Re-Opening the American Mind

Liel Liebovitz, "Re-Opening the American Mind," Tablet, 11 April 2012.


The bravado hid a far more serious vein. Those who accused him of elitism, Bloom argued, were getting it all wrong. He wasn’t a cranky conservative—a “grumpy guru,” as James Atlas dubbed him—who bemoaned the infiltration of alternative points of view into an ivory tower that had been, for the most part, a cozy bastion of privilege and patriarchy. In lecture as in book, Bloom promoted a far more radical idea: The main conflict of our time isn’t between Western dominant culture and its others, but between culture and civilization, two opposing concepts, one pointing the way to moral and intellectual decay and the other to the sound and everlasting paths previously trodden by our greatest philosophers.

The decades haven’t made Bloom’s argument any easier to follow. The same terms that dominated the conversation about his landmark book—ethnocentrism on the one hand, relativism on the other—dominate still. The same thinkers and disciplines that infuriated Bloom—Heidegger, deconstruction—still occupy the minds and the curricula of graduate students in the humanities. Roughly speaking, we still understand our moral and political choice as being between open-minded liberalism—which we understand to hold that all creeds were created equal, all cultures similarly rich and bountiful in meaning, and all people at once irreplaceably unique and, under democracy’s bright sun, equal and interchangeable—and conservatism—which we understand to hold that we Westerners are inherently more advanced, our culture more sophisticated and storied, and our way of life unquestionably true.