The Clare Spark Blog

March 13, 2014

What is cultural relativism?

culturalrelativism2Briefly, cultural relativism does NOT mean that there are no impermissible human actions—sex and violence for instance, but that different cultures have ethical systems that make sense to them, given their state of material development and the belief systems that sustain them.  Cultural relativism exists in tension with human rights and ethical universalism. The Left uses that contradiction to trash the “bourgeois” notion of human rights advanced by ethical systems as diverse as the Catholic Church and freethinking. (Multiculturalism, a form of relativism, does not acknowledge this contradiction, but imagines different cultures united without conflict as in this illustration. This is the dream world of Wilsonian internationalism and today’s multiculturalism or rooted cosmopolitanism.)

I recall a period when leftists commonly attacked “imperialism” for destroying native “communities”—no matter how backward and horrifically sexist these pre-scientific/pre-capitalist cultures were. It was also the case that some Enlightenment freethinkers (Diderot for example), imagined that “primitive” cultures were free from the instinctual repression that they attributed to the West and its strict religions. (I have written about the fantastic nature of primitives earlier on this website: see https://clarespark.com/2013/04/16/blogs-on-anarchismpunkprimitivism/.)

Or, some European leftists imagined that native Africans lived in untroubled harmony with Nature: the late Roger Garaudy for example. This was yet another common idealization of the primitive, following Rousseau or the multitudes who celebrated noble savages as a critique of surplus repression in their families of origin. The Melville Revival was partly motivated by his first two novels–the best sellers Typee and Omoo.

Turn now to Andrew Klavan’s booklet The Crisis in the Arts: Why the Left Owns the Culture and How Conservatives can Begin To Take it Back (David Horowitz Freedom Center, 2014). Klavan, a  crime fiction novelist, wants “conservatives” to open up a new front in the culture wars, by leaving off their censorious ways, and exploring the inner lives of humans, as if human nature has been the same no matter what stage of development a particular society may be in. The irony is that Klavan is addressing religious persons, either Catholics or evangelical Protestants, many of whom have been complaining about hypersexuality and violence in the media, and in popular or high culture in general. He wants their money to support Klavan-approved artists, and he wants them to create “conservative” art—art that would disseminate a new, conservatively constructed conscience, thence to rule the world, as Shelley advised in one of his most Romantic moments. Klavan also appeals to the late activist Andrew Breitbart, claiming that this was Breitbart’s hope before he died at the age of 43.

But Klavan is deeply unaware of art history, literary history, the history of popular culture, and of the marketplace of ideas that he presumably wants to extend to include his monolithic notion of conservatism (as if there were not deeply conservative trends in culture already). First, he imagines that there is something called the Left, monolithic and unified, that is currently in control of both high and popular culture. Take popular culture for instance: as a watchful consumer of both high and pop culture, I am struck by its populism, not its Leninism. The working class is not depicted as the vanguard of communist revolution, but as worthy of our compassion and respect, just as it is. Moreover, pop culture celebrates the tastes of the Common Man and Common Woman: for spectacle, for glitter, suspicion of hanky-panky in high places, and for shows of military force and physical virtuosity.

Such shows as Law and Order resemble other socially responsible capitalist productions, taking their marching orders from those institutions attacking irresponsible rich people (often Jews), whose instinctual excesses will, unchecked, instigate revolts from below. (For detailed blogs analyzing television programming see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/16/index-to-blogs-on-popular-tv-shows/.)

hornedhunk

To conclude, Klavan is still living in a magical world of mystery and simplicity, where there are no troublesome clashing world views, where families can be depicted as always happy and unified, where soldiers come home without PTSD or missing limbs, and where women would rather leave the workplace and go back home to the kitchen and multiple pregnancies. He means well; he wants an art that is so powerful it will defeat the big bad Left, to reinstitute a culture of conscience that never co-existed with the libertarian values that he simultaneously champions in this confusing booklet.

culturalrelativism1

You can stop reading here, or go on with an endnote to my book on the Melville Revival, along with some statements by powerful figures in the history of Western civilization; they deal with monsters and monstrous ideas. Monsters are one target of Klavan’s wrath, when he is in his conscience-instructing mood (as opposed to the libertarian mood):

An endnote from Hunting Captain Ahab: See John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981), 35, 47-49, 53. The Attic sensibility was viewed by medieval (Aristotelian) Catholics as moderate, disciplined and balanced, while its monstrous antitheses represented “emotion, redundance, and formal disorder”; monstrosity was correlated with “the enigmatic, the inflated and the grandiose.” The hot, deserted antipodes were linked to the vaguely situated Ethiopia, and found at the most extreme distances from the Greek center of the world; its perverse inhabitants had feet turned backwards and walked upside down; i.e., they were out of reach of the Christian gospel.

[From Chapter Five of HCA:]

For Thomas Hobbes (1651), curiosity was not an aid to reason, but an indomitable passion of the mind that could overpower and displace the less troublesome pleasures of food and sex:

Desire to know why, and how, <is> CURIOSITY; such as is in no living creature but Man; so that Man is distinguished, not onely by his reason; but also by this singular Passion from other Animals; in whom the appetite of food, and other pleasures of Sense, by praedominance, take away the care of knowing causes; which is a Lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continuall and indefatigable generation of Knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnall Pleasure.”[i]

In 1659 “Committees of the Good Old Cause” were virtuous vampires: “This Dragon it was and a monstrous Beast,/ With fourty or fifty heads at least,/ And still as this Dragon drank down Blood/ Those heads would wag and cry “good-good-good!”[ii] Not surprisingly, the same tumescent Heads exasperated Dryden in Absalom and Achitophel:

The Jews, a Headstrong, Moody, Murm’ring race,

As ever tri’d the’extent and stretch of grace;

God’s pampered People, whom, debauch’d with ease,

No King could govern, nor no God could please;

(God they had tri’d of every shape and size,

That God-smiths would produce, or Priests devise:)

These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,

Began to dream they wanted liberty;

And when no rule, no president was found

Of men, by Laws less circumscrib’d and bound,

They led their wild desires to Woods and Caves,

And thought that all but Savages were Slaves.[i]


NOTES to book excerpts


[i] 6. Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Part I, Chapter 6, 26. Do Melville’s rebel senses refer only to repressed sexuality, or are they the necessary stimulus to thought, reflection, and the perilous search for “why” and “how”?

[ii] 7. “Sir Eglamor and the Dragon, How General George Monck slew a most Cruell Dragon, Feb.11, 1659,” Rump: or an Exact Collection of the Choycest Poems and Songs Relating to the Late Times (London, 1662), 371-2.

[iii]  8. Quoted in Cicely V. Wedgwood, Politics and Poetry Under the Stuarts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1960), 165-166. Dryden’s fears have not been quieted in her commentary: “Leaving aside this sidelong shot at current political theories about noble savages, this is the statement of a man who remembers the excesses of the sects and disorders of the Civil War, who sees how fatally easy it is to kindle into flame a ‘Headstrong, Moody, Murm’ring race’–a one-sided but not untrue description of the seventeenth-century English–and who knows how difficult it will be to put out the flame once kindled?” Her obituary (NYT, 3/11/97) credits her with “vivid narratives [that] told the story of Britain with the common man in mind.” A fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, 1953-68, Dame Veronica was born in 1910 to Sir Ralph Wedgwood, a baronet and former head of British Railways, and was great-great granddaughter to Josiah Wedgwood (identified here as a potter).

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March 22, 2013

“Traditionalists” on the culture front

Kinkade

Kinkade “Sunrise”

[This is the second blog that mentions Andrew Klavan. See part one of this series here: https://clarespark.com/2013/03/11/do-paleoconservatives-want-a-theocracy/.]

As if the “culture wars” had not already sown enough confusion and polarization, some “traditionalists” are now encouraging right-thinking conservatives to make popular art that would challenge what is seen as the Hollywood monopoly on popular entertainment—a mass culture with way too much sex and not enough religion. Some warriors are humorously grotesque, for instance Bill O’Reilly’s offensive on behalf of the Easter Bunny. But others on the right participate in this war against “secular progressives” while others scan high culture for salutary examples with potential to heal a sick “body politic.”  For instance, Andrew Klavan (a convert to Christianity, and an ex-liberal as well, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Klavan), who writes popular mysteries, also writes on culture regularly for Pajamas Media. Klavan deplores what he calls “moral relativism,” preferring Immanuel Kant, the ethical universalist, over godless Nietzschean Supermen and the dread (and misconstrued) “deconstructionists” whom he links to Nazism. (See his talk of March 18, 2013 at the David Horowitz Freedom Center: http://tinyurl.com/ch8ucow.)

In the high Renaissance, great artists limited their subject matter to either religious art or to naked goddesses that pleased the propensities of aristocratic patrons. Recall too that Shakespeare was a Catholic, an anti-puritan, and a proponent of the organic society.  The Reformation, then the Enlightenment, began the long road to (partial) independence for artists, and a freer choice of subject matter and (subtly limited) freedom of thought and expression.

It is my own view that any repressed human being will be unable to make anything that passes for “modern” art, and that the traditionalist artists and illustrators (like Thomas Kinkade or Andrew Wyeth that seemingly upheld either “Christian” (Kinkade) or rural values (Wyeth) may be popular among older conservatives and even among liberals nostalgic for representation, but in this age of mass media with its celebration of youth culture, the call for more conservative artists and writers will find few patrons to subsidize their neo-“puritanism” except among themselves. But then today’s “culture warriors” define themselves against “modernity” and the dissenting individual, even as they protest groupiness–those notions such as multiculturalism that are collectivist in nature. For many “libertarians” (Klavan), the goal in “speaking truth to power” is to demolish Big Government, not to criticize authoritarian institutions, whether these appear at the national, local or state level, let alone within the family. (Even moderates may call for a revitalized mass culture: see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/29/fred-siegels-melodrama-of-20th-c-cultural-history/.)

Easter Bunny

Easter Bunny

We are all anticapitalists now. Modernism in the arts participated in the degeneration narrative, for these confusingly named “modernists,” the big corporation and technological pseudo-progress were agents of decadence, producing seductive consumer goods that vitiated class consciousness.  Along with celebrities, movie stars, and journalists, were the mobs unleashed by industrial capitalism, the New Woman, and the international Jewish conspiracy. Cain’s cities therefore were the site of hyper-sexuality, homosexuality, and all nervous anxieties, to be cured by a return to Nature and/or to order and anti-secular religion. The path to neoclassical safety would be mapped by primitivists and/or neo-medievalists from Left to Right seeking to renew paternal authority in the family. (On the dangers of cities see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/.)

Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth “Spring” (1978)

March 11, 2013

Do House hard-liners want a theocracy?

CabaretAre the culture wars heating up?

Some right-wing websites are calling for a re-energized cultural offensive, one that would dislodge the monopoly that “the Left” has attained in education, particularly in public schools, in the elite universities, and in popular culture. For these warriors (including “moderate” Bill O’Reilly), social democrats (once known as liberal anticommunists) and various Leninists are all under the same statist umbrella, and they must be stopped cold.

The rightist culture warriors will be blocked and court discouragement, for they face opposition from “RINO’s” (a.k.a. the big businessmen who joined the progressive Keynesians in 1942), as well as from the new “Jacobins” out to get them in the Democratic Party. In short, movement conservatives partake of a discourse of degeneration, and I understand their panic, for small businessmen and many medical professionals will take the brunt of Democratic initiatives such as Obama-care.

Underneath the angst is a now explicit belief that Hollywood Jews have created the hyper-sexualized culture, money-worshipping mass culture that flouts religious warnings about the dire effects of pornography, adolescent sexuality, gay marriage, and abortion on demand. Thus conservative novelist Andrew Klavan defended Seth MacFarlane’s performance at the Oscars 2013, for moral laxity should be boldly and freshly confronted. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/03/04/romney-v-the-cultural-politics-of-mean/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/02/25/potus-michelle-and-the-end-of-the-democratic-republic.)

Many of my readers are aware that a prime ingredient in contemporary antisemitism is the association of Jewry with a money-mad, materialist culture. But fewer perhaps know about the Nazi trope (shared by both Julius Streicher and Hitler) that Jews were intent on corrupting the pure flesh of Christian women, indeed were the chief white slavers/whoremasters. How should a moral Christian respond to this apparently unstoppable “Jewish” offensive that is engendering hyper-sexualization, single-mother families, illegitimacy, and devil worship? Have we not seen very effective plays, movies, and television series transmitting the notion that “decadence” (i.e. degeneration) is inimical to the (unitary) values of the Christian West? I am thinking of productions such as CABARET, CHICAGO, and perhaps THE GOOD WIFE (also set in Chicago, and suggesting that the legal profession is similarly intent on materialism and sex, in or out of marriage).

goodwife

What the rightist culture warriors neglect is the plain fact that modern medicine and public health measures have drastically lengthened life expectancy, postponing marriage more than a decade after the onset of puberty. In this technologically advanced world, the old rules are outmoded. Who exactly is resisting sex education in middle school and high school? Laura Ingraham, sitting in for Bill O’Reilly last Friday, was visibly discomfited when one of her guests suggested that sex education was necessary to teach nubile young girls the difference between sex and a relationship.

The social conservatives seem so intent on taking over the Republican Party, dislodging what they view as an “establishment”, that they may be consigning themselves to permanent irrelevance. Cultural pluralism and the secular state are broadly institutionalized.  Pace Klavan et al, the culture warriors may be too internally uptight to make popular culture artifacts that reach out to a broad public.Chicagoposter

The advice from this scholar and political independent is to focus on fiscal conservatism, to divest oneself and one’s party of embedded and explicit antisemitism, and to cherish the pluralistic society that welcomes all belief systems and all social criticism, under the rule of law. Now remind me who censored the movie version of Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer? (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/02/roman-polanski-and-his-critics/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/09/27/cannibals-negro-jazz-and-servile-revolt/.)

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