YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 27, 2014

The imagination going dark

cannibalferoxBefore I left for a summer jaunt, I reread George Fitzhugh’s CANNIBALS ALL! (1857), a defense of slavery as a benign institution, especially as compared to the voracious capitalism and radical politics he claims to have witnessed in the industrial revolution.  What makes this work important is hardly its timeless wisdom or exhaustive research into the historical record, but the stunning fact that C. Vann Woodward, the foremost (liberal) historian of the South, wrote a lengthy preface for its republication in 1960.

Why would a liberal resuscitate such a relic in the mid-20th century? Woodward doesn’t tell us, but it is a good bet that Fitzhugh’s enemies and his were cut from the same cloth; that Fitzhugh’s reactionary cooking the history books to make all slaveholders throughout the West and the American South the best of patriarchs: religious, classically educated, family oriented, agrarian, and never, never turning slaves into throwaway commodities as the materialistic, science driven Northern laissez-faire capitalists were allegedly doing. Woodward undoubtedly saw Fitzhugh as the model New Deal liberal, paternalistic, agrarian, and statist, avant la lettre.

On the airplane that took me back and forth from the East I saw three movies, one older, two recent: Brazil, Divergent, and Transcendence. Before that, I had leafed through a large art history book, heavily illustrated, entitled Symbolism at my son’s house. I feel that I am drowning in postmodernist negativity regarding science, technology, “positivism,” and the modern world, for all these works were retreats into the Dark Ages, mysticism, and even postmodernism (even Christopher Nolan, who has a conservative following,  is awash in ambiguity and subjectivity–not all of which is bad.)

The Symbolist painters of the 19th century were lyrical and visually extravagant, carrying forth many of the themes developed on this website—escapism into a re-enchanted world: primitive, pagan, nature-loving, risqué, often Catholic. But the movies I watched on the airplane were typical film noir: As the Erudite want to take over the world (Divergent) choosing their version of “human nature” as justification for their oppressive and divisive leadership (compare to Fitzhugh’s hated abolitionists and utopians), the Abnegation faction that currently rules is under threat but ably defended by young misfits who see through the traps set by the (Űbermenschen). The symbolism is obvious to the audience: the rationalists have carved up the human personality according to the division of labor that Fitzhugh too criticized as dehumanizing.

The Isle of the Dead (1884)

The Isle of the Dead (1884)

It is this division of labor that has turned the lights out all over Europe and America, de-skilling honest craftsmen, and corrupting the new industrial working class, once the projected saviors of humanity, with cheap and abundant consumer goods.

Is it any wonder that nearly all our sci-fi movies are set in murderous, visually degraded, crazy-making cities, and that popular entertainment has gone dark and mobbish? For in olden times, there were heroes capable of slaying the monsters who stalked the land. Those days are gone forever, except in the imaginations of the younger filmmakers who, like Nolan, has his characters (apparently) join forces with eco-terrorists who confuse science with The Bomb. (Were Orwell alive today, he would see himself as a prophet, for the social democrats have inverted freedom and slavery. Don’t confuse the tenets of social democracy with communism, for the communists viewed technology and science as emancipating for toiling humanity.)

Jen Liu (2006) featured in Environmental Impact show (2014)

Jen Liu (2006) featured in Environmental Impact show (2014)

Nowadays, we have the dubious choice of eating or being eaten, dreaming in our pop culture of unpolluted Nature, meditating upon “whole foods.”


July 18, 2010

White elite enabling of Black Power


Christopher Edley debates affirmative action with Charles Fried, Harvard Law Bulletin (Spring 2004)

These materials are taken from my unpublished ms. “Eros and the Middle Manager.” Some of the quotes have already been posted in my memoir of Pacifica Radio and also in Rough Ride Through The Culture Wars, but the material from Yale is new to the website. For an index to all my black power blogs, see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/15/index-to-black-power-blogs/. But also see a recent blog that shows how the moderate men demonized pioneers and frontiersmen as the worst racists, whose legacy haunts us today: https://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/.

[From Black Studies in the University: A Symposium, edited by Armstead Robinson et al (Yale U.P., 1969), a transcript of papers presented at a conference organized by the Black Student Alliance at Yale, late spring 1968, and featuring among its speakers Harold Cruse and Ron Karenga, two prominent spokesmen for cultural nationalism (an irrationalist ideology); they and other speakers hold up urban and campus violence as a warning, noting that time is running out for the advancement of social peace.

Harold Cruse defines cultural nationalism, Q&A (26-27):  …in a society such as America, in which you have the ideas and achievements of black people constantly de-emphasized, “overlooked,” unrecorded, or excluded in the general realm of ideas, any attempt to re-emphasize these ideas must take the form of cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism is nothing but the attempt of a group or nation or minority to express what is indigenous to its own historical background in order to enhance its public image–social image–in the eyes of the world. Unless there is a spirit of cultural nationalism, you would not have any national or ethnic group resurgence on any level, in any sphere. In America, where it is difficult for the white outlook, and often the black outlook, to accept the fact that the black group exists in many ways in a world separate from the whites, it is difficult to accept the validity of cultural nationalism on the part of the Negro as a group in American society because this is not the way we have been conditioned, educated, or trained to see this particular aspect of social reality. Cultural nationalism is nothing but an attempt to prevent the cultural particularism of the dominant white group from continuing to overshadow and submerge the essence of the black experience in America. If you examine this society as a whole, you will notice that all American groupings and sub-groupings have resorted in the past to the cultivation of their cultural nationalism in their attempt to adjust and gain recognition in American society. Without this impetus, there cannot be a concerted drive or thrust toward the creation and perpetuation of a course of black studies in the university.  You have to have this as a motivation, or else the whole idea of the institution of a black studies program becomes very meaningless.

[Ron Karenga explains his separatist educational philosophy  (Q&A, 44-45)]: I feel that black people should communicate black things. Why? We teach that methodology is very important in instruction, but unless one understands that education is more than just the communication of ideas for political effect, we’ll never see that education is basically two things: the provision of inspiration and the provision of information.  Now, we put inspiration first, because black people are an emotional people and our first commitment is an emotional one. Quite a few times myself I have been extremely rational, and blacks have no counter to it, but they disagree–either out of a false sense of Socratic tradition, which says that it is intelligent to disagree even if someone is right, or because he has been emotionally estranged from me.  We teach that the first commitment is an emotional one.  I cannot become emotionally committed to a white person, no matter what he says: I can laugh at what he does if it’s ridiculous enough, but I cannot become emotionally committed to him. I must have an image to identify with and that image must be personified in the man who’s communicating that thing to me or the image he projects. I’m saying that education is basically an inspirational thing and that methodology should take into consideration inspiration before information….

[Gerald A. McWorter introduces a theme that others amplify: there is very little scholarship available on “the black experience” or “the black community” so Yale and the other preserves of white financial power will have to develop curricula and scholars almost de novo. (Karenga offers his services as a consultant during the question period.)  This is how McWorter, a sociologist teaching at Spelman College, characterizes the worthless work of Gunnar Myrdal and his nameless black collaborators (after criticizing the work of the Chicago sociologists around Robert Park as overly focused on race relations):]

[McWorter:]  One must also mention in this concern with “race relations” the book by Gunnar Myrdal, AN AMERICAN DILEMMA, which to black people contains the white Myrdalian dilemma, not the dilemma of black people. Here I want specifically to note the whole question of “race relations,” because in the beginning period of empirical inquiry, it was race relations that was a concern–that is, people were concerned about the relationship of black people and white people and not, not, the life within the black community.  I suppose that’s natural, since these people were concerned about the survival of the society which was white. Now, the Myrdalian dilemma essentially is that, even though he had tremendous contact with a significant number of black scholars, he saw black people basically the same way as William Faulkner, the white racist novelist of the South. That is, he said that white people presented all of the alternatives available to black people, and if one ever wanted to understand black people, you merely had to look at white people who were around them, calculate the obverse of what you saw and you’d come up with what black people are about. There was no inkling in his mind that over a period of time black people could create a community, a culture, that would be functionally autonomous from the white oppressors who raped them from Africa.  Again, it seems to me that this should be clear to anyone with knowledge of recent research who is listening to voices coming from the black community.

[From a small conference “to explore the role of education in combating racial discrimination,” Martha’s Vineyard, July 1968, published as Racism and American Education: A Dialogue and Agenda for Action, Foreward by Averell Harriman, Harper and Row, 1970:]  

[Kenneth Clark (President of the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, Inc. Member of the New York State Board of Regents, and Professor of Psychology at City College of New York):]…I don’t see how we can avoid coming to the conclusion that teachers, who are supposed to be professionals with confidence in the potential of human  beings, are deficient in areas in which higher education is supposed to provide knowledge.  In some research among teachers selected by their principals to discuss teaching with us, the common denominator, interestingly enough true of Negro teachers as well as white teachers, was a profound illiteracy on what you would consider critical areas of knowledge.  I mean the attitudes, well not just the attitudes, but the knowledge of cultural anthropology or modern and contemporary knowledge about race and racial differences and racial potentialities or social psychology...They were really illiterate…in areas of social science that were relevant to their jobs (52).

[C. Van Woodward (Sterling Professor of History at Yale University):]…Americans in the early phases of nationalism did really foolish things.  In order to establish what they would now call their identity, Americans denigrated everything European in culture, and at the same time exalted everything American.  If it was American, it was beautiful, and if it was European, it was not.  Of course, that resulted in a lot of third-rate art and letters and sculpture and so forth.  I think we have recovered from our earlier excesses of nationalism in this respect, but by no means are we free from nationalism as a country.  The black nationalism, I think, will manifest many of these same excesses.  I think this is inevitable, and I think we are going to have to live with it in the colleges, in the public schools, all down the line.  We’re going to have to adjust to it.  I think we must think about it with as much dispassionate wisdom as we can muster, because it’s likely to get out of hand (64-65; see Kenneth Clark rejecting tolerance of black nationalism, 68).

[Christopher Edley (Program Officer in charge of the Government and Law Program at the Ford Foundation):]…I’m convinced that the way you eliminate prejudice and racism in America is not by talking and education and explanation.  I think you have to start with a simple cliché‚ like God, motherhood, or country.  You have to have something that has a noble ring.  And it seems to me that what this country needs is a movement, and I don’t know that this is the appropriate group to sponsor it.  This country needs a movement.  The way to eliminate prejudice is to smother it.  If we could bring about a climate in this country where no one could express a prejuducial viewpoint without being challenged, we would begin to drive prejudice underground.  And I submit to you that prejudice unexpressed and unacted upon dies–it doesn’t fester and grow–it dies.  Now this is high sounding, and I don’t expect people to agree with such a simplistic solution.  But I really believe that you can stamp it out.  And if you look at our national figures today, there are certain people who cannot make a prejudicial remark.  Many of our Governors, the President, many responsible Senators are precluded in their public lives from ever making a prejudiced public statement, and if they make a statement that sounds like it’s prejudicial, they’re called on it and the next day, as General de Gaulle found, it was necessary to recant.  So we don’t allow them to get away with anything.  But at the lower levels, over the dinner table…[ellipsis in original, Edley is an African-American now teaching at Harvard Law School.]

[Franklin Roosevelt (Former Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Congressman from the Twentieth Congressional District in New York during the eighty-first to the eight-third Congresses):]  The citizen level…[ellipsis in orig.]

[Christopher Edley:]  At the citizen level, we say it’s perfectly all right for a bigot to express his bigoted thoughts.  If you’re anti-Negro you can speak out against the Negro at supper.  The simplicity of the idea I submit to you is the thing that gives it some national potential for changing the climate (145).  [Identifications as published, xiii-xv].

[Ed Goodman, Manager of New York City Pacifica Station WBAI, report 1972:]  The tension between access and quality appears to me to be inevitable.  The tension is now more pronounced due to the heightened consciousness of various disenfranchised groups such as gay people, blacks, women, etc.  The problem is particularly acute within the context of the electronic media where the opportunities are limited by the numbers of hours in the day, and the licensing prerequisites.  These limitations are absent in the theater, print journalism, and other areas of expression.  Though the assertion that we should hire talented people and the hell with other considerations is, on the face, appealing, it is much too simplistic and ultimately self-limiting and suicidal.  It denies the contention that there are unique points of view and perspectives that are reflective of one’s ethnic background, sex, sexual proclivity, life style, and economic status.  The station is therefore enriched if its staff can reflect the diversity of the listening audience.  Of course, if diversity of this kind is sought for political expediency to the exclusion of talent and intelligence, this course too is limiting and destructive. [end, Goodman excerpt]

Erasing “class” as an analytic category.  The maturing academics who entered the professoriate after their baptism in tumultuous 1960s social movements, movements without linkage to the disorganized and quiescent working class whose members were often understandably resentful of privileged “draft dodgers” and “anti-Americans,” responded indignantly to the claims of “equal opportunity,” the pride of upwardly mobile urban ethnics embracing the tradition of Jackson and Lincoln.  Since women and non-whites were so obviously underrepresented in university faculties and curricula, and since many 1960s veterans were sympathetic to black power and other national liberation movements (viewed as responding to internal colonialism and imperialism), some insurgents accounted for the absence of women and non-whites in leadership positions as symptoms of “white male” or “patriarchal” intolerance/hegemony.  The “multiculturalists” did not argue that the position of women/non-whites in the family and labor force precluded the lengthy period of leisure, privacy, travel and acculturation anyone (including working-class white males) needed to become a scholar; rather their “difference” made their cultures of “the Other” unfathomable to transparently obtuse white males.  The new pluralists settled into ghettoized ethnic studies and women’s studies programs which, by virtue of their particular institutionalization in response to the 1960s black power and radical feminist movements suggested ethnic and gender difference as the most relevant variables, the engines of history for non-whites and women (however often “class” might be dropped into the mix of “class, race, and gender”).  As was feared by the conservative liberals at Martha’s Vineyard promoting the coöptation of black nationalism, race (and gender) had virtually erased class as an objective category.  Not surprisingly the dissenting individual also went the way of all flesh, collapsed into a notion of “individuality” as a feature of groups (race or ethnicity).

Fitting neatly into the idealist counter-Enlightenment which had promoted the concepts of racial, ethnic and national character, many theorizing young scholars, adopting a pseudo-Marxist, pseudo-Freudian rhetoric and, following the subjectivism, irrationalism, and group-think of Herder, Kant and Max Weber, defined themselves as revolutionary postmodernists, declaring that the categories of race, class, and gender, like literary taste, were all “socially constructed,” historically rooted, and thus “radically Other,” i.e., resistant to empathic readings or universal standards of truth and craft. [I understand that my characterizations of Kant and Weber are controversial.]  These anti-pluralist pluralists, champions of diversity and tolerance, have not been promulgating “hegemonic” Enlightenment or Victorian notions of species-unity (other than Herder’s international yet localist crazy quilt); they have mostly attempted to demolish the rationalism and universalist ethics spawned by the radical Reformation and scientific revolution then born by the philosophes, “Old Jewry”–radicals like Price and Priestley as they were characterized by a hostile Edmund Burke–liberal feminists, abolitionists, English Chartists, the independent labor movement, and the civil rights movement.

The underlying unity between apparently warring generations (authoritarian liberals and Stalinists versus the New Left generation) is illustrated by their common periodization of Cold War-style repression of civil liberties in “McCarthyism.” Little attention is paid to centuries-old élite resistance to mass literacy and numeracy and the torrent of democratic ideas that followed.  After the brief hiatus of the Nazi-Stalin Pact (1939-1941), American Stalinists dropped that short-lived campaign against American warmongers, once more supporting corporatist New Deal policies against the assaults of “fascist Republicans” or “monopoly capital.”  The prolific Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation and foe to racism and censorship, was impressed by the methodology of Talcott Parsons and other “moderate” top-down planners who, after the war, opposed the arms race as an excessive drain on the welfare state.  Like many of the other corporatist thinkers described here, McWilliams was a regionalist and a populist; whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party as charged, he was certainly never a materialist Marxist.  His papers from the 1930s (at UCLA) suggest that he was following the Communist line, switching from a view of the New Deal as “social fascism” to best friend of the working class during the Popular Front (1935-1939).  Like other New Deal social democrats, he wanted to strengthen capitalism by bringing good labor unions and racial minorities into the system to stabilize the base.  After the war, “McCarthyism” was bad because it confused conservative reformers like himself with real communists.

Writing in the late 1960s, political scientist Michael Rogin denied that populists were antisemites, as neoconservative Richard Hoftstadter had charged in his Age of Reform (1957).  McCarthy was not a populist, Rogin argued, but a spokesman for traditional conservative élites, the selfish laissez-faire crowd of materialists participating in the (bad) American Lockean consensus.  Denouncing white supremacy (hitherto an emblem for Wall Street and the power of Jewish money), New Left radicals like McWilliams and Rogin internalized the Soviet-Tory terror-gothic scenario for the history of the last five centuries: Frankenstein monsters, the unique progeny of crazy scientists, Victorian prudery, and “the culture of narcissism” i.e., the ever unitary [Jewish] West, have produced genocide, exploitation of the Third World and the colonization of domestic minorities, mind-control by the mass media and CIA, urban snobbery, reification, commodification, luxury, and consumerism.  The radical scholars apparently hate money (commercialism) more than they love the creative, questing individual.  Do these populists resist the market as a coercive, brutal mechanism or, like displaced feudal clerics and aristocrats, would they ban the site of judgment by upstart “consumers” they cannot control?  Or, as anticapitalists and anti-imperialists, have they carved out their own super-moral niche on the market while apparently rejecting it?

More from the Martha’s Vineyard conference.

 [Kenneth Boulding:] Suppose we do something like this: We go to a voucher plan.  You give every child $500 to $1000 a year, and he can spend it any way he wants.  And give every Negro child $1500.

[Jerome Wiesner:] But that’s racism.

[Kenneth Boulding:] But I mean I am in favor of racism.  I think racism is important.  Well, they call it discrimination–not the same thing as racism at all.  These are two quite different subjects.  If you want to introduce some kind of counterweight to discrimination, this is where the federal government comes in.  We may see the federal government, the whole taxing-and-subsidizing business, as a total picture weighted toward correcting some of these ills of society.  This seems to me to be its major function (32).

[Christopher Edley, explaining that his support of black power in the 1950s and 60s did not entail a belief in racism:]  Now some excesses have come to the fore.  There is a danger of black nationalism, there is a danger of black separatism that goes beyond the temporary withdrawal to recoup our strength, to regroup and to seek out the powers that we want–the economic and social powers that seem to be attainable for us as a group only through the use of black identity.  Now I think there are roles that Negroes have to play.  It seems to me that the power structure has only responded to the excessive demands that have been made in the Negro community, and that there are certain Negroes who because they are bold and courageous, because they have little to lose, must demand things of the power structure which are excessive.  And I think that if we–the Ken Clarks and the Chris Edleys and perhaps the Lisle Carters–have a role to play, it is to capitalize on the softening up process that results from the excessive demands… [Black identity and race pride] will enable [students] to band together to overcome the obstacles.  I think that subconsciously they are seeking to get into the melting pot and the mainstream of American life.  I don’t believe that black nationalism will be the major thread…I don’t think that we need condemn [black-power studies], and I think many of us get caught in the situation where we have to think as Americans, as Negroes, and perhaps as something in between.  And I think it is possible to identify rationally the roles that people are playing and to realize that really in the long run they complement each other rather than being antagonistic to each other (71-72).*

So much for checks and balances.  In all cases, the Romantic Wandering Jew (the Byronic hero, Ahab, Peer Gynt as historian, myself) and our critical apparatus curse the strange diagnostics of democratic pluralists and anti-pluralist multiculturalists alike; s/he totes “the melting pot”[1] that jams Durkheimian solidarities too close to bad Jews, the latter identified in the nineteenth century by one republican theorist with “the moral nature of Anglo-Saxondom, with its virile instincts of right, freedom, and humanity, defending our cause against all comers, with indomitable courage and constancy of faith.”[2] Such troubling figures were revising and reconfiguring the past and present to produce what the “pluralists” regard as protofascist anomie, the alarming switch from homey, heimlich Gemeinschaft to intrusive and alienating, unheimlich Gesellschaft. [3]

[Untitled poem submitted to London Mercury by an Englishman, Lawrence Binyon (a William Blake reviver of the 1920s):]

From the howl of the wind/ As I opened the door/ And entered, the firelight/ Was soft on the floor;/ And mute in their places/ Were table and chair/ The white wall, the shadows,/ Awaiting me there./ All was strange on a sudden!/ From the stillness a spell,/ A fear or a fancy,/ Across my heart fell./ Were they awaiting another/ To sit by the hearth?/ Was it I saw them newly/ A stranger on earth?    [4]

*Christopher Edley, Jr. rose quickly to powerful positions in academe. For twenty-three years he was a professor at Harvard Law School, later becoming Dean of the UC Berkeley Law School, Boalt Hall.  He was an informal adviser to Barack Obama. In the illustration, he was debating the Solicitor General in the Reagan Administration, Charles Fried. The latter argued that affirmative action had done its job and should be phased out. Edley strongly disagreed according to the “Brief” in the Harvard Law Bulletin.

Postscript. This week (July 19-23) was largely devoted to shoddy reporting of the Shirley Sherrod tape of her NAACP talk, a snippet of which was revealed by Andrew Breitbart, who has since been held up to ridicule by the MSM, howling in unison. One of the few accurate reports I have seen was Andy McCarthy’s Corner piece in NRO. http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YjVmMjg3MDZlNDBmOGY1ZmQyOWNmNmM4MGNiZDdjZDM%3D. I watched the entire tape, took notes, and discerned a clever propaganda ploy, in which Sherrod laid claim to the heritage of the integrationist civil rights movement while actually reiterating the main tropes and story lines of black nationalism. It is interesting to note that Fox News Channel has been unable to describe the actual content of the Sherrod talk; either its pundits do not recognize the narrative, or are afraid to appear guilty of accusing black people as “racists” (it is the claim of black nationalists that the oppressed are incapable of racism; as victims of white supremacy they are simply freedom fighters on behalf of suffering humanity).

Ms. Sherrod’s line can be summarized as follows: Just as her father was murdered by whites (who were never punished) and just as the Klan burnt a cross on her lawn as she involved herself in civil rights (they too, though recognized, went unprosecuted), “mean-spirited” Republicans are resisting health care reform: i.e., powerful whites have been killing blacks  and getting away with it, but this may change with this administration or the election of a second black president. But most astonishingly, she invents an even longer heritage for white racism. There was once a golden age of race relations in colonial America, when black and white indentured servants intermarried. Wealthy whites, appalled by miscegenation (analogous to the black-white unity in the service of social justice she was calling for in her talk), invented slavery and racism. Thus she established the narrative: (wealthy, hate-ridden) whites will continue destroying black people until reparations are instituted and whites experience a change of heart, demonstrated by a statism and redistributive policies implemented by savvy blacks like herself. In other words, she represents the chief tenets of black liberation theology. For my numerous blogs on black power see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/15/index-to-black-power-blogs/. And don’t miss the ones on Arne Duncan.


[1] The particular menace of the melting pot is made explicit by the Catholic, Irish Nationalist, pro-Nazi James Murphy, Adolf Hitler, The Drama of His Career (London: Chapman & Hall, 1934): 120-121.  Catholic Centre coalitions with godless Prussians and socialists promoting a secularising Jewish press were similarly disasters for the simple, insightful peasants Murphy defends throughout.  He cites and recommends Hans Ehrenberg, Deutschland im Schmelzhofen (“Germany in the Melting Pot”).

[2]See Charles Sumner: An Essay by Carl Schurz, ed. Arthur  Reed Hogue (U.of Illinois Press, 1951):97. Schurz was referring to the Englishman John Bright, linking his character to Sumner’s.

[3] See Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Civil Society, ed. Jose Harris, transl. Jose Harris and Margaret Hollis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2001. Originally published in 1887, Tönnies’s book is considered to be a classic work of sociology, but not until after the first world war (xxviii-xxviii) was it canonized. At first seen as a “communist tract,” it was taken up by German “ultra-nationalists,” and in America during the 1930s was read as “an essay in consensual structural functionalism.” The editor of this edition seems favorably disposed to this elusive and mysterious work. Tönnies was the son of a merchant banker, and given his hostility to modernity, one wonders how much of his disgust with the modern world was intertwined with his feelings about his father. In 1892 he “helped found Society for Ethical Culture, the vehicle for his life-long involvement in various co-operative, social reform, and self-improvement movements.” (xxxi-xxxii)

[4] Lawrence Binyan was an English Blake scholar, and a key figure in the William Blake promotion that followed World War I; the poem is in the J.C. Squire Papers, UCLA Special Collections.

August 24, 2009

“‘The People’ is an Ass” (or a “Herd”?)

A Piranesi “prison”

Prior blogs have touched upon the lineage of so-called multiculturalism, a reactionary ideological offensive that confused individuals with groups and suppressed economic explanations for conflict and change in favor of cultural anthropological ones. As a manifestation of German Romanticism, it was an aesthetic theory buttressing a political structure: an irrationalist völkisch “aristo-democracy” (Herder). The German Romantics and their popularizers in England and America, men like Carlyle and Emerson, waved their supple poetic individuality, unique, yet imperceptibly diffused into race and nation and time itself as Schlegel had advised.

The aristo-democrats were the blooming correctives to the dessicating “mechanical” rationalism and universalism that had undergirded popular sovereignty for the seventeenth-century political theorist of constitutional democracy, John Locke. In the eighteenth century, Piranesi would visualize this Lockean world in a series of engravings, his nightmarish urban spaces/prisons. Lord Byron counterattacked with Lockean Prometheans, images of indomitable humanity: fatherless, yet kind, ameliorative and intellectually fortified. In the later nineteenth century, Piranesi’s desolate, gigantic scenes of torture would reappear in James Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night, the City ruled by numeracy and literacy personified in Melencolia, the Queen patterned after both Dürer’s famous image of writer’s block, and George Eliot, Thomson’s contemporary, the realist novelist, author of Felix Holt, Radical. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/, and look for the passages on James Thomson.)

I have mentioned just a few instances of cultural conflict over accountability: the culture wars are fought over you and me, non-experts in an advanced, complex, and hierarchical, yet “democratic” industrialized society. Confident in the capacity of ordinary people to test their betters, Locke, like ourselves, was up against centuries of conservative antidemocratic propaganda on behalf of a tribal or feudal order where either Nature or arbitrary authority were taken for granted as immovable. Not surprisingly, social obligations (contracts) were vertical, links in the Great Chain of Being, not horizontal agreements between equals, each party theoretically free to walk away from a bad deal. Locke’s antagonistic contemporary, the proto-Tory Robert Filmer (d. 1653) summarized centuries of antidemocratic wisdom in his Patriarcha:

[Filmer:] “I know not how to give a better character of the people than can be gathered from such authors as have lived among or near to popular states. Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Sallust have set them out in their colours. I will borrow some of their sentences.

‘There is nothing more uncertain than the people: their opinions are as variable and sudden as tempests: there is neither truth nor judgment in them: they are not led by wisdom to judge of anything, but by violence and rashness, nor put they any difference between things true and false. After the matter of cattle they follow the herd that goes before: with envious eyes they behold the felicity of others: they have a custom always to favor the worst and weakest: they are most prone to suspicions, and use to condemn men for guilty upon every false suggestion. They are apt to believe all news, especially if it be sorrowful, and, like Fame, they make it more in the believing: when there is no author, they fear those evils which they themselves have feigned: they are most desirous of new stirs and changes, and are enemies to quiet and rest. Whatsoever is giddy or headstrong, they account manly and courageous, but whatever is modest or provident seems sluggish: each man hath a care of his particular, and thinks basely of the common good: they look upon approaching mischiefs as they do upon thunder, only every man wisheth it may not touch his own person. It is the nature of them: they must either serve basely or domineer proudly, for they know no mean.’ Thus do their own friends paint to the life this beast of many heads. Let me give you the cypher of their form of government. As it is begot by sedition, so it is nourished by arms: it can never stand without wars, either with an enemy abroad, or with friends at home. The only means to preserve it is to have some powerful enemy near, who may serve instead of a king to govern it, that so, that they have not a King over them, for the common danger of an enemy keeps them in better unity than the laws they make themselves.” [end Filmer quote]

The foil to all this irrationality is of course the reformed queen/king; the paragon of moderation has renounced absolutist, arbitrary rule for a limited, constitutional monarchy: one that protects the body politic from combative and divisive “special interests.” Unlike the Cool Head with the Warm Heart, Filmer’s “people” are the locus of selfish individualism; the people are incapable of solidarity without an external enemy; the ever-befuddled people lack the self-control to separate inner voices and impulses from the outer world; the people have no self-respect: they may be servile or, given a measure of authority, they will whip their charges to extract obedience; i.e., the barbaric, headlong people have neither the taste nor the capacity for gentleness or politeness. Let them have outlets for their characteristic sadism and masochism, as Geoffrey Gorer proposed in 1934; ‘tis better than the trap of romantic love. After the second world war Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism popularized the notion of protofascist “mob society”–both cynical and gullible–in terms that echoed Filmer. Similarly, Todd Gitlin has claimed that the mounting Right-wing critique of the new curricula is best understood as a frenzied hunt for new scapegoats after the Cold War was won in 1989; Gitlin asserts that the presence of the Other provides the only source of “national identity.”

Return now to the seventeenth century. Responding to the autocratic Filmer, John Locke adumbrated his concept of legitimate authority. In The Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke argued that monarchs were not beyond criticism, nor were the people so unbalanced that they could not assess their own interests and the performance of their protectors:

[Locke:] “The end of government is the good of mankind; and which is best for mankind, that the people should always be exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should be sometimes liable to be opposed when they grow exorbitant in their use of power, and employ it for the destruction, and not the preservation, of the properties of their people?
     Nor let anyone say that mischief can arise from hence as often as it shall please a busy head or turbulent spirit to desire the alteration of the government. It is true such men may stir whenever they please, but it will be only to their own just ruin and perdition. For till the mischief be grown general, and the ill designs of the rulers become visible, or their attempts sensible to the greater part of the people, who are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance, are not apt to stir. The example of particular injustice or oppression of here and there an unfortunate man moves them not. But if they universally have a persuasion grounded upon manifest evidence that designs are carrying on against their liberties, and the general course and tendency of things cannot but give them strong suspicions of the evil intentions of their governors, who is to be blamed for it? Who can help it if they, who might avoid it, bring themselves into this suspicion? Are the people to be blamed if they have the sense of rational creatures, and can think of things no otherwise than as they find and feel them? And is it not rather their fault who put things in such a posture that they would not have them thought as they are? I grant that the pride, ambition, and turbulency of private men have sometimes caused great disorders in commonwealths, and factions have been fatal to states and kingdoms. But whether the mischief hath oftener begun in the people’s wantonness, and a desire to cast off the lawful authority of their rulers, or in the rulers’ insolence and endeavours to get and exercise an arbitrary power over their people, whether oppression or disobedience gave the first rise to the disorder, I leave it to impartial history to determine. This I am sure, whoever, either ruler or subject, by force goes about to invade the rights of either prince or people, and lays the formulation for overturning the constitution and frame of any just government, he is guilty of the greatest crime I think a man is capable of, being to answer for all those mischiefs of blood, rapine, and desolation, which the breaking to pieces of governments bring on a country; and he who does it is justly to be esteemed the common enemy and pest of mankind, and is to be treated accordingly.” [end Locke quote]

Yes, there are demagogues, but they would have no credibility were it not for the excesses of the rulers. Taken with his statements on natural law, it is clear that Locke is not protecting private property as unlimited personal aggrandizement, but the confiscation of lower-class property and labor by tyrannical rulers–a crucial distinction for those who view Locke as an image of Filmer’s people: the “possessive individualist” par excellence. The radical liberal ideal of one set of rules for rich and poor alike and the assumption of rationalism upon which the rule of law depended was a radical innovation; it remains an advanced position and belongs in the democratic tradition, notwithstanding efforts to brand Locke solely as a hypocrite and supporter of slavery.

Tories and Whigs crucially differed on the educational potential of “the people.” If Nature’s God was a democrat for the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century progressive bourgeois, organic conservatives reclaimed Nature for the aristocracy. In antebellum America, Filmer’s good fathers were models for socially responsible slaveholders contrasting their benevolent paternalism with the cruelty of northern laissez-faire capitalism and class struggle. Indeed, the distinguished historian of the South, C.Vann Woodward, a participant in the Martha’s Vineyard conference on “Racism and Education” (excerpted in my blog on Pacifica, Part One) revived the southern apologist for slavery George Fitzhugh to lobby for organic conservatism as antidote to today’s mass society. Filmer’s image of “the people” would be indistinguishable from “the unconscious” in the social psychology espoused by many in the twentieth-century Progressive movement–conservative reformers responding to the rapid growth of industrialism and class warfare that Northern victory in the Civil War facilitated. Mass “irrationality” remains the argument for the eternal rule of philosopher-kings operating “in the public interest” in bureaucratic collectivist societies. While Lockean ideas of the common good have been co-opted, Filmer’s theory shades upper-class secret machinations from the blazing eyes of the lower orders. The unresolved debate between Filmer and Locke frames the work of the Yankee Doodle Society; our models of human capacity determine our politics as we face “the mischief…grown general” on our endangered planet.

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