The Clare Spark Blog

May 10, 2011

What is an elite/elitism?


As my readers know, I used to be active at Pacifica radio in Los Angeles (KPFK-FM), especially as program director, but also during my series “How Do We Know When We Are Not Fascists?” that ended in the late 1990s. My project then as now was to defend the Enlightenment and science against its numerous anti-intellectual detractors. There were moments when a barrage of angry phone calls accused me of “elitism” though that term was not defined by those who use it regularly. Later in my career, a Canadian follower of Charles Olson accused me of having written “a Medusa book.” What I did not see then was that for many of these [populist] name-callers (always male, by the way), elite meant Jews–the demonic Jews who supposedly infested Hollywood and the mass media; Jews who had planted a computer chip in their brains that set them against authority and/or their parents; such mad scientists and masculinized women were emissaries of Our Great Adversary. Had I polled my most vehement critics, I suspect that each and every one was a follower of Noam Chomsky–a great favorite with the Pacifica audience and with such New Leftists as populated Z Magazine or South End Press.

This will be a short blog. In the olden times, before the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, then the American and French Revolutions, the term elites referred to the monarchs of Europe, the Catholic Church, and the aristocracy, whose wealth was usually based on the land and the rents their tenants provided. (During the age of exploration, some aristocrats merged their interests with the rising bourgeoisie, so we cannot say that every aristocrat was an agrarian. See Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution.) The point is that class mobility was limited in the various old regimes. There was a definable elite, and the lower orders stayed put. They had no intellectual or political or economic apparatus to lift them from the mire.

All that changed in the age of Revolution, the start of which I date with the invention of the printing press and the subsequent, gradual rise in mass literacy. Along with that came a new confidence in “the lower orders” as they were buttressed by empiricism, science, and the evidence of their senses. Such momentous, life-transforming developments destroyed the customary deference to the great families and instilled confidence in the common reader. There was now the possibility of a democratic polity in a republican form of government. I can say with great certainty that the old elites did not take these transformations lying down. When they could not destroy their challengers, they attempted to co-opt them by taking the best and brightest into their ruling institutions. This website is mostly devoted to tracking these usually successful attempts and to warning the autodidacts to beware of false friends, but also that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: to imagine that all “experts” are swindlers is to throw away the competence that has changed the world for the better.

In our would-be democratic republic, the intellectual and emotional demands on the electorate are unprecedented in the history of our species.  If we choose, we may turn away from the difficulties in discovering the truth, and hew to the party line, and I include every political faction that exists. Or we can constantly test our leaders and representatives, using every tool and resource at our disposal.  What we cannot do is blindly follow the leader and react emotionally to the appeal of demagogues who denounce all “experts” or “elites” in the name of vox populi. Such persons, while supposedly attuned to the voice of God speaking through the People,  implicitly embrace nihilism, a philosophy wherein all truths are contingent and relative–except those spewing from the lips of the celebrity or pundit or cleric or public intellectual du jour.

I have just finished reading Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Contarini Fleming. My jaw dropped as I read its final three paragraphs, for I had not expected this noted organic conservative, surely an avatar of the European elite, to end Contarini’s romantic memoir with these modern sentiments:

“When I examine the state of European society with the unimpassioned spirit which the philosopher can alone command, I perceive that it is in a state of transition from feodal to federal principles. This I conceive to be the sole and secret cause of all the convulsions that have occurred and are to occur.

“Circumstances are beyond the control of man; but his conduct is in his own power. The great event is as sure as that I am now penning this prophecy of its occurrence. With us it rests whether it shall be welcomed by wisdom or by ignorance, whether its beneficent results shall be accelerated by enlightened minds, or retarded by its dark passions.

“What is the arch of the conqueror, what the laurel of the poet! I think of the infinity of space, I feel my nothingness. Yet if I am to be remembered, let me be remembered as one who, in a sad night of gloomy ignorance and savage bigotry was prescient of the flaming morning-break of bright philosophy, as one who deeply sympathized with his fellow-men, and felt a proud and profound conviction of their perfectibility; as one who devoted himself to the amelioration of his kind, by the destruction of error and the propagation of truth.”

Truth and Perfectibility: those are fighting words in a meritocracy.

September 25, 2009

On mobs, teaching, and Jungians

Unabomber shrinked

Here are three blasts from the past (2003): messages I wrote to other Melville scholars while reading Alston Chase’s trashing of Henry A. Murray.

Letter number one: The subject of democratic mobs has once again surfaced. As I reflect upon it, mobs are antithetical to democracies, and have often been stirred up by propertied interests (or the would-be propertied)—especially mischievous antidemocrats who cannot legitimate their rule through rational appeals. So if Melville complained about mobs, he has good company among every democratic theorist I have ever read.

Recall his remarks on the French Revolution in a now rejected preface to “Billy Budd”. He approved of the first phase, then was disturbed, as were many other friends of the people, by the Terror. Even so, my recollection is that, on balance, he thought that the Revolution was needed. Recall too that he liked Wordsworth’s early poems better than the later conservative ones. (This can be found in his marginalia, I recall, though I may be wrong about the location of that statement.)

The test for democratic sentiments in his time would be his orientation to the great revolutions: The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War. Even in his relatively conservative Supplement to Battle-Pieces, he espouses many democratic sentiments and values.

As for the classroom as a democracy or something else, obviously the teacher is supposed to have superior knowledge and skills to impart. But the question is this: what kind of environment is provided for learning? Is it authoritarian or does it promote questioning of established authority? Do students learn how to debate, based on facts and research? How do teachers handle conflict?  And so on….

Also, I have in hand, Alston Chase’s _Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber_ in which we learn that Henry Murray was another Ahab, a mad scientist, a sadist, a murderer (he got away with killing his mistress Christiana Morgan, it is more than hinted) and, but of course, partly responsible for the Unabomber’s devolution. I will report back after I read it (as opposed to the quick skim I just did). I can’t believe that Nina Murray gave him access to Murray’s papers.

Letter number two:     I have just finished reading Harvard graduate Alston Chase’s _Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber_, published by Norton this year. Chase is not some kind of outsider to academe, but rather a PhD with a record of publishing in the history of science. The book is a world-class embarrassment. His basic thesis is that a combination of  “positivism” (the empiricist philosophy that claims that there is no objective foundation to morality), “the culture of despair” engendered by the Harvard General Education courses that perpetrated this poisonous epistemology (in the 1950s), the oh-so-kinky-Henry Murray’s sadistic experiments with students testing their ability to withstand negative criticism of their basic beliefs, and the Unabomber’s cold and distant father and controlling mother, created Kaczynski’s primitivism and a rage that was constantly recharged, expressed, and hence exacerbated. Moreover, all terrorists follow the same typology, as (Jungian) Chase claims in the last pages.  [added 9-26-09: keep in mind that TK was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition that is inherited and not socially caused or conditioned. ]

As I stated in an earlier message on this subject, Chase explicitly makes hubristic Murray another Ahab (and possibly a murderer of his mistress), and so is the Unabomber in his indifference to human life/zealousness in destruction. Alston Chase believes that scientists have absolutely no business probing the operations of the human mind. Salvation comes to our decadent society solely through the love of God and an intellect respectful of the boundaries and in balance with other human attributes.

I have read thousands of books published by scholars, and I think it is not saying too much that this is one of the worst, if not THE worst book I have ever read.

Prepare yourselves for the apocalypse. And shouldn’t there be a movement to return the Melville Society’s Murray Prize? Read the book, see the movie. You’ll love the scenes with Murray (Mansol) whipping his mistress Christiana (Wona), with his red fingernails, jangly bracelet, and various brightly-colored skirts and blouses.

By the way, if any work of Melville’s was in the Unabomber Montana library (or ever read by TK), Chase doesn’t mention it.

Clare’s response to objections by the moderator of the Melville list “Ishmail,” John Bryant:

Henry Murray was very nice to me and could not have been more encouraging. I would be the last one to urge that the Murray Endowment be revoked, and surely no one on this list thought that, given the context of my scathing remarks on Alston Chase, I could conceivably have intended such a reading.

Thanks to JB for clarifying what has happened to Murray’s contribution to the Melville Society. Also, I was kidding about the movie, though I can imagine a movie of the week being made on the subject.

JB has asked me to provide the passage that mentions Murray. First I should reemphasize that Murray is the most villainous of Chase’s cast of mind-managers. Much of the book is about him, and where his remarks pertain to my own research, I can say that the scholarship is shoddy and often wrong. But then Chase is not the first Harvard graduate that I have encountered who has an elevated and exaggerated view of his own capabilities. (And I say that as a person with a Harvard degree from the lowly Graduate School of Education, ’59.)

Here are the pertinent passages requested by JB:

“When in 1923, he read Herman Melville’s _Moby-Dick_ for the first time, he became virtually obsessed with the novel and its author. He closely identified, not just with Melville but with Captain Ahab himself, the half-mad sea captain who sought revenge against the great white whale that had taken his leg. To Murray, the whale embodied the cruel and unforgiving God of Calvinism; and Ahab, by seeking to slay it, was a tragic hero. By battling the whale, the sea captain sought to strike a blow for psychic and sexual freedom.

From that time forward, Murray would pursue the whale. In 1949 he named the Harvard Psychological Clinic–that he had directed since 1928–“the Baleen,” adopting a spouting sperm whale as its logo. And his identification with Melville and the author’s fictional character would stay with him.

“Harry-Ahab-Murray Melville,” as Frank Barron described him. “…It was all Harry; the whole universe was inside him; the outside world had no reality; it was mere spectacle.”

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