The Clare Spark Blog

September 24, 2009

Liberal opinion leaders and my puritan discontent


David Weigel tracking the Ron Paul demo

 Last evening, a local NPR station broadcast Terri Gross’s interview with David Weigel, an observer of “the Right” with some libertarian credentials of his own. The subject was ostensibly the emergence of a new theme in “right-wing” protest: fiscal conservatism and reverence for the U.S. Constitution. Gross pushed her guest, I thought, to agree with her that the growing deficit was not the real reason folks were turning out for town-hall meetings and mass rallies; rather the deficit (like Constitutionalism) is a cover for the conservative movement to regain momentum for its customary attacks on pro-choice feminism, blacks, illegal Latino workers, and gays. But what was most striking was her view that the protesters were mere clay in the hands of crypto-Fascist organizations and the demagogues of Fox News Channel, prime villains in the recruitment and organization of the 9-12 march on Washington. In other words, she views “the Right” as an undifferentiated mob of proto-Nazis and fascists, illuminated in their dogma by “divine right” that they misread into the Constitution.

    I complained about the program on my Facebook page, and got thoughtful responses from an old friend I met while in graduate school at UCLA, now a history teacher in a Southern university. I promised a blog about the subject, really an excuse to lay out my own philosophy of education, for NPR, like its Pacifica Foundation predecessor, is a listener-supported “educational” outfit that also gets considerable taxpayer funds from the CPB, in addition to the tax-deductibility of individual contributions. The topic is also timely, because Roger Simon has been raising the subject of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, because it has recently come to light that an Obama operative was directing artists to make work in support of the administration’s policy initiatives. Simon and his companion Lionel Chetwynd are wondering what happens when governments fund the arts and humanities.

    As I have been demonstrating all summer on these blogs, the progressive movement has been engaged in enlarging the role of government in ways that are at best, a mixed bag, and at worst, protofascist. Where do I stand with respect to the “culture wars” as a scholar and teacher through this website? As readers of the blogs will have concluded by now, I view every reader, whatever their background or ideology, as an educable person who would rather be free from coercion than to be yanked around by demagogues and other persons who pander to the prejudices of their audiences. I see myself as an emancipator from illegitimate authority and dogma of every kind.

    I was heavily influenced by both of my parents, the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. My father Charles Spark was a research pathologist during the 1930s, then an army doctor (a pathologist in charge of U.S. army base laboratories during the second world war), and when he was discharged, he treated veterans and other people of modest means. From him I was taught to be skeptical of most medicine, and especially psychiatry: “We know very little about the brain,” or, “most doctors are quacks,” he warned me. He had no use for the ways of the nourveaux riches but also all establishments, and had a keen nose for corruption. But most importantly, he stressed the importance of preventive medicine and empathy for the anxieties of those who suffer pain.

      My mother Betty Spark was a minor journalist and social worker, primarily an investigator of persons on relief, some of whom were frauds. Like many other women of her generation, she was an underachiever but an avid consumer of high culture and great talker. She also had an insatiable interest in other people, and made friends in unlikely places. She was no snob and moreover, she was relatively free of racial prejudice. The notion of writing off other people as simpletons, yahoos, or puppets, was foreign to her.

     In college (the Cornell State College of Agriculture) and in my first bout of graduate school (Harvard Graduate School of Education), I was trained very rigorously in science education, with little time for the humanities. (Doubtless, I take personal umbrage when city dwellers look down their noses at rural populations who cope with the vagaries of nature and whose labor is intense and uninterrupted with frivolities.)* Whatever I have done in the, for me, almost recreational fields of history and literature is almost entirely the result of independent reading, for I had few prerequisites in history when I applied for the doctorate in history at UCLA after years of radicalism at Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. The result was that I brought the habit of skepticism, a strong work ethic, and the eye for detail inculcated by the science background, plus, being Jewish (secular) and expecting imminent catastrophe when and if I ever made a mistake or failed to read my environment accurately, I escaped indoctrination and gradually withdrew from prior political alignments, especially as I saw too much conformity to various lines of analysis and hero-worship on the Left as well as the Right. It was hard enough to deal with the idealization of my father the heroic doctor, and I will always struggle with that.

    One reader of this website asked me what I meant by “freedom” (one of the bad words I had listed as creating mobs, because it was so vague as to be meaningless, hence allowed anyone to project whatever meaning the “leader” preferred. See blog I answered him thus: the freedom to see and correct my own misperceptions and mistakes. This may seem like an evasion to some, but I am quite serious. Hip philosophers and social theorists argue endlessly about “structures” versus “agency” and if you don’t listen to them, your work is “under-theorized.” So be it. To conclude this rather personal blog, “freedom” like the other words I listed as potentially mob-making, has a meaning that is dependent on its context. To a small businessman, freedom may entail lower taxes and less bureaucratic red tape in complying with government regulation. Do such persons idealize the “free market”? That is a question we should all be asking, and I would be interested in getting responses from readers to this blog as to what “freedom” means to them, if the word has any concrete, timeless content at all. Don’t look here for final answers, and call me Isabel (an inside Melville joke).

*David Brion Davis (later a famous Yale professor and authority on slavery) allowed me into his American intellectual history course during my last term at Cornell, though I had none of the prerequisites.  I recall thinking that this endeavor was child’s play compared with the sciences, and gazed incredulously at my friends in the school of Arts and Sciences who were seemingly on an extended vacation (unless of course they were science majors).


  1. You define freedom, in sum, as “the freedom to see and correct my own misperceptions and mistakes.” And, that is a good one because it reflects that we must also be free to take the risks of being wrong, in the first place, to see subsequently to our correction. Of course, you have made it plain that you like co-conspirators at your own correction, and that surely abets more general correction among us.

    Freedom would also seem to require that each person take to educating his thinking in terms beyond himself, as you have done. This was exemplified in the long work of racial rights, where over time more and more of ‘those white folk’ came to study, know and demand others’ rights, and that accidents like skin color not be significant criterion. I pride myself as one of ‘those white folk’ who on racial rights I never needed correction, though bigots tried even physically to ‘correct’ me to their own blind and narrow way.

    Comment by Warren Jewell — July 13, 2010 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  2. Hey Clare Spark funny stumbling across you after all these years. In the early 90’s I coerced you into reading Carroll Quigley’s _Tragedy and Hope_ after which you dismissed me as an idiot. I feel that my position has held up pretty well over the years. How about you?

    Comment by episodic95 — September 25, 2009 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

    • Yes, I remember you very well, but you didn’t coerce me: I just was in the habit of taking suggestions from my listeners at Pacifica. I have studied more economic history since those days, and it is true that monetary policy and monetary diplomacy play an important part in wars. But I would rather read Niall Ferguson on these matters than Quigley. You might want to read my prior blogs on populism and its built-in antisemitism.

      Comment by clarespark — September 25, 2009 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

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