The Clare Spark Blog

March 6, 2011



David Brion Davis

   I am reposting this excerpt from my book, because it demonstrates the lineage of the cultural historians who dominate the teaching of U.S. “cultural history” and American Studies in the most prestigious Ivy League schools. Although their lineage appears to be derived from the “structural functionalism” of Talcott Parsons, the famed and influential Harvard sociologist, Parsons was no innovator in writing the individual out of history. Rather, the symbolic interactionists were his predecessors; they in turn were part of the genealogy of German idealism as initiated by the eighteenth century theologian J. G. von Herder. So we should not be surprised that Captain Ahab was demonized as a typical American “rugged individualist” by such as F. O. Matthiessen (see, or that dozens of New Leftists allege that symbols (language) create reality. For them, group-think is the norm, the individualist the social disease to be overcome. From these social theorists emanates “multiculturalism” and its “anti-imperialism” that turns out to blame America first, as an unfree world that is falsely contrasted to the slavish Soviet Union.

Europe supported by Africa and America

    And writing in this same tradition, such classical liberals as Charles Sumner were held to be instigators of the American Civil War, whereas such as David Brion Davis, the father-figure to a generation of cultural historians of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, would follow suit, as Davis hinted strongly that “rational persuasion and gradual enlightenment” would have averted the war that paranoid hotheads had made inevitable. (See David Brion Davis, The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (1969), p.55, see also p.61.) Throughout the latter book, Davis refers to the Cold War mentality that similarly exaggerates the Soviet threat, so I have concluded that there is a Stalinoid agenda working in this body of work, that uses the abolitionists as a weapon against supposed right-wing hysterics. I identify Davis with regret, because it was his course on American intellectual history at Cornell that led me to take up U.S. history in graduate school.

 [Excerpt from chapter 2, Hunting Captain Ahab:] Rooted, blood and soil historicism would logically have to sabotage the rational search for “common ground” so strenuously advocated by Progressives as the approved Anglo-Saxon solution to class warfare. This impasse was addressed six years later by Nation reader Rabbi Lee J. Levinger, a pluralist and pragmatist, who was the self-proclaimed intellectual descendant of Kant, Comte, Spencer, LeBon, Durkheim, McDougall, Cooley, and John Dewey. Levinger identified two brands of extremism: 100 percent Americans pursuing the “lost cause” of anti-Semitism; and maladjusted Jews suffering from “oppression psychosis.” In his book Anti-Semitism in the United States: Its History and Causes (1925), Levinger softly explained that American “soil” sprouted neither Marxists nor nativist hysterics: “class consciousness” and “prejudice” disappear when hard hearts melt and rationally adapt to new conditions. Jewish immigrants should leave behind their rigid European formulations of Fascismo versus Socialism, Czarists versus Bolsheviks. In racially and ethnically diverse, sprawling, brawling America, unity would yet be found in the “higher synthesis” of “group minds” admiring their “ideal self.” An all inclusive God-figure smiled on equal opportunity, experiments in group adjustment, and a “scientific” sociology in which “group mind” (an “empirical fact”) confers “functional unity.” Worrisome dissension, hate and inter-group violence were produced solely by “hysteria,” the residual “high emotional tone” left in the dissolution of artificial wartime unity. With corrected “gradation of loyalties” and discreetly harmonized “overlapping” “group affiliations,” groups, not individuals, would be possessed of the “individuality” for which democrats yearned. The national (nascently international) symphony should commence. As for domination, there isn’t any. Levinger explained after quoting James Mark Baldwin, a sociologist:

“The real self is always the bi-polar self, the social self.” Empirically, not only are civilization, history and government the products of social heredity; the individual himself as we have him owes his mental content, many of his feelings and motor responses, and his ultimate ideals to the group in which he was born and has developed. On this basis the ancient conflict between the isolated individual and the group domination becomes unimportant, if not meaningless, from the empirical point of view (32).

Regretfully, Levinger’s “exceptional individual,” the “genius or social discoverer” was linked to the “criminal or social rebel.” Mad and tragic misfits–like stubborn, hypersensitive, primitivistic Jews regressively merged with their “alters” or “other”– refused the “tolerant” “social self.”[i] By the end of the 1930s, Melville’s isolatoes (Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, Margoth) would be desaparecidos. Wholeness (but not whaleness) commanded “American” literature.

The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal rights to every individual citizen. The new social psychology was sanely designed to wrest the concept of individuality from individual persons to groups: races, ethnicities and business corporations.[ii] There might be no commitment to civil liberties in the practice of corporatist intellectuals had not the bloody repression of oppositional political speech during the first two decades of the twentieth century apparently propelled workers and their allies toward socialism, forcing moderate conservatives to forestall revolution in the disillusioned lower orders after the Great War by incorporating libertarian ideals and subversive writers. But the inspiring enlightenment rationalism of John Locke, Condorcet, and the Founding Fathers [iii] was vitiated by the racialist Progressive discourse derived from German idealism and the ideas of J. G. von Herder, the hyphenated Americanism promoted after 1916 that advocated antiracist social and educational policies persisting today as “multiculturalism.” [iv] 

                [i] 76. Rabbi Lee J. Levinger, Anti-Semitism in the United States, Its History and Causes (N.Y.: Bloch, 1925), 29, 333-34, 39-44, 51, 71, 78, 94-95, 110, 115.

[ii] 77. A clipping preserved by Carey McWilliams is revealing in this regard: Woodruff Randolph’s editorial in the Typographical Journal 9/4/37, protested recent right-wing offensives; the headline read “Incorporate Unions? Step Toward Fascism, Says ‘Typo’ Secretary.” Randolph contrasted the business corporation “partly a person and partly a citizen, yet it has not the inalienable rights of a natural person” with “A labor organization [which] is organized to do in numbers what each may do individually under his inalienable rights.” Carey McWilliams Papers, UCLA Special Collections, Box 14.

[iii]78. James W. Ceaser, Reconstructing America, Chapter 2. Ceaser differentiates among the Founders, arguing that Jefferson’s political rationalism existed in tension with received ideas on race; the overall effect was to replace political science with natural history as the guide to sound government. Condorcet, the most comprehensively democratic philosophe, the champion of internationalism, popular sovereignty, public education, feminism, and progress, and enemy to separation of powers and checks and balances (as ploys of elites to subvert democratic will), was annexed to the conservative enlightenment to give liberal credibility to the New Deal elevation of the executive branch of government over the legislative branch. See J. Salwyn Schapiro, Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism (N.Y.: Octagon Reprint, 1978, orig. pub. 1934, repub. 1963), 276-277: “Security for both capital and labor is essential if freedom of enterprise is to survive…Responsibility in government can be more efficiently maintained by giving more authority to the executive, who would wield power, not as an irresponsible dictator, but as a democratically chosen official responsible to a legislature whose essential function would be to act as the nation’s monitor. Progress has been the peculiar heritage of liberalism to which it must be ever faithful in order to survive.” Condorcet joins Paine and Jefferson as fodder for the moderate men of the vital center.

[iv] 79. I am using 1916 as a milestone in the promotion of ethnopluralism because of the publication of the Randolph Bourne article, “Trans-National America,” and a now forgotten book by the head psychologist of the Boston Normal School, J. Mace Andress, Johann Gottfried Herder as an Educator (New York: G.E. Stechert, 1916). The latter introduced Herder as the precursor to Franz Boas and advocated the new “race pedagogy.” There was no ambiguity about the welcome counter-Enlightenment drift of German Romanticism in this work. For Andress, the German Romantic hero was a rooted cosmopolitan, fighting to throw off [Jewish] materialist domination to liberate the Volksgeist. In 1942, Herder was presented as a Kantian, pantheist, cosmopolitan and quasi-democrat, even a supporter of the French Revolution in James Westfall Thompson, A History of Historical Writing, Vol. 2, 33-138, especially 137.

Some more recent intellectual historians are rehabilitating Herder along with other figures of the Hochklarung, similarly held to be avatars of the freethinking emancipated individual. In his talk at the Clark Library symposium “Materialist Philosophy, Religious Heresy, and Political Radicalism, 1650-1800,” (May 1, 1999) John H. Zammito declared that Herder’s philosophy (the demolition of mechanical materialism?) cleared the way for the further development of natural science in Germany. The key figure for these scholars is Spinoza, his pantheism the apex of “vitalist materialism.” Margaret C. Jacob, author of The Radical Enlightenment, 1981, was organizer of the conference, but we are using the term with differing assumptions about scientific method and what, exactly, constitutes the radical Enlightenment.



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  6. “The real self is always the bi-polar self, the social self.” Yes, if you are one of the cattle in the herd, aka the dystopia “self.”

    Comment by Bernard X Bovasso — March 6, 2011 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

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