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Jonathan Franzen, the Iraq War, and Leo Strauss

I haven’t yet read all the way through Freedom, the new novel by Jonathan Franzen. But like every sentient person in the United States, I’ve read a good deal about it, and I’ve been especially intrigued by the way reviewers have characterized Franzen’s attempt to write the political history of the George W. Bush years. The strand of the novel that deals most directly with the Iraq war has to do with Joey Berglund, the college-age son of the main characters, Patty and Walter.

Joey ends up involved in a moral dilemma straight out of All My Sons: Having contracted to supply truck parts to the American army in Iraq, he can only fulfill the deal by using defective parts, thus possibly putting soldiers’ lives at risk. This moral dereliction is presented as the logical culmination of Joey’s narcissistic, inhumane attitude toward world events. On September 11, 2001, for instance, Joey reacts to news of the attacks by feeling an “intensely personal resentment,” since the horror violated his feeling “that his life was destined to be a lucky one.”

It is not hard to see the allegory here: Joey is America in the George W. Bush era, certain of its entitlements and vindictive towards anyone, terrorists included, who would challenge them. In making this indictment of the era, interestingly, Franzen has also preserved in the amber of his novel one of the uglier and more conspiratorial notions to flourish on the left after September 11. This is the idea that Jewish neoconservatives seized on the attacks as an excuse to lie and manipulate the country into war, in obedience to an occult, antidemocratic philosophy.

This point is made when Joey visits the home of his Jewish friend Jonathan, whose father is described as “the founder and luminary president of a think tank devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military power to make the world freer and safer, especially for America and Israel.” Over the dinner table, this man—”a wizened person” with “turkeylike cords in his neck” and “the almost shrunken smallness of his skull that made his white, white smile so prominent”—holds forth to Joey:

“He spoke of the ‘new blood libel’ that was circulating in the Arab world, the lie about there having been no Jews in the twin towers on 9/11, and of the need, in times of national emergency, to counter evil lies with benevolent half-truths. He spoke of Plato as if he’d personally received enlightenment at his Athenian feet. He referred to members of the president’s cabinet by their first names, explaining how ‘we’ had been ‘leaning on’ the president to exploit this unique historical moment.”

September 11, he goes on, was a chance for “‘the philosopher’ ... to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary. ‘We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts,’ he said. ... ‘Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall, and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth.’” Later, he speaks of getting “a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

Not many of the millions of readers of Freedom will also have been readers of The Nation or the London Review of Books during the Bush years. But those who were will immediately recognize this passage as an allusion to Leo Strauss—who was alleged, in these circles, to be the secret mastermind of belligerent neoconservatism.

It was Strauss who allegedly taught that “the philosopher” had the right and duty to lie to the public in the service of a greater good, and who used Platonic myths to undermine democracy. It’s not necessary to reargue here the falsity of this understanding of Strauss—who, in fact, wrote about the way free-thinking and rationalist philosophers throughout history used occult writing to outwit the religious taboos of their time.

What’s important is that, in fictionalizing this left-wing conventional wisdom about Strauss, the Jews, and the Iraq war, Franzen is spreading it to a much wider audience—complete with images of a wizened, cranially distorted Jewish puppetmaster, who cynically chuckles about how “we” control the U.S. government from behind the scenes. That Franzen could uncritically reproduce this kind of imagery is a reminder of how ugly and obsessive the antiwar discourse sometimes became.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.