Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Decline of Western Civilization: A User's Guide

Last year was the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Closing of The American Mind, by Allan Bloom. A new edition of the book was issued, and numerous retrospectives were published. I resolved to go back and read it.

I remember it being good, but I don't remember it being quite as good as it really is. The Closing of the American Mind may just be the best book every written on the cultural catastrophe in the midst of which we find ourselves. The only thing mitigating the book's prophetic status is that it was written in medias res, unlike, for example, Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences, which founded its prophecy of the decline of the West on observations of the crisis when it was in its embryonic form.

Bloom's observations came after the thing had been born, when its depraved behavior had already manifested itself, and after its depradations had already begun to tell. Still his foresight is astounding.

There is this comment about the ultimate conflict between the two sole values of the cultural left: freedom and equality, as it has manifested itself in the issue of pornography:
The sexual revolution marched under the banner of freedom, feminism under that of equality. Although they went arm in arm for a while, their differences eventually put them at odds with one each other, as Tocqueville said freedom and equality would always be. This is manifest in the squabble over pornography, which pits liberated sexual desire against feminist resentment about stereotyping. We are presented with the amusing spectacle of pornography clad in armor borrowed from the heroic struggles for freedom of speech, and using Miltonic rhetoric, doing battle with feminism, newly draped in the robes of community morality, using arguments associated with conservatives who defend traditional sex roles, and also defying an authoritative tradition in which it was taboo to suggest any relation between what a person reads and sees and his sexual practices. In the background stand the liberals, wringing their hands in confusion because they wish to favor both sides and cannot. 
After all, we don't want to be too terribly consistent in our left-wing values. A little reflection, with the help of an ancient playwright, will show just what that would mean:
But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important in life and marriage. But now there was little attempt to apply egalitarian just in these matters, as did Aristophanes' older Athenian women who [in his play The Assembly of Women], because of their very repulsiveness, had a right to enjoy handsome young men before beautiful young women did. The undemocratic aspects of free sex were compensated for in our harmless and mildly ridiculous way: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" was preached more vigorously than formerly; the cosmetics industry had a big boom; and education and therapy in the style of Masters and Johnson, promising great orgasms to every subscriber, became common. My favorite was a course in sex for the elderly given at a local YMCA and advertised over the radio with the slogan "Use It or Lose It."
And dare we mention the disparate effects of the sexual revolution on the rich and the poor? Angelina Jolie can have a preemptive double mastectomy, announce it to the world as if other women should do the same thing, and not bother to mention the fact that very few of the women she apparently thinks should follow her example have anything close to the means to afford either the procedure itself (which health insurance would not cover) or the pricey reparative surgery she utilized to hide the fact that she unhid to the world.

Get a copy and weep—either because you agree with it and lament what is happening to your culture—or because you disagree with it and can't deny what he has to say.


KyCobb said...


Well, I can certainly see why vigorous debate about pornography demonstrates that civilization is collapsing, and our only hope for salvation is to put women back in their place, and get all uptight about sex again. And I'm not sure what you think the sexual revolution has to do with breast cancer treatment. Based solely on your post, though, I would assume you welcome Obamacare for finally making health insurance nearly universal.

Lee said...


> In the background stand the liberals, wringing their hands in confusion because they wish to favor both sides and cannot.

Really? I haven't noticed that liberals have any problem with playing two sides of an issue. Eventually, one side has to lose, but that doesn't mean you can't smile and pretend both sides actually won.

Anonymous said...

Bloom's book was brilliant 25 years ago, but reading it required (and requires) some minimum grounding in history and philosophy. 25 years later, with America's K-12 educational system being what it is, I doubt any book with references to Aristophanes will be any more impactful.