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.
In discussing who Democrats might pit against him two years hence, his one-time campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told columnist Frank Bruni last week:
“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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Please, Lord, do not let this man win another election.
It may be a sin to even suggest a thing, bound to send readers into yet deeper depression.
Oh, my have you triggered some memories in pondering and framing discussion with Bloom’s work. As a rookie faculty member in 1989 I was assigned a freshman critical thinking course as part of our College’s “Core” program. it was an interdisciplinary course and part of an experimental “core” of three courses designed to promote critical thinking and help brand our small college in the Colorado Rockies as a public counterpart to more elite private liberal arts colleges. I used excerpts from The Closing of the American Mind to stimulate thought and discussion among greatly disinterested freshman students who could not understand the value of a class not listed as a General Education requirement, much less the importance (or concept) of critical thinking. It was shocking to me at the time that students struggled to see the point of clearly understanding the thesis/point of demonstrating understanding of content before expressing an opinion on its merits. One student who clearly despised me and the class made an office hour appointment to discuss a paper for which she had received a grade that she wished to contest. We looked at the paper together and I pointed out that she never communicated anything about the author’s theme and that her sentences did not follow in any logical sense. Her reply was that there were no grammatical errors and that, in itself, merited an A or a B. Needless to say, young Cindy and I could never get to a discussion about Bloom, critical thinking, or much of anything beyond me working to get her to consider the concept of thinking and reasoning. Bloom’s work was fascinating for me to tackle and try to make relevant to those freshmen nearly 30 years ago, and this blog inspires me to get back to it. I look forward to comments and discussions from others. And, I hope those students learned something along the way and were able to vote responsibly.
Loren, if God answers prayers as certain kinds of religious people take as a matter of faith, I’m sure she will appreciate, busy as she is, how yours was short and to the point!
Jay, wow, that is a great (and rather harrowing) tale. Poor Cindy. Poor you! What’s most striking to me in reading it is that critical thinking is a lifelong endeavor that even the most conscientious person can never get “right.” Every last one of us is biased and blinded to greater or lesser degrees, but if one expresses no interest or need to think hard about logic and thinking itself, and just figures they can substitute correct grammar in its stead, oh my….That is missing a very large forest for a couple of trees.
I don’t remember many specifics about Bloom but retained the gist (unlike other books I stare at on my shelf that I know I read but come up empty remembering anything about them). Am looking forward to dipping into various sections of his book, though, and taking stock of the arguments again, now that some additional history has unfolded in the decades since.
Thanks very much for this post and for these comments as well. I don’t have much to add. Many friends tonight were out in the 5 pm protests of the recent Trump atrocities related to the Sessions/Mueller timeline. I myself am watching Judy Woodruff trying to wrap her head around the impending denial of asylum to those dangerous immigrants while she is balancing ANOTHER story of ANOTHER white man shooting up ANOTHER group of innocent people.
I am not a person easily given to despair. Even in the darkest hours I find hope and a path forward through the beauty of the world, which includes articulate and valuable writing such as is always presented here in this blog. This is the very first time in all the Traversing posts that I have not felt some direction forward from the reflections offered and prompted. It is of course not the mission of this blog to entertain or soothe, however I find it worthy of comment that I am unable to find my way forward at this time, from any corner.
Although it does help to have phrases and powerful imagery to describe the despair; finding the monster under the bed is the first step, you know. For example: I am feeling remarkably trapped in the above referenced fetid swamp (perfect description, I can actually smell it), the thought that Donald Trump is the moral touchstone of my country, my culture is unbelievably repugnant, and well, the mud bath…
I think the mud bath says it all.
I’m very glad you mentioned the lack of a forward-hopeful thinking note, Angela, because that point very much occurred to me in the writing and the thinking/feeling that went into this post before I started—and after I finished. And once I came out where I did, I more fully realized the diabolical power of Trump’s approach to life and the “business” of running the country. The old sports axiom applies: press so hard with your offense that your opponent’s defense is on the field all the time, exhausting themselves. (Lewandowski’s “appetite for aggression,” which Trump possesses in spades but which doesn’t generally come naturally to liberals.)
Democrats seem terribly conflicted at the moment on how to contend with Trump in 2020. Nobly rise above the constant bait he sets out, or get down there in that mud pit, ready to rassle? I truly don’t know the answer to that question, and I’m not sure anyone does; Trump seems to win either way, so you’re right: the mud says it all.
Besides which, the question seems to be a very bad one to have to be asking about a campaign for president of the United States, which is one more reason for feeling the kind of malaise I have experienced the past couple of days. This too shall pass, however—can’t afford for it not to!
I returned tonight from a “No One is Above the Law” rally in Eugene, Oregon, ostensibly to speak out in favor of the Mueller investigation. There’s an eerie connection between what Bloom wrote, what Andrew writes about today, and the sadly disappointing rhetoric of what I heard tonight in a liberal university town. My friend and I arrived inspired and ready to stand up for the core values of American democracy which the horrible man in the White House (and his sycophantic minions in Congress and his cult followers across the nation) is trampling upon, no, urinating upon with his mean-spirited vulgarity and narcissistic arrogance. We were soon so disillusioned and disgusted by the speakers that we left the event early. There was screaming rage that suggested political impotence, and profanity-laced tirades (“F*ck Trump!” seemed to be a favorite) that gain us exactly how many new voters? May I suggest none? There were no coherent arguments steeped in logic or knowledge of constitutional principles, and no specific calls to action (e.g., call or write your representatives, organize your friends and neighbors to build a sustainable opposition, etc.) My conclusions from today’s news, tonight’s rally and Andrew’s blog post – the left needs to grow up, get serious and stop shouting obscenities into the wind. We’re in this struggle for the long haul. We need clear and thoughtful voices to counter the evil of Trumpism. There is no time to lose. Get busy! All hands on deck!
That’s a dismaying, but not particularly surprising, report, David. College students have a not altogether noble inclination to simplify, emote, wax overly righteous, and it doesn’t take many with unresolved Mommy-Daddy issues to set a whole mob spiraling down to the lowest common denominator. (Rather like our president, who doesn’t have the excuse of being a tender young age…) Even at the height of Vietnam protests, with so much life at stake and such a clear dividing line between right and wrong, a mob of privileged white kids throwing rocks and setting buildings afire always struck me as counter-productive to the cause they were espousing.
Am wondering if you saw Bret Stephens’s column in the NYT yesterday. He addresses this tactical issue and upbraids liberals for going about their anti-Trumpism in a way that he thinks only heightens Trump’s chances for re-election. But he also gets some significant push-back from articulate commenters with various perspectives on this conundrum of how one fights the particular, ingenious evil of Trump the Mud Wrestler. Stephens has become one of my go-to conservative commentators, can always rely on him for clear thinking on perspectives different than mine, but the comments section on this is really worth some time, too.
Thanks for sharing that report from the front lines, as it were. Since college students haven’t quite “grown up,” perhaps the far more serious challenge is for the “grown-up” left to grow up? And what does that even mean, in specific practice? How much do we focus on the egregious character faults of the president, which is really a deep moral problem (how could we elect a president of such obvious awful character?), how severely and persistently do we call those faults out, and on the other side of the equation, how do we even focus on the “issues” when they come as fast and furious and awful as they do?
Conundrum upon conundrum, it seems to me, and I hope we can figure out at least a few coherent answers to them as the 2020 campaign starts heating up, uh, later this afternoon, right?
My father, an “old white guy” art history professor, felt as did Bloom that universities had “devalued” the classics. He complained to me that younger professors, particularly at UCONN where he taught for more than 20 years, gave more credence to contemporary folk art than the Renaissance or Baroque periods. Michelangelo, Bramante, El Greco, Caravaggio, Durer, Rubens and the like had become mere footnotes, mentioned only in the introductory art history courses. I said to him that he sounded a little like Allan Bloom, which I recall he didn’t take as a compliment. While he conceded that contemporary artists from other cultures had not been given their just due, it was a crime that his students’ knowledge of the great masters began and ended with the Ninja turtles. My dad felt strongly that the study of one need not come at the expense of the other. In particular, he remembered one of his more energetic students proclaiming that Mexican Renaissance was SOLELY a by-product of that culture’s folk art. My father reminded her that Diego Rivera spent a decade in Europe befriending Modigliani, Gris, Braque and other significant figures in the modern art movement. In particular, Rivera immersed himself in Cubism and later in post-impressionism, fancying the simplicity in Cezanne’s forms which can be seen so clearly in his murals. He also noted that darker elements of Goya and Bosch found a home among Rivera and his modern art buddies. Art is never a singular moment in time but a continuum of what went before with a twist or two here and there…perhaps akin to our present political dilemma.
Robert, I think you’ve convinced me it’s a good rule of thumb to remember and repeat, perhaps on some set schedule, that Nothing, ever, Is SOLELY a byproduct of any one thing (or 100, now that I think about it)…). And indeed that art, and EVERYTHING ELSE, are “never singular moments in time but a continuum…”…with a twist additional here, a dollop there, on and on we go…
I’ve read several times recently that Trump isn’t so much a cause or prime mover of our current chaos as he is simply a symptom of an illness in American life that has been festering and making us progressively sicker for a long while now. Perhaps it’s as simple as a Decline of Empire narrative, unless it is instead the 1.99 steps backwards we are taking now after the previous 2.00 steps forward, the way ahead always fraught, halting, laborious, demanding of blood and treasure. In other words, the dialectic at work, Hegel nodding away smugly in the heavens…
None of which excuses us from not throwing everything we have into countering the damage Trump is doing to our country. What continues to be tricky is figuring out the best tactics to accomplish that. I just hope the Dems do so by 11-3-2020.
11/3/2020. 11/3/2020. 11/3/2020. That must become our mantra, our focus, our last, best hope for this grand experiment in enlightened self-government to overcome the dark forces of fascism and malevolent narcissism. Stay alert. Stay active. We MUST overcome before it is too late!
David, et al: More on the “dark forces of fascism” here—short, chilling, and to the point.