YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 12, 2015

What “free speech”?

free-speechThe march of millions in the streets of Paris on January 11, 2015, in solidarity with the libertarians of Charlie Hebdo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo), has been met with either euphoria or cynicism. What no one is interrogating is the history of free speech, though much ink has been spilled over political correctness, politeness and tact in verbally assaulting our enemies du jour. I am still waiting for some French or Francophile academic to trot out the postmodern objections regarding (mis) representation and the elusiveness of precision in language.

My favorite enemy of “free speech” is Bill Donahue of the Catholic League. He makes no bones about good manners, tact, and impropriety, and like some Fox anchors, still fuming at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, just as Donahue’s predecessors did as they compiled the Index or burned heretics at the stake. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition, and  http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/what-was-the-index-of-forbidden-books-and-is-it-ok-to-read-those-books-now.

Are all these censorious institutions and practices safely tucked into the bad old days? Or do they linger into the present, affecting everyday speech and action in what one Herman Melville character described derisively as “free Ameriky”? I do remember my delight when I came across Melville’s abundant markings in Goethe’s autobiography, where Goethe described his frightening proclivities toward Prometheanism after he discovered the Pelagian heresy (a denial of original sin), taken up by the Moravians. For it has long been my position that Captain Ahab is a stand-in for the author himself, defying authority by proclaiming “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Yet cautious Ishmael, not Ahab, survives the wreck that is the outcome of “the fiery [i.e. Promethean] hunt.”


For Melville, even his much admired Shakespeare was “a muffled man”. One reason that “deep-diving” Melville is in vogue among the pessimistic postmodernists is his poem “In a Church in Padua” that ends with this verse: “Dread diving-bell! In thee inurned/What hollows the priest must sound/Descending into confidences/Where more is hid than found.”

As I wrote in my blog http://clarespark.com/2015/01/10/the-case-for-feminism/, as long as hierarchies exist, free speech is a fond dream. We are all more or less tongue-tied; we are all acting whatever roles will keep us out of trouble with our superiors or even our closest friends and children.

And even were the pecking order to magically disappear, would we “tell the truth”? That would be a relief, assuming that we know ourselves and are safe from persecution or banishment from polite society.


Fat chance of that, no matter what Socrates or his predecessors advised http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_thyself).

No wonder the frustrated young resort to punk, impudent rapping, and related forms of ritual rebellion. (See http://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, retitled “Rappers, primitivism, and ritual rebellion”). Is it only a coincidence that the young rebels are often hyper-masculine?

February 22, 2014

Healthy Skepticism

noimageThis blog is about healthy skepticism versus the sort of philosophical skepticism that is blatantly nihilistic and/or reactionary. In writing this piece, I am immersed in rereading my favorite passages in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Like most of his other works, the theme of the book is protest against the rule of the moderate man of the Enlightenment. Even another “Captain Ahab” makes an early, but brief appearance as a wooden-legged scoffer at the masquerades of the multiform confidence men who dot the book. These con artists are shape shifters, and include “Black Guinea, the herb doctor, the cosmopolitan, and more. The theme is “No Trust.”

What we are to distrust (says Melville) is the moderate Enlightenment theme of cosmic benevolence, and the very idea of progress from pre-industrial to market societies, where everyone plays a role and bamboozles his or her victims. I remember the art critic Harold Rosenberg lauding this particular Melville text in the late 1940s, perhaps as his sour response to the weakly resisted Holocaust, the latter surely an example of an absent deity and the depraved indifference of humanity writ large. He read the text with understanding of its allover trajectory of nihilism and abandonment in an empty universe. Such are the ways of nihilism, a popular artistic theme in the immediate period following WW2. What do I think of this trend, still extant today? davidhume To a large extent, we are all prisoners of our particular families, personal and world histories. I will give “the new historicists” that. What is the engaged citizen supposed to do, given the imprisonment in specific contexts? Should we all turn ourselves into the figure of Pierrot, the spectator, who comments, but with blood on his hands because of his passivity? (For a picture of Picasso’s immobilized seated Pierrot of 1918, and a collage linking antisemitism and misogyny see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/.) Melville went back and forth on this question: sometimes roaring as the unmasker of frauds, sometimes soothing himself with reveries that returned him to the perfectly happy family.

[David Hume on moderation, History of England, Vol.8, pp 310-311, jousting with Locke:] “The Whig party, for a course of near seventy years, has, almost without interruption, enjoyed the whole authority of government; and no honors or offices could be obtained but by their countenance and protection. But this event, which in some particulars has been advantageous to the state, has proved destructive to the truth of history, and has established many gross falsehoods, which it is unaccountable how any civilized nation could have embraced with regard to its domestic occurrences. Compositions the most despicable, both for style and matter, have been extolled, and propagated, and read; as if they had equaled the most celebrated remains of antiquity. And forgetting that a regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinated to a reverence for established government, the prevailing faction has celebrated only the partisans of the former, who pursued as their object the perfection of civil society, and has extolled them at the expense of their antagonists, who maintained those maxims that are essential to its very existence. But extremes of all kinds are to be avoided; and though no one will ever please either faction by moderate opinions, it is there we are most likely to meet with truth and certainty.”

And why not embrace the manipulative moderates, rejecting Locke and empiricism as Hume did, to his everlasting glory in the political ruling class? Few of us have the inner strength and indomitable will to escape the prisons of our contexts, to strip ourselves and our institutions of pretense. And so we fail. Back in the days when I was friends with leftists, I remember reading that it was the task of each generation to determine what was possible, given the times, to accomplish something that would advance human liberation.  I still think that is a noble aspiration, and grown-up too, for only chiliasts and other apocalyptic thinkers and actors would imagine immediate utopian outcomes to our efforts at understanding the world with a modicum of accuracy. The point of this blog: to be skeptical of pretenses to expert knowledge, but, after much investigation, to make a stand for empiricism and  self-discovery, for human mental and physical health, even though present pressures and future developments could render our decisions flawed and ignorant. But not to succumb to utter nihilism, as Melville did during a difficult period in his own life, lived in a transition from a pre-industrial world to a new world that seemingly rewarded only frauds and phonies.

[From Moby-Dick:] “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.  Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks.  Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

     Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”(Northwestern-Newberry edition, 363-364). Has Ahab seized the narration, or is it the survivor/spectator Ishmael who warns against knowledge of the self that could estrange him from the family of origin? Or is the narrator saying that to discover that we don’t know ourselves is an unbearable horror?

Pierrot can and should bend the bars of his prison to escape, at least for the moment. We should know when we bite our tongues, and forgive ourselves for not always speaking or writing what we most deeply feel and think. I feel an Ishmael writing here.

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

November 30, 2013

Railroading Captain Ahab

Everett Henry's Map of the Pequod's Voyage

Everett Henry’s Map of the Pequod’s Voyage

[What follows is an excerpt from my book Hunting Captain Ahab; it sums up my argument that progressives are incapable of describing this “great book” with accuracy, for they would have to admit their overweening statism as embodied in the White Whale (Leviathan).

Rockwell Kent's Starbuck shielding his eyes

Rockwell Kent’s Starbuck shielding his eyes

[Clare:] One feature of the (reinstated) organic society favored by many progressives is central to the Melville problem. Before the age of science, discovery, and increasing lower-class demands for a fully-realized popular sovereignty, Church and State conducted their affairs in secrecy. Their subordinates, ordinary people, were free to confess their sins to their betters, but without reciprocity; when Ahab fleeced double-talking “liberals,” from one point of view the gesture was tantamount to deicide and fratricide. For many of the corporatist thinkers who shaped the Melville Revival, Captain Ahab was the classic American type: a frontiersman, a “nosey Hebrew” (as D.H. Lawrence would say) whose curiosity must be moderated; similarly Melville’s dubious “character” as husband and father would preoccupy numerous Melville critics in the twentieth century. Much of the history I shall present is derived from published or archival materials long available but hitherto undescribed to students of American literature; literary scholars and curators have examined the astonishing archives of Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, and Jay Leyda and biographies of Murray and Olson have been published by the most reputable presses. Many questions still remain tantalizingly unanswered and invite further research, but it is clear to me, if not to previous investigators, that in the unmonitored autodidact Herman Melville, Murray, Olson, and Leyda had an able instructor, a mirror, and an irresistible adversary who, insofar as he was Captain Ahab, must have been nervously deranged, twisted by hate. The isolato Ahab was the paradigm of social irresponsibility and his own worst enemy, while sociable Ishmael was the scholars’ antecedent doctor to society. Here is Ishmael’s ominous blood and soil account of Ahab’s origins in his native habitat: Nantucket was originally settled by peaceful Quakers, but they have been invaded by outside influences, they were “variously and anomalously modified by things altogether alien and heterogeneous.” (As Melville’s antebellum readers would have known, “…Nantucket Quakers [were] members of a sect notorious for its literally visionary beginnings and its subsequent antislavery zeal.” [i])

[Ishmael as narrator:]”…For some of these Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance.

” So there are instances among them Nantucket Quakers of men, who, named with Scriptural names—a singularly common fashion on the island—and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with their unoutworn peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king or a poetical Pagan Roman. And when these things unite in a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters and beneath constellations never seen here in the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature’s sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin voluntary and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language—that man makes one in a whole nation’s census—a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” (73-74).

[Clare:] In Moby-Dick’s pivotal chapter “The Quarter-Deck,” Starbuck, echoing Ishmael’s earlier diagnosis, reproaches Captain Ahab for abandoning his proper search for profits; the quest for vengeance against a “dumb brute” is blasphemous and mad. Ahab reproaches the imperceptive first mate, suggesting twice that he adopt the ways of geology and dig: “Hark ye…the little lower layer.” Then, lest Starbuck or other dense readers remain in the dark, Melville spills it: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”[ii] Starbuck is briefly won over, but protests in a chapter that directly follows Ahab’s railroading speech:

[Chapter 37, “Sunset,” Ahab:] “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

[Chapter 38, “Dusk,” Starbuck:] “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! …he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me. I think I see his impious end; but feel I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut. Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries;-aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below!…Oh, life! ‘tis in an hour like this, with soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed–Oh, life! ‘tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee! but ‘tis not me! that horror’s out of me! and with the soft feeling of the human in me, yet will I try to fight ye, ye grim phantom futures! Stand by me, hold me, bind me, O ye blessed influences!”

[Clare:] Standing by Starbuck, one Melville scholar has construed these pages as evidence of Ahab’s protofascism:

[Christopher Durer:] “Like Adolph Hitler, Captain Ahab reaches for the “folksoul” of the crew, and manipulates their minds with the sinister skill of Joseph Goebbels. As in Nazi Germany, so on board the Pequod, the excesses of the will play a major role, as is illustrated in the various speeches of Ahab, and her fated course is, in effect, another triumph of the will. Again, paralleling the transformation of the German nation under the Nazis, the crew of the Pequod becomes “a folk organism and not an economic organization,” since Ahab deliberately rejects the commercial advantages of whaling for a collective psychological fulfillment, resulting from the revengeful pursuit of one whale, seen as the enemy of the state…Ahab is in reality a prototype of a twentieth-century fascist dictator.”[iii]

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

[Clare:]For many Melvilleans, ineffably tied to their tormentor, the most unassimilable element of Melville’s psyche has been Ahab’s materialism yoked to universal standards of ethical conduct. To the extent that Melville is Ahab, he is mad, self- and socially destructive, tyrannical, and an arch-villain. Such views conform to the terror-gothic scenario, amplified by conservatives since the Radical Reformation, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the American and French Revolutions, then the intertwined reform movements of the 1830s-1850s, especially abolitionism. In the “tale of terror” brains and mobs are indissolubly merged; the pregnant bourgeoisie, swollen with a new class and its chimerical socialist utopias, has delivered catastrophes from the French Revolution to Bolshevism and Nazism. In two-dimensional artworks, this aristocratic narrative of the drowning Narcissus/crashing Icarus is frozen as the apocalyptic sublime, the style attributed to mass politics and America. Harold Lasswell, political science consultant to the influential postwar Committee For Economic Development, transmitted such neo-classical diagnoses of “romantic Fascism” and urged the adoption of Murray’s projective testing to implement a program of personnel screening and preventive politics, sighting latent radicalism in prospective leaders in government, industry, labor, and education before they succumbed to the blandishments of Ahab, thereby obviating sleazy witch hunts. Threatened or dispossessed elites continue to flood popular culture with identical antidemocratic propaganda, shaping academic disciplines and mental health treatments to blunt the tools of fiery artisans and their radical descendants.

Defining Melville’s mental states, then, was not simply grist for variously voyeuristic or discreet literary historians, but part of ongoing “Cold Wars” to diagnose and delimit normality and deviance. For some Melvilleans, the divisive apostate Melville, like his characters Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, the “Hegelised” German-Jewish geologist Margoth, and other Bad Jews, has been cast out; ‘Melville’ and other Good Jews have been taken in and ‘tolerated’ by ‘the nation.’[iv] The national bedrock is the sanctity of (upper-class) property (i.e., overweening state power: Leviathan), not the republican principle of equality before the law. Melville has been selectively embraced by a reconstructed lovely family–an erasure of conflict evident in the letters of Melville’s mother and wife. In my study of the Melville Revival, I challenge Starbuck’s view of Ahab as totalitarian dictator along with the concomitant argument followed by some Old and New Leftists that the voyage of the Pequod is an unambiguous allegory of capitalist technology and exploitation, Manifest Destiny, and mind-management in its harshest aspects.[v]

Labor Vincit Omnia

[i] 22. Carolyn Karcher, Shadow Over The Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), 172.

[ii] 23. Neither statement was included in the dialogue of the movie Moby-Dick (1956); thus there is no way to link Ahab’s quest to Mapple’s Sermon (which in the film does include the imperative to seek and preach the truth in the face of worldly opposition); moreover the interchange takes place in Ahab’s cabin and Starbuck challenges his authority immediately. The director was John Huston; the script writer Ray Bradbury.

[iii] 24. Christopher S. Durer, “Moby-Dick and Nazi Germany,”Melville Society Extracts 66 (May 1986): 8. Constructions of Ahab as Hitler invariably depend upon irrationalist explanations for the appeal of fascism and Nazism; rational political and economic interests have been erased.

[iv] 25. See William Braswell, Melville’s Religious Thought: An Essay in Interpretation (Durham, North Carolina: Duke Univ. Press, 1943). “Melville was aware of the deification of science in some quarters. Henry Kalloch Rowe, in his History of Religion in the United States, writes: ‘Many scientists were so enamored of their facts and hypotheses that they claimed too much. They seemed to take pleasure in the destruction of that which was old. They inclined toward a materialistic explanation of all phenomena to the exclusion of spiritual reality altogether.’ It is scientists of this type that Melville derides in Clarel in the character of Margoth, a Jewish geologist who says that ‘all’s geology,’ and who would do away with the ‘old theologic myth.’ Because of Margoth’s insensibility to spiritual things, the pilgrims condemn him severely, and Melville adds an extra touch by causing an ass to bray after certain of Margoth’s speeches” (111, my emph.). Even more crudely put, see Vincent Kenny on Margoth: “…a geologist, a ‘Hegelised–/Convert to science.’ He calls the Bible a tissue of lies and insists that the so-called Holy Land must be made over in the name of progress. Unlike the Syrian monk with his gentle appeal, Margoth repels everyone within sound of his loud voice.” In Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 382-383. Insofar as Melville is seen to espouse these classically Christian antisemitic views, he would be a positive figure to organic conservatives discussed in this book.

[v] 26. D. H. Lawrence (1923) is cited by Ronald Mason, The Spirit Above The Dust (London: John Lehmann, 1951), as characterizing the Pequod as a sign for American industry. (Indeed,  Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature demonized America as a mongrel country that would, aided by the machine, destroy Europe and the white psyche. Ahab was destroying phallic power as epitomized in the White Whale, hence for Lawrence, Moby-Dick was a warning to true aristocrats.) With the exception of the try-pot, however, the technology of whaling ships had not changed for three hundred years when Melville wrote Moby-Dick. The mechanics of whaling partook of craft in hunter-gatherer societies, not the increasingly divided labor and mastery of nature characteristic of industrial processes. The few exceptions to the bad Ahab reading include Raymond M. Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (New York: Doran, 1921); Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 7; Henry Alonzo Myers, Are Men Equal? An Inquiry into the Meaning of American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.Press, 1955, c.1945), 51-55; Cecil M. Brown, “Through a Looking Glass: The White Whale,”Partisan Review (1969): 453-459; and Toni Morrison,“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,”Michigan Quarterly (Winter 1989): 16-17. Hicks and Myers see Ahab as reformer; Myers, a pluralist, recognizes Ahab’s driving (but misplaced) intensity; he is the romantic “earnest reformer” (like those 19th C. crusaders assaulting “ignorance, clericalism, slavery, alcohol, capitalism, war”); whereas Cecil Brown sees a heroic revolutionary (contrasted with the “jew-bastard” surviving liberal, Ishmael); for Toni Morrison (a cultural nationalist), Ahab is a great foe to racism: “the only white male American heroic enough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world as he knew it.” Most recently, Richard C. Doenges presented a paper “Ahab Redux: or Playing the Devil’s Advocate,”at the “Melville and the Sea” Conference, June 19, 1999, Mystic Connecticut. Doenges sees Ahab as both mad and a tragic hero with the whale a representation of Nature in its hostile mode; I view this as a moderated reading, not one entirely favorable to Ahab, who, unlike Ishmael, as the author argues, was blinded by the fire.

Readings by liberals and leftists hostile to Ahab include Charles H. Foster, “Something in Emblems: A Reinterpretation of Moby-Dick,” New England Quarterly (Mar. 1961): 3-35, who views Father Mapple as an ultra-abolitionist the likes of Garrison, Richard Hildreth, and Gilbert Haven, but Ahab as Daniel Webster, an apologist for slavery and a demagogue. Some see Melville, or Ahab (or both) as ineffectual bohemian, consummate narcissist or world-destroying arch-capitalist; or anticipator of Hitler and Stalin: see V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 272-273; Henry Bamford Parkes, “Poe, Hawthorne, Melville: An Essay in Sociological Criticism,” Partisan Review 16 (Feb.1949): 157-166; Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (N.Y., Macmillan, 1949), 101; John Howard Lawson, The Hidden Heritage (New York: Citadel Press, 1950): 428; James B. Hall, “Moby Dick: Parable of a Dying System,” Western Review (Spring 1950): 223-226; C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (self-publ.1953), its last chapter (suppressed in a later edition) linked Ahab to a duplicitous Jewish communist named “M.” See also Leo Marx,”The Machine in the Garden,” New England Quarterly 29 (Mar. 1956): 27-42; and H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim As Criminal And Artist: Literature from the prison (New York:  Oxford Univ. Press, 1978): Chapter Two.

November 5, 2013

Kerry Washington, SCANDAL, and miscegenation

Kerry W in "Olivia Pope" mode

Kerry W in “Olivia Pope” mode

This blog is about actress Kerry Washington’s confusion about the primary fear of segregationists in both the antebellum North and South and then in the post-60s age of multiculturalism. The host of SNL November 2, 2013, complained that she was paired with a white president. Ms. Washington seems not to have understood that her sexual liaison with the white President was the scandal of SCANDAL.

On Monday November 4, the bean counters of NPR noted Ms. Washington’s appearance on SNL, noting that she was funny, and that it was scandalous that there was no regular African-American female cast member.  (See the “diversity” issue brought up here also: http://popwatch.ew.com/2013/11/03/snl-recap-kerry-washington-eminem/.)

It is indisputable that the fear of miscegenation was the great fear of Americans before bohemianism and bogus ‘anti-racism’ overtook American culture,  recent developments that have screwed up the formulators of affirmative action, who relied on blood and soil definitions of identity, as had their German Romantic forebears. What box to check when the applicant has “mixed blood”?

What follows is an excerpt from my book ms. that lays out the overpowering importance of “amalgamation” that infused even so advanced a city as antebellum Boston, home of abolitionism and such luminaries as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner.  By radical Enlightenment, I refer solely to intellectual freedom and human rights as limned in the Declaration of Independence and the First  Amendment to the US Constitution. (I call the Progressives conservative enlighteners, because they co-opted ‘science’ in the service of political stability and social cohesion, discarding the search for truth.)

[excerpt Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 2:] One distinguished proto-Progressive was Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the State of Massachusetts (1830-60), Herman Melville’s father-in-law and patron until his death. I have joined two of Shaw’s major decisions to suggest a leitmotif for the Melville Revival: the paradoxical Progressive gesture of simultaneous incorporation and encysting; we will see this process repeated as ambivalent Melville scholars elevate/reject Melville as Ahab, charismatic transmitter of radical Enlightenment.

Judge Shaw had decriminalized labor unions in his landmark decision of 1842, Commonwealth v. Hunt.[i] In Sarah C. Roberts v. City of Boston, 1849, however, Judge Shaw created the precedent for Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, the “separate-but-equal” doctrine that was not overturned until Brown v. Board of Education removed the legal basis for school segregation in 1954. Concluding the Roberts case, Shaw announced a unanimous decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court upholding the right of the Boston Primary School Committee to exclude black children from white schools as long as blacks were educated elsewhere. The Chief Justice explained, “The law had not created, and could not alter the deep-rooted prejudice which sanctioned segregation.” Undaunted, Charles Sumner, advocate for five-year-old Sarah Roberts and her father Benjamin, pressed on, accompanied by fellow abolitionists and integrationists, white and black. With the added support of sympathetic opinion in the towns, school segregation was outlawed by the state legislature and signed into law April 28, 1855. Prayed the New York Herald May 4,

“Now the blood of the Winthrops, the Otises, the Lymans, the Endicotts, and the Eliots, is in a fair way to be amalgamated with the Sambos, the Catos, and the Pompeys. The North is to be Africanized. Amalgamation has commenced. New England heads the column. God save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!” [ii]

Propinquity alone must overwhelm blue blood; ring the tocsin! Not so for Captain Ahab as he took “Bell-boy,” the black child Pip, into his cabin: “Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!” Melville and his revivers often diverged in their approaches to independent labor organization and its multifarious amalgamations; the labor question, in turn, is entwined with epistemology in an Age of Revolution. In the venerable centrist discourse (in use since the English Civil War) agreeable folks possessed qualities hitherto associated with race or ethnicity: moderates were good (Tory) Anglo-Saxons; extremists were bad (Hebraic) Anglo-Saxons, overtaken and infiltrated by radical puritanism–the source of all obdurate, selfish, polarizing and deceptive materialist influences. As introduced above, I use the term “corporatist” and “organic conservative” to characterize the triumphant ideology of postwar businessmen, federal bureaucrats and union leaders, the moderate men of “the vital center,” viny humanists all. Emulating the gradualism advocated by the eighteenth-century politician Edmund Burke, the corporatist ideologues presented their scientific socio-economic theory as progressive, i.e., updated and rectified liberalism. The claims of individuals would be balanced against the claims of community and tradition. A weak social democracy was the outcome, with the stipulation that the doctrine of abstract rights, a Jacobin innovation, was out of bounds.

The holistic “vital” vision would unify warring fragments. Spiritualized but fact-loving moderates were at odds both with materialists to their Left (such as the IWW and the Socialist Party, later the Communist Party and the anti-Stalinist liberal Left) and with materialists to their Right. During the Depression, the Left wanted independent labor unions, extensive government regulation of industry, and all forms of social security (including health insurance) to emanate directly from the federal bureaucracy; the market-oriented Right opposed all labor unions and all state regulation. (For the latter, “inefficient” national social security programs would undermine self-reliance, choice, and local control. At that time, some Progressives classified National Socialism as a racist movement of the Left, not the Right; indeed, during the 1930s Gerard Swope’s social democratic proposals, more extensive than Roosevelt’s, were greeted by Herbert Hoover as “fascistic.”)

Kerry femme fatale mode

Kerry femme fatale mode

                [i]  10. See Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement In The United States, Vol.1 (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 163-64. Foner was discussing the Whig pretense that their party served the interests of independent workingmen using suffrage to remedy their grievances. Shaw’s decision had made it legal “to organize and bargain collectively” (but with “enough leeway” to be gutted by “reactionary judges”). In 1839-40, seven leaders of the Boston Journeymen Bootmaker’s Society had been indicted and found guilty for conspiracy, the bootmakers having made rules that would have excluded non-members from the craft. It was argued that they maliciously intended to destroy the plaintiff’s business; Shaw was reversing a Municipal Court decision that had held the Bootmakers’ regulations a conspiracy, enforced or not. Foner quoted Shaw’s opinion: associations could “adopt measures ‘that may have a tendency to impoverish another, that is, to diminish his gains and profits, and yet so far from being criminal and unlawful, the object may be highly meritorious and public spirited. The legality of such an association will therefore depend upon the means to be used for its accomplishment. If it is carried into effect by fair or honorable and lawful means, it is to say the least, innocent, if by falsehood or force, it may be stamped with the character of conspiracy.’ ” Shaw had drawn a clean boundary between honorable and dishonorable social action; Melville would be interrogating Shaw’s distinction in his most disputed texts: what if the fair and honorable were always punished, while the rascals were deemed “innocent”?

                [ii] 11. See Leo Litwack, North of Slavery (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), Chapter 4 for a full discussion of the conflict. The Roberts case was argued by Charles Sumner before Shaw’s court, Dec. 4, 1849. Melville began writing Moby-Dick in 1850.

August 31, 2013

August 9, 2013

Melodrama and its appeal

melodramacrThis is a defense of the professional historian, with a further exploration into the dream world of melodrama. It follows http://clarespark.com/2013/08/08/neocons-academics-melodrama/, and is best read in sequence. (I am taking sides here, but I ask my “side” to take into account the emotional attachments and psychodynamics of the other side, as well as our own.)

It is all too easy to fall into the language of myth. Thus, in the current polarization over whether or not Ronald Radosh is a hero or a villain (the same goes for his antagonist Diana West), we may fail to transcend these mythic stereotypes. I brought up the pervasiveness of “melodrama” in my last blog, but skipped over it too quickly.

There are numerous academics who insist that relatively objective history is impossible and we should not even bother. Hayden White, who ran the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, is one example: he argued that all history falls into the genres of literature, such as comedy or tragedy. His “postmodern” followers are legion and many are in powerful positions. I remember Richard Slotkin, a popular professor at Wesleyan University and author, arguing with me at a conference on “The American Hero” in 1978: There could be no escape from myth, he insisted. I demurred, though I will acknowledge that it is no easy task to get beyond our own subjectivity, i.e., the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world we inhabit. These are stories that often have well-defined heroes, villains, and victims. I was born August 10, 1937, and I still amaze myself with reconfigurations of my family dynamics, all my decisions, including “mistakes”, or the flaws vs. the achievements of my immediate family. I pride myself on my willingness to correct errors, to escape the vocabulary of melodrama, but wonder if I have fallen into yet another trap of subjectivity, that perhaps I will never “get it right.”

This is healthy. Before I went to graduate school in history, I was compiling a context for sentimental song as popularized by the middle class before the American Civil War. It was then that I saw the abundance of songs about dead infants (infant mortality and early death were common occurrences at that time). I also noted the prevalence of heroes, villains, and victims in the discourses of the popular composers of the antebellum period. I read Melville with relief, because I was sick to death of gruesome lyrics and relieved to see him satirize the emotional vocabulary of his contemporaries, for instance in his send-up of sentimental novels: e.g., Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). Decades before Freud, Melville interrogated his family myths, and ended up with ambivalence and ambiguity, not only about his choices, but with respect to his feelings about his closest relatives, particularly his “dear, perfect father.” Melville, then and now, remains one of our greatest critics of melodrama. He has been punished for that, and his major crime would seem to be that he makes us think; he makes us look inside ourselves, and even then, we may never know what motivated us for certain. His protagonist “Pierre” is another Captain Ahab; there are striking similarities between the two Romantic heroes. The lesson they suggest to the reader is that the Romantic hero may be an antihero, even a destructive, demonic force. Melville does not conclude with clear answers; he leaves readers somewhat disoriented, but with a curious, questioning, unsettled kind of mind.

My major gripe with populism is that it hews to the romantic vocabulary of hero, villain, and victim. “The people” (rarely defined in terms of precise socio-economic class or gender) are the victims of villains (finance capital, warmongers, Jews, political hacks, professors), but are saved by designated heroic figures who finger the bad guys, and turn victims into heroes as they defend the people’s detective against onslaughts from, say, Ronald Radosh or the professors and journalists who support his critique of Diana West. Years ago I faced a similar situation when I defended Walter Lippmann from the followers of Noam Chomsky. Some Chomsky-ites remain unpersuaded by my essay, remaining heroically tied to their Leader against the forces of “manufactured consent” (i.e. the Jews who allegedly control mass media. See http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/). I understand these attachments, which find their force in loyalty to families and other authority figures who hold the powers of life and death over us, even as we grow into adulthood.

Hero-worship is unattractive and un-American whether it emanates from the far Left/counter-culture or far Right. To many populists, Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated by the briefly opened Soviet archives after 1989, but they do not appreciate the caution that trained historians and political scientists exerted when interpreting the revelations about real Soviet espionage during the 1930s onward. It is one thing to recognize that Alger Hiss was guilty, but quite another to implicate all liberals, including FDR and his entire administration in Hiss’s treason. It is one thing to argue that the Cold War was fought too weakly (see Revel’s How Democracies Perish, summarized here: http://clarespark.com/2011/04/09/jean-francois-revel-and-father-mapple/), but quite another to claim that “America” was occupied by commie-symps for decades, that “America” was “betrayed” by moderates and liberals.

None of this mythologizing would be possible without the “culturalist” turn in the writing of U.S. history, combined with the promiscuous gullibility of internet users who enjoy being “inside-dopesters.” Economic interest was erased in favor of ethnicity and identity politics. The result? Our journalists usually fail to describe partisan conflicts (including internal ones) with accuracy. In my reading, economic factors and beliefs about wealth creation are foremost in the current polarization: Keynesians believe that the State is the most potent force enabling upward mobility, while free market theorists generally favor supply-side economics as more efficient and conferring improved life chances. (This conflict about wealth creation perhaps splits both political parties internally, complicating our political culture insofar as it goes unnoticed.)

What makes historians competent is their long immersion in archival research and their participation in the most heated debates over what really happened in the past. This is a discourse that has no place for hero-worship. We ought to suspect everybody, including ourselves as we read what is available to our eyes. It takes the most arduous training and ongoing humility to become even somewhat competent in any sub-field. To imagine that an English major from Yale, armed with only a bachelor’s degree, is able to correct the work of an entire group of historians (some of them sadder-but-wiser neocons), is to indulge oneself in the most primitive and destructive thinking.


August 5, 2013

Evil (crypto-Jewish) Puritans

PuritansHarvard sociologist Talcott Parsons once described American analogs to evil Nazis: they were the “romantic Puritans” of New England. In the Wall Street Journal of August 5, Kirk Davis Swineheart reviews For Adam’s Sake: A Colonial Saga in Colonial New England by Allegra di Bonaventura. The reviewer praises “the great Puritan divine John Winthrop” in the first sentence, then goes on to make the startling observation that New Englanders held slaves. At least he did not echo black supremacist claims that Jews dominated the slave trade, but his rendering of the sins of colonial New England find resonance in American Studies, in studies of colonial history, and in the fiction of Thomas Dixon, author of the screenplay for the notorious The Birth of a Nation—a movie that set off the second wave of KKK activity in the nineteen teens and twenties.

When I entered graduate school in the early 1980s to get my degree in US history, I quickly discovered that New England was one of the most studied in the social history (bottoms-up) sub-field. The Salem witchcraft trials were one sensational attraction, but so was the Antinomian Controversy of 1636-1638, considered to be a prelude for the worst excesses of the English Civil War. John Winthrop (whose organicist ideology harkened back to medieval economic practices) was pitted against the troublemaking avatar of market society Anne Hutchinson. I wrote about this controversy at length here: http://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/. [This series is highly recommended. Nothing like it anywhere.]

The favored explanation for the Salem witch hunts turned out to be “inequality” between settlers in Salem, and one book that explained the witch hunt was especially favored (by Boyer and Nissenbaum, both part of the academic left). Imagine my surprise when in my dissertation research I discovered that one famous American, a member of the Adams family, viewed the Puritans as Hebraic, and indeed as a “persecuting race.” What follows is an excerpt from Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. It brings together the notions of Puritans as proto-Nazis, the puritan as romantic, and the antisemitic slant adopted by Talcott Parsons and his predecessors or intellectual descendants in American history/cultural studies. Even Lord Byron enters the picture of villainy, racism, and tainted Jewish blood (as victim, not perp).

[Book excerpt:] In an effort to achieve upper-class unity after the Civil War against an expanding industrial working class, the essentialist anti-puritan/anti-Jewish/misogynistic reading of “the American character” was adopted by ideological brethren on American soil.  The “left” Romantics, like New England Puritans, were consistently “typed” or “raced” as Hebraic or Jewish by organic conservatives. But the fanatics were also “gendered” as the moral mother, her prototype Anne Hutchinson.  Take the case of the nineteenth-century American historian Charles Francis Adams who analyzed the Antinomian controversy (1636-38) that he claimed had rent and permanently damaged the infant colony of Massachusetts Bay even as the provoking Anne Hutchinson and her corrupting middle-class will to power were banished:[1]

[Charles Frances Adams:] “It was a struggle for civil power and ecclesiastical supremacy in a small village community.  As such it naturally–it almost necessarily–resulted in a display of the worst qualities of those engaged in it.  It illustrated also with singular force the malign influence apt to be exercised by the priest and the woman as active elements in political life.  Stirred by an access of ill-considered popular enthusiasm, the body of the freemen had, at the election of 1636, put a slight upon the time-honored magistrates of the colony, by placing the boyish Vane over their heads, in the office of governor.  An ambitious woman, with her head full of Deborahs and the like, and with a genius for making trouble, had then sought to drive from his pulpit, in the chief town, its long-settled pastor, in order to install her own favorite preacher in his place, with her kinsman as that preacher’s associate and successor.  In her day-dreams she herself probably occupied, in the new order of things she proposed to bring about, the position of a prophetess,–the real guiding spirit of the whole, –with her husband possibly in the judge’s seat.  Altogether it was an exhilarating vision,–such a vision as self-conscious and usually unappreciated natures have in every time and most places been wont to revel in….(569)…At the hands…of an historian whose intelligence is not mastered by his sympathies, she and her friends, including Governor Vane, are entitled to no consideration.  They went on a fool’s errand, and they brought great principles into lasting odium.

On the other hand, the way in which the adherents of [Henry] Vane and Mrs. Hutchinson were suppressed cannot be defended, without including in the defence the whole system of religious and political intolerance of that time.  But why should it be defended?  It is impossible to ignore the fact, and worse than useless to deny it, that the New England Puritans were essentially a persecuting race.  They could not be otherwise. They believed that they were God’s chosen people.  As such, they were right; all others were wrong.  If, therefore, they failed to bring up their children in the strait and narrow way, and to protect them and all the people from the wiles of the Evil One, God would not hold them guiltless.  The Israelites were their models in all things, and the precedents which guided their action were precedents drawn from the books of the Old Testament.  “So, by the example of Lot in Abraham’s family, and after Hagar and Ishmael, he saw they must be sent away.”  The Israelites were not an attractive or an amiable or a philosophical race; they were narrow, devout and clannish.  No one ever presumed to sophisticate away their cruelties or their persecutions.  Yet withal they were a strong and aggressive people, believing certain things implicitly; and accordingly they impressed themselves and their beliefs on the human mind.  Their very imperfections were essential elements of their strength.  They believed to fanaticism; and it was the strength of their fanaticism which caused their belief to dominate.  It was the same with the Puritans of New England. They persecuted as a part of their faith.”

Bad Anne Hutchinson

Bad Anne Hutchinson

[Book, cont.]    The impartial historian Adams’ misreading of ancient history is remarkably sturdy.  In his Hume-style portrait of the usurping Anne Hutchinson (a.k.a. Hawthorne’s “the Woman”) we have the ahistoric archetype of the totalitarian agitator, the clingy maternal superego that holds humanity, rulers and ruled alike, to universal and timeless ethical standards, that dispatches Ahab and Pierre on utopian crusades that are sure to fail. [2]  It is fascinating and alarming to contemplate the birthing of Adams’-style “pluralism,” scattering the dark shadows of ‘intolerant’ Hebraic Puritanism, cradle of both factions in the Antinomian controversy. Today Anne Hutchinson is a heroine to some feminists and libertarians, a proto-Nazi to one prominent New Americanist. Richard Brodhead, dean of Yale college and Professor of English, writing for an educated middle and upper-class audience, has depicted the lineage she spawned, worsened by “the emotional dependencies produced in the hyper-affectionate, inward-turning, hothouse family newly prominent in Melville’s time”:

“Captain Ahab is a figure of the psychically damaged man as visionary authority and charismatic leader.  Ahab knows and persuades others of the One Sole Truth, the truth of his demented obsession.  Pierre is another incarnation of a type that has run through American history, from the antinomian religious dissidents of the 1640s [sic] to the civil disobeyers and antislavery radicals of Melville’s generation to the sect and militia leaders of our own time.  In its harrowing rendition of the cult of private visionary calling, “Pierre” envisions this urge as leading not just to violent trashing of the conventional social world but to a meltdown or disorientation of the moral world.”[3]

[Book, cont.]    For gentleman scholars, English and American alike, Lord Byron was the epitome of adolescent negativity, Thomas Carlyle his antithesis.  Written in 1924, the English critic H.J.C. Grierson’s remarks could have been voiced by any of the lashed Melville scholars peering at Mother’s ruffled brow.  They register an appetite both for suffering and its relief, an oscillation between pious aversion and illicit admiration:

” To Byron’s acute, clear mind the mystical philosophy which is at the heart of romanticism was altogether foreign.  He never approached the inner shrine of romanticism where the mood of a mere rebellion begins to give way to dimmer or clearer intuitions of a new and positive vision, a faith to take the place of that which the spirit has rejected, the dawning of a new comprehension of the magic and beauty of nature, the mystery and beauty of human nature, full as it is of “misery, heartbreak, pain, sickness, and oppression.”

Byron has failed, or has he?  Pain is sublime, but so is the grandeur of social transformation.  Byron reminds us of the Jews:

“…He was held in the grasp of too many contradictions–antidemocrat and democrat, believer and blasphemer, man of the world and inspired satirist.  But, to speak more truly, the Romantics were all prophets, not unlike their Jewish precursors, intent at a period of world-disorder on the quest of justice and mercy and love and beauty, a recasting of life and reconstruction of faith…. He is the constant reminder…of what the world really is, of the greatness of the task of interpreting and reforming it.”[4]

Grierson, the devotée of Carlyle, but swept away, has conceded that the [Jewish] Byron is “really” in touch with things as they are. Lord Alfred Douglas, editor of Plain English, was less favorably disposed toward the Jews. His poem, “In Excelsis”(1924) contains images that evoke the Quarter-Deck scene in Moby-Dick as read by conservative critics sighting an uprooted materialist heretic in Ahab:

“The leprous spawn of scattered Israel/ Spreads its contagion in your English blood;/ Teeming corruption rises like a flood/ Whose fountain swelters in the womb of hell./ Your Jew-kept politicians buy and sell/ In markets redolent of Jewish mud,/ And while the ‘Learned Elders’ chew the cud/ Of liquidation’s fruits, they weave their spell./ They weave the spell that binds the heart’s desire/ To gold and gluttony and sweating lust:/ In hidden holds they stew the mandrake mess/ That kills the soul and turns the blood to fire,/ They weave the spell that turns desire to dust/ And postulates the abyss of nothingness. “[5]

[Book, cont.]    There is no single left or liberal standard to evaluate the social content of art.  Today’s ethnopluralists continue to scan texts for positive or negative images of their partisans.  In the 1930s, Stalinist bureaucrats separated proletarian and bourgeois consciousness so drastically that essentialist categories permeated their critical theory no less than the racialists’.  Only “workers” or the colonized masses (a.k.a. themselves) were free of perceptual distortions.  Hegelian-Marxists have attempted to locate the text in history, analyzing form and content to discover the concrete function it might have served in “the world movement toward democracy.”  Artists who artificially reconciled glaring social contradictions (between capital and labor, between ideals and reality) either through class collaboration or resignation or through formal closure–the impossibly happy ending, all threads tidily tied up–were held to be right-wing and antimodern.  Progressive artists were those who ripped into appearances to leave secrets exposed and contradictions hanging.  This is a test that Ahab and his blood-tipped harpoon should have passed; why didn’t they?   (For a hostile Southern view of New England puritans see http://www.sonofthesouth.net/revolutionary-war/pilgrims/puritans.htm. For a blog on the Wandering Jew trope, see http://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/.) For a more recent blog that stigmatizes all early Americans Protestant nativists/murderers, see http://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/.


[1] Charles Francis Adams, Three Episodes of Massachusetts History Vol. II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903, Revised Edition): 574-75. Henry Vane was a puritan aristocrat, briefly governor of Massachusetts Bay, later executed as a regicide.  Note that Hutchinsonian ambition is blamed, yet the Puritans were essentially persecutors. (Adams of course was the grandson of John Quincy Adams whose Puritanism was directed against the money power;  his father had married into wealth , as Daniel Walker Howe points out,  Political Culture of the American Whigs, p. 48.)  This inner contradiction pervades much of the historiography of the Antinomian Controversy. See my ms. “Anne Hutchinson’s Red Regiment.” It is also telling that Adams Jr. had turned against the unbending radicalism of his father’s friend Charles Sumner who may be the more immediate inspiration for his hostile portrait of the puritans.

      Cf. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, 1996, p.287: “…Melville intuitively sensed, perhaps in the deepest recesses of his own heart, an inner mother—not the haughty, controlling Victorian matriarch, but the great goddess whose nurturing presence antedated the angry God of the Hebrews and the Puritans.”  Again, the slur against the angry Jewish God: Referring to a late poem, “The Devotion of the Flowers to their Lady,” Robertson-Lorant  writes “Before the Old Testament patriarchs twisted it into a symbol of sin and death as part of their campaign to destroy  the worship of the Goddess, the snake was considered sacred because it was the creature who hugged the bosom of the Mother and heard her secrets.  The inviolate Rose, a trope for the female genitals, embraces the phallic Worm, or serpent, who is demonized in the Scriptures.  Thus the poem implies that violation and conquest are the direct legacy of a jealous God whose power is controlling and destructive, not generative and erotic. (611).”

Similarly she conflates Melville’s neo-Calvinist mother, the Hebrew God, and Ahab: “In a man-of-war world, the voice of the people is strangled by propaganda, which is violence transformed into a bloodless art. The Bellipotent resembles a twentieth-century totalitarian state where government officials invoke “national security” to cover politically expedient violations of civil rights [what civil rights?], and where military necessity dictates that perversions of language are acceptable political weapons, and justice as civilians know it does not exist.  In Moby-Dick, Ahab bends the crew to his insane will by incantatory language and brilliantly orchestrated ritual. With its intentional inaccuracies and syntactical twists and turns, Billy Budd anticipates George Orwell’s 1984. (594). As with many other scholars it is assumed that Ahab foresees or igores the inevitable doom of his ship and crew; the allegorical content of the quest as explicated in “The Quarter-Deck” is not engaged. Whether Melville views Ahab as geologic Promethean/ abolitionist or something less appealing to twentieth-century liberals, the comparison with Hitler or Stalin is ahistoric.

[2] See the Robert Altman-Donald Freed film Secret Honor, in which the Quaker Richard Nixon is dominated by his mother, the source of his over-reaching and tragic descent into madness.  First his mother’s little dog, he is set up to become the running dog of the fascistic nouveaux riches Southwestern capitalists after the war.  It is hinted that the Eastern establishment erred in not taking the talented young veteran and lawyer into their club; i.e., they lacked the necessary stabilizing pluralism that keeps the ship afloat.

 [3] Richard Brodhead, “The Book That Ruined Melville,” New York Times Book Review, 1/7/96, p.35. See also Brodhead’s essay “Melville, or Aggression,” Melville’s Evermoving Dawn, ed. John Bryant (Kent: Kent State U.P., 1997): 181-191. Relying on what he calls a recent revolution in feminist cultural history that has explicated the entry of sphere ideology and new roles for  the sexes, Ahab is now understood as the exemplar of individualist masculinity as constructed in mid-19th century America, the self-assertive entrepreneur resisting subjugation, his rage a cover for inner feelings of impotence.  Ishmael, not Ahab, represents Melville’s creative capacities, sublimating male aggression into “writing, irony, and verbal play “(182).

[4] H.J.C. Grierson, “Lord Byron,” The Nation and the Athenaeum, 4/19/24, 81-83.

[5] Quoted in Gisela C. Lebzelter, Political anti-Semitism in England 1918-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1978 ):26. The “Learned Elders” were the conspiratorial rabbis exposed in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forgery swallowed whole by respectable conservative journalists in 1920. John Freeman, the second Melville biographer, published in Douglas’ periodicals, including Academy.

July 9, 2013

Preconditions for “hard liberty”

mammon-euro-dollar1I asked my Facebook friends what were the preconditions for a functioning democratic republic. The most offbeat answer was “peace and quiet.” I can understand that frustration with the constant undeclared warfare between fragments of the American polity. It is difficult to think rationally in the eye of the storm brought about by a strident, loud, and intrusive public culture. It is not only noisy out there, but many of our young cannot tell the difference between “real” and “fake.” Giving up on that distinction would mark the end of the American Idea.

I had promised a blog about democratic republicanism, but changed my focus because I believe that the libertarianism promised by the Founders is on the defensive. So is their rationalist belief in empiricism, checks and balances, separation of powers, and a marketplace of ideas. Through such novel institutions, “the truth will out.” The notion that America is a collection of truth-seeking individuals has been supplanted by collectivist, organic notions of grouplets, group-think, and exaggerated “racial” or “ethnic” differences. Walls have been erected that not even the most skilled rock climbers can surmount: anti-imperialists and postmodernists control teaching in the humanities. (See http://clarespark.com/2013/07/02/groupiness-group-think-and-race/.)  The result? Most of us lack the tools (or the access) to determine who is lying to us, and who is not. Between such doctrines as “the pastness of the past” (i.e., the past is unknowable) and cultural relativism, a.k.a. radical subjectivism, we are left scratching our heads. If they are so lucky as to be able to read Moby-Dick, our young cling to “interdependent” Ishmael, not truth-seeking  and demystifying Captain Ahab.

Not surprisingly, irrationalism has supplanted the rationalism of the 18th century. It helps to remember that vanguard ideas like “hard liberty” are always threatened by traditional elites, who prefer “servile pomp” (quoting Mammon’s speech, Book II, Paradise Lost. I am not claiming that either John Milton or Herman Melville was unambivalent about digging to find the truth.)

[Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 4: excerpt:]

Ahab’s uncracked militancy has been badly misread; it is Ishmael who deems him a monomaniac, Satanically driven to destroy God and his ship; the same insults were hurled at the abolitionists by proslavery apologists and utopian socialists or land reformers during the 1840s and 1850s. Rather, Moby-Dick relates one big moment in the West’s progress toward intellectual freedom and responsibility: the withdrawal of legitimacy from duplicitous or confusing authority. Just as the narrator Ishmael attacks Ahab in Moby-Dick, the narrator of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (1667) initially presents Mammon as a gold bug plundering Mother Earth:

There stood a hill not far whose grisly top

Belched fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire

Shone with a glossy scurf, undoubted sign

That in his womb was hid metallic ore,

The work of sulphur. Thither winged with speed

A numerous brigade hastened. As when bands

Of pioneers with spade and pickaxe armed

Forerun the royal camp, to trench a field,

Or cast a rampart. Mammon led them on,

Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell

From heaven, for even in heaven his looks and thoughts

Were always downward bent, admiring more

The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,

Then aught divine or holy else enjoyed

In vision beatific: by him first

Men also, and by his suggestion taught,

Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands

Rifled the bowels of their mother earth

For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew

Opened into the hill a spacious wound

And digged out ribs of gold. Let none admire

That riches grow in hell; that soil may best

Deserve the precious bane. (PL, I, 670-692, my emph.)

But during Satan’s council with the fallen angels, Mammon does not jibe with the greedy transgressor of Book I; rather, he demystifies Heaven and withdraws deference from an omnipotent yet darkly angry and inscrutable God. Has Milton turned about?

“…how wearisome

Eternity so spent in worship paid

To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue

By force impossible, by leave obtain’d

Unacceptable, though in Heav’n our state

Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek

Our own good from ourselves, and from our own

Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,

Free, and to none accountable, preferring

Hard liberty before the easy yoke

Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear

Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,

Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse

We can create, and in what place so e’er

Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain

Through labour and endurance. This deep world

Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth heaven’s all-ruling sire

Choose to reside, His glory unobscured,

And with the majesty of darkness round

Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar

Mustering thir rage, and Heav’n resembles hell?

As he our darkness, cannot we his light

Imitate when we please? This desert soil

Wants not her hidden lustre, gems and gold;

Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise

Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?

Our torments also may in length of time

Become our elements, these piercing fires

As soft as now severe, our temper changed

Into their temper; which must needs remove

The sensible of pain. All things invite

To peaceful counsels, and the settled state

Of order, how in safety best we may

Compose our present evils, with regard

Of what we are and were, dismissing quite

All thoughts of war: ye have what I advise.” [i] (PL, II, 247-283, my emph.)

Seventeenth-century readers would have understood Mammon’s mining as the insatiable curiosity of materialists; in the twentieth century, some influential anticapitalists claimed mining as a defining ingredient of the hated capitalist system.[ii] In his own eloquent voice, Mammon’s productivity was lustrous with moral effort and simplicity; “gems and gold” could signify enlightenment, for magnificent display had been tarnished as “servile pomp.” Mammon urges the rebel angels to abandon Satan’s war against God, to create a paradise on earth won by labor and endurance. Like Milton’s Mammon, the ‘radical’ puritan Ahab has chosen hard liberty: if necessary, the artist will stand alone against evil emanating from Leviathan (the State) or an irrationally punitive God himself, but with his sturdy (Providential) God-given conscience intact. Mammon’s freedom does not lead to anarchy or chaos: the golden reward is self-respect. [End, book excerpt]

In order to respect oneself, there has to be a (relatively autonomous, striving) self. Too much of our current political culture has abandoned the very notion of the individual. It is not too late to take it back. (For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/. The “intolerable national egotism” is declared off limits to the moderate men. Also for more demonic characters in contemporary culture see http://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/. This links Ahab, Bruno Heller, Patrick Jane, and Bobby Goren. For more on the suppression of primary source materials during the Melville revival, see http://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)



[i] 30. Melville owned John Martin’s print of Satan Presiding At The Infernal Council (the setting for Mammon’s speech). Mammon has described the “peace and prosperity” that Henry Murray would accurately associate with the promises of “Communism” (not capitalism!), contrasting communism with militaristic, power-mad fascism in his 1943 report on Hitler’s psyche. Milton’s ambivalence is explored in Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (New York: Viking, 1977), but without discussion of Mammon’s speech. For a nineteenth-century reading, see David Masson, The Three Devils: Luther’s Milton’s and Goethe’s (London: Macmillan, 1874), 26-27. Masson revealingly distorts the text: “…some of the Angels appear to have been ruminating the possibility of retrieving their former condition by patient enduring…Mammon was for organizing their new kingdom so as to make it as comfortable as possible.”Cf. Carolyn Merchant’s use of Milton’s Mammon as arch-destroyer of the earth in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row paperback, 1983), 39. The “radical subjectivity” that stems from the fortunate fall has been seen as the beginning of “the power of positive thinking,” or “bourgeois order”; see Herman Rapaport, “Paradise Lost and the Novel,” Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost, ed. Galbraith M. Crump (New York: Modern Language Association,1986), 141; Rapaport teaches PL and M-D together; in a richly ambiguous remark he notes Milton’s “satanic leviathan” as an influence on Melville.


[ii]31. See W.P. Witcutt, “The Future of Capitalism: A Note on Werner Sombart,” American Review 5 (Oct. 1935): 531-535. Comparing Hilaire Belloc and Sombart, Witcutt wrote (praising Sombart for his “objectivity”), “By Capitalism Sombart, like Belloc, does not mean the régime of private property, as opposed to Socialism. He does not give any formal definition of Capitalism, but indicates certain constituent elements which may be gathered under the following headings. The Capitalist system consists: (1) of a society stratified into possessors of capital, entrepreneurs, and workers, pure and simple, possessing nothing–proletarians; (2) in the intensive utilization of mineral wealth. “The exploitation of riches beneath the earth’s surface and modern Capitalism are at bottom different aspects (natural and social) of one and the same phenomenon” (531-532). Cf. A.J. Penty, “The Centrality of Money and Machinery,” American Review 6 (Nov. 1935): it is the financiers who first destroyed the stability of peasant life and property. The merchants were the “haves,” the peasants the “have-nots” (2-3).

April 28, 2013

Hatred and sanity

Nazi ad for Der ewige Jude

Nazi ad for Der ewige Jude

Despite the fact that Psalms 97:10 adjures the faithful “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!” (Tanakh), I’m writing this blog because a dispute broke out on a friend’s FB page, regarding whether the emotion of “hate” was always to be detested and repressed, or whether it was the sane response to a world spinning out of control: authoritarian, death-obsessed, and failing. I was the “hater” who was stigmatized. So I’m writing this blog to defend not only myself but Philip Roth’s character “Mickey Sabbath” in his 1995 novel SABBATH’S THEATER, a righteous hater if there ever was one. Call Mickey crazy if you prefer: I call him and his creator genius artists, with out-of-bounds imaginations that are unsurpassed.

I laid out the longstanding antagonism between “Christian” love and “Jewish” hate here: http://clarespark.com/2010/08/15/nazis-exhibit-der-ewige-jude-1937/. I will quote the most relevant paragraph now to illustrate the “binary opposite” that any historian should recognize; the subject was journalist Andrew Sharf’s characterization of “the Eternal Jew” as neutral, not derogatory:

No European myth is benign or even neutral with regard to Jews or to the liberal values that Andrew Sharf wants to defend, nor can it be otherwise. All Jews, including the “eternal” ones, are “bad”; the antithesis of Christian and Jew corresponds to the antipodes of Christian [organic] conservatism* and Jewish [classical] liberalism: (heartfelt) mysticism and (heartless) science, trust and withering skepticism, loyalty and betrayal, community and mob, busy bee and parasite, garden and wasteland. “Good Jews” like Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Cumberland’s Sheva, Walker’s Schechem, and Dickens’ Riah who appeared in the humanitarian literature of the late eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth century were good only because they were more Christian than the bourgeois Christians who were behaving like Shylock and Fagin; capitalism purged of its Judas red-beards would presumably lose its heartless and exploitative character. Christian landlords would never evict a tenant, Christian bankers would never foreclose a mortgage: this demented idea is fundamental to the völkisch revolution of Nazism,[2] but was not their invention. Nazi anti-Semitism, then, was only partly about the considerable material advantages in expropriating Jewish property and expelling Jewish rivals: Nazis, to maintain their credibility as redeemers and protectors, would have to plunge a stake in the heart of the “demon Thought” (to use Byron’s expression). For the antifascist critical mind is not found in a guilt-ridden Adam shrinking from conflict with illegitimate authority or from the perception of other irreconcilable conflicts. Instead, the anti-Semitic/ anti-intellectual mind anxiously mystifies class and gender antagonisms by positing (an unattainable) harmony as “normal.” Brandishing images of solidarity, the fascist bonds people only to “romance” in a false utopia necessarily maintained through deceit, terror and catharsis.

I was born into a non-observant Jewish family: all my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most of my childhood was spent following my adored father-the-doctor around the US as he ran various pathology laboratories for the U.S. Army in which he served as a captain (after the war, he told me resentfully about the antisemitism he encountered). I was usually the only Jewish kid in my eight public schools in Texas, Missouri, California, then in Coney Island and Elmhurst Queens. Nothwithstanding the lack of intellectuality in my immediate family, I was never indoctrinated one way or another to either hate being “Jewish” or to hate the invariably white Christians in my immediate environs. Not long before she died, my mother Betty Spark asked me, were I to do it over again, would I choose being Jewish. (This from another secular Jew.) I said of course, and thought to myself today, “I only wish I had learned Yiddish for its spectacular vocabulary of derision,” a language my mother spoke and understood, but had not bothered to teach me.

My family ca. 1942

My family ca. 1942

I’ll say this about my sort of Jewish Mother: she advised me never to carry a grudge; i.e., never to become a hater. As the daughter of a doctor, I have diagnosed many “haters” whose anger was turned against themselves, leading to ulcers and worse. I take after Betty in this respect, and cling to those qualities in myself that make me a better warrior and a wiser mother and grandmother. Some think of me as cold, detached, and male-identified.

When I, as a citizen and a historian, see politicians, lackey journalists, schoolteachers, professors, former lefty friends, Pacifica radio, and millions of quacks, abuse their powers by mis-educating other people, I believe that a form of “hatred” is the only rational response. That does not mean that I am impervious to the power of old attachments: I remain fond of many who no longer speak to me. It also does not mean that I have succumbed to Christian forgiveness. I don’t believe in forgiveness, though I do not oppose those who are more “charitable” than I. I prefer repentance, self-understanding, and reparations.

Put me in a box with Captain Ahab, a character who is almost always wildly misread for ideological reasons (see http://clarespark.com/2010/06/12/preface-to-second-edition-of-hunting-captain-ahab/). We are connoisseurs of revenge. We are warriors against all forms of evil, especially arbitrary, duplicitous authority that diminishes the creativity of individuals. If that makes me a jerk with both a ramaging Id and a Hebraic puritan superego,  and, hence, a bit mad, so be it. I stand with Herman Melville, Philip Roth, and bless his crazy heart, “Mickey Sabbath,” a Jew I can understand.

[For earlier blogs on the problem of evil, see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, or http://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.]

[Note on the Nazi poster advertising the “show” that 1. this is unmistakably the Wandering Jew of medieval myth, then resuscitated during the Reformation; and 2. Nazi ideology held Jews responsible for bringing communism to Germany. Anticommunism was the chief factor that bound Hitler to the German people. The Wandering Jew myth had nothing to do with communism, which did not exist when the myth was invented, though some trace it to the New Testament.]

March 2, 2013

“Free Speech” and the internet

Moreau's Prometheus

Moreau’s Prometheus

This is not the first time I have broached this subject. See http://clarespark.com/2010/04/04/what-is-truth/.

When Melville’s Captain Ahab exclaimed “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines,” the author left the exact meaning of “truth” undefined. For many Christian readers of Moby-Dick, truth signified the truth of Christ the Saviour and Redeemer, hence Ahab must be a wicked blasphemer and opponent of God. But for secularists (including deists), truth signified empirical fact, ethical universalism, and human rights. In my view, the “fighting Quaker” Ahab was another Father Mapple, an abolitionist. Many “anticlericals” of the 18th C. railed against censorship by authoritarian religious institutions, but their notion of the truth was intended to protect their own writing; such as Voltaire scrambled, using either pen names or publishing anonymously.

Sometime during the research for my book on Herman Melville’s resuscitation between the wars in the 20th century, I read the collected letters of Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was clear that for these three icons of U.S. history, free speech was not about libel or slander, but about the search for worldly truth. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton, in the Crosswell case, argued that “truth” should be the standard in cases of libel and slander; that plaintiffs had to prove that their targets were actually lying before crying foul. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/.)

Several centuries later, Walter Lippmann, worried about the propensities of the new mass media to spread propaganda distortions, suggested that a special class of intellectuals be developed to determine who was lying in controverted matters: controversies where the facts were faraway and otherwise hidden from citizens who would then be asked to vote on problems that were foreign to their direct experience. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)

When I was appointed Program Director of KPFK-FM (the local Pacifica station in Los Angeles) in February 1981, I was asked immediately to discipline a late-night young programmer who was enamored of punk rock music, and who was allegedly using language that could have cost us our broadcasting license. After warning him, he resisted, and I cancelled his show, irritating his listeners. This action was the least of my troubles at Pacifica, but it got me thinking about our using the phrase “free speech” as a rationale for supporting our famously “non-commercial” radio station.

Now with the internet and the widespread use of fake screen names to shield individuals from litigation or any exposure at all as they vent their dissatisfaction and hatred of individuals and policies, along with pressure from organized groups to control speech in public space ( see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, and http://clarespark.com/2011/05/26/who-is-a-racist-now/) the question of free speech remains a live, controverted issue. What do I think about it?

It seems to me that venting rage, either directly through insulting one’s opponents, or through catharsis by listening to or playing raucous music or watching horror films, is no substitute for the careful analysis of problems, whether these be personal or social in scope. Indeed, it may be counter-revolutionary and  destructive apart from the relief of yelling at one’s enemies du jour. Venting and kvetching is no substitute for thoughtful analysis and the labor of organizing opposition.

I used to warn my Pacifica radio listeners that contributing to the radio station was only the beginning of a lengthy process. Later I read Stephen Eric Bronner’s book on the political limitations of German Expressionism that made the same point. There are numerous intellectuals and would be journalists and bloggers who hope to make a living wagging fingers (on both the Left and Right), and some succeed brilliantly at it, but following them accomplishes nothing apart from feeling entirely alienated from their targets, whose different life experience and opinions should be understood as a required prelude to social/political action.

So I end up with a typical 18th C. Enlightenment (classical liberal) view of “the truth.” It is about discovery and innovation, especially the willingness to swim against all currents and to cherish memory and a more accurate history, letting chips fall. (See http://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.) If this be romantic defiance or an attack upon “unity” as many an order-loving leftist or conservative would have it, so much the better for romantic defiance. The urge to forget and to conform knows no ideological boundaries. But we warned: as fictional detective Bobby Goren warned at the end of one of his episodes on Law and Order Criminal Intent: “The search for truth is not for the faint-hearted.” It was an Ahab/Hamiltonian moment.

1960s Berkeley radicals

1960s Berkeley radicals

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