When I first read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind more than thirty years ago, amid the relentless polemic I was struck by one passage: his attack on Louis Armstrong’s version of “Mack the Knife,” a song I knew and enjoyed, albeit in the far superior version by Bobby Darin. The song comes from the Bertolt Brecht–Kurt Weill play The Threepenny Opera, one of the emblematic productions of the cultural world of the Weimar Republic. It celebrates the bloodthirsty antics of Mackie Messer, pimp, thief, and murderer. Bloom drew a sharp contrast between the cheerful, avuncular Armstrong and the viciousness of the lyrics, and used it as evidence of how any morally outrageous act could be excused, domesticated, even celebrated, provided it was an act of the left. “Everything is all right as long as it is not fascism!” was his summary conclusion.
Any connection to German thought gripped Bloom’s imagination. His villains were Nietzsche and Heidegger, with Arendt and Fromm playing their own roles in exporting Germanic philosophy into American higher education. And of course Hegel, the great historicist, was in a sense the founder of this feast of false teaching. Hence Bloom’s beef with “Mack the Knife”: It was a Trojan horse for the foreign subversion of America, blessing immorality—or, perhaps better, amorality—with Louis Armstrong’s all-conquering smiles.