Simon Schaffer of Cambridge U.
I. Life is just a bunch of stories, or so sayeth some high-achieving men who were or are close to me: all “narratives” are idiosyncratic to individuals or groups, they believe(d). In the case of one trendy political scientist, his anti-science, irrationalist world view proved fatal, and he was dead at 64. Another friend/mentor was dead at age 55. Both men were academic stars whose careerist allegiance to anti-medical, anti-science views deprived them of the accumulated knowledge of medicine and hygiene, much of it achieved despite centuries of persecution by those reactionaries who are now sometimes called “traditionalists.” Postmodernists and multiculturalists would agree with my prematurely deceased ex-lovers, but few public intellectuals today seem interested in tracking down the sources of their quack belief systems, despite their professed love for “nature” and the preservation of the natural world. For them, science is “essentially a swindle” [Simon Schaffer, declared in a UCLA seminar that I audited] and cannot help us think and test our way out of the ecological catastrophe that they fear, for science and technology are the culprits who must be overcome.
I have written elsewhere on this site how the rule of law, the very foundation of what we call “civilization,” is undermined by such assaults on facts or the ranking of historical narratives so that the ordinary citizen has a basis for judging the worth and validity of contending “stories.” It is to me unbelievable that I have had to write of such basic conceptions in political and social theory as I have done over the last few decades, but such is the almost incomprehensible deterioration of our shared culture since at least the second world war, a dumbing down that was exacerbated during the 1960s counter-culture, that I find myself having to remind readers of historical developments, conflicts, and methods of investigation that they should have thought about and mastered in high school and college. So please bear with me, those of you for whom these arguments are old hat, or a not-so-fresh bowl of cherries.
I am arguing here for an ever-evolving but deepening objectivity as we contemplate conflict. To be sure, we experience the world through lenses that are often distorted by those ideologies or unhealthy family relationships that formed our personal subjectivities. But it is our life task as would-be enlightened and progressive liberals to reconstruct over time just how our personal stories or narratives wired our brains in a particular way, so that we are predisposed either to love or hate or feel indifference to those individuals, groups, and principles that compete for our attention and loyalty. To be less abstract, consider the case of the child caught in the middle between divorcing parents. Each party to the conflict, say mom and dad, has a different story about the cause(s) of the breakup and the character of the other parent, and the bewildered young child who does not, cannot at this stage of life (for s/he is dependent on a unified family for protection), favor one parent over the other, may throw up his or her hands and state, over and over, “there are only stories: there is no truth. I cannot bear the thought that one of my beloved parents is lying to me, or is a flawed person in any way.” In adulthood, that grown (but emotionally stuck) child of a messy divorce may embrace what is now called postmodernism, that is the radical subjectivism or “perspectivism” that permeates the humanities: it is argued in our “elitist liberal” schools that there is no universal truth, no compelling universal moral order, but that there are only points of view, and we should not intervene to establish which stories are in accord with facts or correct conduct, for now all “facts” are factoids, or are observations entirely dependent on context and the will to control wealth and hence those groups said to be oppressed. As for bourgeois “morality” (a.k.a. the rule of law, often blamed on Jewish “legalism”) it is a confidence game contrived by the rising middle-class (the modernists) to displace libertine monarchs, and it is the job of the postmodernist to rip off the mask of the new oppressors. Take that, Thomas Jefferson, you sanctimonious hypocrite!
II. Secularists versus traditionalists. Assimilation and its complications. The melting pot and its vicissitudes.
I watch Fox News Channel to see what Catholic rightists are dispensing to their populist supporters. O’Reilly and Hannity in particular are indignant with “secular progressives” who are destroying “traditionalism.” It seems to be a replay of the Reformation-Counter-Reformation argument (see http://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/). For these spokesmen for the conservative movement, “secularism” has changed its meaning from what I once understood it to be; i.e., for the popular Fox pundits, secularists are now atheistic heretics (archetypally Hebraic/Protestant) out to destroy all religion, the better to enslave the credulous masses with materialism, the masses being “the folks” for whom these pundits purport to speak. But this was not the meaning of “secular” as I have understood it. Secularism was that Enlightenment pluralism that prevented the establishment of a state religion, and it was another term for tolerance—including toleration for the non-believer. It was a brilliant innovation in government that aimed to prevent wars of religion as had convulsed Europe with huge consequences for subsequent history, for instance, in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). And secularism also signifies the “worldliness” also blamed on “the Jews” and their refusal of Christ and the promised eternal afterlife.
In one of my essays posted here (“Why Multiculturalists and Wilsonians Can’t Diagnose the New Antisemitism” http://clarespark.com/2009/07/11/multiculturalists-and-wilsonians-cant-diagnose-the-new-antisemitism/) I mention the conditions of assimilation for a certain group of upwardly mobile Jews, who may have felt that they had to conform to all the precepts of Christianity in order to find acceptance and earn a fine living. Since the “traditionalists” are dead set against liberalism tout court, (all the while defending “liberty” or “free will” and the God-loving Founding Fathers) I should explain my position, especially as what I found in my research on the origins of multiculturalism is relevant to this nation of immigrants and the descendants of slaves, many of whom as “cultural nationalists” and “anti-imperialists” now refuse “assimilation.” The turn to “culturalism” as a substitute for a scientific education, and yet, an education that would oppose racism (racism being a well-known feature of Nazi ideology), occurred during the Roosevelt administration, and here below is a revealing document that is conscious of the difficulties in adapting to the secular state—a liberal state that demands critical analysis of its operations by all its voters (blame Jefferson and the Enlightenment for this).
[Mordecai Grossman, “The Schools Fight Prejudice,” Commentary, Nov. 1945:] “To many school people and laymen, prevailing widespread intergroup antagonisms with their tensions and outbreaks, like the recent school strikes and riots, testify to the school’s failure to date to communicate America’s democratic heritage.
The intercultural education movement [begun with the New Deal Bureau for Intercultural Education, 1935] in which many teachers, schools and national organizations of teachers…are now joined, is based on two principal assumptions: first, that prejudices are culturally transmitted rather than biologically inherited, and second, that the school can, by one method or another, contribute significantly to the transformation of self-enclosed, mutually exclusive and hate-breeding cultures into open, interplaying and cooperating cultures. We have here a reaffirmation of the faith in education as a force for human progress and in the schools as the principal instrument of education in democratic ideals.
A democratic way of life…is one which seeks to provide every individual with the maximum possible opportunity for personal growth and community service, for sharing in the control over the economic, political, and social conditions of group life, and for mastery over his own destiny–for all individuals regardless of race, creed, or ancestry.
However, inter-individual (man-to-man) democracy is…only one aspect of the democratic way of life. The other is intercultural democracy [that] occupies a somewhat intermediate position between the ideals of “cultural pluralism” and of the “melting pot.” In contrast with the former, intercultural democracy denies both the possibility and the desirability of maintaining fairly intact the ancestral cultures of the varied ethnic groups that came here. But it also denies the possibility and desirability of stamping the 140,000,000 Americans in the mold of a uniform dominant culture–of a “melting pot” Americanism. For a democratic culture is an open culture, continually growing through individual and group interaction. Advocates of intercultural education recognize the survival of elements of old world culture in the new. Such elements of the old world heritage that are at odds with a democratic way of life are to be eliminated. But there are others which do not impede the growth of a common democratic culture, and which may even enrich it. These are to be retained…(35). [The Program:]…to contrast democracy with rival ways of life, say fascism…The thick walls which separate the social and ethnic groups in American society consist in large part of the stereotyped pictures that members of the “in” group have in their minds of individuals in the “out” group…[We must study] the tricks the human mind plays on itself, including those of “rationalization,” “projection,” and “scapegoating,” and which others play on us by means of propaganda techniques, etc.(37, 38)…[T]here is the risk that the gains likely to accrue from the school’s attempt to develop an appreciation of the sub-culture will be nullified by the possible heightening of the sense of difference. Much depends on the way the intercultural program is administered (42).”
All of postwar pedagogy fits into this impossible dream, a scheme to be realized by an artful administrator. But Grossman has distorted the meaning of “the melting pot” as it was previously understood and bodied forth in Israel Zangwill’s famous play of 1908. For Zangwill and his predecessors (including de Crèvecoeur and Jefferson), a new man would be created out of the religious and ethnic mix unique to America, and this rights-endowed individual new man and woman would be fit to judge their elected government representatives with the critical tools of the Enlightenment: analysis of propaganda and access to primary source documents, ending the monopoly of rulers whose affairs were conducted far from the public eye. By misreporting the culturally syncretic “melting pot,” Grossman was left with the cultural pluralism he was presumably replacing with a vaguely defined “intercultural democracy.” There are no autonomous free-standing individuals in his model, only interactive entities. Since he was actually reversing the Enlightenment by replacing individuals with groups (today we would say “community” as a substitute for the group and a corrective to hyper-individualistic loose cannons of all types), he resorted to the contrast of “democracy” with “fascism,” all the while ignoring the statism and destruction of the dissenting individual that was common to both ideologies. And of course he underestimated the grip that authoritarian ideologies and ancestor-worship maintained in the offspring of his would-be democrats.
As I have argued in all my recent outpourings here, in my articles on History News Network, and in my book on the Melville Revival, the necessity of group cohesion (or “consensus”) trumped the critical processes that make a rational democracy possible, and here in Grossman’s well-meaning but irrational policy statement was only one example of a flood of crazy-making institutional practices from the late 1930s on, although the stage had been set from the Reformation and the invention of the printing press onward. Stay tuned.