YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 16, 2015

What is hate speech and where did the notion come from?

Demo after Gabrielle Gifford shooting

Demo after Gabrielle Gifford shooting

Google and Facebook are supposedly enlisting the public’s help in removing “racist” screeds from their websites, according to an article in The Times of Israel (http://www.timesofisrael.com/google-and-facebook-need-your-help-to-police-online-hate/.)

At first glance, this may seem like a good idea, but there is a latent subtext that I find disturbing, for there is no consensus regarding what constitutes “hate speech” but more, the notion harkens back to a discredited (social democratic-“liberal”) notion that Hitler prevailed because of his superior grasp of “propaganda.” (See https://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/, especially the discussion of a conference at UCLA arguing that “propaganda kills.”

That notion was advanced by the Frankfurt School philosophers, the “critical theorists/cultural Marxists” in league with New Deal social psychologists who were appalled by the advent of mass media and the all-too-gullible mobs it aroused. What they left out was the history leading up to the victory of the Third Reich over its conservative nationalist opponents (initially in coalition with Nazis). “The People” were asses, as classicists had ever averred (see https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/).

We must go back to Plato’s Phaedo to find a classical example of such nonsense, for according to Plato (a favorite of the liberal left), the “Body” was the site of illusions, particularly the passions that favored the senses that foolishly identified “the truth”, with speech. So ordinary people (including women and slaves—the lower orders) could not be trusted to lead the Republic, blabbermouths that they are, for as New Deal social psychologist Dr. Henry A. Murray insisted, the People are “not trained to rule.”

It was a hard, long slog to achieve such (arguably limited) free speech as we enjoy now. Beware of efforts to give too much weight to rhetoric over other socioeconomic institutional factors. What is needed is better, more widely disseminated history and political science, not more censorship.

Left-liberal propaganda poster

Left-liberal propaganda poster

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December 2, 2014

Academics, artists, and the “Nazi question”

affinity-groupsSometimes I ask myself, why do I read so much about theories of “fascism” and/or Nazi Germany? This blog attempts to answer that question, with some asides on the socialization of academics. My overall concern is why we don’t have a proper education for democracy.

I. First, my apparent “obsession”: Being born in 1937, I was a small child during WW2, and I still remember my anxiety when my father went off to join the Army medical corps; then we followed him around the country as he spent most of his service as a pathologist at various army bases. I don’t remember a time when I did not fear for his life, though he didn’t get in trouble until he suffered life-threatening allergies in Guadalcanal—the one time he (briefly) left the States. I didn’t hear a word about “the Holocaust” until after the war, and then my parents were reluctant to give me any details. It wasn’t until television treated the subject in the early 1970s that I first understood the magnitude of the event. And it was not until 1986 when I heard David Wyman and Deborah Lipstadt lecture on the cover-up of the event. After that, I even asked my favorite professor when Americans first learned about it, and she answered: “1945”—clearly the wrong answer. Thus began my extended inquiry into the character of anti-Semitism and related distorted notions. Before that, I had constantly minimized the power of this so-called “prejudice,” which left me vulnerable to many leftist personalities, many of whom were supposedly “Jewish.” (For some of my unusual blogs on anti-Semitism, see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/14/the-abcs-of-antisemitism/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/. Generally,  “bad” Jews are seen as “rootless cosmopolitans”: the anti-race or the enzymes that accelerate “change.”)

affinity2

Second, because I started studying censorship in the art world in 1969, I came across the interrogation of “myth and symbol” by various artists, both living and dead. This in turn, led me to the power of patronage and the fractured history of Christianity and paganism. Since much of contemporary art was reworked versions of modernism (starting in the nineteenth century), it was but a short step to the art and culture of the interwar period. Thus I was plunged into the controversies over Nazi versus Soviet art, sculpture, and architecture—controversies that had never been resolved. (I should add that the Museum of Modern Art did much to entrance me with the many variants of modernism, but like other museums, their labels were not informative: we were supposed to admire and not think too much about what conditioned the production of these materials.)

Arkady Plastov Threshing on the Collective

Arkady Plastov Threshing on the Collective

Third, as a result of my collaboration with composer and musicologist Joseph Byrd (in the 1970s), I got a grant to provide the cultural context for American sentimental song in the early to mid-nineteenth century. This led to Melville—an arch-critic of sentimentality—and then to graduate school in US history at UCLA, where I convinced (with some difficulty) my dissertation director Alex Saxton to allow me to study two different time periods (I was still obsessed with fascism): the family relationships and politics of Herman Melville (1809-1891) AND the period of the Melville Revival, mostly occurring in the interwar period, which facilitated the investigation of how far “fascist” beliefs had penetrated the US. I am told that had I been in an English department, I would never have been allowed to study a “major figure,” but Saxton had been a novelist in his youth, and though an unreconstructed Stalinist, he never entirely gave up his artistry to the Party—how else to explain his unusual permissiveness in my case?

BigWomanII. In recent weeks, I have returned to my interest in modern European history, filling in books that I had missed. Followers of my blogs will notice older references to George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, and the Frankfurt School, but then to recent readings of Robert O. Paxton, George L. Mosse, and Michael Burleigh.

Yesterday I completed a historiographical survey of all the literature on Nazi Germany by the late French historian Pierre Ayçoberry [The Nazi Question (Pantheon, 1979)], that denies the very existence of a generic “fascism,”  ending with the conclusion that whether Nazi German was unique or continuous with German history remains entirely unsettled. (In a few years, the much publicized and unresolved “historians’ debate” broke out in Germany; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historikerstreit.)

Fabius Maximus image

Fabius Maximus image

What have I learned from this immersion in academic and literary treatments of European and American history? Aside from my oft stated premise that we are all, to some unknowable extent, prisoners of our context (including the access to primary sources), it occurred to me that my reverence for the “better” academic historians was misplaced: that they had been asking the wrong questions of their laboriously collected evidence, for, as the sociologist Stephen Turner has observed, scholarship is subsidized [by specific institutions with an agenda].

The question I should have been asking, but have hinted at throughout the website is this: under what conditions is it possible to have a functioning democratic republic? Has one ever existed? Why talk about scholarship at all, when there is so much pressure from institutions to stay on the narrow path prescribed by family, other patrons, “affinity groups,” and the anxieties of readers? If I have been a maverick, is it not because I am not dependent on a salary, or by anyone’s approbation but my own [possibly flawed] sense of what is reasonable, given the materials at hand? Why didn’t Pierre Ayçoberry raise these issues? Could it be that his ideology and that of Pantheon books–that of an academic “right-wing social democrat” (a term that Ayçoberry loathed)–preclude such tough questions?

Above all, is the “civilized” West ready for an appropriate education for democracy?

R. B. Kitaj, Rise of Fascism, 1975-79

R. B. Kitaj, Rise of Fascism, 1975-79

March 13, 2014

What is cultural relativism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

hornedhunk

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

culturalrelativism1

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

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

[From Chapter Five of HCA:]

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

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

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

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

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

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

No King could govern, nor no God could please;

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

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

These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,

Began to dream they wanted liberty;

And when no rule, no president was found

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

They led their wild desires to Woods and Caves,

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


NOTES to book excerpts


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

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

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

September 15, 2013

Authenticity and the “bottled-up”

Free thought by Berkozturk

Free thought by Berkozturk

As visitors to this website are aware, I am a scholar devoted to the propagation of “free thought,” whether those thoughts are directed to the search for truth, or to the unleashed imagination, as transmitted by artists and the creative self that is too often buried by “politeness” and other rules by the dominant culture (I am only criticizing excessive politeness; see https://clarespark.com/2015/03/28/the-neglected-virtues-self-discipline-and-politeness/). I call such “authority” illegitimate and to be avoided at all costs. But to assume such a confrontational posture courts financial disaster unless one is protected by an independent income. That is how censorship and self-censorship work. For purposes of this blog, I will focus on the bottled up woman, for I lived that way until recently, perhaps because I am no longer on the sex/marriage market. (I could have added anti-Semitism to the blog, for there is a strong link between misogyny and anti-Semitism: many “assimilated” Jews are as bottled up as my gender. I made the connection between anti-Semitism and misogyny through reading Symbolist poets, such as James Thomson (“B.V.”) Because this entire subject seems to be off limits to cultural historians, I have of necessity relied upon my own experience as a primary source in this suggestive essay.

In the very first essay I wrote after exposure to Pacifica radio and the civil rights movement, I wrote that “’authenticity’ consists of the right to tell the truth without being abandoned.” My friend, the late political scientist Michael Rogin, found that statement to be “breathtaking.” In retrospect, a New Leftist such as Rogin was, should not have reacted with such amazement, as if he had never thought of such a thing himself. In my naïveté, I thought that the Left had a monopoly on free thought, while everyone else lived in the shadow of self-censorship and hatred of “free spirits.”

(Recently I learned that for those who continue to believe that “race” is the primary way to sort people and their interests out, “authenticity” connotes being true to one’s racial identity. Such a ruse erases class or gender interest from the mind, which of course is the whole point.)

Which brings me to being “bottled up,” a source of harmful stress that can cause fatal diseases.  Yet most of us live with masks, for fear of offending employers, friends, mates, relatives, and our own children. Such is the price we pay for “civilization” such as it is.

What prompted this particular blog was a dispute that broke out on my Facebook page that was apparently about the pro-life versus the pro-choice position, but was, in my view, yet another round in the battle of the sexes. One of my daughters wrote a day or so ago that the two most upsetting words in the language are “God” and “Mother.” All experienced, educated parents are aware that the mother-child bond is the most powerful bond in nature, and that separation from the mother is often mismanaged, with dreadful consequences throughout life. For my insistence in defending the pro-choice position (even with reservations regarding late term abortion/infanticide), I was labeled “a militant atheist”–a term that is often applied to “the Jews.”

Also on Facebook yesterday, the subject of Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency came up on a friend’s thread. One comment stated that she was too “old and ugly” to get the nomination. A woman on the thread noted that women have “a short half-life”. This did not go over well, but I thought that she was correct. Others jumped on her because she failed to be bottled up in order to please men or other colonized women.

It will not come as a surprise to the thoughtful reader that subjugated populations, including women and many “assimilated” Jews, MUST BE BOTTLED UP. That is what precisely what subjugation consists of. Don’t expect us to tell the truth, for we will be abandoned, and every conscious woman or boundary-crossing Jew knows this.

Barbara Kruger painting

Barbara Kruger painting

On Yom Kippur eve, I wrote a blog criticizing Ben Urwand’s new book Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. The subject of Hollywood movies, anti-Nazi or not, as collaborating with bogus versions of the real world of oppressive relationships, was not his subject matter. I left the Left (of which Urwand is a part)  because those I thought were my friends and allies thought schematically and did not value attachment to the search for truth above ideology; this loyalty to career and status  above mental health killed a few of them. (On my blog on Urwand, see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/13/urwands-collaboration-hollywoods-pact-with-hitler/.)

This website promotes a marketplace of ideas, because that is the only route I know to emancipation from illegitimate authority. [This blog dedicated to my daughters Jenny and Rachel, and to Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852); see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.]

October 9, 2012

Big Bird, Prostrate

http://tinyurl.com/9roa6er (Read this first)

Henry Geldzahler of the NEA

 Several questions are raised by Governor Romney’s suggestion that he might cut federal funding for PBS, with the example of a prostrate Big Bird subsequently pounced upon by even bigger birds on the Left. This blog considers the vexed question of government funding of the arts and humanities, a subject that interests me, for I have not only been the recipient of small grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I served on the radio panel of the NEA from 1978-1980, so saw at least one bureaucracy in action.

Here are my major arguments on behalf of cutting subsidies to CPB, PBS, NEA, NEH, Pacifica, and public radio in general:

  1. The history of the arts and humanities in Europe demonstrates that patronage determined the content of “high culture” artworks created by authors, composers, painters, sculptors, and architects. Patronage was supplied by the Church, by aristocrats, and by the new merchant princes in places such as the Netherlands and the city-states of what would become Italy. Iconoclasts such as Spinoza worked at an occupation to support himself, while his writings were often circulated anonymously and in subversive bookshops that also handled pornography.  Censorship in Europe was fierce and effective. The lower orders meanwhile created their own, usually traditional, folk forms, often co-opted by artists seeking reinvigoration for their own productions. That process continues today in popular music and in the fashion industry.

Artists in America, from its founding on, depended upon commercial success, for the U.S. lacked a hereditary aristocracy accustomed to providing sinecures for its pet artists and intellectuals. In spite of initial difficulties over copyright enforcement (Britain frequently pirated books by American authors, to the chagrin of Herman Melville, for example), artists in the New World (especially in theater and in the burgeoning mass culture that was managed by recent immigrants in the 20th century) became successful, mostly through publishing and performance. Such “commercial art” became objects of derision by a vanguard supported by bohemian, wealthy individuals such as Peggy Guggenheim or the modern museums that sprang up after WW1. But American artists were comparatively neglected, as the colorful and highly educated Europeans were favored over the native born. For many decades, American artists and authors expatriated, turning their backs on an American public they saw as philistine and unworthy of their attention.

Enter the Depression and burgeoning Fascism in Europe. Communists and progressives  were interested in celebrating the Common Man, often at the expense of the big capitalists/businessmen who were viewed as their exploiters. There was a major market for such Americana, and WASP elites supported their efforts to show their devotion to ordinary Americans. But the anti-Stalinist Left had its own contingent of writers, authors, and publishers. The arts worlds of the late 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s were roiled with conflict and it is exciting to study their productions, which have not been surpassed in a later period as government stepped in under the administrations of Democrats (see the NEA as founded in 1965, preceded by the WPA in the 1930s), to encourage both established and budding authors, etc.

Big Blue Eagle

Lost in the cultural histories of the twentieth century is the record of social psychologists affiliated with the Roosevelt administration, who viewed the national government as an appropriate locale for a national morale service (see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/). Keep this in mind as we move into the cultural work of the 1960s and 1970s New Left and counter-culture, many of whom, it seems, have parented children who want to live the “cool” life of the artist, without the degradation of waiting tables or some other menial job to support themselves. (On the Blue Eagle see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Recovery_Act.)

II. Enter now my own active participation in government granting agencies. This is what I found out as both grant recipient and as participant in the NEA radio panel . First, the grants are so tiny as to fund at most one project, and the amounts awarded are rarely sufficient to support even that one (vetted) endeavor. Second, multiculturalism as a strategy for containing and co-opting the civil rights and feminist movements, determined what organizations and individuals received government sponsorship. Third, the NEA radio panel was rife with corruption and cronyism. Moreover, the staff of the NEA had the power to overrule the panel’s recommendations, so that our contributions could be ignored safely, if the aims of the NEA were in any way thwarted.  In many cases, NPR, I noticed, did not even bother describing the programming content for which they applied; apparently it was taken for granted that they would be subsidized.

It was frequently the practice to award small grants as a lure to attract matching grants from corporations and foundations. Such matching grants were tax-deductible, so it can be argued that the taxpaying public is now the primary patron of the arts, replacing the European elites of old. This diffuse patronage system contained individuals objecting to the [anticapitalist, anti-urban, anti-American, in your face] offerings by government grantees, who were exhibited, performed, and published, then presented to a broad public, some of whom were offended that they were paying for materials that undermined or mocked their religions and values.

On the other hand, some grantees enjoyed such popular success (Sesame Street, Prairie Home Companion) that it was obvious to all that they could survive on the market, without government support. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Apart from considerations of the proper role of government in funding the arts (on  Constitutional grounds), there is the disputed question of government direction of creative work, especially given the heterogeneous makeup of the American electorate. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were remarkably alike in their sponsorship of State-approved icons of heroic workers along with those arts that were comprehensible to “the People.”

Conclusions. An education in the arts and humanities should be made available to every American child. But along with these life-affirming activities should be offered, at appropriate ages, instruction as to the social and political conditions that brought the arts into being: patronage, censorship in the period under discussion (what can and cannot be said at any given period), the message of the artwork (closely observed as to both form and content). I have been harshly critical of populism on this website, but it is in the interest of all the people to understand both the form and content of high culture, mass culture/pop culture, and folk arts. I don’t expect this outcome to be realized in my lifetime. Meanwhile, the government should get out of the business of funding the arts, for such powers will always be politicized on behalf of some faction or another. The European governments that subsidize grand arts projects do so because social democratic governments have taken over the responsibilities of the old aristocracies, and are as hostile to a fully-realized modernity as their forebears. “Excellence” to them, entails rule by a self-perpetuating oligarchy of Platonic guardians. pleased, unlike Plato, to permit a sprinkling of subversion to demonstrate how ‘really’ pluralistic and open these societies are to criticism, innovation and freedom of expression. Marcuse called such strategies “repressive tolerance.”

Banned in Berkeley?

September 21, 2012

Milton, Mason, Melville on Free Speech

[ Part two of this blog can be found here: https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/]

This blog is about the intellectual history of the First Amendment, and is meant to establish a longer lineage than is asserted by many conservatives, who look to George Mason, Jefferson, and Madison as the most significant proponents of freedom of expression. What is ignored in this claim is the always contested nature of free speech, even within its most ardent progenitors. Also overlooked are the material interests of Southern slaveholders whose doctrine of State’s Rights was threatened by the abolitionist and/or antislavery arguments of such Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

For instance, George Mason (1725-1792), the famous Antifederalist, wanted slaves as property to be protected, although he opposed the extension of slavery and the importation of further slaves. During the 1830s, when slavery was defended as a positive good, Southerners forbade not only the education of slaves, but stopped the importation of Northern abolitionist arguments through the mails. It is obvious that material interests in slave property trumped any desire for universal freedom of expression in the slaveholding states.

Go back several centuries to Milton’s famous polemic Areopagitica (1644). In my book on the revival of Herman Melville’s reputation in the 20th century, I devoted an entire chapter to Milton and Melville’s ambivalent relations to puritanism, as expressed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poet’s relationship to his character Satan (often taken to be the mouthpiece of Milton in his most radical mood) has generated a “Milton industry” of even greater size and consequence than the “Melville industry.” Conservatives, moderates, and radicals alike, appropriate the life and art of these authors as their ideologies demand. What each party suppresses is the ambivalence of either Milton or Melville—an ambivalence that we may find within ourselves as we save our own hides from the bullies we encounter at every stage of life. This is an issue that educators fail to address, no matter how well-meaning their efforts may be at reforming the current system of public education. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/09/19/bullies/.)

What follows is a short collage followed by some comments that begin chapter 4 of my book. I lay out the obvious influence of Milton’s great tract upon Herman Melville, feeding his passionate desire to see and describe “things as they are.” For Melville, struggling with inner censors, was “the mind its own place?”

Gustave Dore Satan

[From Areopagitica:] I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye on how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand unless wariness be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

[Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 1849, regretting his negative critique of Francis Parkman:] Hereafter I shall no more stab at a book (in print I mean) than I would stab at a man.[i]

[From “Baby Budd”:] Claggart hesitated not an instant. Deliberately advancing within short range of the sailor, he spoke. Without emphasis and in a tone more musical than ever, he delivered the accusation point-blank into his eyes.[ii]

Seventeenth-century radical puritans and scientists produced many of the innovations we associate with the intellectual foundations of democracy: along with the partial legitimation of dissent and libertarian ideas in some strands of Reformation thought, the scientific revolution fortified older political theories of popular sovereignty and constitutional government. The explosion of printing made subversive ideas broadly available to a growing and confident middle-class reading public eager to be emancipated from arbitrary authority. Milton published Areopagitica in 1644; it is perhaps the most eloquent statement ever conceived on behalf of intellectual freedom; it thrills to the puritan marrow of my bones. But that appeal to the censor was framed during the English Civil War soon after the Independents, reacting to new assertions of popular sovereignty, had put down rebels to their Left in the City of London, stifling vox populi (the voice of the people) in favor of vox salutaris (the voice of public safety).[iii] After the Restoration Sir Henry Vane was beheaded, and the bodies of the chief regicides, Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw, were exhumed and hanged as an example to would-be republicans. All overtly radical thoughts were chased back to the Tartarean realms from which the Titans had emerged. Milton, who had been named as secretary of foreign languages in 1649, was taken into custody then freed, perhaps by the intercessions of Andrew Marvell and Sir William Davenant or because the restored regime concluded that the blind poet, though formerly an official of the commonwealth and ardent defender of the regicides, was now harmless. [end, book excerpt]

Surveys taken by liberal journalists present a troubling picture of American attitudes toward freedom of speech. (See http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=2621.) As we contemplate the direction of the current administration, attributing blame for the jihadists uprisings on a video of dubious origin (as opposed to terrorism only weakly resisted), we should be aware that the freedom of speech libertarians desire is not universally supported, not even in our “free republic.”

In my next blog, I will compare those accounts of the 1960s written within a religious framework, versus my own accounts of 20th century social movements as written by a materialist historian (myself). The subject highlighted will be a populism that has never been vanquished, and that retains all its baneful, irrationalist influence on our politics.


[i]  2. Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 12/14/49, N/N Corr., 148-149.

                [ii]  3. Herman Melville, “Baby Budd, Sailor,” quoted in Freeman, Melville’s Billy Budd, 317. In “Billy Budd,” Claggart’s glance is linked to an “asylum physician” and to the mesmerizing Rabbi in Clarel.

       [iii]  4. See Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993). On Davenant and Milton see http://www.oxfordtimes.co.uk/lifestyle/history/8927697.How_a_friendship_saved_John_Milton_s_life/.

September 16, 2012

Thought Crimes

During the High Holy Days, Jews are supposed to engage in strenuous self-examination. Even as a secular Jew, the solemnity and moral obligation of this time impels me to look inside and make reparations to those I may have neglected or lied to or otherwise misled as to my deep inner beliefs or opinions.

My thought crimes that everyone already knows about:

a. The subject of antisemitism is only partly understood, even by Jews and their friends;

b. The exact techniques of populist demagoguery always rely on an underlying antisemitic set of assumptions about “the money power.” If we knew even the basics of finance and economic history, the bogey man of Wall Street would disintegrate;

c. I enjoy Ayn Rand’s novels with some reservations (masochistic sex), but given her particular history, I brush them aside;

d. Even if there was “school choice” there is no guarantee that students would be prepared for citizenship, given the curricula in vogue, which do not begin to teach freedom of thought, dominated as they are by authoritarian, under-educated, or wimpy progressives;

e. Progressivism and communism are now so interpenetrating that it is hard to tell where Democrats leave off and hard leftists begin. Those scholars who have studied communist influence in the US and who think that the Reds are no longer relevant are mistaken;

f. Although left-wing anarchists and right-wing anarchists would appear to be immiscible, they are both counter-culture and probably acting out rebellion against the rules set by their parents. Anti-capitalism vs. anarcho-capitalism may not be as significant as enjoyment in prolonged tantrums;

g. Much of what passes for high art is primitivist, or at times, expresses nostalgia for an agrarian past that lacked cities, machines, and annoying Jews who make you think too much;

h. The sexual revolution of the 1960s on has been a disaster for most women, who have bought into the regnant masochism and degradation of our gender;

i. Freud is more relevant than ever, yet rarely understood: though a professed atheist, he is still too Jewish;

j. Many workers continue to be exploited and/or have boring, even dangerous jobs.

Thought crimes that nobody knows about:

a. People should not have children if they can’t support them. If marriages break down, the couples should stay together in most cases for the sake of family stability: children hate change and often are caught between parents, with bad life-long after-effects;

b. Some of the authors and artists I most admire are turning out to be either romantic rebels or reactionaries or downright offensive and I don’t care: I will defend their freedom of expression as long as I am breathing;

c. Being at odds with most of the world is downright fun. John Dos Passos admitted this in his old age (see Century’s Ebb), and I recognized my own proclivities. Call me joyfully alienated; (One relative through marriage rightly suspects me of these contrarian tendencies.)

d. As long as I am on hot on the trail of a new (for me) miscreant or set of ‘em, I am happy;

e. Nothing more exciting than changing my mind or reconfiguring a picture of the world: to see with fresh eyes. While I was making radio documentaries, was heard to say that a good edit was way better than sex. Collage will do that for you;

f. I was invited to submit a proposal for a class I would teach in the Los Angeles Woman’s Building. I submitted this title and nothing else: “PUNS KEY TO SECRET ORDER IN THE UNIVERSE.” No one signed up and I didn’t care.

March 3, 2012

Limbaugh v. Fluke

Hot tempers flashed yesterday on my Facebook page: the subject was whether or not Rush Limbaugh’s description of Sandra Fluke’s testimony to Congress on the subject of the government’s paying for her contraception was destructive and obnoxious. In short, Rush called her a “slut,” and walked right into a political trap (the distraction of culture war talk instead of focus on statist social policy) from which there was no escape. No consensus was reached on my FB page and we retired to our respective corners, each side perhaps feeling abused by the other.

In this short blog, I want to restate my position about how we fight, or, the rules of engagement in public space. (For a longer essay see https://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/, one of my first blogs, that will be of special interest to artists and writers.) During the rise of the second wave of feminism (during the 60s and 70s), many feminists angrily denounced men (the collective object of their wrath) as “male chauvinist pigs.” Outraged males returned the compliment with such terms as “feminazis” or, more recently, the proponents of the welfare state as avatars of the “nanny state,” the latter a bossy maternal entity that was also linked to fascism. Still other “true conservatives” are angry with such “RINO’s” as George W. Bush, Chris Christie, John Boehner, John McCain, and Olympia Snowe, all of whom are tied to the “Massachusetts moderate” Mitt Romney, hence are beyond the pale of decency.

One of Alexander Hamilton’s lesser known contributions to government in a representative republic is his connecting “truth” with the defense against libel and slander. I.e., it was neither libel nor slander if the speaker being sued for defamation was accurate in his or her characterization of the plaintiff. (For a valuable and accessible discussion of the free press question, see Ron Chernow’s biography of AH, pp. 668-71. It does much to answer those who associate Hamilton with the Alien and Sedition Act.) Such a rule clarifies the limits of free speech and fills out what he might have meant by “popular sovereignty” (see Federalist #22, specifically the voice of the people as the source of legitimate authority). It is impossible to deliberate over what is to be done in controverted questions of public policy if either side in the battle resorts to the shorthand of personal insults and malicious intent. It is repulsive and counter-productive when any participant in a conflict muddies the waters with ad hominem attacks, as opposed to clarifying the question at hand with facts and reasonable arguments. The appeal to reason is our best defense against the sadists who withhold the details of their own conduct from would be knowledgeable voters, all the while resorting to the mind-management I have constantly condemned on this website.

Hamilton’s summation of his six-hour speech in the Croswell case brings tears to my eyes: [Hamilton speaks, in Chernow, p. 670:… “I never did think the truth was a crime. I am glad the day is come in which it is to be decided, for my soul has ever abhorred the thought that a free man dared not speak the truth.” The issue of press freedom was all the more important because the spirit of faction, “that mortal poison to our land,”  had spread through America. He worried that a certain unnamed party might impose despotism: “To watch the progress of such endeavours is the office of a free press. To give us early alarm and put us on our guard against the encroachments of power. This then is a right of the utmost importance, one for which, instead of yielding it up, we ought rather to spill our blood.” [end, Chernow excerpt]

The internet and talk radio potentially offer much to the mob: anonymity; distance from the frowns, screams, and daggers of enemies; catharsis as a way of life: all in all, reinforcement to our most antisocial impulses. I abhor such conduct whether it comes from revolutionary socialists, or from “liberals,” or from “conservatives.” The persistence of such violence at a distance will destroy the sense of safety that serious citizens require to speak their minds, often in dissent from fashionable ideas in any particular partisan camp.

Conversation on the internet is priceless when we consider the positive effect it could have in building community, consensus where possible, and in educating each other about subjects that are often mystified or hidden by various elites—elites who are also gatekeepers who discourage fact-finding, and who cannot withstand close examination by “hoi polloi.”

For many, it is a pleasurable relief to discharge rage to a distant crowd. But the thrill wears off quickly, only to leave the enragé depressed, and finally without any friends at all.

June 12, 2011

Call Me Isabel (a reflection on “lying”)

Illustrations by Maurice Sendak from a truncated edition of “PIerre”

From the chapter “The Journey and The Pamphlet” (Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities,Book XIV):

“When a youth discovers that his father has been misrepresented as morally irreproachable, and is hence disillusioned and angry] an overpowering sense of the world’s downright positive falsity comes over him; the world seems to lie saturated and soaking with lies.” Properly instructed by philosophy, the youth will discard his romanticism, and then realize that “…A virtuous expediency…seems the highest desirable or attainable earthly excellence for the mass of men, and is the only earthly excellence that their Creator intended for them.”

During the research phase of my work on the politics of the interwar and postwar Melville Revival I discovered several juicy items. One factoid (that Melville was a brutal husband and father) was considered to be excellent red meat for a journal article by several editors, and indeed Andrew Delbanco (Columbia U. superstar) quoted my nugget in his Melville biography, without noting that it was bogus, and that I had demonstrated it to be bogus throughout my book.

Another fact (not a factoid) was the suppression of a family letter by key revivers strongly suggesting that the plot of Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) was taken from real life, and that Melville’s family had hidden the existence of a real-life natural sister roughly corresponding to the character Isabel (an archetypal Dark Lady, i.e., a rebel and emancipator) in the novel. Briefly, Pierre jilts the safely blonde and wealthy girl preferred by his mother, risks being disowned and ostracized, and runs away to the city to “gospelize the world anew” as a [Voltairean, Byronic, Promethean] figure. In short, Pierre is another Captain Ahab, a character who had been linked to Hitler in the approved Melville scholarship, and in my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006),  I show parallel passages in both novels linking the two characters as truth-seekers in the mode of John Milton speaking through Satan in Book IX of Paradise Lost.

When I offered to write journal articles about my findings (in the late 1980s), including the suppression of the family letter,  I aroused angry, even hysterical responses in editors. They wanted dirt on Herman Melville (he was crazy or violent), but not an accurate account of his family situation, one that made impossible demands to be both a good Christian and lover of truth, but not to disturb conservative notions of order. For these editors, like the officially sanctioned Melville scholars, were conforming to the profile of the moderate men that Melville had denounced in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/. These scholars were therefore advocates of “virtuous expediency” as “Plotinus Plinlimmon’s” pamphlet had advised. To say that they were merely ideological or incompetent is to excuse what was a blatant lie—the pretense that the family letter didn’t say what it said, or ignoring its existence altogether in order to maintain the Melville-as-Ishmael fiction. Or you can call the polite suppression of the family letter a noble lie, if you prefer, for “community cohesion” and “stability” trump the discovery of the truth every time. Melville scholars generally approve of “virtuous expediency” and don’t see it as a sin against the truth. As Dr. Henry A. Murray argued, the perfect father was needed as “the focus of veneration”. Murray also linked Melville, the romantic artist, to Hitler in a confidential report to FDR.

I further discovered that in one College Board exam constructed by Terence Martin, it was correct to state that Ahab was a terrorist, while Ishmael was an advocate for interdependence–the antithesis of Ahab.  Does this distortion of the text rise to the ignominious accusation of lying, or is it merely ideological? When a student’s future is guaranteed by lying, what does it say about our culture and the path to success? The world is indeed, soaked in lies. Call me Isabel. If Anthony Weiner is to be punished, let us all take a personal inventory as we go about our business, deferring to others for opportunistic purposes.

Clearly, judging by the book sales of such as Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter, demonization of the Democratic opponents, like the world-wide demonization of Captain Ahab/Melville  is rewarded; similarly left-wing authors often return the favor, hence our polarized polity. Did Jonah Goldberg, like Noam Chomsky before him, lie about the major claim of Walter Lippmann’s important book Public Opinion, in order to buttress Goldberg’s populist agenda in opposing “the nanny state”? I say that he did. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) Has this kind of wicked distortion anything to do with the witch hunt being mounted against Anthony Weiner? I thought it did, and criticized these right-wing publicists of hypocrisy. For this I was reprimanded by another scholar, who, in passing, denied that anyone could claim “absolute objectivity” as a historian.

Although I am generally very cautious about definitive answers to controversial questions,  I have no problem claiming absolute objectivity in declaring that many of Herman Melville’s most revered biographers withheld documents that would have changed their readings of his texts (not just the family letter about an Isabel, but other weighty letters that countered the rumor that he was a violent father and husband). In doing so, they betrayed the ideals of professional scholarship. I feel the same in authoritatively stating that Melville was ambivalent and a waverer, as many another writer has been– while in the dangerous position of endangering his economic survival by flouting the prejudices of his relatives or patrons (see the life of Goethe for another waverer, compare for instance the two Wilhelm Meister novels). The same goes for scholars who fail to defy their dissertation directors or colleagues (when warranted)  in order to get a job. If conforming to what is known to be timid scholarship is not lying, then I don’t know what is. (For more on this theme, see the following blog: https://clarespark.com/2011/06/13/weinergate-papa-freud-and-the-imperfect-father/.)

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