YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 2, 2010

Jottings on the culture wars: what are they?

Ad, Harvard Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2009

[Added July 6, 2013: There is massive confusion on what the culture wars are about. Bill O’Reilly pits “traditionalists” against “secular progressives” as if either group was internally coherent; while David Horowitz views [anti-Western] whiteness studies as making a “melodrama” that may explain the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin debacle ( http://tinyurl.com/l5wgmrl).

This essay tries to unpack the culture wars by analyzing the confusing and unsettled sociology that has polarized America. Some of my questions interrogate  both sides in the “culture wars,” rejecting the emphasis on culture to the exclusion of history, political science, and social theory.  (My own views tend toward the classical liberal: thus I am one of those “secular progressives” denounced as enemies to Easter Bunnies and Christmas trees.)]

It is true that politics are messy, by contrast, sociology as the product of German Idealism, is not.  Look back to Herder, Goethe and their successors who promoted a rooted cosmopolitanism. Their identity politics are tied to the utopian longing for stable national (or international) identity where its mosaic bits assume a beautiful pattern, stretching and yawning perhaps, but not confused, not switching, not turning on each other.  With the mosaic in place (i.e., all “ethnic” groups embraced and expressing themselves, but monomaniacs/socially irresponsible capitalists cut out), hostility/prejudice will become irrational: “inclusiveness” and state regulation will have removed rational sources of disaffection. [1]

The identity that matters to enlightened “moderates” equates “totalitarianism of the Left and Right” leaving pluralistic “liberal” democracy as the emancipated, yet irrationalist, alternative.  However, the antifascist pluralism they represent is not the liberalism of the revolutionary bourgeoisie (the classical liberals) but a shattering of what is stigmatized as the Egotistical Sublime (Ariadne’s enthusiasm for labyrinths, or the long view of history.).  Following conservative sociologists (e.g., Max Weber, a German patriot and supporter of the Weltkrieg), their social world is packed into separate categories: political, economic, and the cultural, yet the latter has a life of its own that cancels the politics and economic interest; human competence is dissolved into Negative Capability, at best, grasping only fragments.  The New Pluralism-without-Snakes-and-Spiders merges the individual with its “ethnic (multicultural) communities”–all joyously “fused” in the state (or is it the Great Chain of Being? or nowhere at all? is the state both there and not there?): a totally mystical “public interest” in societies with antagonisms between the owning classes and those dependent on them, the latter with nowhere to go.  This corporatist liberal “web and woof” is the spiritual hammock supporting us against “totalitarianism” of both the Left and Right. 

Where do the left-populists and social democrats fit in?  How can there be anti-racist politics while thinking in racialist terms?[2]  All the questions I have raised are intertwined with the larger debate over epistemology: Heraclitus vs. Bacon and the empiricists.  How do ordinary people, responsible for exercising the duties of citizenship, relying upon observation, study, and experience, know that their actions and judgments are not the products of a flawed methodology?

This blog, like others on this website, addresses the contemporary crisis in the humanities, a feverish condition said by some Rightists to have been imposed by Gramsci, Lukács, Frankfurt School critical theorists such as Adorno and Marcuse, and New Leftists who have taken the strategic heights in education and social policy.  With the ascendancy of Reagan republicanism, revisions of the literary canon and the history curriculum generated by multiculturalism, feminism, and black nationalism have been seen by some conservatives as mindless new developments leading to resurgent antisemitism and neofascism.  I share their concerns, but many conservatives cannot defend their own records nor can they reform the reformers, for they have not situated curriculum reform within the problematic of “democratic pluralism” and its vicissitudes (e.g. Lipset’s and Raab’s  The Politics of Unreason (1970), a venue created by “pragmatic” conservatives long before the “tenured radicals” of the 1960s generation began their “Left” stampede).[3]

As an artist and scholar familiar with some of the history of antidemocratic propaganda, psychological warfare, and censorship, I am disappointed and impatient with the scholars who have taken part to date.  I see mostly polarization and self-righteousness, little self-criticism or generosity or insight: more feints among different factions of counter-Enlightenment vying for the vanguard position, each waving the banner for humanitarian values and methodological sophistication.  I see little robust intellectual confrontation between radicals, liberals and conservatives.  And the wars rage on and on, spurred by the dubious appropriations of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and chaos theory.[4]  Underneath the chatter and jargon and ad hominem insults to colleagues and to humanity at large, the questions of greatest importance to our survival lie buried; no reform strategies can be formulated without answers, and the questions are susceptible to empirical investigation:  Is there or is there not inevitable class exploitation in bourgeois democracies? Can social democratic reform remove what the revolutionary left insists are structural antagonisms?    Are contracts between persons, corporations, and nations contracts at all if one party is coerced by the other?  And who shall adjudicate disagreements if the weaker party balks?  If many people are oppressed, how shall they organize themselves to redress grievances, or should we breed a race of supermen?  Are modernization and industrialization really destroying the planet?  If so, what, if any, mass activity could halt or reverse the destruction?  What are the responsibilities of families, schools, corporations and the media in providing the critical and emotional tools to understand and ameliorate our worsening condition?  Have they ever done so?

Here come the masterless men. As hitherto orchestrated and conducted, the culture wars have diverted attention from these life-and-death issues, as perhaps they were intended to, as they have always done.  Nor have conservatives admitted the source of their anxieties: the tender moment of late adolescence when young people are separating from families of origin and lacking family responsibilities that later on might discourage political radicalism.  Conservative social psychologists applying the lessons of psychological warfare are alert to the power of modern fiction in making subversive notions attractive and acceptible.  Take the case of Herman Melville and his “elusive” or “ambivalent” texts, which though apparently conservative or reactionary, have aroused the energies of expert propagandists of the Right who fear his effect on young readers. For instance, some noted psychological warriors have explained how radical messages may be smuggled into harmless appearing fantasies, making stressed readers more receptive to new ideas, ideas they would normally reject as alien if encountered in an explicitly political context:

“…Of crucial significance may be those who are under strain, ambivalent, at once torn between loyalty to patriotic values and to the new values being offered by the communicator.  Such a segment may be a crucially important target, and it is necessary to understand the nature of its ambivalence and the implications for psychological warfare possibilities.  While such a segment is drawn to the new values, its allegiance to the old is made more compulsive by guilt feeling evoked by its attraction to the new.  Among such a population we should expect strong ritualistic conformity which would serve to deny evidences of hospitality to the alien values.  Beneath this ritualism, however, we should also expect to find the repressed side of the ambivalence, the side which represents a disposition to espouse the new values.

Research is now needed on the readiness of individuals under strain to accept communications which represent both the expressed and the repressed sides of their ambivalence.  It has been suggested that such individuals will reject any overt statement of the repressed side; but that they may pay attention if the repressed value is expressed in fictional form, so that it may be received on the level of fantasy, thus protecting the receiver from the need to decide whether or not he believes, or is willing to accept, such a conflicting value.  It is our belief that research along lines such as these would have far reaching operational usefulness for psychological warfare.” [5]

 [Clare:] Such sophisticated machinations at the highest levels of government suggest why apparently harmless cultural artifacts as the novels students read in high school and college can fluster vigilant ideologues.

Blunted tools have brought us to the current impasse over teaching methods, curriculum, and standards.  We are besieged by crazy-making, historically incorrect specters of our own fully feeling, fully thinking selves: The modern artist as slipping Titan, the obsessive Faustian autodidact, the obsequious romantic lover, the miscegenating rootless cosmopolitan, the vindictive muckraker.  Their unpardonable sin is the bad news that uncontrollable curiosity and unbalanced temperaments have shoved in our faces: there are or may be class antagonisms that cannot be reconciled by conservative reform, i.e., by negotiation and adjustments that do not severely threaten the economic interests of ruling classes.  So the hyper-individualistic “materialistic” Jew is converted to “the [idealist] new historicism”and disappears into “community” as defined by others; the judenrein center finds itself ensconced in the administered state.[6]

1930s intellectuals sometimes called this condition fascism; today it is more benignly labeled ‘multiculturalism,’ and is touted as the remedy for prejudice, scapegoating, and intolerance.  As social policy its longevity has been guaranteed by state, foundation, and university funding.  To speak against it incites accusations of Right-wing racism and worse.  Don’t bother applying for a CPB grant or a job in public broadcasting if you disdain the multicultural narrative of world history as racial/ethnic conflict, the genocide and ecocide perpetrated by “white males” or “the West”–a sad story that new textbooks, curricula, and television or radio programs celebrating “diversity” will bring to a happy end.

Although “Left” and “Right” have been internally at loggerheads over this social policy, all parties agree that insurgent blacks, women, and gays of the New Left initiated and now preside over the new wave of reform.  Before that (the early 1970s), an unbroken, unchallenged master narrative of Western progress is said to have reigned in academe and the media.  For the hard Right, the narrative was rational, unified and benign; for the hard Left (including anti-imperialist whites, people of color, and women, but not materialists), the narrative was entirely malignant; for the “moderate” critics straddling both positions, the narrative was contradictory and ambiguous, but would be resynthesized with the vigorous new blood and perspectives of the hitherto excluded, the better to launch a really Enlightened non-Marxist New New Left.[7]

My work takes none of these idealist positions, but seeks to document some of the major thinkers and social movements that promoted cultural policies coinciding with their perceived class interests.  No materialist has publicized the history of multiculturalism or “identity politics,” a history which cannot be deciphered without recalling competing prewar definitions of fascism, protofascism, and antifascism.  Hence I reject as ideologically distorted previous attempts to periodize the culture wars.  I suspect that the media, publishing, and academe are structurally precluded from describing the origins of this dispute for fear of damage done to the reputations of most postwar “liberal” intellectuals, whether positioned on the Left, Right or Center.  Nobody wants to say he has been successful by conforming to pseudo-democratic institutions, in some ways indistinguishable from their analogs in Germany and Italy before 1945; nobody wants to admit he is suffering from a massive failure of nerve.

CultureWarrior

     So-called multiculturalism is a reactionary ideological offensive that  confused individuals with groups and suppresses economic explanations for conflict and change in favor of cultural anthropological ones.[8]  As a manifestation of German Romanticism, it was an aesthetic theory buttressing a political structure: an irrationalist völkisch “aristo-democracy” (Herder).[9]  The German Romantics and their popularizers in England and America, men like Carlyle and Emerson, waved their supple poetic individuality, unique, yet imperceptibly diffused into race and nation and time itself as Schlegel had advised.  The aristo-democrats were the blooming correctives to the dessicating “mechanical” rationalism and universalism that had undergirded popular sovereignty for the seventeenth-century political theorist of constitutional democracy, John Locke.  In the eighteenth century, Piranesi would visualize this Lockean world in a series of engravings, his nightmarish urban spaces/prisons.  Lord Byron counterattacked with Lockean Prometheans, images of indomitable humanity: fatherless, yet kind, ameliorative and intellectually fortified.  In the later nineteenth century, Piranesi’s desolate, gigantic scenes of torture would reappear in James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night, the City ruled by numeracy and literacy personified in Melencolia, the Queen patterned after both Dürer’s famous image of writer’s block, and George Eliot, Thomson’s contemporary, the realist novelist, author of Felix Holt, Radical.

I have mentioned just a few instances of cultural conflict over accountability: the culture wars are fought over you and me, non-experts in an advanced, complex, and hierarchical, yet “democratic” industrialized society.  Confident in the capacity of ordinary people to test their betters, Locke, like ourselves, was up against centuries of conservative antidemocratic propaganda on behalf of a tribal or feudal order where either Nature or arbitrary authority were taken for granted as immovable. Not surprisingly, social obligations (contracts) were vertical, links in the Great Chain of Being, not horizontal agreements between equals, each party theoretically free to walk away from a bad deal.

NOTES.

[1] For cultural nationalists, the mosaic represents “self-reliance” as expressed in economic autarky, the unit being the ethnic nation.  Such organization would make it difficult for workers to unite across “ethnic” or “cultural” lines. By biological determinism, I do not mean that the followers of Herder had a materialist understanding of the natural sciences. As John Crowe Ransom or Eric Voegelin understood the völkisch idea of a national culture, there would be a spiritual uniformity in a people who had interacted for a lengthy period with their specific material environment, evolving into a balanced relationship with nature and each other. This was the point of T.S. Eliot’s famous remark (1933) about limiting the number of freethinking Jews in the interest of local stability. See Ransom’s crucial essay “The Aesthetic of Regionalism,” AR Vol. 2 (Jan 1934): 290-310, for an elucidation of scientistic localism that infuses contemporary concepts of multiculturalism and compare to Herder’s concept of nationality as described by Eric Voegelin, The History of the Race Idea (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989).

[2] Until I read the political sociologist Eric Voegelin on the history of the race idea, I did not understand this point. Voegelin rejected the concept of “race” as too materialist because of its biological implications. Instead he embraced Herder’s seminal idea of cultural nationalism.

[3] See the tone set by Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Education (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1990): “…the men and women who are paid to introduce students to the great works and ideas of our civilization have by and large remained true to the emancipationist ideology of the sixties” (xiv)…a new form of thought control based on a variety of pious new-left slogans and attitudes (xvi)…The denunciations of the “hegemony” of Western culture and liberal institutions that are sounded so insistently within our colleges and universities these days are not idle chatter, but represent a concerted effort to attack the very foundations of the society that guarantees the independence of cultural and artistic life–including the independence of our institutions of higher education (xviii).”  The radical canon includes Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche (7); quoting Schiller, Kimball praises dissent and complains that the tenured radicals now occupy the moderate center (188-89).

Few have challenged Kimball’s periodization of the “P.C.” debate, nor are the “radical” challenges to the canon seen as élite initiatives, in which a folkish idea has been co-opted and nervously managed by the corporatist liberals on behalf of social stability.  See for instance Gregory S. Jay, “The First Round of the Cultural Wars,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/26/92, B 1-2: The move toward multiculturalism emanated from academic “have-nots” after the 1960s.  Also the militant Heterodoxy, edited by David Horowitz and Peter Collier, Vol.1, #1, “PC Cover-Up,” which argues that left-over Stalinist progeny, 1960s veterans of the New Left, are fighting a rear-guard action which “must be fought to conclusion”: the future of America hangs in the balance.  The writers decry the apocalyptic mentality of “the Left,” chiliastic originators of twentieth-century brutality. [added 1/5/2010: since I wrote this note, I have tended to share the Horowitz-Collier sense of urgency, especially after studying the vogue for Maoism on the Left and chiliasm on parts of the Right.]

A similar urgency informs a more recent debate on PBS (McNeil-Lehrer, 10-26-94) between Lynn Cheney, former head of NEH, and Professor Gary Nash, director of the UCLA National Center for History in the Schools which has produced a curriculum guidebook for grades 5-12 (flexible and adaptable to local conditions and preferences, according to New York Times, 10-26-94, B-8).  Cheney charged that the forces of political correctness have triumphed in the historical profession, and are destroying belief in a flawed, but on balance, great nation; Nash defended his guidebook as “a revolution” in the teaching of history, which will deemphasize “dates, facts, and names” in favor of critical inquiry into an evolving history which is always “provisional and contingent,” sensitive to the presence of women and minorities (labor not mentioned in the TV program, though Nash’s Urban Crucible celebrates the role of radical artisans in the American Revolution).  When charged by Cheney with denigrating all wealth (but not that of an African king) Nash contrasted Carnegie with Rockefeller.  Both Cheney and Nash say they want a critical approach to US history; both agree that a revolution is in progress. Joyce Appleby, president of the American Historical Association sees the culture wars as the chief struggle of our times (conversation with the author).

[4] See Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) for a spirited attack on such appropriations and all anti-Enlightenment tendencies in the humanities.  The authors (who seem sympathetic to sociobiology) suggest that scientists may go their own way, teaching the humanities themselves if the present situation is not remedied.

[5] John W. Riley, Jr. and Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr., “Research for Psychological Warfare,” A Psychological Warfare Casebook, ed. William E. Daugherty and Morris Janowitz (Johns Hopkins U.P., 1958): 543.

[6] I am adopting the formulation of generic fascism as a centrist social movement that has obliterated liberalism, forcing agreement between the goals and interests of capital and labor, as suggested by David Stephen Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society 1931-81 (University of Manchester Press, 1987).

[7] For the latest example of the moderate position, see Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (N.Y.: Henry Holt, 1995).

[8] If ethnic and gender studies were organized to deal with populations as they have been historically defined by others and often themselves, then there would be no objection from anti-racists.  Such programs need not ignore class issues, nor need they mythologize in search for glorious ancestors.  However, these programs were institutionalized in response to status group politics, and tend to reinforce biological determinism by their very organization.  As I have argued at public meetings, the separation of gender and “racial” issues in special programs has served as an excuse for “regular” curricula to ignore the needs expressed by previously excluded groups to see society and history as a whole.  See David A. Hollinger, “Postethnic America,” Contention 4 (Fall 1992): 79-86, for an interpretation that superficially resembles my own; however, he does not look to the possible structural incapacity of our society to respond to the social democratic reforms he proposes, or the structural antagonisms that make “common ground” a utopian wish or a tactical compromise.

 

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12 Comments »

  1. I’m sorry, Ms. Spark, you just lost me big time. I have found much to admire in the email/blogs that you have proffered over the months. Some of them, I found opaque but interesting and passed them on to others. This one, for me, went over the top. When you write, “As the alternative to völkisch social psychology and the non-explanatory “empiricism,” “functionalism,” or “theory” it has spawned, I propose a return to individual biography but with greater attention to historically specific psychodynamics, archival research, and close reading than, to knowledge, has been applied, not only with regard to the actors we study, but to our own defenses as we distance ourselves from “extremists” like Hitler,” I am totally lost. You are not writing to me. You write to and for the academics, like yourself, which I admire very much, but of which I am not one. I honestly tried but, apparently, I am out of the understanding of your realm. I’ll delete all the previous email/blogs I have saved, unsubscribe, and wish you the best of good fortune in your indeavor to make an imprint upon those who understand your, to me, opaque references. Apparently, you don’t need such as me, anyway. Good Luck!

    Comment by Larry Grannis — February 12, 2013 @ 3:42 am | Reply

    • Persons who leave phony email addresses are probably not my natural constituency. Or maybe he didn’t like the psychological warfare quote.

      Comment by clarespark — February 12, 2013 @ 3:50 am | Reply

  2. Reblogged this on YDS: The Clare Spark Blog.

    Comment by clarespark — February 12, 2013 @ 2:19 am | Reply

  3. […] [My most comprehensive treatment of this vexed subject is here: https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.%5D […]

    Pingback by Culture warriors and the Enlightenment « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 3, 2013 @ 4:38 pm | Reply

  4. […] 3. The progressives put forth a version of  American and European history that described the West as essentially racist, sexist, classist, and ecocidal. Their alternative was the racialist/fascist notion of pan-Africanism, reflected in the favored term of African-American for black people. Instead of defining American nationality as equality under the law for rich and poor alike, American nationality was now hyphenated along racial or ethnic categories: there are Mexican-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc. This is not only a betrayal of the Constitution, but a route to hopeless disunity and a thoroughly racialist discourse. This move is not only bogus, but fatal to everything we hold dear as unhyphenated Americans. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.) […]

    Pingback by A bit of history about revisionism in American schools « Churchmouse Campanologist — December 6, 2012 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

  5. […] 3. The progressives put forth a version of  American and European history that described the West as essentially racist, sexist, classist, and ecocidal. Their alternative was the racialist/fascist notion of pan-Africanism, reflected in the favored term of African-American for black people. Instead of defining American nationality as equality under the law for rich and poor alike, American nationality was now hyphenated along racial or ethnic categories: there are Mexican-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc. This is not only a betrayal of the Constitution, but a route to hopeless disunity and a thoroughly racialist discourse. This move is not only bogus, but fatal to everything we hold dear as unhyphenated Americans. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.) […]

    Pingback by “Race” and the problem of “inclusion” « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 10, 2012 @ 7:44 pm | Reply

  6. […] writing history and constructing new and better syntheses. [This blog should be read in tandem with https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.%5D Alexander Saxton as I knew him Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Comments […]

    Pingback by “Race,” Class, and Gender « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 23, 2012 @ 6:18 pm | Reply

  7. […] thought I have presented on this website. (See this excerpt from Eros and the Middle Manager: https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.) Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Comments […]

    Pingback by Charles Murray Dreaming « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 8, 2012 @ 12:03 am | Reply


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