YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 15, 2017

Is the USA a terror state?

cartoon from History4Kim

cartoon from History4Kim

I was startled to see political scientists associated with the New Left go so far as to condemn the Constitution and the Founders as terrorists, inflicting Federalist authoritarianism upon antiFederalists.

This blog is about the coordinated attack on the US Constitution by “moderates,” social democrats and New Leftists in academe. My views have been informed by reading leading political scientists: Sheldon Wolin (The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution, 1989), Thomas R. Dye and L. Harmon Ziegler (The Irony of Democracy, 1970 now in its fifteenth edition!).

Dye and Ziegler, unlike the late superstar Sheldon Wolin, make the argument that New Deal liberals (social democrats) are the only advocates of “democracy.” Of course, all three political scientists. take a dim view of the power elite, and are critical of the Enlightenment, white males and, in Wolin, the Reagan administration).

Illustration by Michael Hogue for American Conservative

Illustration by Michael Hogue for American Conservative

But in both books such contemporary conflicts as the culture wars are viewed as outgrowths of the elitism inherent in a society that defends private property and the meritocracy at the expense of benighted women and blacks. Wolin is more measured in opposing current-day Federalists, but he still ends one essay by lamenting the force that Hamiltonian-style statism exerts on you and me. The late Princeton professor ends up agreeing with Dye and Ziegler that the American state is militaristic and outrageous in its power and reach.

By implication, capitalism, not social democracy (the latter an understandable elite response to capitalist crisis in Dye and Ziegler), is thus blamed for all social ills, but especially for the oppression of blacks and women. Gone is the 1930s’ charting of class conflict with predictions of working class victory. It is all New Left “anti-imperialism” and cultural relativism now. (On the case for and against cultural relativism, see https://clarespark.com/2014/03/13/what-is-cultural-relativism/.)

With the deceptive Constitution and the Federalist Founders thus tainted as designing aristocrats, is it any wonder that the electoral victory of Trump and his supporters appalls half of our country, conditioned as they are by the ascendancy of the New Left and its revolt against what they deem to be a terror state, American style?

Antiwar album cover Anti-Flag

Antiwar album cover

April 24, 2015

Multiculturalism vs. [Yid] Red spies: which agitates the Right?

atheist-logicThis blog was inspired by the failure of Fox’s Outnumbered 4-24-15 to explain cases of censorship of the popular movie American Sniper ( the topic was repeated on The Five). They became agitated over the threat to free speech, when they could have identified why college administrators were bowing to the will of a small cadre of Islamist protesters at the University of Maryland; these administrators defending multiculturalism at all costs. One wonders why this “moderate” but right-leaning network is so weak on political theory, for it is obvious that “tolerance” versus “Islamophobia” is crucial to job retention in the hipper universities, public or private. (To be sure, unfree speech is the outcome of censorship in the name of diversity, but multiculturalism deters free speech insofar as it encourages essentialist cultural nationalism: see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multiculturalism-blogs/.)

How to explain this failure of vision? Scholars, television writers, and journalists seeking right-wing readers and eyeballs know that it enhances their reputations to pretend that there remains an atheistic red menace threatening (Christian) America. Even the latest episode of Scandal played the KGB card, resuscitating the Cold War. One wonders why, given the declining membership in the CPUSA since the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, carefully delineated by historians/political scientists Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Alexander Vassiliev in Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale UP, 2009).

(Perhaps it is lingering antisemitism, for “the Jews” were ‘”disproportionately” represented in the Old Left, and “populism”—antagonistic to “finance capital,” remains popular on both left and right. Even Lenin may be seen as a populist, for he was notoriously influenced by the antisemitic journalist J. A. Hobson. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/.)


Whether or not my suspicions are correct, it is obvious that conservatives frequently confuse left-liberals and communists, frequently conflating them as “totalitarians” and, gulp, progressives—as if the US Constitution, despite its capitulations to Southern slaveholders, was not the vanguard of political thought at the time of its framing, with such as Hamilton and Jefferson not avatars of social and economic progress, despite their differences.

This entire website has been preoccupied with tracing the “roots” of multiculturalism to the German Romantic reaction to the “materialism” of science and Enlightenment as understood in 18th Century France. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/. The second link suggests Herder’s antisemitism, not noted in the historical commentary on his contribution to the notion of national character/groupiness.)

It is a grotesque misreading of history to think that the old Reds were not anti-racists, hot for “proletarian internationalism” as opposed to (proto-fascist) “nationalism,” and its associated (Gentile) “melting pot.” Indeed, that was the attraction that helped recruit working class immigrant Jews to the Communists, and family ties made a difference to their (liberal) descendants.

It is pointless to go on fingering “the multicultural moderate men” for their covert racism disguised in their rooted (as opposed to rootless) cosmopolitanism, documented throughout my website. And Fox News Channel employees, no less than those of the Wall Street Journal, are above all, oblivious to the history of the Left, and only moderately opposed to the nearly pervasive (often latent) antisemitism that blinds them. For instance, after all the decades I spent around the Left, no one, repeat, no one ever mentioned Saul Alinsky (born a Jew). His significance and influence are figments of certain conservative imaginations.


October 31, 2013

Gossip and the gullible

purple batThis representative republic was founded on finding the truth, and identifying liars.  Here are just a few of my blogs on the subject, focusing on Alexander Hamilton, the bad boy of US history for populists and progressives alike:






https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/  (retitled “Limbaugh v. Fluke, and mentioning the Crosswell case, one of Hamilton’s great achievements for telling the truth)




While interrogating his own early progressivism, Walter Lippmann proposed rearing a special class of fact-checkers, whose sole role would be to discover which journalists were lying, and who were not; they would not take partisan positions on policy as such, but would simply unmask liars.

These views (Hamilton’s or Lippmann) are unfashionable. Thanks to the Left’s appropriation of close reading, we are left only with the factoids of “race” and “diversity.” Or with “a multiplicity of readings” based on “point of view.” Not just “the Jews” but every enemy is now “a big liar,” yet the (postmodern) accusers are left with no ground to stand on. (I do not minimize the difficulty in pinning down the distortions of perception or locating the exact sources of human motivation. Some facts are settled, no matter how often they are bent into unrecognizable shapes by spin.)

So, bereft of guides or even curiosity, we are left with “gossip,” a game that anyone can play, including on “interactive sites” where experts and pundits define reality, and where facts are irrelevant. It is a form of hero worship (or hero takedown), and “the people” (whoever they are), are free to choose their favorite gurus du jour, then they may leave comments, which are not tested by anyone, but will leave their marks, no matter how improbable.

It is not just the Constitution that is up for grabs, it is the law of the land, and anyone may appropriate “the law” for his own particular benefit. Both populists and progressives are expert at such appropriations, for their aims (as moderate men) are social stability, achieved through the cohesion of the great unwashed as a malleable mass to be shaped at will by their betters.

Don’t look to a pundit to save us. As the Mandy Patinkin character (Saul Berenson)in HOMELAND observed in commenting on the Claire Danes character (Carrie Mathison) , “she has always been on her own.”

positive state

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 https://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 https://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 https://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 https://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, and https://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 https://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

February 9, 2013

LINCOLN (the movie) as propaganda

Apotheosis of Lincoln and Washington 1860s

Apotheosis of Lincoln and Washington 1860s

How they did it:

First, detaching Lincoln from the (Hamiltonian) Republicans to reattach him to (Jeffersonian) Jacksonian Democrats: the Andrew Jackson administration was famous for initiating the “spoils system” and by promising Democrats federal jobs as a reward for supporting the Thirteenth Amendment, Spielberg’s Lincoln affixed Honest Abe to the Jeffersonian faction. (Contrasting Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians is one route to  making sense of U.S. political history: see Stephen F. Knott’s book on the Hamilton myth.)

Second, the 2012 movie, with its positive portrayal of Lincoln, vindicated the power of the Executive branch today. There is a hidden link to New Deal propaganda, for progressives Gordon Allport and Henry A. Murray recommended in their nationally circulated notebooks on “civilian morale” that FDR be joined with Lincoln and Washington, as strong leaders and father figures.  See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/, or https://clarespark.com/2011/09/29/the-abraham-lincoln-conundrum/. The latter takes up Bill O’Reilly’s efforts to render Lincoln as the pre-eminent healer, one like himself, the good father who is “looking out for you.” (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/30/eric-foners-christianized-lincoln/.)

Third, the unnecessary death scene linked Lincoln to Christ and to national redemption, a tactic that was effective in the North, but certainly not in the South.  See http://tinyurl.com/acbqkza on the religious response to Lincoln’s assassination, the paragraph possibly derived from Michael Rogin.

Fourth, by emphasizing the widespread Congressional resistance to the Thirteenth  Amendment, the impression reinforced the New Left line that racism is the overarching theme of American history, and that blacks are owed reparations. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/26/race-class-and-gender/. I do not intend to minimize the importance of “race” and “race relations.”)

Fifth, the flashback to the Second Inaugural Address, coming immediately after the assassination serves to bind the Nation as an organic entity. This is the most reactionary feature of the movie. In truth, we remain fragmented, and neo-Confederate flags still fly. By relying upon Doris Kearn Goodwin’s book, Spielberg portrayed Lincoln as the moderate man who could unite warring factions, even within his own party. I.e., all conflicts are reconcilable. The irony is the American Civil War (the “irrepressible conflict”) as the primary locale for this “moderate” strategy of manipulation and compromise. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/11/19/abandonment-anxiety-and-moderation/.)

Sixth, Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens was turned into a pragmatist, like Lincoln, not a wild-eyed ideologue like Charles Sumner. This was another reactionary move, designed to counter Stevens’s rehabilitation in the neo-abolitionist historiography. (See https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. There is much detail here on Sumner and Stevens as they fought to prepare the freedmen for economic and political independence.)

Seventh, the producer-director chose John Williams to score the movie. With the exception of some plausible period fiddle tunes, Williams looted Aaron Copland, except for George Root’s The Battle Cry of Freedom. Ignored was most popular music of the period in question. Also missing in action were Stevens’s and Sumner’s program for Reconstruction, too sizzling for today’s audiences. (On slanderous depictions of Sumner, and by extension Stevens, see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/.) Moreover, by focusing strictly on a narrow period of the Lincoln presidency, there was no opportunity to demonstrate land reform by some of the Northern generals (Sherman!) as they marched through the South.

Taken all in all, I can only suggest that the emphasis on the organic Nation, as led by the moderate men (delineated above), demonstrates how the South won the cultural battle for how we remember the American Civil War. Think of the stately brief portrayal of Robert E. Lee, riding away from Appomattox on his horse Traveler, preceded by  horrific shots of the Confederate dead in Petersburg, Virginia.  That the 2012 LINCOLN movie was done skillfully and under the radar speaks to the propaganda skills of the better Hollywood producers and directors.

D.W. Griffith Lincoln 1931

D.W. Griffith Lincoln 1931

BIBLIOGRAPHY (highly recommended)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cs6cIi_mKfg Adlai Stevenson reads text of Copland “Lincoln Portrait” (1942) 15 minutes and well worth comparing the Lincoln of the “fiery trial” with the Lincoln of the Spielberg movie.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_Portrait  (1942)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_(2012_film) , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirteenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution,

http://tinyurl.com/avdpq2x (James McPherson’s review of Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln)

http://tinyurl.com/b7kh6ak (Michael Rogin essay on D. W. Griffith and racism in American culture)





December 3, 2012

Index to blogs on Lincoln, Sumner, Reconstruction

Lincoln, March 1865

Lincoln, March 1865


https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/. (Sumner’s advanced views and links with Captain Ahab)



https://clarespark.com/2011/09/29/the-abraham-lincoln-conundrum/. (on attempts to link Lincoln with FDR and other moderates)


https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/. (on negative views of Charles Sumner)



September 21, 2012

Milton, Mason, Melville on Free Speech

[ Part two of this blog can be found here: https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/]

This blog is about the intellectual history of the First Amendment, and is meant to establish a longer lineage than is asserted by many conservatives, who look to George Mason, Jefferson, and Madison as the most significant proponents of freedom of expression. What is ignored in this claim is the always contested nature of free speech, even within its most ardent progenitors. Also overlooked are the material interests of Southern slaveholders whose doctrine of State’s Rights was threatened by the abolitionist and/or antislavery arguments of such Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

For instance, George Mason (1725-1792), the famous Antifederalist, wanted slaves as property to be protected, although he opposed the extension of slavery and the importation of further slaves. During the 1830s, when slavery was defended as a positive good, Southerners forbade not only the education of slaves, but stopped the importation of Northern abolitionist arguments through the mails. It is obvious that material interests in slave property trumped any desire for universal freedom of expression in the slaveholding states.

Go back several centuries to Milton’s famous polemic Areopagitica (1644). In my book on the revival of Herman Melville’s reputation in the 20th century, I devoted an entire chapter to Milton and Melville’s ambivalent relations to puritanism, as expressed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poet’s relationship to his character Satan (often taken to be the mouthpiece of Milton in his most radical mood) has generated a “Milton industry” of even greater size and consequence than the “Melville industry.” Conservatives, moderates, and radicals alike, appropriate the life and art of these authors as their ideologies demand. What each party suppresses is the ambivalence of either Milton or Melville—an ambivalence that we may find within ourselves as we save our own hides from the bullies we encounter at every stage of life. This is an issue that educators fail to address, no matter how well-meaning their efforts may be at reforming the current system of public education. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/09/19/bullies/.)

What follows is a short collage followed by some comments that begin chapter 4 of my book. I lay out the obvious influence of Milton’s great tract upon Herman Melville, feeding his passionate desire to see and describe “things as they are.” For Melville, struggling with inner censors, was “the mind its own place?”

Gustave Dore Satan

[From Areopagitica:] I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye on how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand unless wariness be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

[Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 1849, regretting his negative critique of Francis Parkman:] Hereafter I shall no more stab at a book (in print I mean) than I would stab at a man.[i]

[From “Baby Budd”:] Claggart hesitated not an instant. Deliberately advancing within short range of the sailor, he spoke. Without emphasis and in a tone more musical than ever, he delivered the accusation point-blank into his eyes.[ii]

Seventeenth-century radical puritans and scientists produced many of the innovations we associate with the intellectual foundations of democracy: along with the partial legitimation of dissent and libertarian ideas in some strands of Reformation thought, the scientific revolution fortified older political theories of popular sovereignty and constitutional government. The explosion of printing made subversive ideas broadly available to a growing and confident middle-class reading public eager to be emancipated from arbitrary authority. Milton published Areopagitica in 1644; it is perhaps the most eloquent statement ever conceived on behalf of intellectual freedom; it thrills to the puritan marrow of my bones. But that appeal to the censor was framed during the English Civil War soon after the Independents, reacting to new assertions of popular sovereignty, had put down rebels to their Left in the City of London, stifling vox populi (the voice of the people) in favor of vox salutaris (the voice of public safety).[iii] After the Restoration Sir Henry Vane was beheaded, and the bodies of the chief regicides, Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw, were exhumed and hanged as an example to would-be republicans. All overtly radical thoughts were chased back to the Tartarean realms from which the Titans had emerged. Milton, who had been named as secretary of foreign languages in 1649, was taken into custody then freed, perhaps by the intercessions of Andrew Marvell and Sir William Davenant or because the restored regime concluded that the blind poet, though formerly an official of the commonwealth and ardent defender of the regicides, was now harmless. [end, book excerpt]

Surveys taken by liberal journalists present a troubling picture of American attitudes toward freedom of speech. (See http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=2621.) As we contemplate the direction of the current administration, attributing blame for the jihadists uprisings on a video of dubious origin (as opposed to terrorism only weakly resisted), we should be aware that the freedom of speech libertarians desire is not universally supported, not even in our “free republic.”

In my next blog, I will compare those accounts of the 1960s written within a religious framework, versus my own accounts of 20th century social movements as written by a materialist historian (myself). The subject highlighted will be a populism that has never been vanquished, and that retains all its baneful, irrationalist influence on our politics.

[i]  2. Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 12/14/49, N/N Corr., 148-149.

                [ii]  3. Herman Melville, “Baby Budd, Sailor,” quoted in Freeman, Melville’s Billy Budd, 317. In “Billy Budd,” Claggart’s glance is linked to an “asylum physician” and to the mesmerizing Rabbi in Clarel.

       [iii]  4. See Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993). On Davenant and Milton see http://www.oxfordtimes.co.uk/lifestyle/history/8927697.How_a_friendship_saved_John_Milton_s_life/.

August 5, 2012

Hating finance capital

Big Money crushing the People

Much of this website has been devoted to decoding “liberal” propaganda, especially the repetitive strains of populism that will constitute the Democratic Party playbook in 2012 as we move toward an election that will either push us yet further on the path to communism or dirigisme (a form of elite rule where the state not only regulates the economy but directs investment), or that will reverse course and could restore the American economy along more laissez-faire lines. The rhetoric of “families” can be seen as entirely about collectivist identities, or it can be seen, also, as a plea to corporations to look upon their employees as children whose demands should be met through further concessions. The index that follows is only a small portion of what has been my major concern: the authoritarian character of American political culture since the New Deal. Sadly, Popular Front politics have masked the penetration of communist and other statist ideas into the mainstream political discourse.

In sum, the State exists to cage the octopus of “finance capital.” That is the unifying theme of today’s “progressives” and before that, the Progressive movement: such populist scapegoating provides a bogus image of unity in fragmented societies. And recall that Hitler thought that the Soviets were not really socialists like himself, but were the puppets of “finance capital” a.k.a. the Jews.

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/ (David Brooks separates populism from progressivism, which is wrong.)









https://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multiculturalism-blogs/ (On German Romantic predecessors to political correctness)

https://clarespark.com/2013/06/15/the-politics-of-family-vs-mass-politics-altered/ (retitled Decoding Les Miserables and the superhero)

April 1, 2012

Secularism and the Affordable Care Act

I asked my FB friends what they thought the word “secular” meant, and got a number of responses suggesting that it meant one thing: atheism.

It appears that the culture wars have done their job: to most of the responders, “secular” signifies atheism, which may indicate narcissism, nihilism, and amorality to them. But in its older meaning, pre-culture wars, “secular” simply referred to matters of this world, as opposed to other-worldliness in religions that emphasized heaven and hell. But more significantly, secularism is a political science term that refers to the separation of church and state, meaning that no religion has priority over others, and that no religion is the established state religion. In the U.S. we enjoy religious pluralism. But triumphalist religions have managed to minimize the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the separation of church and state. And culture warriors such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich have turned “the secularist” into the bogey man, insisting that the Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence before it, was divinely inspired, rather than the institutionalization of natural rights. But read the Federalist papers and see that Hamilton puts ultimate authority in the people, which is another word for popular sovereignty. Just as (later) in the French Revolution, power, knowledge and virtue had passed from Kings and Church to the People, who would then comprise the red specter to this very day, at least in the U.S. The U.S. Constitution was written to create a strong and effective national government, and owed its inception to epistemological materialism and to the Enlightenment. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/09/02/spinoza-as-culture-critic/.)

Alexander Hamilton was a church-goer, but to his most venomous critics he was not just a bastard-upstart, a foreigner, and a monarchist; he was a crypto-Jew, i.e., a variant of the anti-Christ. Recall that the Reformation convulsed Europe, with protestants (of many stripes) being defined as heretics by the outraged Catholic Church, who went on to purify their practice in the Counter-Reformation, a development that went on to censor such as Spinoza and other freethinkers at a time of burgeoning literacy among the lower orders.  (See Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel’s 2001 book on Spinoza and censorship throughout Europe following the underground publication of his works; there is now a shorter work published in 2009 treating the Radical Enlightenment and the roots of democracy. But I view J. Israel as a social democrat and doubt that we have the same genealogy for democracy and free thought, since my vanguard includes such as Hayek, von Mises, and the Friedmans, but not Maynard Keynes.)

For decades, I have followed the academic assault on empiricism, medicine, and psychiatry (including the “historicizing” and discrediting of all of the mental health practitioners, Freudian and non-Freudian alike). Doctors do not share any one religious or non-religious orientation, but they do focus their training on healing the sick, which means studying the human body in various states of health, trauma,  and disease. Theirs is a secular profession, but one that finds itself in conflict with those religions that see sickness and health as dispensations from God, as part of God’s plan for the individual and for the world. Thus we find unresolved and perhaps unresolvable conflicts over such practices as abortion, contraception, abortifacients, embryonic stem-cell research, and assisted suicide in the terminally ill.

I find it odd that in all the publicity over the Affordable Care Act that these culture war issues have not been emphasized, yet the cost of medical care and what is covered or excluded is related to larger conflicts over appropriate professional intervention in the processes of life and death. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition to the ACA comes from the religious Right that correctly fears government-run “death panels” or other instances of rationing (see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/29/james-pagano-m-d-on-affordable-care-act/). They are not paranoid in this respect. In an ironic coalition, God-Squads and Doc-Squads may find themselves on the same side.

Illustrated: Top: Jonathan Israel, Middle: Spinoza toy; Bottom: Joel Strom DDS, organizer for www.docsquads.org.

March 22, 2012

The Great Dumbing Down (2)

Devils from Rila Monastery

In a prior blog, I attempted to “periodize” the moment when American culture turned toward stupidity and away from the Prometheanism implied in the conception of American exceptionalism and the making of the Constitution by such as Alexander Hamilton (not that Hamilton was an American Candide). In that blog (https://clarespark.com/2012/03/13/dumbing-down-when-did-it-begin/), I fingered William James and other “pragmatists” as major figures in the deterioration of education. Now I add that moderate man Reinhold Niebuhr to my enemies list.

In the Fall of 1957, I took David Brion Davis’s course in American intellectual history at Cornell U. I have a clear memory of his stating that “the devil was back” in his discussion of Hawthorne and Melville. What Davis meant was that both writers took a dim view of the theory of progress, attacking its key precept, that man was malleable morally (as demonstrated in travel narratives or utopian communes such as Brook Farm) and that better government and capitalism could ameliorate what had been lives that were “nasty, brutal, and short” (Hobbes). Davis also lectured about the importance of Reinhold Niebuhr in furthering that pessimistic ideology after the second world war. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr. That Niebuhr should have switched his political views at that time, puts him in the camp of other pessimists who sought to dampen American hubris after the defeat of  the Axis powers by the Western democracies (see my blog on film noir: https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/.

It was also a moment when the high school population exploded and when returning veterans were availing themselves of the G. I. Bill, flooding colleges with cocky survivors of a war unprecedented in its mayhem. The major universities took note and reconstructed the humanities curriculum in collectivist and anti-urban directions– a direction that would halt the feared road to communism in America. Simply put, the real Marxist-Leninists were mostly purged, and “right-wing social democrats” (the “moderate” conservatives) took over and now are referred to as “the Left.” Their statism (but one that includes “ a reasonable amount of private property”) often leads some right-wing authors to conflate social democrats with Leninists, Italian Fascists, and Nazis.

As the Wikipedia biography of Niebuhr demonstrates, the key element in his conversion to “Christian Realism” (said to be a forerunner of “realism” in foreign relations), was the linking of evil to self-love and pride. Comes now the canonical reading of Melville’s Promethean Captain Ahab as the epitome of narcissism; indeed the Icarus legend was used to describe his literary fortunes from 1919 on. (As Ahab, his wings melted, plunging HM back to earth where he either drowned as Narcissus or burned as Icarus. In any case, he was demonic—the mirror of the Parsee Fedallah– and that theme remains dominant in Melville criticism as taught in the dumbing-down schools and universities controlled by the so-called left.)

Melville was ambivalent about “evil” as an independent entity apart from historically specific institutions and individuals. At times he wrote “evil is the chronic malady of the universe,” or in another mood he would say that good and evil were braided together so confusingly that he could say through one of his characters (the ambiguous Pierre) that “virtue and vice are trash” and that he must “gospelize the world anew.” I am convinced that Mark Twain read Melville, for in his fragment “The Character of Man” he echoes Melville in his most depressed and misanthropic moods.

To summarize: “moral relativism” has been a term used by some conservatives to condemn the explorations typified by the modern, mind-expanding world. What it meant to the Enlightenment was not the trashing of “virtue” but the realization that such conceptions as good and evil were socially constructed and could vary according to the institutional structures and resources of different societies; that in lauding individuals or social practices as either laudatory or destructive, such valuations had meaning only in specific historical contexts. Because many of the Founding Fathers were highly educated men, conversant with antiquity as well as with the discoveries of European explorers, they did not rely upon such ahistoric conceptions as The Devil to mold the Constitution that would govern negative human impulses in favor of a more orderly progress than had heretofore existed. But in the “progressive” world view of such as William James and Reinhold Niebuhr, the human capacity to be educated and uplifted has been ringed round with anxiety and self-doubt. Learning is hard enough without that extra dollop of immobilizing fear. For more on “the moderate men” (Melville’s phrase), see https://clarespark.com/2011/09/29/the-abraham-lincoln-conundrum/. Moderation is a buzz word without concrete meaning, and is a key word in psychological warfare.

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