Category Archive 'Allan Bloom'

02 Nov 2017

The American Mind Has Continued to Close

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Jonathan Kay reflects on the publication thirty years ago of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind only to note sadly just how much worse things have gotten in the course of three more decades.

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.


05 Oct 2016

The East Coast-West Coast Schism in Conservatism

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Harry Jaffa — Allan Bloom

Jeet Heer has an interesting article, in the New Republic, on the coastal divide between Straussians.

Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the editor of the Claremont Review of Books, wrote in the spring issue of the journal that America may be facing “the Weimar problem”: “Has the national culture, popular and elite, deteriorated so much that the virtues necessary to sustain republican government are no longer viable? America is not there yet, although when 40% of children are born out of wedlock it is not too early to wonder.” It’s no accident that this question is raised in an essay making case that Donald Trump isn’t as terrible as mainstream conservatives like William Kristol fear he is. If you live in the Weimar Republic, Kesler implicitly argues, a figure like Trump could come as a relief.

A similar mood of crisis was voiced by Angelo Codevilla, a retired professor of international relations, in a recent online essay for the Review. Codevilla argues that regime change of a terrible kind has already occurred, with the American elite destroying what was great about the country. By this account, America needs a new revolution. Codevilla supports Trump but fears that he’s not up to the task of revolutionary change required:

    In fact, the United States of America was great because of a whole bunch of things that now are gone. Yes, the ruling class led the way in personal corruption, cheating on tests, lowering of professional standards, abandoning churches and synagogues for the Playboy Philosophy and lifestyle, disregarding law, basing economic life on gaming the administrative state, basing politics on conflicting identities, and much more. But much of the rest of the country followed. What would it take to make America great again—or indeed to make any of the changes that Trump’s voters demand? Replacing the current ruling class would be only the beginning.

Kesler and Codevilla are West Coast Straussians, one of two rival factions of intellectuals who revere Leo Strauss, the German-born political philosopher who died in 1973. Whereas East Coast Straussians have been heavily oriented towards establishment Republicans like George W. Bush, and thus tend to be #NeverTrump—Kristol’s Weekly Standard has been sharply anti-Trump and Paul Wolfowitz has said he might vote for Hillary Clinton—there’s considerable support for Trump among West Coast Straussians. They justify their support of Trump by saying that America is in such deep trouble it needs regime change. To borrow a Trumpian phrase: “What do you have to lose?”

In these West Coast Straussians we see the emergence, for the first time since the Southern secessionists of the 1850s, of a group of conservative American intellectuals who advocate overthrowing the existing political order. Under Bush, Americans saw what Straussian ideas of regime change could do abroad. Under Trump, we might see the same urge for regime change applied to America itself. …

After Leo Strauss died in 1973, his followers divided into two factions, creating the infamous “Crisis of the Strauss Divided.” And the best way to understand the divide between West Coast and East Coast Straussians is through the quarrel between Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom, who were the respective heads of the rival schools. …

The disputes between Jaffa’s West Coast Straussianism and Bloom’s East Coast Straussianism can be discussed along philosophic lines: Is America, as Jaffa believes, grounded in ancient philosophy or was the American founding, as Bloom would have it, built on the low but solid ground of early modern philosophers like Hobbes and Locke? Does the survival of America depend on the virtue of the people, as West Coast Straussians believe, or in the maintenance of constitutional norms, as East Coast Straussians believe? But the dispute can also more easily be understood in terms of the familiar social divide in the Republican Party. West Coast Straussians are the grassroots activists, grounded in social conservatism and ultra-nationalist in foreign policy. Sociologically, East Coast Straussians are more aligned with the party elite, and tend to be found in Washington think tanks and serving as career bureaucrats.

Read the whole thing.

I’m not a Straussian myself, but the nomination of Donald Trump has certainly similarly divided me from a long-time blogging kindred spirit who, coincidentally perhaps, lives on the West Coast, and many others.

I’d say, “If you live in the Weimar Republic,” you had better be pretty damned careful about allying with the ignorant and resentful mob to put into power a demagogic populist and narcissistic strongman determined to supplant previous legitimate sources of leadership and authority and contemptuous of traditional ethics as well as of constraint on the basis of theory and ideas. They elected somebody of the sort in 1932 in the real Weimar Republic, and the results were not pretty.

16 Apr 2012

Looking at Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” 25 Years later

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the late Allan Bloom

Matt Feeney, in the New Yorker, takes a fresh look at Bloom’s Straussian jeremiad of 1987 and observes that the relativism of the 1960s era seems no longer to be the same kind of problem. Kids at elite universities today are not relativists. They are instead commonly hyper-engagée moral perfectionists, brainwashed from the time they were toddlers into intense preoccupation with all the ersatz moral concerns of the bien pensant haute bourgeoisie community.

[T]he moral disenchantment that Bloom called relativism is not the problem it was in 1987. Indeed, college-bound American kids now grow up in world that is almost medieval in its degree of moral enchantment. Their moral reflex is anxiously conditioned to an ever-growing list of worries and provocations: smoking, safe sex, chastity, patriotism, faith, religious freedom, bullying, diversity, drugs, crime, violence, obesity, binge drinking. Almost no problem goes un-talked about, un-taught from, un-ruled on. These lessons are convincingly yoked to real-life concerns about safety, health, and happiness, not to mention all those things that, as the song says, will go down on their permanent records.

For kids entering college fully trained in this liturgy of prudence and niceness, which I am anxiously imparting to my own young children, it’s not Bloom’s censoriousness they will resist. It’s his decadence. …

Bloom’s esoteric project asks today’s students to estrange themselves from an identity that they, their parents, and their teachers, along with their ministers and rabbis and shrinks, their camp counselors and art tutors and soccer coaches, have been constructing since these kids were born, and with a degree of political and moral awareness that everyone involved is darned proud of. These are good kids. Try telling a college sophomore who founded his school’s anti-sweatshop movement that his enthusiasms are callow, his convictions harmful to a true education of the soul, and that he should instead join you on a freaky trip into the true mind of Thucydides.

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