Thirty-one years ago, the late political philosopher and cultural critic Allan Bloom wrote a book that his publishers expected would sell a paltry few copies to university types. Instead, it went on, in an improbable pre-Internet version of “going viral,” to occupy a high perch on best-seller lists for four months. (And generate heated discussion among the intelligentsia for years after that.)
Its title: “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.”
In it, Bloom, a classicist who was admitted to the University of Chicago at age 15 and graduated three years later, excoriated what he saw as the flabbiness of thought, discourse and morality among ‘60s-influenced students and faculty. For them, he said, the anciently sanctioned pursuit of truth and beauty had become a chimera, a vapor dissolving in the mists of the relativism sweeping through much of American university life at the time. (I almost wrote “American intellectual life” there, but Bloom saw little that was intellectual about it.)
“I do my thing, you do yours” was a chalkboard screech to Bloom’s ears, as was any hint that the great thinkers of the western world—Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche, et al—no longer spoke to the issues and concerns of modern life.
His carefully reasoned, philosophically imbued plea for the restoration of critical thought and moral discernment—the idea that some thoughts and observations are more sound and thus “truer” than others and therefore need to be cultivated by professors, parents, and other adults with a stake in young people’s welfare—landed like a bomb amidst a certain strata of American life.
In the end, I can’t help but think that Tuesday was no defeat for the president, but instead just a continuation of his 2016 victory that reworked the emotional landscape of American life by profoundly changing the tone and tenor of its politics.
Conservatives—a label Bloom himself refused to take on—hailed his book as a long-needed call to arms to reinstate standards of probity, respect and decorum that they regarded as in severe decline through the political and social tumult of the ’60s and ’70s.
Protests, dropped-out and drugged-up hippies, the rejection of the Western canon in favor of ethnic and gender distinctions, the loosening of sexual mores that had long governed at least the discussion and expression, if not the behavior, of men and women—these were all anathema to Bloom.
Liberals, meanwhile, were split on the book’s merits, some regarding it as a retrograde jeremiad by an aging white guy professor (“mind-bogglingly stupid,” wrote Noam Chomsky), while others hailed it at the very least as a provocative gauntlet thrown down to stimulate discussion on the prevailing cultural and educational mores of the time.
As for myself, I thought the book was a gauntlet indeed, deeply thought-provoking, never stupid as Chomsky claimed but at times reactionary and, like most all cultural critiques, a bit top heavy in generalities. There was also a scolding, purse-lipped quality to it, though the writing was never dull, and often witty.
And yesterday, more than 30 years later, I thought of it while trying to make sense of Tuesday’s mid-term elections, the book popping into my head as I considered the crazy, incomprehensible turns culture and politics sometimes take.
I remembered Bloom’s critique of liberalism run wild, loosed from its moorings among enlightened philosophers as a rigorous search for truth and meaning, lapsing instead into a relativistic, “anything goes” permissiveness that denies any commonly shared verities or standards of behavior.
That was then.
And here we are today, with a combative, cruel, compulsively dishonest, virtual anarchist president, delighted to throw figurative stink bombs into the body politic, intentionally ignorant of history, a lover of chaos, name-calling and conflict, reigning supreme over a modern, ostensibly “conservative” movement whose entire recent history was relentlessly trumpeted as an homage to traditional values of moral restraint, truth and fidelity.
Who could have imagined it?
Not Allan Bloom, I am pretty certain.
Nor Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, the George Bushes, nor anyone else aligned with the virtues that have supposedly served as the bedrock of modern conservatism through the decades.
So: who “won” Tuesday? One gets a little bleary sorting through the gut punches (Ted Cruz again, really?), and matching them, measure for measure, with repudiations of the president in the House at large, the suburban women voters who said “Enough!”, the triumph of diverse women candidates, and the veritable proof of God’s mercy in the final, richly deserved fall of Scott Walker. (Hooray!)
But in the end, I can’t help but think that Tuesday was no defeat for the president, but instead just a continuation of his 2016 victory that reworked the emotional landscape of American life by profoundly changing the tone and tenor of its politics.
He may have lost the popular vote then but he won—bigly—in dragging the whole nation and its political rhetoric into the sewer, where to this day (and surely for the next two years at least), he has continued to cavort with the rats he has pulled in with him.
And those rats include virtually all of us, on both sides, climbing over each other like a dysfunctional family whose father lacks the required emotional intelligence and empathy to help us express ourselves, sort through our feelings, help and stand by each other even in conflict, with love and respect rather than resentment and fear.
Democrats, Republicans who have opposed him, the media, the intellectuals and academics, Muslims, immigrants—it doesn’t matter. Finding maneuvering room to counter him without sloshing around in his muck is virtually impossible.
He will be coarse and he will coarsen you in every encounter, dragging you and the entire country’s political discourse into a fetid swamp of sneering, bullying and hostility, setting the terms of debate by refusing to ascend from the trough where he reigns confident and supreme, in his element, and gleeful that you are not in yours.
“The right Democrat would need a talent for attention and an appetite for aggression,’ Lewandowski said: He or she must ‘be willing to go toe-to-toe with someone who I believe to be the greatest counterpuncher that politics has ever seen.’”
That’s one way of looking at it. But should we ever be speaking in glowing terms of a president who is a “great counterpuncher?”
Who repeatedly calls the media “enemies of the people” and revels in insulting critics daily in highly personal terms, often focused on their physical appearance?
His enablers/defenders try to explain away his character deficiencies by saying his critics “started it,” “haven’t given him a chance,” aren’t being “fair,” etc. Even if this were true, it is quite beside the point.
The president, for better and for worse, is the moral center and emotional touchstone of the nation, the go-to spokesperson in times of great trial. He must (must!) conduct himself with the dignity befitting the office and its responsibilities, no matter how much his critics carp on him or how strongly the opposition counters his views.
If he doesn’t, we have, well, exactly what we have now: a bellicose, toxic political and cultural environment which the president, rather than countering with conservative virtues of even-temperedness and restraint, is instead stoking, like a half-mad witch happily adding fuel to the fires beneath a foul stew.
Countless agitated, determined critics have cited the critical importance of not “normalizing” Trump’s aberrant behavior. “We cannot let this be the new normal!” they insist.
But it is.
By the power and reach of his megaphone and the utter determination to use it in spreading fear, resentment and relentless falsehoods, he has overwhelmed his opposition by forcing them to do battle on his own degenerate terms, then convinced those in general agreement with his policy aims that no behavior is too wayward or beneath his office to achieve them.
It is by no means guaranteed that he will be re-elected in 2020, though after beholding the returns from Florida and all the red states where the nightmare of the past two years, so much worse than we dared imagine, hasn’t seemed to move the needle one inch downwards in the population’s esteem for him, I am left thinking his re-election is, shockingly, a distinct possibility.
And though the 2020 result matters greatly, momentously, it is also true that Donald Trump has already triumphed, has achieved his cherished zero-sum “win,” by shaping the country in his own image, forcing it to its knees and further down still, there to muck about in a vulgar political discourse where no holds are barred, no words too harsh, no lies or distortions too extreme in pursuit of his goals.
We will be a long time emerging from this darkness.
“We’re all in this together!” the idealists in and among us are fond of saying. Indeed we are.
With his Coarsening of the American Mind, President Trump has made sure of it.
One of the master’s early protest songs, written in 1963, when he was 22 years old, the lyrics resounding still…
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