory Board of the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago, along with Harvard Professor and Machiavelli lover Harvey Mansfield, who explicitly rejects the rule of law as a constraint on Presidents, or at least on George Bush).
That’s what matters: what neoconservatives believe. And what they believe is the virtue of political lies when spouted by certain people (themselves) in service of certain goals (their own), and relatedly, the complete absence of any limits on what they can do in pursuit of those “noble” goals.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)