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Universality or Uniformity

Universality or Uniformity

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Published by: quintus14 on Oct 13, 2012
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Universality
or
Uniformity
A
MAJOR
REASON
for the commercial suc-cess
of
The Closing
of
the American Mind
is
surely its spirited and entertaining
at-
tacks on some of the more outlandishaspects of American higher education andthe related youth culture. The sorry condi-tions criticized by Allan Bloom are realenough, although less pronounced insome academic institutions than others.Even readers who might question Bloom’sdiagnosis of the malady can applaud hisbiting comments about pandering, trendyprofessors, spineless academic administra-tors, and listless, primitive students.Bloom’s book must also please the largegroup of readers whom
it
absolves of cul-pability. An indictment of Americanhigher education by a professed admirerof Plato might have been expected toblame many of the troubles on the En-lightenment assumptions that came todominate academia and
its
alumni. Butrepresentatives of the Enlightenmentmind can breathe a sigh of relief. It isactually the “closing” of that mind thatBloom deplores. “The American project,”
as
he understands and defends
it,
repre-sents the victory of such Enlightenmentideas as freedom, equality, and rationality.The target of Bloom’s critique are move-ments that threaten this achievement. Thedeterioration of American academia,Bloom argues, is of recent and primarilyGerman origin. Intellectual impulsesspringing from writers like Weber,Heidegger, Freud, and Marx were im-ported into the United States before WorldWar
I1
by European refugees and even-tually found virulent outlets in the counter-cultural and New
Left
movements
of
the
1960s
and
1970s.
These are the influencesthat destroyed American higher educa-tion, not some underlying and more slow-ly working causes of the sort that WalterLippmann called “the acids of modernity.”Assigning blame only to the most ex-treme ideological currents leaves Bloom alarge pool of potentially sympatheticreaders. In some respects, many socialistor left-liberal intellectuals have as muchreason
as
their more conservativecounterparts to deplore the decline
of
theuniversity and the spread of a youth cul-ture of drugs, rock, and promiscuous sex.Indeed, many
of
Bloom’s own basic beliefsshould appeal to readers of egalitarian,progressivist, and secular views.
It
shouldbe reassuring to them that he is not in-clined to trace the deterioration ofacademia to some fundamental flaws inthe principles of the Enlightenment, as hasbeen common among conservative criticsand especially among those seeking a con-tinuing role for religion.Enemies of capitalism will appreciatethe intimate connection seen by Bloombetween the free market and the decadentyouth culture. In his scathing attack onrock music, Bloom points to “the capitalistelement in which
it
flourishes.“The rockbusiness is perfect capitalism, supplying todemand and helping to create it.
It
has allthe moral dignity of drug trafficking.”Bloom repeatedly and fondly invokesthe principle of equality.
In
the nineteenthcentury the ideas of the French Revolu-tion were clearly a force for good. Bloomdoes not hide his dislike for those trying tostem the revolutionary tide, what herefers to
as
“the Right.” For Bloom theRight has only one “serious meaning.” It is“the party opposed to equality.”
He
sharp-ly criticizes the American South for not ac-cepting what
he
deems to be “the heart”of the
U.S.
Constitution, its “moral com-mitment to equality.” The Southerners’opposition to “mass society,” “technolo-gy,” “money-grubbing,’’and the destruc-tion of organic and rooted community ap-pealed to reactionary “malcontents.” Hereas elsewhere Bloom lumps together con-
Modern
Age
45
 
servative defenders of “individuality ofculture” with New Left spokesmen forspecial groups and cultural identities. “TheNew Left in the sixties expressed exactlythe same ideology that had been devel-oped to protect the South from the threatto its practices.”One
of
the most striking features of
TheClosing
of
the American Mind,
perhapsespecially to
a
European reader, is theauthor’s deep prejudice against traditionalcommunities and social hierarchies andparticularly the conventions and attitudesof aristocratic and upper class society. The
very principle of the aristocratic, as innatural aristocracy, appears tainted. Anappealing characteristic of social contracttheory
is
for Bloom that it places allhuman beings on par. “It pulls the magiccarpet out from under the feet of kingsand nobles.” Bloom thinks John Locke hasbeen unfairly criticized for superficialityby conservative critics. They make thischarge, Bloom explains, “because he wasnot
a
snob.”Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are forBloom not above criticism, but their egali-tarian assumptions made possible
a
newbeginning in theory,
just
as the discoveryof the new world promised a new begin-ning in practice. “There is no intellectualground remaining for any regime otherthan democracy.” Bloom observes that
“it
is
now fashionable to deny that there everwas a state of nature.” Sarcastically, headds, “We are like aristocrats who do notcare to know that our ancestors were oncesavages.The ideas of the French Revolu-tion were contradicted by European aris-tocrats and other defenders of the oldorder. They feared the possible disappear-ance in America of the noble and thesacred and
a
more general narrowing ofthe human horizon. Bloom dismisses theseanimadversions
as
“the special pleading ofthe reactionaries.” What should be takenmore seriously by Americans, Bloomcounsels, are “the arguments of therevolutionaries who accepted our princi-ples of freedom and equality.
He
sees theFrench Revolution
as
raising questions ofgreat relevance to the American project.One question concerns the future of reli-gion. “The domesticated churches inAmerica preserved the superstition
of
Christianity, overcoming of which wasperhaps the key to liberating man.” Bloomdoes not accept the notion that figures likeBacon, Descartes, Voltaire, and the socialcontract theorists are somehow less deepthan thinkers who stress the importanceof the transcendent or religion. He rejectsthe common charge that the Enlighten-ment has an overly optimistic view ofhuman nature and society. This, too,
is
a
reputation cultivated by self-serving reac-tionaries.In Bloom’s interpretation, the Americanregime was admirably founded on univer-sal human rights, as elucidated by theEnlightenment. Americans were therebyliberated from traditional social and politi-cal structures and divisions. “Our story,”Bloom writes,
“is
the majestic and trium-phant march of freedom and equality, giv-ing meaning to
all
that
we have done orare doing.”The tenor of Bloom’s thinking differssharply from that
of
Edmund Burke, aswell
as
that of various conservative inter-preters of the American Constitution.Burke questions the Enlightenment con-ception of universal rights and the ideathat
a
good society can be created accord-ing to an intellectual blueprint. For Bloom,by contrast, the American regime recom-mends itself
as
being the implementationof
a
rational plan. “This is a regime found-ed by philosophers and their students.”“America
is
actually nothing but a greatstage” on which theories have been actedout. “There are almost no accidents.”For Burke it is a sign of superficiality
as
well
as
arrogance
to
believe that men candispense with historical experience andthe guidance of tradition in favor of “ratio-nal” principles conceived
in
isolation fromparticular circumstances. In his
Reffec-tions
on
the Revolution in France
Burkewarns against the “metaphysical abstrac-tions” of Rousseau and others as posing aterrible threat to the concrete freedomsand rights achieved by
a
people. Burkeparticularly abhors the “virtuous” passion
46
Winter
1988
 
for egalitarian uniformity. Rousseau’stheory of majoritarian rule by an histori-cally uprooted and undifferentiated massseems to Burke to be, in practice,
a
recipefor tyranny.In Burke’s view, the good society cher-ishes diversity, decentralization, and anelement of spontaneous evolution in re-sponse to the unexpected.
Life
is
indeedfor the sake of universal values, but theseare not bloodless, disembodied abstrac-tions. Universality reveals its richness inthe proliferating variety of human exis-tence,
at
the same time that it ordersdiversity to an enduring transcendent pur-pose. Since the universal does not residein certain rigid, sharply defined “princi-ples,” Burke sees an important role forhuman imagination and creativity in dis-covering more fully the meaning and im-plications of universality in particularsocieties and circumstances.The America that Bloom defends phasesout cultural diversity and particularity andunifies human beings in their commondenominator. He describes the Americanproject
as
follows: “By recognizing and ac-cepting man’s natural rights, men found afundamental basis of unity and sameness.
Class,
race, religion, national origin orculture
all
disappear or become dim whenbathed in
the
light of natural rights, whichgive men common interests and makethem truly brothers.” In the United Statespeople are asked “to give up their ‘culturalindividuality’ and make themselves intothat universal, abstract being who partici-pates in natural rights or else be doomedto an existence on the fringe.”Bloom’s interpretation of the principlesof the American regime
is
strongly remi-niscent of Rousseau’s egalitarian vision in
The Social Contract.
For Bloom, theFrench Revolution with Rousseau as itsmain architect represents essentially thesame cause
as
the American.
“It
wasfought and won for freedom and equality,as were the English and American revolu-tions.” Bloom
is
surely aware that manyAmerican and European thinkers, includ-ing Burke, have argued that the Americanrevolution represented
a
very differentpurpose and outlook than the French. TheAmerican revolution did not entail anysharp break with the social and politicaltraditions of England or Europe generally.These traditions were continued anddeveloped in distinctive ways on Ameri-can soil. Bloom does not dignify this viewwith an explicit refutation.In
The Social Contract
Rousseau arguesfor doing away with “sectional associa-tions,” that
is,
groupings and divisions be-tween the individual and the state. Auton-omous associations are for him partisan in-terests that undermine the sovere.ignty ofthe virtuous general will of the people.The citizens should form
an
undifferenti-ated mass of individuals
so
that the major-ity can pronounce the common good. Theminority, as a partisan interest,
is
not en-titled to any protection.
It
must conform tothe majority will, or else must “be forcedto be free.” Bloom considers the authorsof the American regime to be similar toRousseau. Not only do they adopt the prin-ciple of “majoritarianism,” but they alsodislike minorities. “For
the
Founders,minorities are in general bad things, most-ly identical to factions, selfish groups whohave no concern
as
such for the commongood.” One of the unfortunate developments in American society, according toBloom,
is
that majoritarianism has beengradually abandoned “in favor of a nationof minorities and groups each following
its
own beliefs and inclinations.”Bloom’s disparagement of diversity andminorities
is
not merely directed against
a
“pluralism” of blatantly self-servinggroups and individuals.
It
stems from
a
type of universalism that shuns particular-ity and uniqueness for the treasured com-mon denominator in men, their sameness.Bloom’s depiction of the American ap-proach to politics calls to mind the pas-sions of the French Jacobins for spreading
libert;, 6galit6,
and
fraternite‘
in the world.“When we Americans speak seriouslyabout politics, we mean. hat our principlesof freedom and equality and the rightsbased on them are rational and every-where applicable.”
As
if
to
reinforce
the
parallel with the French Revolution,
Modern
Age47

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