The American mind continues to close

Allan Bloom was the first to diagnose the pathological hatred of Western civilisation on campus. The malaise is much worse now

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Allan Bloom: Repelled by relativism

On December 10, 1982, a then-obscure academic from the American Midwest took to the pages of National Review magazine with a lengthy indictment of America’s intellectual class. Though this was the height of the Reagan Revolution — a heady time for the Review’s conservative editors and readers — the author had nothing to say about tax cuts or defence policy. Instead, he peppered his argument with references to Socrates and Nietzsche. A typical applause line was: “The Bible and Plutarch have ceased to be a part of the soul’s furniture.” 

Yet the piece hit a nerve. And in time, it grew into a bestselling book that made the author — Indianapolis-born philosopher and classicist Allan David Bloom — an academic celebrity.

Much of Bloom’s success no doubt was owed to his book’s inspired title, The Closing of the American Mind. But the timing was perfect, too, arriving on shelves in the fall of 1987, when political correctness was just becoming an acute force for censorship. I was a college student at the time. And reading Bloom’s book helped convince me that, no, it wasn’t just me: something really was wrong with the way my generation was being educated and politically programmed. 

Bloom was especially repelled by relativism, which he described as “the consciousness that one loves one’s own way because it is one’s own, not because it is good.” Though he was hardly the first postwar critic to abhor the fragmenting of cultural life and the marginalisation of the Western canon, Bloom went deeper with his analysis, showing how the emerging obsession with identity politics (as we now call it) left students glum and aimless — brimming with grievances, while lacking the sense of common purpose that once animated higher learning.

The author died in 1992, just before the advent of the world wide web exacerbated many of the problems he described. Social media, in particular, has reduced attention spans — making it difficult to teach students classic texts that are not immediately relevant to modern forms of self-identification. At the same time, these networks allow activists to shame heterodox ideas on a peer-to-peer basis.  

If Bloom spent a single day on Facebook or Twitter today, he would instantly recognise the “mixture of egotism and high-mindedness” that he detected among his own undergraduates. But he also would be shocked by the rigid ideological conformity that now is demanded of students on matters relating to race, gender and sexuality. The speech codes Bloom saw metastasising in the late 1980s and early 1990s have become largely unnecessary: university administrators can now rely on students to police themselves.

Unlike Bloom, I have never taught at a university. But in my capacity as newspaper and magazine editor over the last two decades, I have scouted and recruited dozens of bright twenty-somethings fresh out of journalism school and leading liberal-arts courses in Canada and the United States. In many cases, I have watched these young people struggle for a few years in the profession, and then move on.

The life of an intellectually ambitious writer has become much more difficult than it was just a single generation ago. The problem is not just that it has become harder to make a living in my field (it has), but also that, on many of the most pressing issues of our day, it has become impossible for writers to follow their true convictions, which is where the joy really lies.

As Saul Bellow wrote in his preface to The Closing of the American Mind, good writing requires that the author “be immune to the noise of history”. But thanks to social media, the noise of history is right there on a writer’s desk, buzzing with compliments and rebukes whenever you publish anything. Most young writers I meet seem so terrified by the prospect of having their work denounced as retrograde in these public forums that they hew to subjects and postures they know will attract approving comments (or, at the very least, no comments whatsoever).

Bloom described his students as being taken up with a “disdain for the ethnocentric” — an impulse that now might be more commonly described as anti-racism. As he rightly noted, this trend originated as a virtuous corrective to the “real prejudices of race, religion [and] nation” embedded in the fabric of white societies. But since Bloom’s time, the anti-racist movement has expanded vastly in scope, and now serves as the central unifying principle in the intellectual life of elite college students — far eclipsing complex (and less Tweetable) creeds such as socialism and anti-globalisation. This is why their online debate and virtue signalling now feeds almost entirely off expressions of anti-racist (or anti-sexist, or anti-transphobic) outrage. Such outrage is a precious commodity, as it provides daily affirmation that participants are engaged in prosecuting an important historical mission. Its function is social as much as political, for it is often the only thing holding these online tribes together.

This helps explain why it is now so difficult for an editor to recruit young people willing to express original views — since no one wants to write anything that gets them thrown out of a tribe they’ve inhabited, in good standing, since college, or even high school. In this respect, white writers tend to exhibit the highest levels of anxiety, since they (correctly) believe they have the most to lose if they come under any suspicion of heresy. In some cases, they will even decline offers to appear on panels, or refuse writing assignments, lest they be accused of occupying bandwidth better ceded to people of colour.

At my last job — editor-in-chief for a Canadian literary magazine — I observed this impulse being carried to almost comical extremes. In one case, I was thwarted in my attempts to commission a review of a book by an Indigenous writer — because my colleagues believed that such a book could not be properly reviewed by a white person. It had to be written by an Indigenous writer, they explained, and the review had to be positive. And so a week was spent trying to find an author of the appropriate ethnicity and outlook. None was found, and so the book was not reviewed at all. Dozens of others promising ideas died in this way.

In several cases, I observed that editors who had once enjoyed flourishing sidelines as freelance writers now had almost entirely given up on their craft. In an editorial meeting, a staffer might offer some brilliant insight that I recognised as the seed of a fine article. But if I tried to assign the piece, she would demur, for the reasons described above. It’s one of the reasons I quit my job. You can help show a person how to write. But you can’t make them want to write.

“Of all university members, humanists have the least self-confidence,” Bloom wrote. “In their heart of hearts many doubt that they have much to say. After all, most of the writers they promote can be convicted of elitism and sexism, the paramount sins of the day.” This is still true. But the crime of elitism has now expanded into the more general category of privilege, and especially white privilege. Bloom’s description of relativism — “the consciousness that one loves one’s own way because it is one’s own” — no longer applies to progressive white writers, who loathe their “own way”, which is why so many of them do not have much to say. Even black and Indigenous writers can find themselves in a straitjacket, because they are pressured (often by cynical white editors, acting on their own desire to be viewed as enlightened) to repeatedly write about issues connected to their identity. Eventually, even the most morally urgent subject will become stale to a writer if he or she writes of nothing else. 

The few glimmers of hope and energy I’ve witnessed tend to emanate from those men and women whose own personal histories serve to challenge one-dimensional theories of persecution in our society. Which brings me back to Bloom — who was Jewish and gay, and the child of social workers whose own parents escaped Europe’s murderous anti-Semitism. These are not incidental biographical details. Bloom came to the defence of traditional Western literature and philosophy without the baggage of colonialism and racial supremacism that weighs down your average gentile to the point of intellectual paralysis. And if Bloom’s surname were Smith or Jones, I’m not sure The Closing of the American Mind would have been written.

Similarly, I do not think it is a coincidence that many of the most influential and vigorous critics of liberal orthodoxy to emerge since that book’s publication also have been Jews — a list that includes Richard Bernstein, Alan Dershowitz, John Podhoretz, Jonah Goldberg, Andrew Breitbart, David Brooks, Christopher Hitchens, Charles Krauthammer, William Safire and Ben Shapiro. Since 9/11, in particular, it has disproportionately fallen to Jewish commentators (and sometimes gay men or women) to sound the alarm against the normalisation of Islamist anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia. If the people with the least moral standing in arts and letters are seen to be straight, lily-white WASPs, and those with the most are visible minorities and indigenous peoples, then the Jew (perhaps especially a gay Jew) falls exactly in between. 

The question of whether Jews are truly “white” or not is a semantic tangent that I will leave to others. But my own experience as a Jew is that we occupy a betwixt and between place in the marketplace of ideas. On the one hand, as Bloom’s example shows, we heirs to Maimonides, Spinoza, Freud and Einstein are bound closely enough to the Western intellectual tradition that we feel both proud and protective of it. On the other hand, we are not so saturated with colonial guilt that we are ashamed to assist in its defence. When Kipling wrote of “the white man’s burden”, and implored Washington to “send forth the best ye breed”, he was not speaking of Bloom’s grandparents.  

It was only after I left my last job, where I was the only Jew in an office of several dozen (white) gentiles, that I realised how much my religious background had contributed to the ideological gulf between me and my colleagues. This came out most clearly in editorial discussions about Canada’s Indigenous peoples. At these times, my colleagues sometimes would make sweeping remarks about all the horrors “we” had inflicted on First Nations, and the guilt “we” bore for the crimes of “our” ancestors. In these moments, I would politely remind everyone that my Russian father came to Canada (via China) as a 10-year-old, after his dispossessed family had been forced to flee not one but two communist revolutions. On my mother’s side, my Yiddish-speaking grandfather helped his own father peddle rags on the streets of Toronto’s Jewish ghetto — an occupation that left him scant time to build residential schools, or otherwise oppress Canada’s First Nations. And while I am a social liberal at heart, who accepts that all white Canadians, Jews included, should take stock of the racial privilege they enjoy in their daily interactions, I don’t appreciate being indicted for the historical crimes of British and French imperialists who looked down on Jews and Indigenous peoples in roughly equal measure.

In his foreword to The Closing of the American Mind, Bellow attacked “the commonest teaching of the civilised world in our time”, which he described as: “Tell me where you come from and I will tell you what you are.” I believe he was speaking not only as a writer, but as a Jew. For we Jews have always been drawn to universalising creeds (Marxism being the foremost example) that might allow us to escape the ghetto and pre-empt the pogrom. Our defence of Western civilisation, for all its warts and shames, is part of that. For as Bloom wrote, “The real community of man . . . is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers . . . of all men to the extent they desire to know . . . This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only real common good. It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found.”

Today’s generation of college students still possess a desperately felt desire to know this sense of kinship. That part of human nature hasn’t changed, and never will. But the common project that forms the basis of such friendship must amount to more than a cult of guilt and shame. In The Closing Of The American Mind, Bloom warned us of the toll that this phenomenon would take on intellectual life. Alas, the book has stood the test of time only too well.