Bloom Bludgeoned

Donald Lazere offers a breezy and factless hatchet job on Allan Bloom today at Inside Higher Ed.

At first he seems about to offer a detailed critique of his works, asserting that they are “lofty-sounding ideological rationalizations for the policies of the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.” Stern words; Lazere follows them with examples from the text? No, just a dscriptive paragraph – wait, actually, a mere sentence: “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).”
The books are not mentioned again – Lazere blithely skips on to build his case on the basis of Bloom’s friendships and professional connections: “Bloom’s personal affiliations further belied his boast of being above “attachment to a party” and captivity to “the spirit of party.” His writing for Commentary, association with the John M. Olin center at the University of Chicago, and – of course, role as instructor for Paul Wolfowitz all place him ireedemably within a neo-con cabal.

It’s on the tour of Bloom’s iniquitous friends and bastard progeny that Lazere expands his aim from damning the man to damning, well, about anyone who knew him or now cites him. Bloom, to Lazere, seems first among many right-wing hacks who “vaunt their dedication to intellectual disinterestedness while acting as propagandists for the Republican Party and its satellite political foundations.” Lazere builds his subsequent argument less-than-convincingly. Consider his take-down of Commentary:

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.

Somehow the New Yorker, Harpers, and the New York Review of Books have maintained high literary standards while also taking markedly political stances over the decades – but Commentary can’t do this? Exactly how it reveals that Bloom is an activist is also unclear. His other arguments are comparably silly. Take his portrait of a right-wing cabal creating Closing’s fame – or, as he puts it “how much the success of The Closing was attributable to Republican-front publicity channels”:

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.)

Caught all of that? Good. It’s somewhat inconceivable to imagine that the Times Book Review investigates its reviewers to ensure that they haven’t received grants from any of the same foundations as the authors. That’s a pretty complex chain of guilt – but, for Lazere, any connection is enough to damn Bloom and anyone that argues for him.
After tying Bloom to every conservative politician he can find, Lazere musters his grand indictment, citing a parade of vulgarians from Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly to President Reagan and Rupert Murdoch as proof of the “long-running schizophrenia of American conservatism.” Lazare wonders how Bloom and others can “lay claim to aristocratic traditions and high moral or academic standards” when keeping company with those.

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.

Utter failure to dissociate? I’m not sure if this Bloom, who utterly failed to dissociate himself from “vulgar conservatism” is the same that I’ve read.

Bloom, who asserted that “no real teacher can doubt that his task is to assist his pupil to fulfill human nature against all the deforming forces of convention and prejudice” – the merest skimming of the book reveals countless Millian phrases about the need for universities to pose alternative ideas for consideration, for students to “resist the easy and preferred answers.”

Bloom, who condemned “the semi-theoretical attacks of right and left on the university and its knowledge.”

Bloom, who saw “the establishment during the last decade or so of the MBA as the moral equivalent of the MD or the law degree” as a “great disaster” and otherwise made countless arguments for the inviolability and value of an academic sphere isolated from the commercial world.

Doesn’t sound very Reagan-friendly to me. I could go on.
Look to Rachel Dodano’s Revisiting The Culture Wars or Jim Sleeper’s Allan Bloom And The Conservative Mind, both from the New York Times Book Review, for two decidedly non-conservative – yet far better-argued glosses on Bloom’s legacy than Lazare’s nasty and superficial swipe.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

3 thoughts on “Bloom Bludgeoned

  1. I knew Allan Bloom and I have no issue with him being a homosexual. That he was promiscuous and that his lovers were either his students or often very young boys is what is disturbing to me. He is just another right wing hypocrite casting stones at others while his own behavior is indefensible. As someone that had a business relationship with him , I found him to be a rude, demanding, pompous, and arrogant jerk. He wore clothes that were covered with fresh food stains, flicked ashes from his cigarettes on people or furniture that were handy. He had questionable personal hygiene and in general lived for his own pleasure alone. I can’t believe that anyone admired him.

  2. In response to your account of my column, here is a version of a follow-up that I posted on IHE. I welcome good-faith dialogue on these issues. In that spirit, I should say at the outset that much of what you in defense of Bloom is true; in fact Jim Sleeper’s article made a case for the liberal aspects of The Closing, which are indeed there and which I quite agree with. But the book, and the contradictions to it in Bloom’s personal life, are a jumble of contradictions, as is the weirdness of Bloom, the Socratic intellectual elitist, being canonized by the most viciously anti-elitist, anti-intellectual forces of the right. True or false?
    Suppose I reiterate my main arguments and ask you, in all good faith, to respond directly.
    And please refrain from any further, “Yeah, well, liberals do the same,” two-wrongs-make-a right, arguments. I have no stake in arguing that the left is guiltless, which it isn’t; my point was that Bloom and other conservatives are the ones who claim to reject such moral relativism and to defend absolute standards of morality and truth, as well as believing that “If a man smite thee, turn the other cheek.” True or false?
    1. I said that Bloom’s boast of being a philosopher above attachment to a party was belied by his multiple collaborations with the Republican Party and Olin Foundation intelligentsia (William Simon, Irving Kristol, William J. Bennett, Norman Podhoretz, Paul Wolfowitz, et al.), and by their ample financial support and publicizing of his work. Doesn’t anyone here find something fishy about The Closing having been reviewed in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal by beneficiaries of the same foundation that funded the book? Am I indulging in “guilt by association”? No, I am not inventing these associations, and they were quite overt. I am not criticizing such associations as such by Bloom, Podhoretz, and other conservatives, but only their DISSEMBLING about them, and their doublethink in claiming to defend academic and intellectual nonpartisanship –and crucifying liberals for their partisanship–while Bloom, as Exhibit A, seems to have actively recruited his students like Wolfowitz and many others into the Republican Party hierarchy. True or false?
    2. My other argument, that conservative intellectuals also associate themselves with anti-intellectual vulgarians like Limbaugh, Coulter, Robertson, and O’Reilly was based on the fact that rarely, to my knowledge, have they overtly dissociated themselves from them. Case in point: Podhoretz’s and Irving Kristol’s groveling rationalizaions for Pat Robertson’s anti-semitism and other lunacies, because he is pro-Israel, in the belief that a Middle Eastern conflagation will lead to the Apocalypse–a view shared by large numbers of Christian conservatives who are neocon intellectuals’ strange political bedfellows. True or false?
    3.I said, “That Bloom was homosexual . . . is undisputed” (“homosexual” was dropped in an editing error). My sources on this included Max’s article on Bellow and the quotation from Wolfowitz in it, Norman Podhoretz’s review of Ravelstein, J. Bottum’s review of Ravelstein in The Weekly Standard, and James Atlas’s biography of Bellow, in which he says, �”loom confessed to Edward Shils [one of his closest friends] that he �couldn�t keep away from boys.” All of these sources discuss Bloom, not the fictional Ravelstein. Podhoretz writes, “Allan Bloom’s homosexuality was no great secret.” Bloom’s promiscuity was common knowledge among his colleagues at Chicago, and several conservatives there dissociated themselves from him because of it. If anyone has evidence that he was not homosexual, let’s hear from them now.
    4.I also wrote, “Whether Bloom had AIDS is disputed.” My main point here was simply to raise the question (which I have never seen discussed elsewhere) of why on earth Bellow, another of Bloom’s closest friends and his chosen memorialist, would have invented a Bloom clone “destroyed by his reckless sex habits” out of wholecloth. If there was “character assassination” here, wasn’t it by Bellow, not me, and shouldn’t it be Bellow we’re discussing? My ultimate point about Bloom’s sexuality was not to judge him but the homophobic conservatives who canonized him, for being in denial (as the hysterical denials here confirm). True or false?
    Finally, my purpose was to discuss continuing controversies about Bloom as a person, not to re-evaluate The Closing, which I have written extensively about elsewhere, with no mention of his personal life, and with a mixed verdict. (I also found Bellow’s portrait of Bloom in Ravelstein to be extremely appealing in many ways; I wish I had known him.) In an article in College English in 1992, I wrote, “By the testimony of many former students, Bloom is a fine teacher and scholar. . . He brings vast erudition to bear . . . He is eloquent in lamenting the disintegration of liberal education. . . . His analyses of the Nietscheanization of the left and vice versa. . . are to my mind basically accurate.” Does this sound like the raving ideologue my critics paint me to be?
    As for the New York Times Book Review, of which I have been an employee and for which I have written, they have always vaunted their vetting of reviewers for conflicts of interest. In a review I wrote for them of an anthology, they cut out any reference to one article which cited my work. With such scrupulousness as to read the entire book (with no index) to check for this one point, how could they have been oblivious to the common knowledge that Roger Kimball and The New Criterion were beneficiaries of the same Republican-front foundation that funded The Closing? Likewise for the Wall Street Journal, where Irving Kristol, who midwifed Bloom’s work for the Olin Foundation, was on the editorial board, assigning his son to review The Closing! Tu quoque examples of similar liberal conflicts don’t mitigate the fishiness here. As I constantly admonish my students, “Everybody does it” is not a morally defensible argument. True or false?

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