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While I continue to learn much from Bloom, over the years I have arrived at three main judgments about the book’s relevance, its prescience, and its failings. First, Bloom was right to be concerned about the specter of relativism—though perhaps even he didn’t realize how bad it would get, particularly when one considers the reaction to his book compared to its likely reception were it published today. Second, his alarm over the threat of “multiculturalism” was misplaced and constituted a bad misreading of the zeitgeist, in which he mistook the left’s tactical use of identity politics for the rise of a new kind of communalist and even traditionalist tribalism. And, lastly, most of his readers—even today—remain incorrect in considering him to be a representative of “conservatism,” a label that he eschewed and a worldview he rejected. Indeed, Bloom’s argument was one of the early articulations of “neoconservatism”—a puzzling locution used to describe a position that is, in fact, today more correctly captured by its critics on the left as “neo-liberalism.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an Allan Bloom fan — more so because I have an inherent suspicion of the Nietzschean idea of history than anything else — but I certainly appreciated the concept that competing ideas shouldn’t arrive at relativism (as is so often done today… “your truth isn’t my truth” nonsense) but rather allow people to challenge their own ideas on what is indeed Truth.
Of course, what’s interesting in all of this isn’t quite so much the discussion between nihilism, liberalism, and natural law — though Bloom never uses that term specifically, though he does reference the Declaration of Independence — but rather how Bloom sowed the first seeds of that orphan of foreign policy: neoconservatism:
Bloom’s argument became a major touchstone in the development of “neoconservatism,” a label that became associated with many fellow students of Strauss but which, ironically, explicitly rested on rejection of the claims of culture, tradition, and custom—the main impulses of Burkean conservatism. Bloom continuously invoked the natural-rights teachings of the Declaration and Constitution as necessary correctives to the purported dangers of left multiculturalism: rather than endorsing the supposed inheritance of various cultures, he commended the universalistic claims of liberal democracy, which ought to trump any identification with particular culture and creed. The citizen who emerged from the State of Nature, shorn of any specific cultural, religious, or ancestral limitation, was the political analogue for the philosopher who emerged from the Cave. Not everyone could become a philosopher, Bloom insisted, but everyone could be a liberal citizen, and ought rightly to be liberated from the limitations of place and culture—if for no other reason, to make them more tolerant of the radical philosophers in their midst.
Bloom’s was thus not only an early salvo in the culture wars, but an incipient articulation of the neoconservative impulse toward universalistic expansion. Burke’s willingness to acknowledge the basic legitimacy of most cultures—his “multiculturalism”—led him, in the main, to oppose most forms of imperialism. The rejection of multiculturalism, and the valorization of a monolithic liberal project, has inclined historically to a tendency toward expansionism and even imperialism, and neoconservatism is only the latest iteration of this tendency. While many of the claims about Strauss’s influence on the Iraq invasion and the neoconservative insistence upon spreading democracy throughout the world were confused, there was in fact a direct lineage from Bloom’s arguments against the multicultural left and rise of the neo-liberal or neoconservative imperialistic impulse.
In other words, if multiculturalism descends to nihilism, and cultures are designed to compete with one or the other more accurately embracing Truth… then imposing that truth in conflict is a natural consequence.
Especially if you’re right.
…and even more interestingly, it’s a complete reversal of everything conservatives, classical liberals, libertarians, and interestingly enough, what Bloom himself believes.
The tension between nihilist and crusader is tenuous at best. Searching the world for monsters to destroy — whether in the classroom, one’s community, or on the global stage — is the evil that humanity must constantly avoid.
Examples work far better. The old Delphic inscription “know thyself” is probably the best remedy to both the nihilistic impulse and the scourge of neo-everything.