[Most of the following is an updated and revised version of a radio talk I gave on Pacifica Radio in the early 1990s, hence the reference to an article in The Nation edited by Julian Bond and Adolph Reed, Jr. It is not about the concept of balance or moderation as envisioned in The Federalist, or elsewhere in the writings of Alexander Hamilton or his 19th century admirer, Charles Sumner.]
This blog is about the concepts of balance, point of view, and cultural relativism as deployed by radicals, conservatives, and cultural nationalists. It is above all on the bogus notion of “moderation” as a feel-good answer to all conflict. “Moderation” is usually attributed to the rational mediator (like the supposedly neutral state) that stands above the crazies fighting on the ground. It is this superior, ever-balanced individual who through artful manipulation and inner poise, brings the fighting factions to their senses. I am not making this up.
I. How my thought has evolved. In graduate school, I wrote an essay “Who’s Crazy Now?” I have been trying to develop an approach to a materialist psychoanalysis, by which I do not mean the chemistry of the brain as it responds to primarily family-induced messages (although that kind of approach is crucial), but more, a diagnosis that situates personal conflicts and troubles in the larger setting of twentieth-century history and politics. This interest is an outgrowth of my doctoral dissertation on the revival of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, neglected at his death in 1891, but reportedly resuscitated after 1919. As I demonstrated in my published book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006), I discovered that the historic figure Herman Melville had been mostly erased by numerous key Melville scholars; that a fictional character had been erected in his place, but not as an icon of American literature; rather as a cautionary tale; a warning that Ahab-style romantic revolts destroy social order and lead to a loss of mental balance; i.e., Melville, on balance, was at best, an odd duck, “off the track” as Lawrence Clark Powell told me; at worst a psychotic, alcoholic, wife-beater, and confidence-man; his character Captain Ahab a prefiguration of Hitler and Stalin. Today, Moby-Dick is sometimes cited by Canon Warriors as a white male text oppressive to women and minorities; or Melville’s belated recognition after 1919 is cited as an example of cultural relativism: 20th century readers were hip where Melville’s contemporaries were not. In my view, American writers with ultra-democratic (i.e., antiracist) sympathies have never been unambiguously promoted in élite universities; that Melville as he was to himself, has not been canonized as many assume.
What was the particular threatening character of Melville’s writing to the Ivy League professors who managed his reputation and attempted to control readings of his texts? I have concluded that Melville’s unmasking of phony liberals, of duplicitous authority, was his most terrifying gesture; moreover that he identified double-binds in modern institutions that made it impossible to please authority whatever he did. Given the ideological need to carve clear channels between the free West and slave East after the Bolshevik victory of 1917, Melville’s clear-eyed portraits of unfree “Ameriky” and whacko genteel families could not be tolerated. Melville, financially and emotionally dependent on a conservative family, of course, had to blacken up, to take the point of view of frontiersmen, common sailors, non-whites, and working-class women to describe the madness of upper-class authority. Here is Melville’s character Pitch, a “hard case” from Missouri, confronting “the herb-doctor” in The Confidence-Man (1857):
“…’You are an abolitionist, ain’t you?’
[Herb-doctor:] ‘As to that, I cannot so readily answer. If by abolitionist you mean a zealot, I am none; but if you mean a man, who, being a man, feels for all men, slaves included, and by any lawful act, opposed to nobody’s interest, and therefore, rousing nobody’s enmity, would willingly abolish suffering (supposing it, in its degree, to exist) from among mankind, irrespective of color, then I am what you say.’
‘Picked and prudent sentiments. You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man. You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but are useless for right.’
‘From all this,’ said the herb-doctor still forgivingly, ‘I infer that you, a Missourian, though living in a slave state, are without slave sentiments.’
‘Aye, but are you? Is not that air of yours, so spiritlessly enduring and yielding, the very air of a slave? Who is your master, pray; or are you owned by a company?’…. (Ch.XXI)
So Melville, as Pitch for instance, wrote under a mask, but one easily penetrated by the alert reader; thus the need for college teachers to guide student readers who might be emboldened and inspirited by Melville’s willingness to separate from illegitimate authority, to walk away from the Big Lie of the perfectly happy family, either on ships or in domestic sanctuaries: in Melville’s “hard case,” this was the notion that groups with opposing economic interests could be harmonized without coercion. Contrary to the prevailing notion (Ishmael’s) that Melville/Ahab was unbalanced and a bad example to questing youth, I have argued that Melville achieved the balance and poise that follow an accurate reading of the institutions in which he functioned; that at his best, he was a superb historian and critical sociologist, assessing with empathy and compassion both the opportunities and limits of contemporary institutions. I have described the conflict between Melville and his 20th century Revivers as a battle between radical liberals and conservative liberals to control the terms of science, democracy and Enlightenment. The conservative Enlighteners have used key ideas of the radical Enlightenment to switch “the lower orders”: those artisans and scientists who were increasingly educated (often self-taught) to challenge traditional, hypocritical authority that claimed to act in the public interest while serving mostly themselves.
Because two key Melville revivers (Charles Olson and Henry A. Murray) were active in government psychological warfare during World War II my research branched out; I began a systematic study of how fascism, Hitler’s psyche, and mass death were explained to a broad public before, during, and after World War
II. To my horror, I discovered that Hitler was often read as an unbalanced Romantic artist/savage Hebrew prophet/bearer of Baron Rothschild genes, America was characterized as a country of proto-Nazis/Bad Jews by public intellectuals I have characterized as the aristocratic radicals (enemies to the rising middle-class and “feminized” Victorian culture). Many of these figures proclaimed that Hitler, the diabolically powerful and persuasive artist, was able to switch normally stolid, conservative Germans (little men like himself) into romantic radicals through brilliantly conceived propaganda (inspired by American advertising, according to Lukács, 1952); meanwhile Hitler was said to be dripping with contempt for the masses he had cynically swindled; Mein Kampf is frequently cited (but rarely quoted) to substantiate Hitler’s embrace of the Big Lie. There is no textual evidence either in Mein Kampf or Hitler’s wartime Table-Talk to verify this claim; on the contrary, that Hitler, the good father, ever presented himself as the fearless seeker of truth, defining himself against Jewish/ Marxist big liars intent on leading German social democratic workers to division and the disaster of global tyranny (that of finance capital), while his völkisch revolution would deliver unity, harmony, equilibrium, and stability once Jewish cosmopolitans and unnatural Jewish institutions (Wall Street, mass media, money, the study of political economy) were purged. Small but key words in the chapter on War Propaganda have been mistranslated in ways that make it harder to see Hitler’s fear of complexity (multi-causal historical explanations), ambiguity and lack of closure to the problem of defining what is real or what is understood. Specifically, the critical tools of modernity: history and critical sociology blurred boundaries in ways that terrified him and made him lose his balance; criticism of authority made him feel he was sinking into the mire.
Understanding the key concepts of cultural/moral relativism and balance can decode discussions of social policy as they pertain to the reform of school curricula, public media, and arts funding alike. Hitler’s ideology bears disturbing resemblances to that of American corporatist liberals (like FDR) and theorists of group or ethnic identity who have been promoting multiculturalism in public education and the media since the 1920s (not since the tenured radicals of the 1960s began their rampage, as most conservative critics claim). I begin with the concept of point of view, or cultural relativism.
III. The idea of contrasting points-of-view, or relativism was advanced by the revolutionary bourgeoisie challenging the alleged rationalism and superior morality of corporatist rulers. In the 17th and 18th centuries John Locke and Denis Diderot attacked feudal élites who conflated their interests with those of the lower orders or who failed to practice what they preached. Taking the point of view of the people, the radical liberals demanded one set of rules for rich and poor; one universal standard of morality. Similarly, 19th century anti-imperialists like Melville, speaking from the point of view of the Marquesans massacred or exploited by French and English colonizers, attacked the arrogance and complacency of the civilized West who treated the islanders as savages, while behaving savagely themselves. (Melville did not embrace savagery, but called upon the missionaries to live out their professed Christian values of equality and dignity for all.)
The aristocrats counter-attacked with the accusation that middle-class morality associated with political analysis was a form of jacobin tyranny: individual moral reform (understood as control of “the passions” or “a change of heart”), not political reform, was the medicine of choice; democratic “politics” was a recipe for disaster. Today’s conservative liberals have indeed drawn a straight line from the English revolutionary puritans through jacobins through English Chartists and abolitionists, feminists and Bolsheviks to Nazism. When superstar cultural critics like Fredric Jameson talk about “middle-class hegemony” they are arguing in this aristocratic, counter-Enlightenment tradition. Moreover, the aristocratic radicals often say they are anti-imperialists: rules and standards of the Western Enlightenment are not universally valid and have destroyed non-Western cultures. Their target is especially the animal called bourgeois individualism or subjectivity, with its practices of freethought and due process institutionalized in the state as the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The aristocratic anti-imperialists claimed that it was élitist to hold non-Western societies to the same standards. No less than choppers of rain forests, we Western intellectuals were destroying diversity and difference; the universalist claims of science were a swindle by absolutists with an ungovernable will to power.
Non-Western cultural nationalists defending traditional hierarchical societies have seized upon this argument because it makes themselves (petit-bourgeois intellectuals) look like emancipators from the tyranny of the dread white male. Instead of narrative history grounded in empirical, archival research, we now get “theory,” cultural anthropology and the new historicism: one point of view is as valid (or invalid) as any other, for we are all embedded in our historical context, utterly shaped by rules and structures, unable to stand back from the system or outside of our bodies to make an objective assessment of our situation; moreover particular societies are incomparable and finally unfathomable to strangers: the past (rooted in a multiplicity of historicist individualities) has become radically Other. Informed by the irrationalists following the linguistics professors, we learn that misperceptions make history: for the semioticians, it is not humanity that shapes its world, moved by describable social institutions and social forces, but language that acts (or interacts): tropes that go bump in the night.
IV. Balance is what keeps us steady, prevents our falling down, helps us to cope with a confusing and often hostile world filled with rival claims for truth and justice. If we are cultural relativists/multiculturalists, what are the consequences for the desirable quality of balance, that is, proportion, poise, completeness, coherence in our bodies and in our pictures of controversial issues and events? Co-existence is not necessarily a route to balance. Balance disappears as a concept when competing ideas do not engage each other and slug it out. Because corporatist liberals have cynically accommodated to cultural nationalism, their social policies now advocate proportional representation in a mechanical way, as if cultural groups, each blaring its message, will somehow fill in a meaningful pattern to guide social action. Meanwhile, for many in the policy making elites, race or ethnicity has replaced class as the telling social division that matters. However, this position is strenuously opposed by some other conservatives, who want interest group politics to be based on class, not ethnic, differences; that is, in their theory of balance (one derived from the 18th C. political theorist, Montesquieu), economic interest groups, like the different branches of government, will normally vie with one another, clash, and compromise to achieve social harmony and wise social policy–the system of checks and balances. A sane, mature individual will accurately perceive his economic interest, but also be balanced, that is, conciliatory, willing to compromise; will not insist on the possible existence of irreconcilable antagonisms between groups that cannot be wished away (especially in times of economic downturn). Cultural nationalists and conservatives with class analyses have clashed recently over the issue of affirmative action or other ameliorative social reform: Shall these be implemented by classifying their beneficiaries by class or race? (see The Nation, edited by Julian Bond and Adolph Reed, Jr.)
What would a classically liberal concept of balance look like? How would a feeling of balance be achieved? We start with an analysis of the institutions in which we are asked to function or support (the family, the media, schools, corporations, markets, governments). How is power distributed, how are conflicts identified and resolved, how is authority legitimated, i.e., tested and made accountable by all its members? Second, we are unremittingly self-aware: how do we resist idealizing authority and other love objects? What do we do with the disillusion that inevitably comes when the return of repressed facts confront and puncture our dreams and fantasies? Do we turn cynic and despair of earthly happiness and amelioration? Or do we adjust our expectations and time-lines for social change; perhaps conceive of a new set of tasks and institutional transformations to achieve a safer, more peaceful, friendlier world? What unbalanced qualities are brought out as a function of our class position: arrogance, resentment, anti-intellectualism, sadomasochism, a penchant for muckraking (as opposed to institutional analysis), paranoia, etc? I am of course describing a life-long social process; but one which could lead to “balance”; that is, a relatively undistorted picture of society and ourselves which of course will probably not depict equilibrium, stability, and social harmony (the neo-classical ideal). However, we may feel balanced, that we are standing on solid ground, because we have a relatively clear, demystified picture of our situation and can defend our interests appropriately; we do not have unrealistic expectations of loved ones, bosses and co-workers because we understand the range of behavior that our institutions call forth and tolerate, that hamper our well-meant interventions; we thus may better assess whether personal or institutional reform (or both) is indicated. But to exercise this degree of critical evaluation, children and young people must be allowed to develop the quality that aristocrats have stigmatized as bourgeois subjectivity, the so-called narcissistic “I”/eye willing to separate from arbitrary authority, to walk away from a humiliating relationship.
By contrast, Hitler’s Big Lie was the touting of a “rooted” people’s community of cultural homogeneity which therefore possessed balance, harmony, and equilibrium; Hitler (like other “radicals” identified with natural aristocracies but loving the masses) attempted to deprive the people of a materialist history, sociology and psychoanalysis: the critical tools that would help them to distinguish between heaven and hell, freedom and slavery, romantic caresses and Tory flagellation.
V. How balance and relativism have been coopted. America is understood to be the inheritor of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment; co-option occurs when radical ideas are apparently incorporated, then turned against the lower orders whom they proposed to empower. Thus “balance” and “relativism” came to mean something different than their [classical liberal] Enlightenment originators intended. In today’s news organizations, balance is said to be achieved when two sides of a question are included: in practice this may mean a “crossfire” in which two more or less hysterical people (one from “the Left,” one from “the Right”) have their say, as if there were not a world of facts out there to be gathered and evaluated, with existing pictures of “reality” revised and reconfigured to make our analyses of events more coherent and comprehensive, guided by factual accounts that all or most sentient beings can agree upon (however much effort that may entail).
To sum up: organic conservatives have transmuted an initially challenging idea of the radical liberals: that a different point-of-view (sometimes called cultural relativism) may expose the class biases in our leading definitions of truth and justice. We may achieve a less prejudiced, more balanced perspective on people and events. This emancipating insight has been turned against the radical liberals; for the cultural nationalists/separatists, “point-of-view” remains, but balance has disappeared; similarly, for many of today’s anti-liberal “postmodernists” there can be no agreement or even empathy between individuals and groups: we are terminally trapped in radical subjectivity and the elusiveness of meaning in language; ethnic (or gender or party) differences translate into unbridgeable gaps in perception. It is no wonder that Michael Kinsley and John Sununu yell past one another on CNN. Is it not the case that as a culture, more and more we have lost our balance, perhaps even the memory that such a quality exists or should be desired in a democratic society?