The New York Times has issued its latest cultural diktat: conservatives are the new liberals. This past Sunday, the New York Times Book Review published a piece by Yale professor Jim Sleeper arguing that Allan Bloom’s 1987 blockbuster, The Closing of the American Mind, was in fact no book for conservatives. (Perhaps you missed all those college professors praising it when it was published.)
Contrary to those of us who found Bloom’s book revelatory on the culture wars and an unremitting attack on liberalism, Sleeper corrects our misimpressions. Conservatives, he writes, “who reread Bloom today are in for a big, perhaps instructive, surprise.” The “instructive” is classic Times-speak: Under the new guidance from the paper of record, conservatives can now know what to think about Bloom. Sleeper does not tell us what he thought the first time he read Bloom’s book, or if it was instructive for him.
It turns out, according to Sleeper, that Bloom may not have had the greatest regard for an abstraction called capitalism. And that he was gay. And that he preferred Greek philosophy–seen through a modern prism–to traditional religious faith. All true, but some or all of these are also true for other conservatives. Conservatives, of course, did and do have their problems with Bloom, but there was little doubt in the 1980s whose side he was on. Liberals were mired in ideology, America-bashing, and Reagan-hatred. It was in no small part due to Bloom’s work that the intellectual tide has turned, and that on many campuses conservative ideas are being given a hearing. But if some conservatives would disagree with Bloom at some points in his analysis, how many liberals, even today, would agree with him that the purpose of education is to help citizens reflect on the permanent truths of human society? Sleeper does not say, preferring to use Bloom as a club with which to beat his implicit enemies: “religious conservatives.”
Sleeper’s article is another example of a favorite liberal pastime: making liberals out of conservatives, or rather, finding that conservatives are really liberals when liberals lose the argument. For example, prior to the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist, several liberal law professors and commentators waxed nostalgic about the Rehnquist Court, announcing it was not as conservative as everyone (especially conservatives) thought it was. Liberals feel free to define conservatives and conservatism as they wish. When they want to appropriate a thinker for their own ends–here, to criticize supposedly Neanderthal conservatives who like Fox News and believe in God–the past is of no consequence. No matter that conservatives have admired Bloom’s work for almost 20 years. No matter that liberals have had virtually nothing good to say about Bloom until he was portrayed in his friend Saul Bellow’s novel, Ravelstein. No matter even that in the article Sleeper–who in other articles has expressed reservations about the path of modern liberalism–cannot bring himself to admit that anything in Bloom’s critique of the modern university should cause liberals to rethink their positions, except for an anodyne anecdote about two ideologically opposed professors uniting to defeat the abolition of a university’s foreign-language requirement. If this common-sense decision is meant to show liberal professors’ affinity with Leo Strauss, they are in just as much trouble as Bloom said they were in.
Sleeper could have presented a truer picture of what has happened: that the identity politics and trendy theorizing that gripped college campuses and public intellectuals in the 1980s, combined with a blind hatred of anything emanating from the right, prevented them from seeing the merits of Bloom’s work. In short, he could have admitted what may be obvious: that liberals have changed, not Bloom. Instead, he takes the cheap shot of saying conservatives did not understand Bloom to begin with.
As long ago as the 1950s, Russell Kirk recognized that liberalism, by its nature, is moribund because it lacks imagination, the moral sense that convinces people it is worth fighting or dying for. Whatever else may be said for Bloom, he convinced a generation of conservatives that the intellectual tradition of the West was worth fighting for. In contrast, the liberal icons of the 1980s have disappeared–remember Lani Guinier or Ronald Dworkin?–and have virtually no influence on public life. Sleeper’s piece shows just how desperate some liberals have become to capture any part of the intellectual and cultural ground they have lost.
Perhaps this is not the worst thing, however: maybe some of them now will read Bloom.
–Gerald J. Russello is the editor of The University Bookman.