In the early 1970s, Mad magazine noted that ordinary American conservatives “don’t understand what William F. Buckley says, but agree with him.” Buckley, at the time editor of the National Review magazine and host of television’s Firing Line, was famous for bringing an erudite verbosity to positions more associated with hicks and hardhats. Yet his cultural heirs – if that’s what they are – are today acquiring their own followings, and what they say is not only more understandable to ordinary readers and viewers, but less credibly dismissed as a cover for redneck resentment. This holds significant promise, and significant risk.
For a long time, “right-wing thought” was something of an oxymoron: all the interesting, new ideas were being put forward by progressives, and only religious or military leaders offered much in the way of a spluttering reaction against political or economic liberalism. A few partisan commentators, like Buckley, Norman Podhoretz, and Irving Kristol, offered highbrow critiques of government policies, but their audience was confined to the intelligentsia and the general public was more familiar with the outrages of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace in the US, or of anti-obscenity campaigner Mary Whitehouse in Britain, or of Archie Bunker on TV. In 1987, however, Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind became a surprise bestseller. Bloom, a professor of classics and philosophy, argued that the modern American university was inculcating in its students a shallow relativism which neglected the great traditions of Western thought in favor of crass entertainment and fashionable causes; the book’s substance – and its success – launched a wave of serious debate around education, popular culture, and social values which has never subsided.
Indeed, The Closing of the American Mind is now a model for countless subsequent arguments against contemporary trends in multiculturalism, postmodernism, critical race theory, gender studies, speech codes, and other orthodoxies. A sampling of current titles extending Bloom’s stern appraisals includes Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity, Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture, Frances Widdowson’s Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity – And Why This Harms Everyone, Heather MacDonald’s The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, Jonathan Haidt‘s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Gad Saad’s The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense, Debra Soh’s The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths About Sex and Identity in Our Society, and (in a clear echo of Bloom himself), The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation For Failure, by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. Other well-known thinkers making similar points in books, articles, podcasts and public appearances include Michael Shermer, Andrew Sullivan, John McWhorter, and the celebrity intellectual Jordan Peterson. The sheer marketability of such perspectives on Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and Amazon suggests that, however varied their specific topics, there is a Closing of the American Mind-size audience receptive to their common outlook.
What’s also appealing about the authors is not just what they assert but who they are. These are learned and articulate men and women who come not from opposition parties, or the church, or the fringe, but from journalism or, like Bloom, academia; they are not angrily clinging to private privileges or claiming their group’s innate superiority; they may be gay (Sullivan, Douglas Murray, Jonathan Rauch), Black (McWhorter, Shelby Steele), or economically left of center (Lilla, Widdowson, Lukianoff). Their published works are often dense and scholarly texts, researched and referenced for serious readerships, rather than rambling protests against a vague or conspiratorial modernity. Critics, predictably, have charged that the writers only make highfalutin excuses for bigotry – but in fact such accusations serve to validate their essential message, which is that socio-political standards have shifted past an Enlightenment-based universalism to a point where an uncontroversial liberal opinion of around 1995 has become a retrograde stance in 2021. Indeed, one reason that feminism, Black civil rights, and gay pride made such gains from the 1960s and 70s onward was that their reasoning drew on the most persuasive ideals of democracy. Superficial differences don’t matter as much as shared citizenship, activists maintained; surely the freedoms to vote, work, be schooled and eventually to marry are guaranteed to all, regardless of race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. So convincing was this case that it is now the one being defended by the latter-day Allan Blooms, against a newer movement which insists that superficial differences matter more than shared anything.
At their best, the academics and observers taking issue with the faddish doctrines of diversity have the potential to steer the public conversation around to some kind of consensus, away from both the Year-Zero implications of “reckoning” as well as from the inflammatory Trumpian responses they provoke. At the same time, the danger is that such figures may end up preaching to the choir, deteriorating into professional provocateurs in the manner of Dinesh D’Souza or Ezra Levant: full-time denizens of the right-wing speaker and media circuit, more interested in upsetting their ideological enemies than engaging the undecided. With the widening polarization between the alt-right and the alt-left, between wokeness and whiteness, between p.c. and populism, we should hope that the publishers and online platforms cultivating this broad base of creators and consumers – the people who’d like to bridge those divides rather than exacerbate them – will continue to encourage an opening, rather than a closing, of our collective mind.