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.
This argument never convinced me. The celebration and domestication of the dark and immoral for entertainment purposes surely is not unique to Weimar Germany. Nor is it dependent upon German philosophy, and still less is it a leftist attempt to legitimize all crimes but those of the right. Thomas De Quincey was the most conservative of the Romantics, and his essays on the delights of reading about murder are still disturbingly insightful after two hundred years. Baudelaire and Swinburne celebrated the same dark alleys and underworld from which the likes of Mackie Messer would emerge. And, whatever Milton’s intention may have been, it is hard for readers of Paradise Lost not to agree with William Blake, that he is of the devil’s party and that Satan is the poem’s real hero. He has all the best lines and an enviable swagger.
To return to Bloom: The chirpy tune and happy feel of “Mack the Knife” do not turn our minds to conspiratorial reflection on the means by which Germans smuggled a destructive moral philosophy into America. But the juxtaposition of Armstrong’s jaunty rendition with Mack’s moral turpitude does raise a timely question: Must aesthetic appeal coincide with moral truth?
The Romantics prioritized emotion over reason, making the right ordering of the latter dependent upon the right ordering of the former: We must refine our feelings in order to see more clearly the truth of things. Yet the Romantics assumed that human nature provided a stable foundation for emotional life. The force of our shared humanity would guard against mere subjectivism in the moral sphere. What De Quincey demonstrated—ironically, perhaps, but ruthlessly—is just how flimsy that notion was. He argued that a murder arrests our attention not because of our sympathy with the victim but through our empathy with the perpetrator. His accounts of murder trials he attended were designed to make us feel that empathy. In this way, De Quincey demonstrated the centrality and power of aesthetics to influence our judgments of right and wrong.
Two hundred years after De Quincey, our culture is more taken than ever with the notion that morality is a matter of taste. Nietzsche may have offered the most compelling account of taste as truth, but we need not have read Nietzsche to live according to his ideas. When the stars and starlets parade on the red carpet, who among us does not feel some twinge of desire to be like them? And how many abortions, failed marriages, damaged families, and selfish actions lie below the seductively polished surfaces? Yet who among us thinks of those things? It is not that we excuse the corruption; it is that we fail to recognize it. Moral judgment recedes in a world where physical beauty, wealth, and power dominate the imagination.
Earlier this year, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. The obituaries lauded him as a hero. Amid the adulation, the Washington Post suspended a journalist for doing what might have seemed inevitable in the era of #MeToo: She had reposted an old article about the rape allegations, trial, and civil case involving Bryant in 2003. The reactions were interesting. They focused not on the facts of the case, but on the insensitivity of reopening this matter in the wake of his untimely death.
Whether the unfortunate journalist was wise to act in this way is beside the point. The responses were culturally eloquent. To dig up the past at such a moment was an act of bad taste, offensive enough to lead to calls for the journalist’s firing. Bryant had the whole aesthetic structure of today’s moral imagination on his side. He was a good-looking, wealthy, powerful sporting hero with charm and a genius for attracting the public eye. Plenty of nobodies have had their livelihoods taken from them for nothing more than a stupid tweet or an ancient social media post. The famous but unprepossessing Harvey Weinstein was doomed. But Bryant’s alleged offenses could not even be recalled, so blinded were we by his glamor.
The reaction of many in the wider Christian community to Black Lives Matter likewise demonstrates the power of aesthetics. Racism is an evil, part of the fallenness of our world. But so closely has opposition to racism become associated with the aesthetics of BLM—from its slogans to its pantheon of heroes to its chosen causes to its commercial merchandise—that opposition to BLM is now virtually impossible, not because of moral arguments, but because it is deemed tasteless. Evangelical leaders either support BLM, with the occasional throat-clearing qualifications, or remain embarrassingly silent in the face of its monopoly on the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the race debate. It is hard to be truthful and tasteful at the same time. The fact that BLM has proved as easy to market abroad as any other commodity of the American empire merely confirms that taste-as-truth is now a basic category of what remains of Western culture.
In fairness, Christians are uniquely vulnerable. The Cross establishes our aesthetic, one that eschews the superficiality of outward cultural conventions for deeper truths. But Christ was a spotless victim, and thus moral judgments about guilt and innocence are woven into the Christian moral imagination. Today, Christian leaders have a duty to press difficult questions about the circumstances of George Floyd’s death and those of others brought to light by Black Lives Matter. It is possible that the messy facts of a given case will smudge the polished sheen of victimhood. When the aesthetics fall in place, moral questions are so much easier to answer.
I rank Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack the Knife” as one of the greatest popular recordings of the last hundred years. Even as a Sinatra fan, I have to concede that the final chords swing more powerfully than anything Frank ever recorded. But this merely confirms that I, too, am part of the problem. My moral sense is tuned in ways that allow the aesthetic to triumph over the objectively good and true. I want to swing with the final chords, not worry about Brecht and Weill’s implicit justification of revolutionary violence—just as so many of us want to “stand in solidarity” with victims, rather than think about their morally complicated circumstances.
The struggle for the moral imagination of this world is a struggle that must engage aesthetics. This fact can help us. The shift in attitudes toward abortion has no doubt been caused in part by sonograms, which have not changed the status of the baby in the womb but have granted the baby a personhood that is intuitively acknowledged by those who see the pictures. But the importance of aesthetics can also work against us. Who can forget the power of the “Love wins” campaign to secure support for gay marriage, and who can deny the role of the winsome (and cost-free) way that promiscuity is presented in soap operas and sitcoms in reshaping how society thinks about sex?
Bobby Darin closes his version with the line “Look out, ol’ Mackie is back!” To which I might respond: “Yes. And it appears he intends to stay for the foreseeable future.” Our task is to develop an aesthetic that trains our taste to savor what is good and true.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.