'The Closing of the American Mind,' 20 Years Later
“HITS WITH THE APPROXIMATE FORCE AND EFFECT OF ELECTROSHOCK THERAPY” raved Roger Kimball’s review in The New York Times, as quoted on the paperback jacket of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a surprise best-seller in 1987 and the opening salvo in a ceaseless conservative war against the academic and cultural left. On the 20th anniversary of The Closing, and 15 years after Bloom’s death, the most salient issues concerning Bloom are his role in neoconservative Republican circles and his semi-closeted homosexuality, possibly culminating -- as in Saul Bellow’s thinly fictionalized account in Ravelstein -- in death from AIDS.
In Bloom's introductory chapter to his 1990 collection of essays Giants and Dwarfs, titled "Western Civ," previously published in Commentary, he responded to the reception of The Closing as a conservative tract by claiming that he was neither a conservative ("my teachers--Socrates, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche -- could hardly be called conservatives") nor a liberal, "although the preservation of liberal society is of central concern to me." He saw himself, rather, as an impartial Socratic philosopher, above political engagement or "attachment to a party" and denying, against leftist theory, that "the mind itself must be dominated by the spirit of party."
A close re-reading of his books, however, confirms that they are lofty-sounding ideological rationalizations for the policies of the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Bloom rages against the movements of the 60s -- campus protest, black power, feminism, affirmative action, and the counterculture -- while glossing over every injustice in American society and foreign policy (he scarcely mentions the Vietnam War).
Bloom’s personal affiliations further belied his boast of being above “attachment to a party” and captivity to “the spirit of party.” Today these statements appear to go beyond coyness into the kind of hypocrisy that has become boilerplate for conservative scholars, journalists, and organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni or National Association of Scholars, whose leaders vaunt their dedication to intellectual disinterestedness while acting as propagandists for the Republican Party and its satellite political foundations. The magazine in which Bloom made these boasts, Commentary, and its then-editor Norman Podhoretz, were prime examples of this hypocrisy. Podhoretz proclaimed in his 1979 book Breaking Ranks about Commentary, “I could say that the reason for our effectiveness [against the New Left’s alleged subordination of intellectual integrity to political partisanship] was a high literary standard.” But in the 80s he turned Commentary into a fan mag for President Reagan and in 1991 commissioned David Brock, in his self-confessed “right-wing hit man” days, to write an encomium to the intellectual gravitas of Vice President Dan Quayle.
For years, Bloom was co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago, which received millions from the John M. Olin Foundation. That foundation, whose president was William J. Simon, multimillionaire savings and loan tycoon and Secretary of the Treasury under President Ford, at its peak spent some $55 million a year on grants "intended to strengthen the economic, political, and cultural institutions upon which ... private enterprise is based.
William Kristol wrote a rave review of The Closing in The Wall Street Journal (where his father was on the editorial board), which is also quoted on the paperback jacket; he was at the time Vice President Quayle's chief of staff, and is now editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard. Kimball, the Times reviewer, was an editor of The New Criterion, and yet another Olin beneficiary. (So much for the Times’ fabled vetting of reviewers for conflicts of interest.) The supposedly liberal mainstream media have been complicit at worst, silent at best, in these conflicts of interest concerning Bloom and other conservative culture warriors, as in failing to consider how much the success of The Closing was attributable to Republican-front publicity channels. Yet conservatives have the chutzpah to accuse liberal academics and journalists of cronyism!
More significant for today is Bloom’s influence as mediator between the ideas of his mentor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss, and what has become known as the “neconservative cabal” of Straussians behind the Iraq War in the administration of George W. Bush. Paul Wolfowitz was Bloom’s student; Bellow’s Ravelstein says of Wolfowitz’s fictitious counterpart, “It’s only a matter of time before Phil Gorman has cabinet rank, and a damn good thing for the country.” Ravelstein depicts Ravelstein’s apartment as a high-tech communications center with a Wolfowitz-like disciple in Washington and other movers and shakers in international affairs during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including the Gulf War -- in which Ravelstein and his protégés (few of whose real-life counterparts ever served in the military) privately condemn President Bush for a failure of nerve in not taking Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein.
Avowed Straussians invoke Strauss’s key ideas such as the defense of the manly, militaristic exercise of power by nation-states acting for virtuous ends, the running of government by a behind-the-scenes intellectual elite serving as advisors to the ostensible rulers, and the elite’s use of “noble lies” extolling patriotism, war, religion, and family values, to manipulate the ignorant masses into supporting pursuit of tough-minded realpolitik. My sense, however, is that Strauss’s, and Bloom’s, high-minded philosophical formulations of these ideas have just been vulgarized by Republicans as a pretext for unprincipled American imperialism, hypocritical manipulation of their conservative base’s faith in “moral values,” opportunism by would-be Machiallevian advisors-to-the-Prince, and the kind of tawdry autocracy, secretiveness, venality, and lying that came to mark George W. Bush’s administration. Bellow portrays Ravelstein reveling in the money, celebrity, and influence in Republican politics that ironically resulted from his best-selling book that decried such vulgar distractions from the life of the mind. He is thrilled at being feted by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, as Bloom was. The implicit moral is that intellectuals, whether of the left or right, who aspire to be the erudite power behind the throne typically end up groveling before it.
Even more anomalously, in the past decade or so, conservative attacks on liberal academics -- whom Bloom and others like Podhoretz earlier accused of betraying scholarly non-partisanship and intellectual standards -- have taken a turn toward ever-more-stridently populist, partisan derision of scholarship and intellect altogether. I made this point in an a column here last year with reference to David Horowitz inciting know-nothing Republican state legislators like Larry Mumper of Ohio and Stacey Campfield of Tennessee to government interference with academic freedom under the banner of The Academic Bill of Rights. (All of the bloviating conservative commentators on my column evaded the issue of conservative flip-flopping between elitist and ad populum lines of argument.)
Horowitz, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh have presented themselves as champions of the rights of the ordinary people against the latté-sipping “cultural elitists” in university faculties, media, and politics itself -- as in the belittling of John Kerry in 2004 as French-looking, or the derision of Al Gore’s scholarly demeanor. Thus Bloom continues to be revered by conservatives, without their registering the bothersome fact that he advocated precisely the kind of cultural elitism that they now savage. (Never mind his atheism and preference for ancient Greek over Judeo-Christian culture, or his tidbits of gay lingo, as in his half-admiring description in The Closing of Mick Jagger, “male and female, heterosexual and homosexual ... tarting it up on the stage.”
All these contradictions in Bloom’s texts and life are an exemplary case of the long-running schizophrenia of American conservatism in what resembles the old Good Cop-Bad Cop routine -- Good Cop intellectuals who lay claim to aristocratic traditions and high moral or academic/intellectual standards, and Bad Cop philistines who are the public face of conservatism, in presidents from Coolidge to Reagan to Bush II, in vulgarian billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife, along with the corporations and their executives whose pursuit of ever-increasing profits debases culture to the level of the lowest common denominator of taste. The baddest of the Bad Cops are rabble-rousing enforcers like Coulter, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and Horowitz. It is the utter failure of Bloom and other conservative intellectuals to dissociate themselves from or even acknowledge the vulgar variety of conservatism, that ultimately exposes the hypocrisy of their lofty ideals and their selective indignation against every variety of liberal/leftist villains.
The same compartmentalized thinking that enables highbrow conservatives to champion Straussian-Bloomian elitism yet not speak out against philistine conservatism has enabled them to evade the issue of Bloom’s homosexuality, particularly in regard to Bellow’s Ravelstein. Bellow avowed that his Ravelstein was modeled on Bloom in virtually every detail. The novel’s narrator, a Bellow near-double and Ravelstein’s best friend, repeatedly insists that Ravelstein designated him as memorialist and instructed him to tell the unvarnished truth. That Bloom like Ravelstein was and notoriously misogynistic, is undisputed. In an article on Ravelstein in The New York Times Magazine, D.T. Max quoted Wolfowitz saying that in Bloom’s Chicago circle when he was alive, “‘It was sort of, Don’t ask, don’t tell.’” But whether Bloom had AIDS is disputed. Bellow’s narrator explicitly describes Ravelstein having the symptoms and medical treatment for HIV. After galley proofs circulated, Max reports that pressure was put on Bellow to revise, and he backed down to the extent of telling D.T. Max, “‘I don’t know that [Bloom] died of AIDS, really. It was just my impression that he may have.’” Yet Bellow subsequently made only minor revisions in the passages about HIV for the final book.
Furthermore, both Bloom and Ravelstein had a young, long-term male companion, whom they held in high regard and made their heir. In the galleys, they are said to be lovers, but in the published version Ravelstein “would sometimes lower his voice in speaking of Nikki, to say that there was no intimacy between them. ‘More father and son.’” Ravelstein also “disapproved of queer antics and of what he called ‘faggot behavior.’” Yet Bellow’s narrator also says Ravelstein “was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways.” Ravelstein himself says, “I’m fatally polluted. I think a lot about those pretty boys in Paris. If they catch the disease, they go back to their mothers, who care for them.’’
A rather vague sequence in which the dying Ravelstein says he still obtains sexual relief from “kids,” and asks the narrator to write a check for an unidentified one, is apparently a censored version of a passage in the galleys that, according to Christopher Hitchens in The Nation, read as follows:
Even toward the end Ravelstein was still cruising. It turned out that he went to gay bars.
One day he said to me, “Chick, I need a check drawn. It’s not a lot. Five hundred bucks.”
“Why can’t you write it yourself?”
“I want to avoid trouble with Nikki. He’d see it on the check-stub.”
“All right. How do you want it drawn?”
“Make it out to Eulace Harms.”
“That’s how the kid spells it. Pronounced Ulysee.”
There was no need to ask Ravelstein to explain. Harms was a boy he had brought home one night. . . . Eulace was the handsome little boy who had wandered about his apartment in the nude, physically so elegant. “No older than sixteen. Very well built...."
I wanted to ask, what did the kid do or offer that was worth five hundred dollars....
James Atlas’s biography of Bellow confirms Hitchens’ account of the galleys and adds, “On one occasion [Ravelstein] recruits a black youth from the neighborhood to satisfy him, insisting that he practices ‘safe sex.’” The racial factor here is disturbing, especially since the passage immediately follows a scornful comment by Ravelstein about the South Chicago “ghetto.” It also highlights the absence of any mention in The Closing of the vast black “neighborhood” that surrounds Bloom’s idyllic University of Chicago.
Atlas’s Bellow biography, published shortly after Ravelstein in 2000, contains only a few pages about the novel tacked on at the end, which cite Max and Hitchens but add little to their accounts of Bloom, other than the above sentence and another saying, “A frequenter of the sex emporiums of North Clark Street, Bloom confessed to Edward Shils that he ‘couldn’t keep away from boys.’”
Now, both at the time of Bloom’s death, when the obituaries labeled his cause of death a combination of bleeding ulcers and liver failure, and subsequently, the issues of Bloom’s predatory homosexuality and AIDS have been evaded by Bloom’s allies. Bellow’s own accounts are quite confusing. After proclaiming that Ravelstein was a true-to-life homage to his great friend Bloom, it would seem malicious beyond belief for him to have fabricated out of whole-cloth a character “destroyed by his reckless sex habits,” whom he knew everyone would identify as Bloom -- especially if, as he later claimed in the Max interview, he really didn’t know the truth.
These questions might not be worth dwelling on if Bloom and his book had not been canonized by social conservatives and Straussians, both of whom anathematize homosexuality and sexual promiscuity of all kinds. If Bloom’s private life was indeed louche, doesn’t that render suspect the encomiums in The Closing to Platonic love, especially in The Symposium, and Bloom’s denunciation of modern sexual license? And might the stonewalling by Bloom’s allies be an instance of the Straussian “noble lie”? (In his Commentary review of Ravelstein, Podhoretz, who elsewhere rages against homosexual promiscuous “buggery” and pederasty, displayed his infallible double standard toward leftist adversaries versus rightist allies in ignoring the more tawdry details to give Bloom dispensation for keeping his homosexuality discreetly closeted, and in accepting at face value Bellow’s late disclaimer about Bloom having AIDS.) Indeed, the Bloom case might be paradigmatic of neoconservatives’ predisposition toward dissembling and covering up vices in their own ranks that belies their exacting of moral rectitude from everyone else.
Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, has written on the culture wars for many scholarly and journalistic periodicals. His books include Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric and English Studies and Civic Literacy: Teaching the Political Conflicts, forthcoming.
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