Put the "Culture" Back in the Culture War
Those engaged in what passes for a “culture war” these days probably never knew, or don’t remember, the earlier culture war that was fought—and, in retrospect, lost—in my youth. But that old war is the hidden force beneath everything that’s happening today, and we’re still experiencing its consequences.
I remember this previous culture war well because I arrived as a freshman at the University of Chicago in 1987, in the wake of Allan Bloom’s unlikely blockbuster The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom argued in defense of the university’s Great Books approach to education, arguing that the rise of relativism and what we would soon begin to call “Political Correctness” was undermining students’ ability to understand and engage with big ideas, rendering them shallow and conformist.
At least, that’s the thrust of the book as I remember it, and that gives you a general feel for the state of the debate in that era. (I did not, alas, have any classes with Bloom, who became ill not long after the publication of his book and died in 1992. But I did study with many of the Great Books advocates who shared this outlook.)
There was a great deal I disagreed with in Bloom’s analysis. He tended to lay the blame, not just on relativism, but on an excess of Lockean individualism. This always struck me as an odd critique of what was clearly an anti-individualist outlook, and you can see how Bloom inadvertently laid some of the groundwork for the nationalist conservatives who now attribute all of our ills to “liberalism,” not just in the sense of 20th-Century welfare-statism or Political Correctness (which was never “liberal” in any sense), but in the sense of advocacy of a free society.
Yet unlike today’s Trump-era nationalists, who have given up the contest of ideas, the Bloom-era conservatives put the “culture” into the culture war. They wanted us to read Plato to own the libs. Or rather, the purpose was not to own the libs at all, but to expand our minds. Thinking well is the best revenge.
Interestingly, Bloom did not regard himself as a conservative but rather as an advocate of the life of the mind. At the time, though, his concerns were widely dismissed, particularly within academia, as the ravings of a small group of cranky old men who are afraid of change.
Now, a full generation later, we can see that these concerns have turned out to be prescient and relevant, particularly with regard to the fate of the academy.
I was reminded of Bloom after reading three recent stories about university professors confronting the reality that the American mind has, in fact, closed, making it difficult or impossible for them to continue passing on the tradition of critical inquiry and intellectual freedom to the next generation.
Philosopher Peter Boghossian recently published his resignation letter from Portland State University.
I never once believed—nor do I now—that the purpose of instruction was to lead my students to a particular conclusion. Rather, I sought to create the conditions for rigorous thought; to help them gain the tools to hunt and furrow for their own conclusions. This is why I became a teacher and why I love teaching.
But brick by brick, the university has made this kind of intellectual exploration impossible. It has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.
Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues….
I noticed signs of the illiberalism that has now fully swallowed the academy quite early during my time at Portland State. I witnessed students refusing to engage with different points of view. Questions from faculty at diversity trainings that challenged approved narratives were instantly dismissed. Those who asked for evidence to justify new institutional policies were accused of microaggressions. And professors were accused of bigotry for assigning canonical texts written by philosophers who happened to have been European and male.
Boghossian goes on to describe a years-long campaign of harassment against him as retribution for a famous stunt in which he helped expose the absurdity and slapdash scholarship of certain politically favored academic fields.
For me, the years that followed were marked by continued harassment. I’d find flyers around campus of me with a Pinocchio nose. I was spit on and threatened by passersby while walking to class. I was informed by students that my colleagues were telling them to avoid my classes. And, of course, I was subjected to more investigation.
The closing of the mind that Bloom and others had warned about three decades ago is now being implemented more thoroughly than we could have imagined, imposed both from within the institutions of the university and spontaneously by students.
The center-left historian Sean Wilentz, writing in a Czech history journal that was started in 1991 to reform academic history and free it from the corruption of decades of Soviet-era political conformity, describes the struggle of American historians to “live in truth”—drawing on the famous words used by Czech dissident Vaclav Havel.
He recounts how the New York Times’s 1619 Project created a version of American history riddled with incontrovertible factual errors and “interested chiefly in molding history in order to push a particular political cause.” The project was a series of inflammatory articles written to create publicity for a newspaper, yet it quickly became unquestionable among academic historians.
When Wilentz took the 1619 Project to task, he found that many of his colleagues were behind him all the way—hiding.
It seemed clear that although many of our colleagues agreed with our criticism as they explained in private, they were wary of saying so publicly…. Even if the errors, on subjects as vital as slavery and the American Revolution, seriously undermined the project’s credibility as well as its interpretation, pointing them out publicly seemed to be an act of betrayal that amounted to intolerable heresy….
The internal pressure to take sides became enormous, to the point where the editor of the nation’s premier academic history journal, the American Historical Review, Alex Lichtenstein, decided to attack us, in his official capacity, as a “motley crew” of egoistic grousers—alternatively, “Wilentz and the gang of four”—standing in the way of racial justice let alone intellectual progress….
But it is also an open secret that many historians are simply intimidated about saying anything too loudly, too publicly, lest criticizing in any way The 1619 Projects or its offshoots invites being labelled and “mobbed” as a racist on Twitter, thereby endangering their careers…. The intimidation is especially powerful, for understandable reasons, among younger professors and graduate students braving
a miserable job market…. Others, including prominent historians, acknowledge privately that the project is riddled with errors and omissions but refuse to say so publicly.
Again, we see the same pattern in which dissenters—even if “dissent” means stating the widely accepted truth of five minutes ago—are abandoned by their institutions and have the new party line enforced against them by the more fanatical among their students.
Wilentz ends by saying that living in the truth “must be the basis for more than politics.” Part of the shallowness of our current culture war is that it reduces everything to politics, making a more interesting and profound understanding of other aspects of life impossible.
I’ve been following this development in the realm of classical music. Here, too, we see an academic, J.P.E. Harper-Scott, a highly respected and relatively young music theorist at a British university, quitting in protest at a “woke” approach to music theory which reduces classical music to a mere product of “imperialism” and implies “that music departments stop teaching music by Beethoven, Wagner, and co., in the (frankly insane) belief that doing so will somehow materially improve current living conditions for the economically, socially, sexually, religiously, or racially underprivileged.”
He, too, leaves us a note explaining his resignation.
The short explanation for why I left academia is that I became profoundly disillusioned by it. It is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads. There are, of course, many musicologists who are everything I could have dreamt they would be, and many of them will, I hope, continue to be my friends. But they know as well as I do that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark….
As I have said, there are still plenty of critical scholars in musicology.… But in recent years the dogmatic mode of thinking, in which uncritical commitments are enforced by mechanisms involving public humiliation, no-platforming, and attempts to have scholars fired, has become to seem like it has become endemic. Now, too many humanities scholars move in lock step with the general ideology of our time, dogmatically echoing the opinions of politicians, the media, and business. Universities should be places where the commonplace ideas of a particular time and place are subjected to remorseless critical interrogation…. But if universities become a place where that basic commitment to scepticism and a critical mode of thinking is increasingly impossible, they will have ceased to serve a useful function. I am not optimistic.
The most moving part of the letter is when Harper-Scott describes encountering classical music as a young man from a poor family in an economically depressed town, and how it “opened up stunning new vistas,” showing him “that the world was far bigger than I thought, fuller of beauty and majesty and possibilities for fulfillment.”
How many people will now be denied that experience, which would in actual fact improve their living conditions?
Making our intellectual world flatter, duller, narrower, more one-dimensional and dogmatic is a culture war only in the sense of being a war against culture.
The battle fought by Allan Bloom and others when I was young is the only real culture war, and culture lost. To see that, you need only look at the equally flat and narrow obsessions of today’s conservative culture warriors, who spend their lives scanning social media for the latest petty outrage, or trolling on it to create a petty outrage of their own. At best, they defend a caricatured, fantasy version of what they imagine to be “traditional” culture.
Yet this is a battle that can never really be lost. Great ideas and great art have weathered centuries and millennia and survived through much darker ages than this one. They are still available for study and they offer to the curious and independent the reward of “stunning new vistas.”
That may not be welcome any more within our sterile new establishment, but it will certainly happen outside of it.