Editor’s note: The following remarks were delivered at Princeton University’s “Free Society” Conference in May of 2007 at a panel honoring the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind.
Only very rarely does a publishing event turn into a major culture-shaping phenomenon. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, I think every person in this room today would have to agree that, however accomplished we as a group may be, our collective influence on American culture pales by comparison with the publishing landmark I’m about to discuss. I refer, of course, to the fact that 2007 is the anniversary — the fortieth anniversary — of the founding of Rolling Stone Magazine. That means we were 20 years into the revolutionary phase of rock & roll when Allan Bloom famously assessed that musical phenomenon in The Closing of the American Mind. And of course, we’ve now had twenty more years to assess the impact and significance of Bloom himself.
Rock & roll, we know, is sexually charged music that tends to trivialize whatever it touches, even as it has largely replaced Shakespeare and the Bible as our cultural shorthand. Ultimately, the trivializing intensity of rock is rooted in an era of technological self-sufficiency that enables a kind of spiritual detachment from family and society. These are the judgements of… Mick Jagger, offered in an interview published in the fortieth anniversary issue of Rolling Stone Magazine (which of course I purchased strictly for purposes of researching this lecture). Except for the generally positive value Jagger places on his observations, the anti-hero of The Closing of the American Mind’s infamous music chapter seems to share Bloom’s analysis of rock. And as I read him, Mick Jagger appears even to betray some doubts about how salutary the overall cultural impact of the sixties has been.
But let’s not limit ourselves to the narrow perspective of Mick Jagger. What about Keith Richards? In his fortieth anniversary interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Richards reveals that he hates hip-hop music and now listens to Mozart daily. But isn’t hip-hop just the new rock & roll, pleads the interviewer from Rolling Stone. Richards replies, “Yeah, but rock & roll had songs. I mean, I don’t wanna be yelled at; I wanna be sung to.” Richards goes on to say, “I never really understood why somebody would want to have some gangster from L.A. poking his fingers in your face. As I say, it don’t grab me. I mean, the rhythms are boring; they’re all done on computers.” Perhaps Richards is peeved at rock’s displacement by hip-hop. Or maybe he’s just getting old. Then again, Keith Richards is quite possibly onto something.
Check out MTV today and you’ll find videos that seem almost designed to prove Bloom right. On MTV, and in pointed contrast to videos on, say, Country Music Television, life outside of a single person’s anxiety, braggadocio, and sexual pleasure seems barely to exist. Even the clever surrealism that once pervaded MTV has been largely stripped away and replaced by defiantly straight-on shots of hip-hop posturing. So Bloom’s central concern still applies, and perhaps with even greater force: all that good, dirty, fun unstrings the belief in, and the longing for, a higher kind of life.
Of course, if you’re uncomfortable with Bloom’s sweeping dismissal of rock, you can consult Martha Bayles’ thoughtful and fascinating book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, which puts forward a moderate version of Bloom’s critique. Bayles is as disgusted as Bloom was with the stream of pop that runs from Mick Jagger through death metal, nihilistic grunge, and today’s gangsta rap. She traces the musical urge to deliver cruel and obscene shocks to a tradition of art and thought that Bayles calls “perverse modernism,” typified by early twentieth century Dada and surrealism. Yet in offering this indictment, Bayles aims to redeem another stream of American popular music, one running from the blues, through jazz and folk, to the early and more innocent form of rock now taken up by everything from contemporary Christian and country music to Bruce Springsteen and John Mayer.
There’s real insight in Bayles’s approach, and her solution certainly accords with my own musical tastes. Yet I suspect that Bloom’s more radical critique of rock is far truer than most of us would like to admit. Inevitably, rock’s triumphant defeat or colonization of competing musical forms has spurred some changes. Since nowadays even grown-ups listen to it, rock itself has grown up a bit. The rock Martha Bayles approves of is almost surely listened to more by adults than by teens.
Yet a mildly, or not so mildly, adolescent quality clings to even to the best adult rock. Bloom worried that rock was uncongenial to what he called the “noble, sublime, profound, and delicate” sentiments cultivated by classical music. And Bloom is surely right about this, since even the best rock deliberately avoids such sentiments. Few would tout the noble, sublime, or delicate qualities of a rock song. Like classical music itself, these words are shunned nowadays as pretentious and effete. And while even contemporary Christian music has been deeply influenced by rock, there’s real ambivalence about this fact at today’s religious colleges, many of which are only very partially open to secular pop, and some of which forbid even rock-influenced Christian music. Rock music, Bloom stresses, is pre-eminently children’s music. And truth be told, a childish taint follows this music wherever it goes. Let’s also remember that Bloom was preoccupied with the music that shaped his students capacity for education — music directed to young people between the ages of ten and twenty. There the scene is particularly bleak.
Even if Martha Bayles is right about the redeemability of a certain stream of rock, she doesn’t really explain teen-age music’s headlong forty-year rush to the bottom. Citing continuity between the most rebellious strains of rock and surrealism doesn’t actually explain why this problematic tradition has become dominant. Bloom’s notion that children have been progressively severed from society by both technology and the spiritual void of family life seems better able to explain what we’re seeing.
Between YouTube and Ipods, technology has siphoned off even folks in their twenties from MTV, leaving the channel with a rump (or perhaps I should say booty) audience of tweens, teens, and a certain sort of college student. Nowadays, instead of refracting the world through an imaginatively extended mock-adolescent eye, MTV is mired in the stale and unfortunate sensibility of actual adolescents. And what adolescents seem to want is hip-hop.
Rap is undoubtedly at the hard core of our current musical dilemma. Or perhaps I should say that hip-hop is at the very bottom of the rut mainstream pop now finds itself in. Hip-hop’s form has barely changed in the eighteen years since gangsta rap burst onto the scene with N.W.A.’s Straight Out of Compton, which of course featured “F*** the Police.” Other songs treated such edifying topics as exchanging crack for sex and shooting strangers for kicks. “Yo! MTV Raps” debuted that same year, 1989, just two years after the publication of Bloom’s book.
But for a short-lived alternative rap movement, led by Arrested Development, in the early nineties, hip-hop’s creativity has been developmentally arrested for two decades by the gangsta sensibility’s lucrative appeal to a mass audience of white suburban teens. This long creative hiatus seems to say that gangsta rap has finally located the bottom — the point at which post-war music’s appeal to what is low could go no further. In effect, rap trapped itself in time when it figured out how to beat the Rolling Stones at their own game.
But is the game now up? Did Don Imus do lasting damage to hip-hop when his borrowed insults became the mirror through which rap could finally recognize its own ugliness? Having spent nearly two decades at the bottom, are we finally bouncing back? Unfortunately, I think hip-hop is going to be just fine. To see why, let’s consult Bloom’s treatment of race.
Drawing on his experience at Cornell, Bloom exposed the corrupt and corrupting bargain that is America’s post-Sixties racial settlement. Bloom was present when Cornell first began to compromise admissions standards as a way of increasing the number of blacks on campus. Initially the changes were mild and the goal remained educating all students to the same standards. Yet with minority numbers lagging, Cornell drastically lowered admissions requirements and sought out students from the inner cities.
Having manipulated unprepared students into attending, Cornell had placed both them and itself in a trap. Either reinforce racial stereotypes and humiliate these kids by failing them, or acquiesce in the creation of a segregated, sham university, with its own faculty, curriculum, dormitories and above all, its own ideology. In the new view, universities purvey not truth, but merely the myths that justify white domination. So if black students are failing, it’s not because they’re doing poorly academically, but because they’re being held to the standards of an alien and oppressive white culture.
Multiculturalism was born, quite literally, under the gun, as Cornell’s manipulated inner-city blacks sought to stave off humiliation by threatening both faculty members, and those black students unwilling to join the revolution, with death. Bloom was struck by how easily a university that had lost faith in the truth of its own universal democratic ideals could be cowed by gun-toting bullies. Yet the real force behind the black student revolt was not the guns, but rather the enthusiasm of thousands of white student demonstrators, swept away by the rebellious thrill of facing down their teachers in the name of what Bloom called a “smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love.”
Twenty years ago, critics accused Bloom of over-generalizing from a rare and extreme case. Yes, the critics acknowledged, the situation at Cornell had gotten out of hand. And unfortunately, back in those early experimental days of affirmative action, administrators had not yet learned how to make the process run smoothly. So Bloom was condemned for allegedly over-dramatizing and over-reacting to this single flawed example.
The critics are mistaken about the past, and so remain blind to the ongoing effects of the Cornell settlement in the present. The well respected 1978 study, Black Students on White Campuses found that nearly all of the 13 campuses studied set up or augmented programs of black studies in response to violent threats and acts of intimidation between the spring of 1968 and the summer of 1971. With its gun-toting students, Cornell may have been the most spectacular such case, yet it was in no way an isolated example. And of course, having been splashed across national magazines, pictures of those gun-toting students gave additional force to the only slightly milder forms of intimidation that followed at other campuses.
So far from being an isolated incident, the paradigm of Cornell’s racial settlement has migrated out of the university and written itself deeply into American popular culture. What is the gangsta sensibility that pervades MTV if not Bloom’s Cornell writ large? With its images of gun-toting gangstas, hip hop bestows on white teenagers a simulacrum of rebellion, leavened by the sense that, just by watching rap videos, they are somehow establishing their racial tolerance and cultural good will. Toss in some expletives and all that booty shaking, and what’s not to like?
Muslim Hip Hop
The problem here is that the bogus air of cross-cultural understanding that covers and justifies rap’s nasty thrills actually traps African-Americans in the hip hop ghetto. Older African-American leaders, now including even Al Sharpton, are never going to get the reform of so-called hip-hop culture they’re looking for, so long as they simultaneously purvey the diversity-based ideology of affirmative action. It’s this multi-cultural sensibility that protects hip-hop from criticism and reform. Unless and until the ongoing power of the Cornell settlement is broken, integrationist leaders like Bill Cosby, John McWhorter, and Juan Williams will be helpless to save African Americans in the way they rightly hope to — by holding everyone to the same cultural standards.
Perhaps most interesting of all, rap has been taken up by many of Europe’s discontented Muslim youth. Their infatuation with hip hop is a sign of Europe’s broader failure to assimilate Muslim immigrants to mature democratic mores, again because of a multiculturalist sensibility parallel to the one that emerged at Cornell nearly forty years ago. For many of these young Muslim boys, the notion that their Western girlfriends are actually “ho’s” flows from a still robust ethic of family honor, in which the sisters of these rappers are often held to radically different standards than their gangsta brothers. The contradiction between this traditional family ethos and the baseness of street life drives some of these young men toward Islamist radicalism. Rap emerged as a kind of antithesis of an already weakened family system. Juxtapose rap with its communal family opposite, and the results are nothing short of explosive.
Parched of Longing
Yet even granting the deficiencies of modern music and the dangerous consequences of multiculturalism, and it’s associated system of racial preferences, is it truly fair to say that our students’ souls are as parched of longing as Bloom believed? Well, it’s striking that variations on Bloom’s critique of his students continue to be produced — and not just by conservatives. In 1997, a professor of literature named Mark Edmunson published an influential essay in Harper’s magazine offering a post-modernist version of Bloom’s take on his students. Years later, my own alma mater, Haverford College, was still assigning Edmunson’s essay at freshman orientation. Rather than inquire into the form or content of the music they consume, Edmunson fingers the broader ethos of consumer capitalism as the gangsta who’s stolen his students’ souls. Yet like Bloom, Edmunson deplores his students’ reluctance or inability to engage with classic texts as if something besides a grade were at stake.
Then there’s David Brooks’s famous 2001 essay on “The Organization Kid,” compiled from interviews with students and professors at Princeton. Brooks found that students and administrators alike had lost a certain moral gravity and sense of duty. According to Brooks, even the capacity to frame or think about moral questions in a serious or systematic way now seems missing on campus. And don’t even get me started on I Am Charlotte Simmons. All of these critiques of the contemporary university are in some sense derivative of Bloom. And a convincing case that they are all fundamentally flawed and misleading has yet to be made.
Conservatives vs. Bloom
Twenty years ago, several thoughtful conservative readers rebelled against Bloom’s book. They spotted out Bloom’s underlying skepticism, and worried over his lack of willingness to directly and systematically affirm the classic virtues of the American regime. Bloom saw society as ministerial to the university, and these conservative critics favored a more Jeffersonian vision of the university as ministerial to society.
Well, Bloom did see society as ministerial to the university. Yet he also argued that philosophy could nonetheless produce blessings for society. As a repository of the best that has been thought and said, including those ideas most likely to be neglected in a democracy, the university should remind democracy of its characteristic imperfections, thereby keeping those deficiencies in check. More positively, the university could help supply democracy’s deficiencies by sustaining models of greatness from the past. Bloom’s book made good on both of these promises. Drawing on the power of his skeptical philosophy, Bloom’s book effectively kicked off our current culture war, naming problems many had sensed, but which few at the time could directly describe, much less analyze.
In fact, Bloom’s moral ambiguity and underlying philosophical doubts were the keys to his success. The Closing of the American Mind became a sensation on the basis of rave reviews in the mainstream press. Those reviews cited Bloom’s reluctance to make final moral judgements as a reason not to dismiss his book as just another traditionalist jeremiad In the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt gave the example of Bloom’s refusal to demand a return to the old family arrangements. Instead, Bloom merely insisted on an honest confrontation with the costs of our novel family ways.
Conservative critics found this stance morally suspect. Meanwhile Bloom’s most sophisticated critics on the left were perfectly willing to concede that the new mores do have a cost — a cost these critics were willing to pay. Yet the conservative power of Bloom’s framing of these issues is immense. While the smartest critics on the left may have been happy to grant that change has a downside, cultural activists were loathe to admit it. Feminists refused to concede that their revolution had had even the slightest negative effects on family cohesion. To this day, our cultural revolutionaries insist that further changes will be cost free.
Bright Black Hole
So in my view, far from vitiating either the book’s impact or its positive effects, Closing’s fearless philosophical doubt actually generated its success — not merely in terms of sales, but also as a conservative cultural force. Traced down and studied in isolation, Bloom’s skeptical philosophical core may appear to be as oddly forbidding as the invisible black hole at the center of a galaxy. Yet the seemingly destructive power of that core actually sets the surrounding stars into motion.
I’m not arguing that Bloom’s particular vision of the university, or his favored philosophical stance are, by themselves, fully adequate to democracy’s needs. They’re not. Yet I do think that a more strictly traditionalist vision is also incomplete without the addition of men like Bloom. So far as I can tell, Alasdair MacIntyre is still waiting for his new and very different St. Benedict to appear. (Perhaps someone here will argue that Benedict XVI fits the bill.) But until the new St. Benedict arrives, and even after he does, we should thank our lucky black holes for men like Allan Bloom.