The Clare Spark Blog

December 13, 2013

Culture wars, religion, and the (neurotic?) historian

modernity1One reason for the endurance of the American experiment is cultural and religious pluralism as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. And yet, every year about this time, renewed angst and outrage is expressed that “secular progressives” are out to remove the Christ from Christmas. I have written endless blogs on the culture wars; see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/02/index-to-blogs-on-culture-wars/.

But I have not always spelled out in plain language how a historian differs from an organic conservative or a leftist whose ideology is a substitute for religion. [Note: this blog is not intended as an attack on either religion or leftism as such. It is about the tools in the historian’s tool box, and what may not be used in our analyses. I admit that the writing of history is an enlightenment science.]

First, a historian may choose to write a history of a religion or of religious conflict. But if that writer is making judgments within a particular religion, and defending that religion against competitors, that person is not a historian, but a special pleader or advocate. Such a one is Bill O’Reilly, one of the most popular and prolific of the would-be “moderates” and healers, but whose world view is possibly tempered  by Rerum Novarum (see the encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, 1891), by his desire to maintain his audience ratings, and the protection of his own considerable wealth. It is no accident that O’Reilly becomes especially heated when “atheists” attack Christmas.  Or, for another example, see my essay on “cultural historian” Nicholas Boyle: https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.

Second, a religious framework may implicitly deny human agency and institutional structures, relying instead on “Providence,” “God’s plan,” or any other superhuman force (e.g. “dialectical materialism” or any other telos) that determines the destinies of humans and planets. There are some deep ecologists who view “Nature” within a religious framework, hence tend to be allergic to facts that contradict their often apocalyptic predictions.

Third, as in the case of Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle, such an organic conservative in historian’s clothing may refuse to mark turning points in world history: historians call this marking of “change over time”  “periodization.” Current organicist/mystical examples are nostalgic for the Middle Ages, when troublesome challenges to authority are believed to have been alleviated by the Good King or “the King’s touch.” See https://clarespark.com/2013/05/30/nostalgia-for-the-middle-ages/.

Another feature of the Middle Ages was the absence of feminism, for birth control in its modern forms was unknown at that time, and women were lucky to live beyond child-bearing age. Television pundits or even fictional characters in the media may view themselves as good Kings, uniting warring factions/taming the wild man within, as Good Kings were imagined to do. For instance, the episode of Blue Bloods broadcast December 13, 2013, served the multicultural agenda by showing sympathy for a disaffected Muslim, who had already bombed his local mosque and was determined to bomb thousands of fellow Muslims in a big parade. Why? Losing his job as a computer technician had alienated the terrorist from God and Allah’s plan for his life. But the good King, in the guise of a NYC Catholic policeman, returned him to peace and tolerance by showing him his daughter, a symbol for all the other innocent children who would be harmed were the Muslim not to divulge where he had planted the fatal bomb. Order and inter-religious comity was restored to interchangeable persons of “faith.” (For a related blog emphasizing the power of “family” rhetoric, with the family/tribe headed by the charismatic leader see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/07/charisma-and-symbolic-politics/.)

Modernity is a distinct period in world history, and remains hotly contested. Why? Because technology has wrested control from the old elites, who are now routinely criticized by dissenters.  Historians are, or should be, professional dissenters. It is our role to unearth materials that change our view of past and present.  We do not throw up road blocks to such adventures into the unknown, nor do we claim that earthly knowledge is inevitably distorted and unreliable, nor do we fail to identify terrorists as a sop to the levelers of multiculturalism. That does not mean that it is child’s play to assign causes and effects, or that there is no ambiguity in separating human agency (free will) from structural imperative. Indeed, Herman Melville wrote a classic book about just that subject: see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/ That is why (necessarily secular) historians are troublemakers, and must face public and often professional obloquy, for many powerfully placed historians are protecting their jobs, and, sad to say, the early work that got them tenure. It is they who usually control academic publication. And many a ‘modern’ artist resents the “mechanization” they see everywhere. For that reason, I call them primitivists. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/04/16/blogs-on-anarchismpunkprimitivism/.) modernlife Reconfiguring the past is not yet classified as a personality disorder, but it is a source of very objective anxiety. And such kaleidoscopic new looks may have nothing to say about “progress.”

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April 26, 2013

The television season goes Dark

The-following-posterI understand that television is not considered to be other than escapist entertainment, and not a business with pretensions to artiness or literariness, but there are many critics who treat its more upscale offerings with the reverence once reserved to Balzac (for instance see the indefatigable Terri Gross in her new interview with Matthew Weiner, creator of MAD MEN: in the part I heard she was insisting that Don Draper has a “death wish”).

As the 2012-2013 season draws to a close, I must say that I can’t remember a time when popular entertainment was as ideological driven or death-obsessed. I admit to not understanding the adolescent craze for vampires or zombies, though I have my suspicions of deranged right-wing Romanticism and/or the adolescent desire to irritate parents. But I do get the populist flavor, laced with morbidity, of the “better” television series, especially those directed to a more upscale, presumably educated audience.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not nostalgic for the television fare of the 1950s and 1960s, with its frequently inane glorification of the ordinary folksy American family, rural or urban. The material introduced in response to 1960s and 1970s uproars was critical, and though usually anti-American and anti-establishment, was at least well-written, brilliantly acted, and interesting to decode for its (typically populist) politics. Nor do I fail to detect the ideology in the theater popular when I was growing up: at least it was well meaning, brilliantly written, conceived, and performed—and relatively anti-racist.

But what to make of such paranoia-inducing recent offerings as the romantic necrophiliac THE FOLLOWING (internet gossip reports it renewed!), or the ongoing goriness in CRIMINAL MINDS, or the hatred of hedge fund managers profiting off evil drug companies as displayed in the last episode of PERSON OF INTEREST, or amoral rich people as were evident in DECEPTION, now in SCANDAL (the last episode particularly horrifying), MAD MEN, REVENGE, and even the apparently harmless and well-written THE GOOD WIFE, a love triangle that manages to mostly evade the possibly unparalleled corruption of  Democratic Chicago, while “Alicia” wavers between family and sex? (I have been watching reruns of the Dick Wolf generated LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT, and find the same targets, often Jews, who are either the perps, or who as doctors and lawyers are equally loathsome and corrupt. In one episode, “the Jewish mob” is identified as the most “vicious” of all: oh really?). Add to that the swipes at Mossad in the ever-popular NCIS, and you have the picture. Nouveaux riches and the government enforcers (cops, government regulators, other bureaucrats, CIA, etc.) whom the moneybags obviously control in their own depraved interest, are the chief subjects of the most watched television shows. The poster for THE FOLLOWING (illustrated) shows the dual character of those who serve “law and order.” “Order” for whom? is clearly implied as Bacon and Purefoy are halves of one whole, following Poe’s “William Wilson” in its doppelgänger conception, perhaps a major conceit in the imagination of television writers. And don’t be fooled by the poster for THE FOLLOWING. “Joe Collins” (James Purefoy) is clearly the protagonist, and he stepped out of character in the most recent episode to plug Green living. Why not Kevin Bacon, who barely appears in the series, and whose character is an alcoholic to boot?

Are there any shows with family values? So far, BLUE BLOODS takes the prize. Irreproachably Irish Catholic and upright, the patriarchal Reagan family holds together in contrast to the decadent cities it valiantly disciplines. Even THE MENTALIST is terror gothic in spirit, and clearly plays on fears of the French Revolution, while teasing its faithful viewers that “Patrick Jane” is actually serial killer Red John, rather than someone likely to be very high up in the government. It too is paranoia inducing. Shame on you Bruno Heller, who should know better.

And SMASH, the backstage story of a Broadway musical, will not likely be renewed, while its writing and music to these ears are downright embarrassing. What a hollow victory for hip movement culture, with its glorification of the ever-misunderstood and pathetic Marilyn Monroe.  On to off-Broadway, inter-racial understanding, and the offbeat rock musical and heterosexual and homosexual pairing off. On television, racism/miscegenation has disappeared if you sing and dance well enough. Perhaps the same thing can be said for new Broadway shows, either PC or living off the bones of its ancestors.

Meanwhile, few in show business pay attention to education reform, the illicit power of the teachers unions, and their relentless, media-supported attempts to undermine the educations of real black and brown children in urban ghettoes and elsewhere. Try to find a decent public school in NYC or Los Angeles, homes of those who write and produce the mindless (though technically advanced) shows I have listed above.

Now tell me the condition of our urban schools is not racist in the extreme. The better historians lament the world wide indifference as the Holocaust and other horrors proceeded in the 1930s and 1940s, while today the hippest among us wallow in gonzo ressentiment, apocalypse, the undead, blood and gore. Who is indifferent now? Should we blame the audience, who allegedly want this polluted fare?

Is the great American experiment going down? If popular culture is any indication, the answer is “you betcha.” Who needs a Fifth Column or other demonic forces when you have the entertainment industry?

[I have blogged about most of the tv shows mentioned here and others: see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/16/index-to-blogs-on-popular-tv-shows/.]

good wife cast pic chris noth 2 season 2

March 16, 2012

Index to blogs on popular tv shows

Dick Wolf and Judith Light

I haven’t commented on all the crime shows. It is enough to say that we are to believe that good cops will eventually triumph over bad cops, and that most criminals are tracked down and punished. I.e., the State is looking out for you and me, with all the tools that modern science (including profiling) can muster. Law and Order: Criminal Intent (not analyzed here) adds a flourish: the Vincent D’Onofrio character is often dissatisfied with normal procedures, co-opts Freud, and seemingly obeys a higher (more compassionate) law.

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/15/the-christianization-of-ziva-david-ncis/

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/02/roman-polanski-and-his-critics/

https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/

https://clarespark.com/2010/10/24/mad-men-and-the-jewish-problem/

https://clarespark.com/2010/12/12/hbo%e2%80%99s-in-treatment-and-boardwalk-empire/

https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/

https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/

https://clarespark.com/2011/07/07/network-and-its-offspring/

https://clarespark.com/2012/02/04/blue-bloods-freud-trauma-911/

https://clarespark.com/2012/02/09/glee-goes-la-raza/

https://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/

https://clarespark.com/2012/06/26/aaron-sorkins-scottish-blood/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/03/andy-griffiths-greatest-performance/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/23/homeland-and-the-idea-of-the-fifth-column/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/29/girls-or-the-new-lost-generation/

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/14/is-there-a-culture-of-violence/

https://clarespark.com/2013/01/26/decoding-call-me-ishmael-and-the-following/ (Read this first)

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/25/potus-michelle-and-the-end-of-the-democratic-republic/

https://clarespark.com/2013/04/26/the-television-season-goes-dark/

https://clarespark.com/2013/05/27/smash-the-perfect-liberal-backstage-musical/

https://clarespark.com/2013/06/20/james-gandolfini-as-tony-soprano/

https://clarespark.com/2013/09/22/the-newsroom-season-two/

https://clarespark.com/2014/03/24/the-good-wife-and-bad-timing/

https://clarespark.com/2014/06/25/penny-dreadfuls-sinister-significance/

February 4, 2012

Blue Bloods, Freud, trauma, 9/11

Poster for Blue Bloods

I have seen every episode of the CBS drama Blue Bloods, starring Tom Selleck as a Catholic family patriarch. Selleck plays Frank Reagan, New York City ex-cop who has risen to police commissioner, where he is an avatar of civic resolve, duty, self-control, piety, and rectitude. The episode of 2-3-12 was of special interest, because it showed Reagan dissatisfied with his psychiatrist, played by F. Murray Abraham. The psychiatrist is not dwelling on sexual history (as the stereotype would have it), but rather on his client’s response to recent multiple traumas, which turn out to include 9/11, but before that, the loss of Reagan’s wife, the dirty-cop murder of one of his three sons, and possibly the shock of his youngest son, a graduate of Harvard Law School, abandoning his profession for the family business, where he is reduced to being a rookie cop on the beat. It is only in this episode that we learn that Reagan was in the North Tower on 9/11, and that his ex-partner is dying from a lung disease caught while breathing the noxious air that followed the bombing of the Twin Towers. (Viewers will easily identify “survivor’s guilt” as did Reagan himself.)

The [Jewish?] psychiatrist’s questions anger Reagan, who walks out of his (secret) session, his inner feelings unexamined and undisclosed. His assistant guesses that he has disappeared because of an affair. When queried as to why the affair has ended,  Reagan replies that “she asked too many questions.” (I.e., the focus in therapy is on this world, not the next one.) The rest of the episode deals with an incident in which a neighbor of Danny Reagan, angered by the presence of a half-way house in his neighborhood, causes a former child-molester to run out in the street, to be hit by Danny’s car, containing his wife and two sons.  The neighbor then shoots into Reagan’s car, traumatizing his wife and one of the sons. Linda Reagan, the wife, is horrified by the close call, and is in a snit for most of the episode. She is not used to “bullets flying around” as her husband explains to his partner. But Danny, though sometimes a loose cannon, wants above all to preserve his marriage, so he offers his badge to the now mollified Linda. She refuses it, for Danny has caught and handcuffed the shooter,  obviously a bigot who, with his loudmouth wife, resents the airs put on by this blue blooded police family, and unlike the Reagan family, lacks compassion for the fallen.

But it is the climax that prompted this blog. At the funeral of Reagan’s partner (another “Irish-American”), Reagan gives the eulogy, and expresses a central tenet of Catholic theology. We can’t know why he, Frank Reagan, survived 9/11, while his colleague did not. It is beyond human ken. The implication is that 9/11 and its tragic toll in human life is incomprehensible, but, like other difficult questions related to human suffering, must be “part of God’s plan.” He actually used those words. We question, but there are no answers to be had in this world.

When I first started my dissertation research, I noticed that the most influential Melville scholars (including both Protestants and Catholics) had thrown up their hands at the “mystery” of Melville, who takes his place with the Holy Trinity that is yet one God, and, like 9/11, with its victims and survivors, unknowable, no matter how carefully we read him (Melville) and his biography. So it is with millions of others who resist psychiatry and various forms of psychoanalysis, social work, and counseling. For these stoics, human suffering is unfathomable in its causes. Taking a family history and digging inside our own responses to traumas possibly inflicted by even the most well-meaning of parents, is tantamount to parricide and deicide. And Frank Reagan’s father, a former cop and police commissioner, is off limits, as is Reagan’s mother. Honor, family, and justice are transmitted in the blood. Just look at the poster for the show.

Can we survive as a representative republic when vast segments of our population resist those critical processes that would make us independent and appropriately curious and critical of the persons and events that help shape our lives? Must our politics be seen only “through a glass, darkly?” For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/22/managerial-psychiatry-jung-henry-a-murray-and-sadomasochism-3/. (The episode in question was repeated 6-17-12.)

Note: I have seen this episode twice and have corrected the error that Reagan might be grieving for a competitor, not his former partner.

May 20, 2011

The Mentalist, Melville, Blake, and Israel

Simon Baker as The Mentalist

SPOILER ALERT. The popular CBS show The Mentalist had a razzle-dazzle finale ending its third season. Not only was Captain Ahab mentioned, and the Blake poem that had ended the second season reiterated, but Patrick Jane confronted his White Whale, Red John, and shot him point blank in a shopping mall. (It turned out to be a bad man, but not Red John.)

Melville’s Moby-Dick has come up several times in this series, as has the problem of vengeance, and it is the question of “vengeance” and the problem of evil (the dark side of humanity) that is being talked about today on the internet.  As I wrote in my prior blog on The Mentalist, the Blake poem, The Tyger* was written in 1794, and whatever religious resonances it contained, it also clearly referred to the Reign of Terror as perpetrated by the Jacobins. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/.) Today’s undereducated television audience is probably more attuned to the Devil or fallen flesh (our purported dark interior) than it is to specific historical provocations that stir a poet, so today’s blog will try to pull together some themes that question the morality of “vengeance.”**

If there is an archetype for humanity seeking to stamp out evil, it is the Promethean Captain Ahab, his leg torn away by “Moby Dick.” His detractors (Ishmael, Starbuck, and the majority of Melville scholars, including those on the Left) have seen him engaged on a vindictive, futile, hubristic, and suicidal quest to abolish evil. If one understands that Melville wrote his masterpiece after decades of antislavery agitation that threatened to sunder the Union, one must concede that Melville had a very specific evil in mind, and that was the Slavocracy, as Charles Sumner and other antislavery men termed the national government as controlled by Southern slaveholders.

It is not irrelevant that Melville was sometimes read as “Jew” or “Hebraic” and identified with Ahab, or that David Herbert Donald, Sumner’s biographer, hinted that he was driven by Jewish blood through his mother (See Vol.1 of Donald’s biography, published 1960; the tone abruptly changed in Vol.2, published 1970, possibly because of the civil rights movement.)

The Mentalist is no New Age mystic, indeed is not a psychic as some viewers would like to think. He is rather something very like Captain Ahab: a “fighting  Quaker,” a materialist, a loner, and a shrewd mapper of his environment and the correlation of forces arrayed against his individuality. He sees corruption in high places, and cannot count on the legal system to catch the serial killer who murdered his wife and child; indeed, the legal system is hand-in-glove, he thinks, with evildoers, and is compromised by procedures at best. Thus the analogy I am making here with Melville as moralist, horrified by the institution of slavery, but also constrained by his family’s connections to take a public stand against it, except through indirection in his novels.

Consider now the hatred directed against the Jews of Western Europe after their emancipation in the 19th century. The polarizing Dreyfus case was only one example of the failure of a civilized government to enact justice. It was from this crucible that the journalist and playwright Theodore Herzl conceived the daring mission to create a Jewish state.  What role did the civilized nations play in the accelerating events that led to the horrors of the 20th century, and that threaten the Jewish state as I write this? The “Christianized” West was either complicit or indifferent to the murder of the Jews, and continued their indifference when the war was concluded, notwithstanding the supposed U.S. or U.N. support for the Jewish state. It was the willingness of Jews to take casualties in 1948 (plus arms supplied by a briefly friendly Soviet Union with its own agenda) that made the State of Israel possible, not helpful Western intervention. Writing in the early 1940s, Harvard’s star sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose “structural functionalism” still rules in academe, and who was cited favorably by David H. Donald, in Sumner Vol.2,  described the Jewish national character as reflective of a vindictive, savage God. One wonders how many liberal Jews today are fleeing from that archetype, joining in the anti-Ahab chorus as they imagine themselves to be assimilating and therefore acceptable to the American ruling class, those “moderate men” who hold to “virtuous expediency” (as Melville would have derisively put it).

Which brings me back to the higher law. John Locke wrote of the right to resist authority when the constituted government breaks its contract with the people. What makes Patrick Jane such an interesting character to me, is his uniqueness in popular television crime shows (with the possible exception of Bobbie Goren). You don’t see many apparent atheists depicted as the hero of a series, by necessity taking the law into his own hands, appealing to rough justice, or perhaps the higher law of Truth and Justice, as Sumner would have seen it. (Compare this series with Blue Bloods, frankly Irish Catholic in its sympathies, and where everything is done “by the book.”)

What do we mean, then, by “vengeance,” and who defines its legality?  And is the unforgiving Bruno Heller/Patrick Jane a writer who is running ahead of public opinion, indeed running ahead of his own authorial instincts? Melville, insofar as he identified with his mad Captain Ahab, surely was.

*Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye.
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright.
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye.
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

** On 6-2-11, CBS replayed the episode “Red Moon” that ended with a serial killer, set on fire by a guard, reciting some lines from “The Tyger” as he is dying. This episode was written by Bruno Heller and directed by Simon Baker. After the poem is heard, “Patrick Jane” looks extremely disturbed. I suspect that both actor and author are more interested in “the dark [Satanic/vengeful] side” of our species than in exploring the moral dilemma of a man seeking justice in a society where the law is unevenly applied. See recap here: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_mentalist/recaps/310/recaps.php?season=3. To sum it up: without religion, the hounds of hell are released. “The mentalist” is an anti-hero, not meant to be an exemplar, and he is often read that way by viewers, as Red John himself. But as a regular viewer of the show, I prefer to think that both Heller and Baker know what they are doing, and that their view of [Ahab] coincides with mine.

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