The Clare Spark Blog

September 28, 2012

“Bibi” and the human nature debate

CNT poster 1937

(This blog should be read along with https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/ and https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/.)

Recent historians are acknowledging that the transition from pre-capitalist societies to capitalist societies is prolonged, tempestuous, and violent.  At the bottom of all the fights between political factions in our country (the U.S.), can be discerned sharp differences over the precise content of “human nature.”

For instance, in David Horowitz’s recent book Radicals (2012), he concludes that progress (linked by him to utopianism and perfectionism) is a leftist/fascist illusion; that human nature is evil, and the best we can expect in the route to amelioration is “compromise.” He thus marks himself as a moderate man, and is aligned with some of the figures most criticized on my website, notwithstanding DH’s strong support for Israel and opposition to jihadist Muslims. (For instance, Harvard Magazine is promoting “The Case for Compromise” in its Summer 2012 issue.)

This last week I carefully read George Orwell’s famous work Homage to Catalonia (1938). It is a confusing work, though much admired by anarchists and Trotskyists for its testimony as to Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War, in which he witnessed the destruction of POUM by Stalinists, leading him to denounce all bourgeois influences as fascist, and also to complain about non-peasants and non-laborers as “money-grabbing.” He went on to denounce journalists and Communists for betraying the facts of the Spanish Civil War.

This populist term of abuse (“money-grabbing”) led me to wonder if Orwell’s critique of Communism, Fascism, and “Ingsoc” in 1984 was not at least partly motivated by an aversion to the “jewification” often ascribed during his lifetime to the modern world, a “materialist”/anti-“spirituality” modernity that seen as inducing “degeneration” from the late 19th century onward. Indeed, in the last words of 1984, the rehabilitated Winston Smith sings ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree /I sold you and you sold me –‘, suggesting that the modern world has been commodified, reducing all human relationships to the cash nexus; but more, he is as hard as any Frankfurt School “Western Marxist” on the horrid influence of mass media in controlling the proles, the “85%.”  [In prior blogs I have noted that Hitler had been assumed to carry cunning Jewish blood;  that Hitler himself viewed Soviet Communists as fronts for finance capital; and that J. A. Hobson’s influential study Imperialism (1905) blamed a conspiracy of wealthy Jews for war, which they instigated through their control of international finance and mass media (in his case, newspapers).] I am not concluding anything in particular about Orwell’s possible Jewish problem, but noting that it is worth exploring. (For pertinent blogs see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/, https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/https://clarespark.com/2011/06/19/index-to-links-on-hitler-and-the-big-lie/, and https://clarespark.com/2009/11/17/melencolia-i-and-the-apocalypse-1938/.)

On September 27, 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Few of the press reports I have seen mention the beginning of his speech, in which he explained global conflict as a fight to the death between modernity and medievalism. In the process, he highlighted the Enlightenment elevation of science, technology, and medicine, fields in which Israel excelled, but which threatened their hostile neighbors who worshipped death and promoted unquestioning obedience to authority (i.e., to the medieval order).

“Bibi” also urged that his formulation of conflict was more precise than a rival formulation between “tradition” and “progress” (much used in the culture wars, I might add).  The Jewish tradition, he argued, looking back to Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah, comprised the very foundation of “civilization.” This is an argument that one rarely hears in public these days. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/09/30/bibi-as-warmonger/, for the photo used by the Wall Street Journal, which may have chosen to depict Bibi as the bossy and militaristic Jewish deity promoted by Talcott Parsons in 1942.)

Now, Netanyahu and David Horowitz are both known as conservatives, yet they differ considerably on the subject of human nature.

The Enlightenment view of human nature relied upon travel narratives, that demonstrated that the material resources of cultures and their modes of exploitation/production that were just being discovered during the period of Renaissance exploration, determined their belief systems: thus was derived “cultural relativism,” a notion that has been resisted by some believers and manipulated by leftist “anti-imperialists” to discredit modernity tout court. The notion of “progress” was a distinctively Western notion that in turn depended on worldliness, science, reason, and the determination to lift up humanity to unprecedented heights. Moderns learned to understand their ancestors, but not to  worship them and their mores.  With economic and political development, perhaps wars and less cosmic conflicts over land, markets, and resources could be eliminated one day.

We have just completed the Jewish New Year, in which Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, caps the period of inner examination and resolve to improve one’s relations with the Jewish God. Repentance and fairness is an obligation every day in the year for Jews. Clearly, a view of human nature is implied in the notion of self-improvement and reparations. That view is not oriented to a better world after death, nor to the notion that we are necessarily befuddled by our evil propensities, carried in the very DNA of our species. Christopher Hitchens’s 2002 Orwell study (Why Orwell Matters) ends with a stunning revelation about the “radical” Hitchens view of human nature:   Like other British intellectuals with a highbrow education, he doesn’t see sadomasochism in Orwell,  but thinks it normal: “With a part of themselves, humans relish cruelty and war and absolute capricious authority, are bored by civilization and humane pursuits and understand only too well the latent connection between sexual repression and orgiastic vicarious collectivized release. Some regimes have been popular not in spite of their irrationality and cruelty, but because of it.” (p.191)

Freud himself noted that aggression was part of our natures, and often difficult to control, but he would never have agreed with Hitchens on S-M as normal. Part of human nature, in the rationalist Enlightened view that I share, is in the development of curiosity about the past, including those unresolved conflicts that linger into the present to the confusion of our political culture (world-wide), which is highly heterogeneous and internally conflicted.

Sadly, the counter-Enlightenment influences remain strong enough to halt appropriate curiosity in the young, to the detriment of the progress that the more advanced parts of humanity still find compelling and swear by. In our New World scenario, the Devil (or the demonic) is a relic of the dead past and his persistence in the belief systems of some political entities and societies should be strongly resisted. Nothing less than the survival of our species and the planet depends upon it. Medievalism was not only bad for the Jews, it was bad for all of humanity.

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February 25, 2011

The King’s Speech flap

The Royal Family

[This blog is for Christopher Hitchens:]  Some heated debates have erupted on my Facebook page over the controversy regarding the movie, The King’s Speech. At stake is what sources the average person relies upon to get a sense of what happened in the past. In the case of this much-Oscar-nominated movie, the stakes are very high, for nothing less than the record of the European aristocracy in either appeasing or opposing the rise of Hitler and the expansion of the Third Reich is on the table.

As the comments proliferated, I realized that very few people are aware that history can be, but should not be, an instrument for advocacy in partisan squabbles. We are all at the mercy of our primary source materials, and many of the most crucial records, for obvious reasons, are sequestered far away from the prying eyes of the public (and even when they are released or leaked, we must reckon with the subjectivity of the author). This theme of primary source-aversion is so huge in the story of the Western countries painful slog toward the open society that William Godwin wrote Caleb Williams (1794) about the dire consequences of opening the master’s trunk to ferret out his secrets (as I recall it was title to the land, but correct me). Nathaniel Hawthorne read that book when he was sixteen, and I wonder if his well-known conservatism was fortified out of fear, for neither master nor man turned out well in Godwin’s cautionary tale.  [Read the book, for it is a landmark in English literature and much more complex and deep than my erroneous citation. Melville bought it during his trip to England in 1849, and it had to have influenced Moby-Dick and Pierre.]

Similarly, Captain Ahab’s harpoon was hurled at Leviathan to uncover its secrets, a theme that is carried out in Melville’s subsequent novel, Pierre.  One reason my book on the Melville revival was so long (730 pages, including about 145 pages of endnotes) was that I wanted the reader to look at as much of the evidence I had found as possible, so s/he could determine for herself whether I had mischaracterized the sources or not. This is not the usual practice among academics in the humanities, for it is considered bad form to inflict long quotes on the reader, and a sign that the historian can’t summarize aptly. In the case of Hunting Captain Ahab, I was aware long before publication that fellow academics would think I was on some monomaniacal quest for revenge in stating flat out that almost all the Melville scholarship was either wrong or seriously flawed.

To conclude these brief remarks, we are either up to the challenge of reading and writing history or not.  We cannot sacrifice primary sources for the sake of family or partisan unity. So far on the world wide web, some leftists and liberals have been skeptical about George VI and his possible role as appeaser in the late 1930s, while conservatives have tended to defend the royal family, in one case citing the official biography of George VI as told by John Wheeler-Bennett.  One thing I do know: Hollywood film has tended to play to its audience: movies were populist in the 1930s and remained so during the next period of upheaval—from the 1960s on. Populists are not without their own heroes, nor are they immune from ancestor worship. As for me, I suspect everyone, as a good hunter after hunters is compelled to do.

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