YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 29, 2012

Fred Siegel’s melodrama of 20th C. cultural history

Fred Siegel of Manhattan Institute

The April 2012 issue of Commentary features an article by Fred Siegel, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/how-highbrows-killed-culture/#.T5mYHo0AEuZ.facebook. (See his mini-bio here: http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/siegel.htm). The essay is illustrated with a picture of Sir Lawrence Olivier as the diabolical King Richard III.* Originally a lecture delivered to the American Enterprise Institute, the essay has been featured on Facebook, and is highly recommended by John Podhoretz and Richard Miniter.

The chief villains in Siegel’s piece are a motley crew of intellectuals who ostensibly spurned “mass culture” and “mass man”: Nietzsche, the Frankfurt School critical theorists (he mentions Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse), Ortega y Gasset, Dwight MacDonald, Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, the disillusioned authors of the 1920s (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson). Siegel’s positive models are few, but include Robert M. Hutchins, T.S. Eliot, and apparently himself, as one who would rescue “middlebrow” taste and  “American” culture from its hatchet men. Presumably this rectified “mass culture” is the best defense against leftist and liberal statism and elitism. (Using the word “rectified” was a Marcel Duchamp joke, readers.)

Siegel, seizing the populist moment, perhaps, wants to rehabilitate the middle class and its cultural preferences away from European-friendly snobs, Western Marxists (i.e., the Frankfurters), Trotskyists, and New Leftists too. How he manages to upgrade organic conservatives such as Hutchins and Eliot to his camp is a mystery, for Hutchins was a leader in the semi-public move toward elite rule, relying for instance on Plato, no friend to the masses. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/, https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/ .  Hutchins and his cohort of “moderate men” were frank and public manipulators of the masses Siegel says he wants to protect, while Eliot abhorred “free thinking Jews” (1933) as well as the decadence they brought to the modern world, e.g. “damp souls of housemaids” in his “Morning at the Window” (1920).

I have been thinking how to transmit my horror upon reading this type of “cultural” history. There have been other such essays and books purporting to give the reader a cultural or intellectual history of the 20th century, similarly detached from politics, economics, social movements, divergent ideological/class tendencies, and the ongoing controversies over the causes of wars and mass death. For these “culturalist” authors, “ideas” or “philosophy” are the very engines of history, and anyone who protests such a narrow view is ipso facto a “historical materialist,” i.e., a communist or fellow traveler: I am not one of this dragon crew.

There is simply no way to describe “culture” in a vacuum. It is the same problem that I have found in other culture war manifestoes. The organic conservatives (like the apparently “moderate” Siegel) ignore all of history since the invention of the printing press. (For a summary of elite moves against autodidacts see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/11/review-excerpts-re-hunting-captain-ahab/, especially the “letter to the editor” that explains why non-literary critics should read my book.) Without examining constant offensives against the newly literate and numerate, there can be no “cultural history.” That would entail, pace Siegel, a grander sweep than he has attempted. Since the Reformation, elites threatened with displacement have drenched ordinary people with counter-revolutionary, irrationalist propaganda, whether this takes place in the realm of language, or ongoing debates about human nature, or the Promethean impulse (always a bad thing for fact-hoarding elites), or what is or is not fascism.

To summarize, readers and other consumers of “culture” want to know (or should want to know) what they are experiencing. They (should) want to know who made this or that artifact (including her or his biography), who paid for it, what it is saying about past and present conflict (for instance, the range of permissible emotions, disobedience to authority or the role of Church and State in everyday life). Whereas organic conservatives are interested in none of the above. They value social cohesion/stability over the search for truth, and trot out their celebrities or institutions du jour to guide the autodidact away from the abyss they most fear:  rupture with the past—a past that is irrationalist to its very core, that makes objective reality a phantasm pursued only by monomaniacs.

Fred Siegel wants to be a friend to mass man, and to the middle class consumer of masscult. Yet he does not respect the very tools that ordinary people have developed, against the wishes of their betters, critical tools such as science and empiricism that point the way to understanding past and present.

*Siegel actually praises the large audience for the television presentation of Richard III, as part of his defense of 1950s popular culture, but the deployment of Richard III’s face by Commentary suggests a group assassination to me. And where oh where is John Milton and Paradise Lost? It was once the case that Shakespeare and Milton were paired as the leading voices in English poetry, but Milton, the puritan whose “Satan” “traced the ways of highest agents,”  and, with Eve, purveyor of the Fortunate Fall, is nowhere to be found in the new dispensation.

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May 10, 2011

What is an elite/elitism?

Medusa

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.

April 8, 2010

Racism, Modernity, Modernism

Columbus taking possession of the New World

[Added: Columbus Day, 2010. Because Herman Melville’s great-grandson Paul Metcalf had associated Columbus with Captain Ahab, it occurred to me that what the “anti-imperialist” anti-expansionists feared most was discovery as such. Finding out new things–for instance that admired authorities have been lying to you, or painfully over time finding out new truths in science and medicine–can get you fired, not hired, thrown out of graduate school or your profession or worse, much worse. So let us celebrate today the risky process of discovery, and honor those of our ancestors and contemporaries who are making the Ahab-ish leap from light into darkness that few of us would imitate. This is such a big subject that I wrote a recent blog about it: https://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.]

I have linked the problem of “race” and “racism” to “modernity” because numerous scholars and other writers on the Left blame modernity for racism. For them, the modern world begins with, and is defined by, the gold and resource-driven Western expansion into Asia, the New World, and Africa. Hence the primary feature of expansionism is the subjugation and exploitation of non-Europeans. Racism was said to originate in the need to explain the contradiction between Christian ethics and the cruelty and degradation visited upon native peoples, for example in the notion of “the White Man’s burden”—the moral imperative to uplift and rescue pagans through the superior religion of Christianity. But others voices would have preserved the pagans, either as primitivists or perhaps holding to the theory of polygenesis: the idea of separate creation. In that theory, humanity evolved separately in the different regions of the world—hence “races.” For these racists, there was no original set of homo sapiens in Africa that wandered the earth, mutating and adapting to drastically different environments. There are some white supremacists today who probably adhere to this polygenesis view of human evolution, and I have come across some on Facebook who call themselves by evocative names including the word “renaissance” but their aim is not humanism or the unity of our species, but the secession of white people from a multiracial polity (they are also interested in the subordination of women). These latter men are impressed by such as Carleton Coon, and the specter of miscegenation must give them hives.

Although it is true that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D. witnessed European expansion, there is another way to define modernity, and when I use that term, I refer to the transition from feudalism or other pre-capitalist economics to market economies.  That transition remains far from complete, as I have written here numerous times. The postmodernists/post-colonialists  believe they have not only dredged up the “submerged” cultures of native peoples, but have transcended the modernity that spun nativism (WASP supremacy), bureaucratic rationality and hence the Holocaust, but have they?  Was Nazism “the revolt of the masses” and the excrescence of modern Jacobins? Moreover, the Great Chain of Being or similar hierarchies of “interdependence” remain intact because the scientific revolution and the rise of industrialism and a burgeoning middle-class challenged  former ruling aristocracies with a newly literate class that was educating not only itself, but the lower orders. Enter team playing, the lovable fatherly Leader, and hierarchies would be preserved against the threat posed by the too-curious literate masses, including women. (For a perfect example of a model hierarchy see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/15/the-christianization-of-ziva-david-ncis/.)

Don’t scratch your head about the deficiencies in our public school education.  There is no moral imperative for those who identify with aristocracies, new or old, to give students the analytic tools they need to judge their superiors or elected officials. If there was serious education in our country, all students would study the sciences, economics (including the basic elements of accounting), the history of every social movement in the U.S. and the conflicts that they addressed, the wily ways of those who have governed us, and how to decipher the propaganda that urges deference to corrupt authority—from pre-school on through graduate school! (And I am not exempting the scrutiny of both high and popular culture from this menu. See the Ibsen excerpt here: https://clarespark.com/2009/11/02/a-ride-through-the-culture-wars-in-academe/.

Modernity, then, is founded upon the invention of the printing press and the spread of mass literacy and numeracy. It is about the growth of competitive markets, and the hatred of the bourgeoisie expressed by aristocrats threatened by displacement. Many a New Left “cultural radical” was a would-be aristocrat, spurning the middle-class, and getting down with the lower orders (who were viewed as less uptight—indeed as the source of instinctual liberation). In came George Orwell, folklore and rock ‘n roll, out went classical music and the bourgeois entertainments that were related.

    Primitivism—a habit of mind in both the pre-war and post-Great War modernist movement in the arts—is a form of racism, though it is not the nasty kind that we associate with lynch mobs, institutional exclusion, segregation, and worse. Primitivism and irrationalism are overlapping categories: we let in what Freud called the Id forces to relax that persecuting, insomniac, maternal Hebraic puritan, superego, just enough to keep us “balanced” and ecologically hip. (See Freud’s 1933 topography of Superego, Ego and Id: the Superego reaches down and connects to the Id.* Or see the sequence of Picasso drawings elsewhere on this website: https://clarespark.com/2009/11/02/picasso-drawings-dreamy-mother-and-son-to-entwined-peasants/.) But since primitivism is a release, not a way of life that takes up the challenge of modernity in order to improve everyone’s material condition, it cannot help non-whites achieve the American Dream: rather primitivism idealizes the lives of “carefree” non-whites and helps recruit middle-class kids from authoritarian families (or subtly authoritarian) to support for “wars of national liberation.”  At least that was the 1960s-70s protocol. So when the elite universities and the national government instituted multiculturalism, accommodating and supposedly defusing militant cultural nationalist movements among minorities, the hipper white kids got on the bus, not bothering to look back upon the history of racial theory.

Had they done so, they would have quickly discovered the origin of “multiculturalism” and its associated moral relativism in the theories of J. G. von Herder and the German Romantics who followed. They would have discovered that there were two Enlightenments: one promoting the careful and exhaustive empirical study of this world; its competition—the pseudo-Enlightenment–reacting to the proto-jacobin “mechanical materialism” of the Enlightenment with corporatism and the notion of national or racial character, a “different” Enlightenment or Aufklärung that preserved hierarchies, favoring the Greek way also known as “socially responsible capitalism.” There was nothing democratic or egalitarian in the rooted cosmopolitan thought of Herder, Goethe, Fichte, and the hordes of social theorists who followed. The omnipresent word “diversity” today refers to the mystical organicism of Herder, Goethe, and their neoclassical, “tolerant” successors (e.g., Saint-Simon as elucidated by Frank E. Manuel, in his The Prophets of Paris). As I have said before, multiculturalism is an elite strategy to micromanage group conflict with their version of reparations; MC has nothing to do with unifying our species or spreading the skills that will help all of us to survive the numerous looming emergencies that beset us. It is collectivist and pseudo-functionalist at its core, does not lift up non-whites (but demeans them with administrative pseudo-remedies like affirmative action that recognize “race” as something real in the world, not as a category that has been socially constructed and reconstructed), and will marginalize or destroy discovery, other innovations, and all dissent.

*The (tentative) diagram may be seen in Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Hogarth Press, 1967): Lecture 31, p.105. “You will observe how the super-ego goes down into the id; as the heir to the Oedipus complex it has, after all, intimate connections with the id” (p.104).

September 30, 2009

Blogging with a difference (2)

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On the first of September I posted “Blogging with a difference”, https://clarespark.com/2009/09/01/blogging-with-a-difference/ distinguishing my research and writing methods from postmodernist approaches, but also stating some affinities, as I believe that the words we use are powerful tools that may be used as weapons by scholars and journalists with antidemocratic agendas.

     In this second installment reflecting on what we have accomplished this summer and early Fall, I offer a brief progress report on how well my experiment is going. I would say that my faith in lifelong learning has been vindicated, and moreover that there is an audience for intellectual history, especially when that history is relevant to current day controversies.

    I complain a lot about academe, but that does not mean that there are not great scholars functioning in that institutional environment. I have been lucky to know many of them, and they have been supportive of my work beyond all expectation. So if I post something that seems as if it were destined for an academic journal, such as the material on Hitler and the Big Lie or the four-part piece on Anne  Hutchinson, you can trust that it was read by qualified scholars and has earned their support. This latter essay is close to my heart because it is the first piece that I have posted that deals directly with feminist scholarship or with scholarship that is blatantly sexist (and Anne H. was a favorite subject for both types), but also because it has some of my best close readings. I spent many months and years learning about this period, and the analysis relates to almost everything that I have posted here this summer presenting the shaky frameworks of social psychology and cultural studies in general.  Though I was urged to publish the  Anne Hutchinson essay (and still might) I thought it too important to suppress any longer. Anne’s troubles may seem of little concern to the present raging controversies, but the type of academic witch hunt she posthumously endured (and while she was alive as well!)  is all too current.

     What has most surprised me are two blogs in particular: 1. The piece about my family background (mostly my father and mother) and my puritan discontent with our current conspicuously consuming culture. I was wondering about the propriety of even including it on the website, but it was remarkably popular. I do regret one sentence, implying that I believe that most doctors are quacks (my father’s opinion in the 1940s or early 1950s). At that time, many of the tests that are now taken for granted when we get our yearly physicals did not exist. Medicine has progressed, though the quality of medical care probably varies depending on where one lives. But in one respect especially, my father the scrupulous physician was correct. We know now that doctors, eager to please their patients, overprescribed antibiotics, thus encouraging mutations that would be resistant to them. We even heard such warnings at Cornell when I took microbiology or genetics in the mid-1950s. What possible excuse can there have been for such foolishness as prescribing penicillin and its related antibiotics for the common cold?

2. The naked David Hume quotes from his History of England were actually read, and a lot. I never expected such interest and am gratified that YDS visitors are as interested as I am in primary source materials from the eighteenth century (or earlier), even when written in such long sentences that no editor would allow them today. As I wrote in my book on the Melville revival, we need to understand conflict throughout the entire span of modernity, starting with the Reformation and proceeding through the Scientific Revolution, then the American and French Revolutions, all of which are unfinished, and all of which are crucial to understanding the present, especially when we diagnose or decode the often subtle propaganda intended to discourage reading and political participation in the beleaguered democracies. Are autodidacts all assassins? You tell me.

    It is my hope that some of these posts “go viral” so that they reach a larger audience. As I have repeated ad infinitum, democracies are only as good as the civic education made available to future citizens. So far, this website has attracted readers from Left to Right. It is my firm belief that all of us would rather be independent thinkers than conformists in thrall to a “leader” or to misconceptions about historical figures.

 

    

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