The Clare Spark Blog

January 8, 2014

The Frontiersman/Settler as all-purpose scapegoat

JacksonAs everyone knows who has followed this website, I have been trying to separate the early progressives from the post-New Left progressives, all the while noting shifts in the Leninist line. I have used changes in the teaching of the humanities as my guide to larger cultural shifts.

During the last week, I have been slogging through Sydney E. Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People (Vol1 Yale UP, 1972, Doubleday, 1975, second ed. Yale UP: 2004). It is the most boring possible book, more of antiquarian interest than historical interest, because Ahlstrom, a Yale professor of note, followed Max Weber’s lead, and stigmatized “economic determinism” as reductionist. So the reader is subjected to such notions as “the American character”, “the American mind” and “Puritanism” (especially the English variety) as the primary source of evil in the settling of the American continent. Indeed, Ahlstrom, seemingly attached to the medieval order,  trashes the Radical Reformation and the English Civil War, failing to note that puritanism changed its concrete content depending on what social movement it was attached to.

In my series on the Anne Hutchinson historiography (https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/, or https://clarespark.com/2013/08/05/evil-puritans/), I quoted from an unpublished paper by UCLA professor Robert Brenner in part four on the subject of historicizing puritanism:

“…if it…makes sense, in the first instance, to see a certain unity in Puritan ideology in order to understand its broad connection to an emerging social order, and its incompatibility with an older one, it is necessary also to comprehend that this unity was, only to a limited degree, ever realized in practice.  This was because supporters of the Puritan cause were themselves drawn from different, conflicting classes within the emerging bourgeois society; in consequence, they tended to shape their religious conception in correspondingly different ways, in accord with their disparate experiences and conflicting needs.  Thus, there arose quite divergent, indeed ultimately incompatible, ideologically and organizationally distinct, tendencies within a broader, loosely-defined Puritan movement.  Puritan religious groupings were obliged, in fact, to develop their movements and ideas on two “fronts”: on the one hand, against the adherents of the old religious regime in order to replace it; on the other, against one another to impose their particular notions of both the contents of the Reformation and the structure of the new social order.  Thus, there arose quite distinctive Puritan trends, with conceptions corresponding to the different social strata from which different Puritan groupings recruited their membership: from the new aristocracy, from the small producers and tradesmen of town and country; from the ministers themselves.  Indeed, these conceptions changed and developed…with the changing activity of these religious groupings…in other words, in accord with the changing nature of the movements themselves.  It was only when Puritan-type ideas became associated not only with groupings from potentially revolutionary social layers, but with actual revolutionary political movements that they took on a revolutionary character.  This did not take place, as we shall see, until after 1640.”

This interaction of economic interest and culture is what I have attempted to trace throughout the website, distinguishing between “moderate” Enlighteners (i.e., social democrats) and the more materialist figures, whether these be on the Left or Right. By contrast, Ahlstrom’s book positions itself in the timeless Center. He welcomes the Enlightenment and science, but splits the difference, praising John Locke for his book The Reasonableness of Christianity.  What Ahlstrom detests is of course Indian killing, slavery, and uncouth religious revivalism on the frontiers, along with their uncertified lay preachers and circuit riders. Since these are labeled extremists and weirdos (along with women-led movements such as temperance), one can assume that we are in the territory of the moderate men, especially since Yale professor David Brion Davis is singled out for outstanding scholarship. Along with Ahlstrom, Davis had written an article condemning the anti-Catholicism of the mid 19th Century, when German and Irish immigrants poured into the still expanding continent. Indeed, “ethnicity” is Ahlstrom’s major analytic category.

Opinion on the Jacksonians drastically changed in the US field since the days of Claude Bowers (a racist Democratic politician: see https://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/.)  Such luminaries as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and numerous other historians looked  to the Jacksonians as defenders of the Common Man, the stalwart enemy to bankers and other exploitative elites.

But all that changed with the ripening of the New Left, aroused by the civil rights movements and opposition to the war in Viet Nam.  My late friend and Forest Hills High School classmate Michael Rogin made a huge splash and engendered much controversy when he published his “Marxist “ “psychohistory”  Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (Knopf, 1975). Rogin’s argument apparently lined up with critics of US imperialism such as William Appleman Williams, but the latter attacked Rogin’s thesis. (See Rogin’s response to Williams here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1975/oct/16/daddy/.)

Michael Rogin

Michael Rogin

Rogin pulled together all the 1960s major themes:  the monomaniac Jackson (another Captain Ahab) committed genocide against the native Americans, providing a model for future adventures in white domination, militarism, and violence. About this time, we renewed our friendship, and Rogin supported my work at Pacifica and at the Yankee Doodle Society. I know how shocked he was at the reception of his book, and also that he was in a friendly correspondence with David Brion Davis of Yale, who had taught American intellectual history at Cornell while I was still there, decades earlier. What I did not see at the time was that the turn toward ethnicity (as opposed to class) was a calculated response to the red specter, made worse by the Soviet upheavals in 1905 and 1917. (For an example, see quotes from Horace Kallen here: https://clarespark.com/2009/12/18/assimilation-and-citizenship-in-a-democratic-republic/.)

Rogin also recommended that I read Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Wesleyan U. Press, 1973). It was the same attack on popular Protestant religion in the 19th century that had earlier been mounted by D. B. Davis and Sydney Ahlstrom.

It was Lenin, not Marx, who criticized the imperialists, for him these were generically the international Jewish conspiracy of finance capital, as publicized by J. A. Hobson.  (By contrast, Marx hoped that the workers and their allies in the advanced industrial democracies made possible by the progressive bourgeoisie, would lead the way to socialist revolution. He was not anti-American, but rather praised the Northern victory in the Civil War as a great achievement.)

Why is this relevant today? The Leninist Left and the Social Democratic Left seem to have merged sometime after the 1960s upheavals, but they drew upon longstanding efforts by “progressives” to fend off the red specter, with the Left upholding Popular Front antifascist politics. Today, white males are seen as the enemy by the reigning academics in the humanities: like Ahlstrom’s frontiersmen they are individualistic, self-reliant, overly emotional, antinomian, ecocidal, racists, sadistic killers (Cormac McCarthy’s targets in Blood Meridian? or see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_of_the_Hunter_(film)), and probably given to (communitarian) country music, even some rock and roll. And white males (especially those in the wild South and West) are the chief villains of US history, and of course comprise the unregenerate population of the Republican Party and the even more unspeakably “anti-Christian” conservative movement. For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2013/11/30/railroading-captain-ahab/.

Jackson swatting Indian

Jackson swatting Indian

March 21, 2012

Big Cities and the Mob

Hip cultural historians are still studying the anomie (rootlessness) they impute to big cities. While watching a recent PBS documentary on the achievements of Oscar Hammerstein II, it occurred to me that his oeuvre as a whole pointed back to a period of imagined rural or small-town neighborliness, to a time before his mother died when the lyricist was only fifteen (Fordin bio). That “neighborliness” (a soothing social bond represented in the mother-child dyad) was then translated to his idealized anti-racist international community, as then proposed by the United World Federalists (also a pet project of Harvard’s social psychologist Henry A. Murray) or in the premises of the United Nations. Although Hammerstein was a noted liberal anticommunist, his attempt to unite groups and nations with clashing political and economic interests, reminded me of Hitler’s populist elevation of the Volk, and also the Soviet attempt to merge peasants and workers, notwithstanding that peasants and workers had different material interests, as explained in this blog. https://clarespark.com/2009/08/27/hitler-and-the-jewish-mind-part-three/.

Although I had not thought of nostalgia for the pre-urban America as an underlying theme in the social thought of the early progressives, I suggest that fear of Cain’s cities, with their imputed urban neurasthenia and exacerbated individualist striving, not to speak of class warfare, animated the emotions of the intellectuals described below. The Scary City is a theme now being taken up by cultural historians, mostly writing from the left, who may have more in common with these agrarian critics of modernity than they realize. (If you have time for only one blog, choose the scary city.)

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/

https://clarespark.com/2009/11/17/melencolia-i-and-the-apocalypse-1938/

https://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/

https://clarespark.com/2011/08/14/review-in-the-garden-of-beasts-by-erik-larson/.

https://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/07/christian-socialism-as-precursor-to-orwell/.

It is important to remember that “mass culture” was considered to be a mobbish urban phenomenon that explained Hitler’s support and rise to power (the Frankfurt School story, see https://clarespark.com/2011/10/21/did-frankfurters-kill-the-white-christian-west/), but it was also the explanation for all manner of mental illnesses, particularly narcissism (vainglory), deranged relations between the genders, and constant back-stabbing. For an example, see the NBC series Smash, which although it appears to sympathetically portray the New York theater world from a feminist, pro-gay perspective, Smash also calls into question the values it apparently celebrates, for instance contrasting the loneliness of stardom with the mutual solidarity offered by chorus members to the Katherine McPhee character. (In the last installment, nothing “works” in NYC, including the plumbing and heating. I have watched all seven episodes again, and wonder if the contrast drawn between country and city life will now evolve into the corruption of the innocent Karen, who will, like Marilyn, be ruined by the mercenary, anti-art values of show business.) (For more on Smash, see https://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/.)

We are so wrong about the imputed innocence and wholesomeness of the  [judenrein] small town life hitherto enjoyed by “Karen Cartwright” who starts Smash with a truncated performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (JFK used “innocence” and “wholesome” to describe Marilyn Monroe’s lascivious Happy Birthday song). Alongside of tight families and neighborliness, there were also troubled social relationships and authoritarian conduct pushing toward mindless conformity, as such writers as Sherwood Anderson were quick to identify and condemn. We do better to read Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), along with such authors as Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy for a better reading of force and fraud in American 19th century frontier life and beyond. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/03/20/links-to-cormac-mccarthy-and-mark-twain-blogs/.)

It is time to rehabilitate the “rootless cosmopolitans” who have been unfairly demonized by multiculturalists: Stalinists and Nazis alike. As the black novelist and ex-communist Richard Wright once implied: “any place I hang my hat is home.” Thornton  Wilder’s Stage Manager, in Wright’s scenario, is nowhere to be found. (For one rendition of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song alluded to, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtEp2paaes.)

Thornton Wilder as Stage Manager in Our Town

March 20, 2012

Links to Cormac McCarthy and Mark Twain blogs

https://clarespark.com/2011/11/17/blood-meridian-and-the-deep-ecologists/

https://clarespark.com/2011/11/21/cormac-mccarthy-vs-herman-melville/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/huck-finn-and-the-well-whipped-child/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/31/the-numbers-game/ (This is about Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and his re-enchantment, and turn away from the skills acquired as a river pilot.)

January 31, 2012

The Numbers Game, sadism, and the Decline of Magic

The “real” John Murrell

One of the virtues of the progressive movement in America was the increased deployment of statistics (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistics). Before that, the political culture could rely on wild claims about the nature of the opposition, without deploying expert-developed “scientific” charts and graphs to prove a point. (Not that economists use the same sets of numbers or rely upon identical economic models.)

The reason I bring it up today, is the ongoing appeal of gory stories about the American past that I have found in both fiction and in the writing of history. While reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), I came across his account of the bandit and slave-stealer, “Murel,” but this turns out to be a heavily embellished “tall tale,” according to Wikipedia’s entry on “John Murrell (Bandit).” One cannot discount the public appetite for stories depicting in graphic detail dismembering, disemboweling, decapitations, defenestration, flogging, gouging, cannibalism, vampirism, and every atrocity known to our evil species. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and White-Jacket may appeal to the sadomasochist public more than we know.

After reading about the disgusting “Murel”, I was about to apologize for my reproach to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for if Murel could perpetrate his massive crimes, why not the horrid characters who murder each other on the borderlands of the Southwest, described by McCarthy?  To be clear, I doubted that records existed that would have matched McCarthy’s imagined violence with real events, especially since McCarthy, unlike the poet-historian Paul Metcalf, did not give a note on sources for the history he purported to represent. The reader may object “but he never said it was history.” That only  makes matters worse to me, for if not grounded in fact, then the author is playing to blood lust in the reader, and to be frank, so does Mark Twain. Why anyone thinks of him as primarily a jolly humorist is beyond me. His work rather suggests a violent, antimodern and misogynistic imagination, larded with a huge dollop of cultural pessimism, (not to speak of internal contradictions). I don’t know how much Life on the Mississippi was influenced by Melville’s synoptic look at industrializing America, also located on the great river, The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade (1857), but the bleakness and accounts of mercantile fraud are common to both. And the Wikipedia article that surveys the many uses of statistical reasoning quotes Mark Twain as a nea-sayer: statistics were damned lies. Here is a sample from chapter nine of Life on the Mississippi that demonstrates a mixture of pride in mastering the technique of piloting a steamboat, but then lapses into regret that the world has been disenchanted by [science]:

[Mark Twain:] “…The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?” [End, Twain excerpt]

[Clare:] Many a romantic author (e.g. Wordsworth) has enunciated the same sentiments: “Science”  has disenchanted the world.  Melville made the same complaint in his journal (1857-58), this time blaming the loss of poetic imagination on the higher Biblical criticism. During my graduate school training in history, I remember one tendency among the cultural historians to deplore “fact fetishism.” Such a nosy search for hard evidence was held to be a symptom of feminization, hence the decline of masculinity. The “feminist” demand for “no secrets” was outrageous (again, see Melville’s fear of being caught by the probing female gaze). Similarly, many conservatives rail against “the nanny state.” Are the real men all “lighting out for the territories?”

January 21, 2012

Huck Finn and the well-whipped child

cleansed edition of Huck FinnWe all know about the controversy about the use of offensive dialect in the writings of Mark Twain. This blog is not about the triumph of the language police, but about a deeper and more sinister subject: the inability to stand up to illegitimate authority. [For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/20/links-to-cormac-mccarthy-and-mark-twain-blogs/]

But first take a look at this teaching guide to one of the masterworks of American literature: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/teachers/huck/index.html.

This is one of many teaching guides on how to handle the “hand grenade” of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885). Here is a hipper one that gives a mini-biography of Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel became a major text for New Left literary critics. (In this essay, the story is told that Hemingway confronted Fiedler (the maverick critic who was the first to use the term postmodernism), over his reading of Huck Finn: http://www.bookforum.com/archive/sum_03/posnock.html). The issue for Hemingway was obviously manliness and Fiedler’s suggestions of androgyny and feminization in the American psyche.

Although Fiedler makes more of the homoeroticism of the relationship of Jim and Huck than I would, at least he addresses the retreat into Nature, a nature that is protective and nurturing, unlike the sadistic “Pap” (father of Huck) or the hypercritical, chatty Calvinist female relatives, upholders of slavery themselves, who drive Huck into primitivism.

I advise my readers to read Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Connecticut Yankee (1889) together, but the latter first. See also the passage from Yankee on poor white acquiescence in the institution of slavery that I quoted in https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/, for it is my hunch that 6th century Britain is a transposition of the antebellum South that Twain experienced as a boy, with the slave-owning classes analogous to the endless and irrational violence of the alliance between the aristocracy and the medieval Catholic Church—a force that, in Twain’s book, cannot be vanquished, even with modern technology, for men, with few exceptions, seek the traditional rule of abusive authority, not freedom.

The rest of this blog continues the theme of gender difference, with Twain (b. 1835), speaking through the poor white Huck, unable to break through the pervasive moral law existent in the slave states: that slavery was a positive good that uplifted savages: such was “civilization” in the slaveholding states. Huck’s is the lesson of the well-whipped child, a theme that pervades much of popular culture: that even as an adult, the rebel against illegitimate authority is too weak to overthrow the oppressor. The farthest that the rebellion may go is to identify with evil, with Satan, and thence to experience the depression that such an adventure into the dark side perhaps? necessarily? confers.

As the issue of manliness is not always discussed in the scholarly literature (as opposed to white racism), I shall quote from the two key chapters, 16 and 31, that reveal Huck’s moral prison, one from which he cannot escape even with wildly improbable plot devices.

[From Chapter 16. Huck hears Jim celebrating his imagined freedom if he gets to Cairo: “…He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife…and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

“It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t even dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, ‘Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.’ Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.”

[But then Jim rejoices:] “Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n’ for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free man, en I couldn’t even ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.” (pp 126-27)

[Huck is about to turn Jim into the hands of two slave-catchers who demand to know what is the color of the other man on the raft:] “I didn’t answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough—hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says: ‘He’s white.’” [my emphasis]

Huck pretends to be a ghost

A man, in Huck’s imagination, obeys the law that disallows Jim belonging to himself. (But in the preceding chapter Huck had humbled himself before Jim, for his “mean tricks” that impelled Jim to reproach Huck for worrying him that Huck might have drowned during the great fog. “And I warn’t ever sorry for it [the apology] afterwards, neither.” Huck/Twain has actually acknowledged Jim as an equal, momentarily at least.)

Shortly after the interchange in chapter 16 (quoted above), Huck continues his self-examination and concludes that he would feel just as bad doing right (turning Jim over) as doing wrong (breaking the law), “and the wages is just the same.” A few pages later a steamboat capsizes the raft and Mark Twain puts down the manuscript for several years. (Henry Nash Smith says three years, relying on Walter Blair’s scholarship in reconstructing the composition of the ms.). After many chapters in which Jim leaves the narrative, the two runaways are reunited, and Huck, pretending to be Tom Sawyer, is comfortably lodged on the Phelps plantation (with Jim hiding on the raft nearby, then captured by Phelps), where his Southern conscience is once more goaded into a proposed action. This is where Huck unites with Satan as the only felt outcome for the well-whipped and indoctrinated child/man. Huck composes a letter to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson:

“Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.

“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happening so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.” Huck then reminisces about their friendship, emphasizing Jim’s protectively maternal aspects, and utters the often quoted lines: “’All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.” (Ch. 31, p.278-279).

And is one of the wicked things, Huck’s collaborating with Tom Sawyer’s sadistic pranks during the concluding chapters, sadistic because Tom knew that Miss Watson had already freed Jim in her will? By what circuitous route does Huck move from a vow to saving Jim again, to allowing Tom Sawyer to control his actions, in effect, tormenting Jim, perhaps reminding the reader that Twain the author killed off Hank Morgan and his modernization project at the end of Yankee? Having bonded with perfect evil (Satan) in chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn, was this bond not the juice that enabled the writing of the Jacobin and Promethean Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? And if so, how could Twain’s next big book not have had a depressing and depressed denouement? We may be fascinated by bad boys, but they are not marriage material.

I do not know what punishment Mark Twain’s father meted out to his children, for the role of yelling or caning in early childhood and youth is rarely taken up in literary histories. We do know that Twain’s father was a slaveowner, an attorney and a judge who died when Samuel L. Clemens was only 11 years old, surely a trauma in itself. Twain mentions his father in Life on The Mississippi as follows: “My father was a justice of the peace, and I supposed he possessed the power of life and death over all men, and could hang anybody that offended him. This was distinction enough for me as a general thing; but the desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding, nevertheless.” (Ch. IV) In the novel, an unnamed judge sides with Huck’s Pap, returning Huck to certain death in his father’s hovel. I have written a very personal, speculative blog. One thing is for certain: Mark Twain was not the name given by the author’s parents. (For more on the Clemens household and slavery see http://www.literarytraveler.com/authors/terrell_dempsey_searching_for.aspx. )

November 21, 2011

Cormac McCarthy vs. Herman Melville

Premodern Cormac McCarthy

[This is the second of two blogs on Cormac McCarthy: see https://clarespark.com/2011/11/17/blood-meridian-and-the-deep-ecologists/]

At a bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a retired English professor friend of mine was offered a signed copy of McCarthy’s The Crossing for $1250. McCarthy does not sign his books any longer and apparently does not give interviews, except for this long piece for the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/19/magazine/cormac-mccarthy-s-venomous-fiction.html?src=pm, authored by Richard B. Woodward, which contains the following passage:

“Blood Meridian” has distinct echoes of “Moby-Dick,” McCarthy’s favorite book. A mad hairless giant named Judge Holden makes florid speeches not unlike Captain Ahab’s. Based on historical events in the Southwest in 1849-50 (McCarthy learned Spanish to research it), the book follows the life of a mythic character called “the kid” as he rides around with John Glanton, who was the leader of a ferocious gang of scalp hunters. The collision between the inflated prose of the 19th-century novel and nasty reality gives “Blood Meridian” its strange, hellish character. It may be the bloodiest book since “The Iliad.”

From the interview, we also learn that McCarthy is a cult figure, that Saul Bellow was on the McArthur Foundation committee that gave CM a “genius” award, financing the writing of Blood Meridian, and that the author is a reclusive “radical conservative”, born of a Catholic well-off family in Tennessee, the son of a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Another source adds that his sisters were high achievers, and that his father was stern.)  Also that he prefers the company of scientists to writers, and that he is no fan of modernity, quotation marks or semicolons. For a more recent interview see http://tinyurl.com/7dg52qr, that elaborates on the father-son theme.

I would like to go on with a psychoanalytic meditation on this writer, especially the father-son dyad, but I don’t know him.* Instead, this blog is about the Melville-McCarthy connection, which is tenuous at best.  First, the notion that Judge Holden is a Nietzschean Superman, beyond good and evil, may have been gleaned from David Brion Davis’s Homicide in American Fiction (1957), wherein Captain Ahab was limned as a Nietzschean Superman. That was the year (Fall, 1957) I took Davis’s class in intellectual history at Cornell U., and I well remember his linking Hawthorne and Melville as the authors who brought back the conception of evil into American culture, which, presumably, had been overly optimistic about the possibilities of perfecting human nature, supposedly a core belief in American exceptionalism. Or so I infer, for Davis may have been thinking primarily about racism, or, with students, anti-colonialism: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Brion_Davis, and my prior blog https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.

But on the subject of Enlightenment optimism regarding human nature, consider this passage from Benjamin Franklin’s letter to Joseph Priestley (7 June 1782):

“…Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed, as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more disposed to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d, and having more Pride and even Pleasure in killing than in begetting one another, for without a Blush they assemble in great armies at Noon Day to destroy, and when they have killed as many as they can, they exaggerate the number to augment the fancied Glory; but they creep into Corners or cover themselves with the Darkness of Night, when they mean to beget, as being ashamed of a virtuous Action….”

[Perhaps writing a novel is for the male, a similar generative act to be submerged in darkness– the powerless, demoralizing blackness that envelops today’s popular culture, whether it be gangsta rap, gangster movies, cultish vampire movies, recent movie versions of McCarthy’s books, or science fiction fantasies that end with the bad guys prevailing: see  Joss Whedon’s The Dollhouse, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, preceded by such antimodern classics as 1984 or Brave New World or Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork  Orange). In academe, the same tone is set in Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, that is elaborated in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale The Road (2006).]

Second, return to Captain Ahab’s supposed amorality. He is nothing like Judge Holden, who is a  Nietzschean amoralist, even a Foucaldian, as these lines from Blood Meridian demonstrate:

“Might does not make right, said Irving. The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally. [Holden responds:] “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak….” [p.250, quotation marks not in original.]

On the most superficial level, perhaps, it may be said that Blood Meridian is some kind of homage or rereading of Moby-Dick (or even Joyce’s Ulysses). There are compound words, neologisms, and an often nauseating text. It starts with three quotations that correspond only roughly with the “Extracts,” there is an epic journey, in which most of the characters perish, and there is an Epilogue. But in Melville’s allegory, the first edition (published in England) not only lacked any survivors whatsoever, but ended with the Extracts, and these pages of quotations in turn ended with a Whale Song,[i] certainly to be taken ironically: “Oh the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.”

Alleging that Ahab’s sin consists in his hubris, with Ahab believing 1. That truth exists; or 2. That he can extirpate evil from the world, has been one theme in scholarly and popular misreadings of the text. Surely, the Ahab as Superman reading by David Brion Davis must have been based in a common postwar belief (initiated by Charles Olson, then F. O. Matthiessen) that Ahab was an anticipation of Hitler and Stalin, and moreover that Hitler was influenced by Nietzsche, is probably the source of Cormac McCarthy’s misconception of Melville’s great book.

I will say this on behalf of a McCarthy-Melville affinity. In his recent novel, The Road, McCarthy uses the word “secular” twice. This suggests to me that CM’s bleak books are laments for the supposed loss of faith in a “secular” world (an argument that some conservatives make in the culture wars). Without religion, humanity is out of control and on its death trip, the road to oblivion. After the Civil War, Melville wrote a long poem, Clarel, and, earlier,  in his journal of the trip to the Mediterranean and environs in 1857-58. But in the poem of 1876, Melville distanced himself from his most pessimistic characters, inter alia, masking himself beneath his Promethean, secularizing Jew, whereas McCarthy is silent, preferring to hide himself and his meanings in “mystery.” One has to wonder about that suicidal sister, a character that haunts McCarthy’s latest novel, still in process.

*From reading interviews and other journalistic materials, I think that McCarthy’s well-received novel, The Road, tells us a lot. CM had two failed marriages as a younger man. He is older than I am now, and in his third marriage, had a son John, who is described by his father as delivering much of the dialogue in the novel. I infer that this last novel expresses his fear of dying before John reaches manhood, hence his father will no longer be there to protect him. Although in Blood Meridian, the Indians are as depraved and bloodthirsty as the whites and Mexicans, Indians and frontiersmen alike know how to survive cold and hunger, and also how to make do with the detritus that “civilization” leaves behind. Hence the Southwestern garb that McCarthy wears in his cover photos, along with the amazing ingenuity of the father figure in The Road.

[Added, 12/12/11: While reading Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era (1929), it occurred to me that the ruined Southern landscape under the occupation of Northern soldiers may have been part of the cultural memory transmitted by McCarthy’s family or his neighbors. (His family originated in the North, but moved to Tennessee, the home of Andrew Johnson, staunchly defended in the Bowers best-seller.) This would give an added resonance to The Road. For more on Bowers, see https://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/.]


[i]Moby-Dick was the neglected masterpiece that most excited the 1920s Melville revivers and their successors; it was first published in England as The Whale; unlike the American edition that followed, the title page featured an epigraph connecting Milton’s fallen Satan with Leviathan, and its last words, “Whale Song,” were a final blast at the ancient doctrine that Might makes Right. Readers seeking to understand the dynamics of the Melville Revival should ask whether the Leviathan State was a good or bad thing in the twentieth century, and what entities and social forces made it what it came to be. ….” These are lines taken from my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2001, rev.ed. 2006)

November 17, 2011

Blood Meridian and the Deep Ecologists

Ludmilla Jordanova

Before I launch into some remarks on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian,  here is an example of what the deep ecologists in cultural studies are studying now in the transnational academy (I am reproducing their CFP in its entirety):

“Call For Papers: Conference: Science, Space, and the Environment, Location: Smith Centre, Science Museum, London,Date: Tuesday/Wednesday July 17-18, 2012, Sponsor: Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich, Organizers: Helmuth Trischler, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich; Ludmilla Jordanova, King’s College London Department of History; Simon Werrett, University of Washington Department of History/ Science Studies Network, Seattle; Science Museum, London.

Although the sciences have provided critical resources in environmental debates, their own role in environmental change has been little studied.

This conference will explore how the sciences have affected the physical environment. How have scientific practices and ideas impacted on nature – for example do practices such as voyages of exploration or natural history collecting exploit plants and animals and their environments?

Does scientific activity cause pollution, depletion of resources, or other forms of damage to ecosystems? How are such practices to be evaluated, and how are they related to scientific and other ideas of nature and the environment, e.g. notions of conquest, mastery, or interrogation. How should scientific ideas about the environment be related to the impacts of scientific research on it? In particular papers should address scientific activities involving the circulation of knowledge and materials. A growing body of work in the history of science has explored the issue of circulation, examining how physical specimens, books, people, and materials related to science have been made to move around the globe in the service of producing or disseminating scientific knowledge. What has been the environmental significance of such circulations? How has the movement of people, plants, animals, and scientific instruments, books and personnel affected environments, e.g. on voyages of exploration, in processes of establishing colonial scientific institutions, or in undertaking imperial cartography or surveying? Papers which aim at fostering current theoretical debates on how to link the conceptual approaches of history of science, environmental history, and spatial history are particularly welcome. ” [end, CFP]

[My comment and critique of McCarthy:] In the early 1980s, I met such as Rudolf Bahro (the leader of the German Green Party (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Bahro) and attended a conference featuring Kirkpatrick Sale, a deep ecologist. The audiences for both events seemed to be New Left, then following the critical theorists, anarchist tendencies on the Left (followers of Murray Bookchin), and some form of localism or primitivism. It struck me then that these leftists were masochists in the face of Nature, and that they knew almost nothing about ecology as a scientific discipline, but were adopting environmentalism as a cudgel in the campaign to smash modernity and the drive toward progress, i.e., progress understood as the war against Nature and native peoples. With respect to the indigenous persons who were victimized by Westward expansion in to the Americas, East Asia, and Africa, it was widely believed that the indigenous peoples were attuned to Nature and embodied the communitarian social structures that these Leftists aspired to. (Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy was one such romantic, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Garaudy.) These true believers were dissatisfied with [Promethean] Marxism with its elevation of technology, arguing that there must be a non-industrial path toward socialism.

Cormac (“Irish King”) McCarthy

It seems to me that Colman McCarthy’s much lauded novel Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), can only be understood in this political context. For a summary of his career, see http://www.onlineenglishdegree.com/resources/biography-of-cormac-mccarthy/. The writer of this essay notes that the author’s work is historically sound, for he visited the locales and even learned Spanish. We also learn that his favorite book is Melville’s Moby-Dick. In a way, Blood Meridian is a (mis) reading of Melville’s masterpiece, that assumes, along with post-colonialists,  that MD was a critique of Western expansionism and its death-dealing war against Nature. But see my blog https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/, especially in light of Harold Bloom’s encomium to McCarthy’s great book as a spectacular example of the Sublime. Bloom also heaps praise upon the creation of Judge Holden, the evil Promethean who survives the events of the book: the god of war (249), perhaps aided by “a Prussian jew,” purveyor of Colt pistols (82). (On the character “Speyer’s” presumed historicity, see http://tinyurl.com/843vopy.)

 But it is the judge alone, unaided by Jewish pedlars of contraband, who takes a careful inventory of living and inanimate things, and who will not tolerate mystery. After telling Toadvine that nothing may live on earth without his permission, the judge goes on: “…The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.” (199)

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps it is because McCarthy, who could not possibly know the awful details of the slaughter he presents throughout a book of 337 pages, has had honors heaped upon him by the liberal literary establishment for what I sense is, in effect, a sadistic attack upon the reader (or even himself), conducted from a great height, gazing obsessively far below at “ignorant armies [that] clash by night” (see the “Dover Beach” reference, p. 213).  I do credit the “Irish King” with an imagination unprecedented perhaps in its relentless ferocity, and though MD is a violent book, particularly in its graphic accounts of the whale butchery, it is no match for BM.  Whereas Melville would tear the veil from benevolent nature [Mother] to reveal “the charnel house within,” McCarthy’s Nature is never enticing. As Charles Dickens said of Pittsburgh, it is “hell with the lid off.” (For a slight article on the critical reception to Cormac McCarthy, see http://tinyurl.com/b9gxyqk.)

December 11, 2009

“Don’t fence me in”: notes toward a workable consensus

 

a page from New Theatre, June 1936: Hitler as narcissist

Here is my utopian contribution to the theory of independent media–a hot topic in the era of the internet and blogging. It was directed to program producers and listeners to Pacifica Radio after years of observing how this “alternative” media outlet malfunctioned, even at its best. Given how polarized our political culture remains, I hope that readers of all ideological preferences will read the notes as a plea for a more constructive and creative dialogue. You might want to read these first: https://clarespark.com/2009/08/20/shakin-the-blues-away-primitivism-rock-n-roll-and-mental-health/, https://clarespark.com/2009/08/18/storming-pacifica-revising-my-view-of-pacifica-history-july-22-1999/, https://clarespark.com/2009/08/13/my-life-at-pacifica-radio-a-memoir-part-one/, and https://clarespark.com/2009/08/14/my-life-at-pacifica-part-two-with-gory-details-and-more-on-identity/.

[Christopher Simpson, 1994:] Entrepreneurial academics modeled the scientific tools needed for development of practical applications of communication-as-domination on those that had seemed so successful in the physical sciences: a positivist reduction of complex phenomena to discrete components; an emphasis on quantitative description of change; and claimed perspective of “objectivity” toward scientific “truth.”  With few exceptions, they assumed that mass communication was “appropriately viewed from [the perspective of] the top or power center…rather than from the bottom or periphery of the system (6)….U.S. social science, including mass communications research, helped elaborate rationales for coercing groups targeted by the U.S. government and Western Industrial culture generally (115).  Roughly similar psychological and linguistic structures seem to have played a role in certain phases of Turkish Ittyad efforts to exterminate Armenians during World War I, in atrocities during Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, and in U.S. exploitation of former Nazis in intelligence operations.  There are many obvious differences, of course, between the psychological and linguistic dynamics of atrocities and those of psychological warfare projects.  Nonetheless, there are enough similarities to suggest that euphemistic “cover stories” are integral to much of modern political communication (144).[1]

[Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Truth in Myths,” 1937:]  …religion is forced to tell many little lies in the interest of a great truth, while science inclines to tell many little truths in the interest of a great lie.  The great truth in the interest of which many little lies are told is that life and history have meaning and the source and the fulfillment of that meaning lie beyond history.  The great lie in the interest of which science tells many little truths is that spatio-temporal realities are self-contained and self-explanatory and that a scientific description of sequences is an adequate analysis of causes. [2]

[Clare’s blog:]      Make no mistake, the culture wars will be fought to the death, and not because scientists do not “tolerate” religious values, but because there is no center, no middle-ground between secular and mystical world-views; either intellectual debate is worth the trouble, or it is a waste of time; either popular sovereignty is to be made rational and competent, or we should return to enlightened despotism.

Certain conclusions for theory and practice flow from my reflections on the devious cultural politics of nineteenth and twentieth-century America and Europe.  What has been most strenuously dismantled in the last tumultuous period of academic reform is The Big Lie of materialism, mega-weapon of Western Industrial culture (according to Christopher Simpson).  As I have tried to show throughout the blogs posted on this website,  however, most public “liberals” and “leftists” today (ethnocultural structuralists) are inheritors of social ideas that were never libertarian and universalistic.  These particular “multiculturalists” decapitate political animals insofar as they prejudge coherent narratives (i.e., authoritative, chronologically ordered, fact-based accounts) of historical change and conflict as totalitarian, racist, and genocidal.  We are toothless without the relatively objective criteria that would make elected authority accountable to its constituency, helpless in identifying the social divisions and antagonisms that most persuasively delineate the trajectory of history at any given moment.

Often with the best of intentions, the Populists and Progressives, the Leninist Left, the Frankfurt School critical theorists, and many New Left anti-racists admiring Simpson or Niebuhr advocated free speech and cultural relativism in ways that would logically undermine confidence in common readers scrutinizing rival political platforms, thus hindering  the coalition building necessary for earnest (goal-directed) politics.  The primitivists/libertines among them sought emancipation from the slavery of romantic love, finding equality in the acting out of repressed “instincts” that the workaholic bourgeoisie had squashed; some critics of essentialism/identity politics argue from the positions of Heraclitus and Nietzsche: the aristocratic radical (Cormac McCarthy?) again looks askance at uppity artisans, the murderous children of Cain.  Our generation of intellectuals might do well to distinguish between 17th-18th C. and late 20th C. conceptions of science, democracy, history and international brotherhood.

As the quotations from Lewis Hill, founder of Pacifica radio and his successors demonstrated, it was the class war that the Pacifica pacifists were to oppose most emphatically: good labor unions collaborated with business as corporatist liberalism (New Deal policies mimicking the happy family) preferred; however, given the conditions of the Depression, during which every class was in crisis, the managed good news Lewis Hill advocated could not report negotiation between equals though that fiction would be maintained in contract law.  Implicit in Hill’s ideology was the notion that misunderstandings in communication (the source of conflict?) could be removed through enlightened workplace anthropology.  Pacifica would radiate good feelings.  Similarly, reformed curricula and canons, overcoming Anglo-American/Hebraic “liberal” hubris, selfishness, and avarice, would breed empathic workers and managers.  Intractable differences were only racial or ethnic or gendered: the powerless would be typed according to biological imperatives, each group possessed of marvelously unique, equally idiosyncratic, rooted points of view that could be freely expressed on public or independent or reformed media, yet these perspectives were finally untranslatable to members of different linguistic communities.  Such rights of privacy, aka group expression, would be guarded by socially responsible businessmen and their deputized academics, fending off melting-pot sharpshooters to their Right.  So far and no farther would freedom, independence, and equality be tolerated.

“Radical subjectivism” asserted itself against “Marxist” postulations of ruling-class “hegemony” by insisting upon the inevitable multiplicity of points of view, of de-centered loci of power and authority. Individual character gave way to “social character.” As one professor of “applied Christianity” put it, referring to the work of Erich Fromm, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Henry Murray, “In order that any society may function well, its members must acquire the kind of character which makes them want to act the way they have to act as members of the society or of a special class within it. Fromm is thoroughly aware of the grave dangers in this ability of society to pressure us into becoming what society wants. But he realizes also that freedom is achieved only in social relations and that one becomes a self only within a group or a people.”[3]

Such “diversity” was seen as both descriptive and desirable.  Like community broadcasting itself, radical subjectivism was a rejection of white male domination, hence progressive, not a turn toward the archaic, the medieval and the barbaric.  In the etiquette of The New Pluralism-Without-Snakes-and-Spiders, there are no lies, save the Big One.  Given this marvel of constructive disengagement, how might alternative media planners counter the cacophony of corporatist liberalism?

I. Discourse and critical method.

—–A. The ethnopluralists have been tracked throughout the blogs. To distinguish ourselves from these organic conservatives masked as genuine liberals we should avoid their buzz words insofar as they apply the terms of biological systems to social organization: e.g., “the community,” “the body politic,” “national character,” “group mind,” “roots,” “milieu,” “equilibria,” “cultural climate,” “balance” (understood as the harmony which ensues when two more or less hysterical people contradict or “check” each other), and “identity” (understood as essential group psychological characteristics transmitted in the genes).

—–B. We should challenge the deployment of the words “race” and “ethnicity” insofar as they are meant to describe hereditary intellectual capacity and other psychological characteristics, as opposed to the ideological construction of “group character” in historically specific moments of conflict.  We ask our audience to keep in mind this understanding of “race” and “ethnicity”: (1). Groups are treated differently on the basis of fictional categories that are supposedly “real” and uniformly applicable to everyone in the group. Such typing reinforces the divisive idea that we are not one species, hence cannot understand each other’s perceptions of reality.  Thus the need to defend and revise our possibly distorted assertions about politics to reach a consensus is made unnecessary: there are no universally perceptible facts, only “group facts.” (2). Even though we are one species, we are not necessarily perceived as such by others: the ideas of (always pure) “race” and “ethnicity” are plausible only as fictions too often considered  real.  (3). Antisemitism is not simply a variant of racism, but a particularly dangerous form of false consciousness because it strikes at “basic trust,” without which no rationally informed social action is possible.  Whereas racial prejudices may be overcome with contact, the switching Jew will always be a confidence-man, his promise of utopia (to know the truth, to build a more humane society) a ruse; the outcome is dangerous not only for Jews, but for the antisemite, because the target is her/his own critical intellect and emotions.  Hence Jews cannot overcome antisemitism through philanthropy or reminding the world about their contributions to modernity: it is precisely modernity and its promise, its open-endedness that is the threat. It is true that the Alien or the Stranger has always been distrusted by insular societies; but in the context of enlightened Europe, the content of the Jewish archetype was adapted to suit the needs of reactionaries. “Roots” secured the “identity” of the beleaguered institutions of the European Right  (comprised of the Church and landed aristocracy) against the “disintegrating” forces of liberal nationalism. Suddenly Jews were no longer convertible or useful; today’s “identity politics” are the tool of similar conservative localists, like the aristodemocrats described above. It is the same not-so-old “scientific racism” cleansed by association with Jewish cultural anthropologists like Boas and his students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Again: there is no way to rescue German idealism.  It was formed in reaction to rationalism, democracy and the Enlightenment and will always oppose intelligent, democratic, universalistic forms of social organization.

—–C. The current litany for progressive journalists and academics is the study of “class, race, and gender” by which it is usually meant that structural position will entirely predict behavior, desire, and point-of-view, i.e., we are molded and stamped to act in our own behalf (hence participating wisely in pluralist politics, neither befuddled nor capable of perceiving universal human interests which could suggest different forms of political organization).  Besides ignoring distorted consciousness, this functionalist theory of class, race and gender conflates dissimilar categories of analysis.  Although the term is hotly debated, “class” can be defined with regard to the possession or non-possession of resources (money, tools, land, special scarce skills) enabling survival, either allowing persons to walk away from a bad contract or forcing them to work or starve.  Such ownership is not a matter of opinion, it is an objective fact in the world.  Similarly, gender difference is real: e.g., at different times women are more or less tied down by child-bearing and nursing.  But “race” and “ethnicity” are entirely socially constructed, which is not to say that culture (or climate) does not affect or partially predict behavior.  The issue for the twentieth century has been whether or not a better social environment can create “the new man” thus making it unnecessary for each generation to strive anew to rear critical thinkers with humanitarian values.  Lamarckians and muckrakers (like Hitler) want a quick fix; geneticists (should) advise patience and effort.  A Lockean-neo-Freudian approach would see class and gender as a set of conditions that limit experience, but against which we may struggle as we increasingly comprehend the ways we repress those ideas and feelings that threaten illegitimate authority.

—–D. A materialist discourse describes historically concrete individuals and the many institutions in which they are asked to function (the market, the state, the family, education, media, etc.).  This includes (1). Abstract and impersonal social property relations (class structure, how classes reproduce themselves, and class relations including relations between members of the same class who may be either cooperating, competing, or both);  (2). Social movements which may be challenging or acquiescing in the rules of the game; (3). The exercise of power within institutions and between individuals: how is authority made legitimate?  How is consent obtained: through analysis of the system (rational persuasion) or appeals relying upon emotionally charged language and archetypes, on veiled or naked force?  How are the concepts of multiplicity and diversity deployed for and against equal opportunity?  Are persons expected to resolve irreconcilable differences?  Do agitators create or exaggerate differences where none need exist?  (4). What are the sources of change, legal and illegal?  (5). How have powerful interests defined the social psychology of the society or group under consideration?  How have these assessments changed with transformations in modes of production?

——E. An organicist discourse confuses because groups and nation-states are treated as if they were individuals.  Thus for moralistic anti-American New Leftists, “America” is one very bad person, stealing Africans, exterminating Indians, raping the environment, tricking the masses with false promises of cultural freedom, etc.  Similarly “the West” and “Western science” are genocidal.  By contrast, a materialist discourse would identify historically specific individuals and groups, often buffeted by social forces producing destructive behavior.  Comparative history and sociology will reveal that the humanitarian, universalistic values espoused by “Western civilization” are still only partially realized in practice, along with the technology that may someday lighten drudgery and toil for everyone.  Hence we should ask, what are the economic and cultural preconditions that enable people to be creative, peaceful and tolerant?  How have earlier Leftists answered this question and what have we learned from their decisions?

When all of these arduous (but not impossible) tasks are accomplished, then rational communicators may be said to have reached a consensus on the facts of their condition.  Obviously, societies that see human motivation and history as inscrutable and chaotic, an unfinished dialogue between God, the World, the Flesh and the Devil (the Flesh-made Word?) will resist (to the death) such processes of analyses and synthesis. [4]

II. Earning trust of the audience.

A. Spotting the phony liberals/radicals/protofascists.  They say they are not fascists, meanwhile replicate the cultural practice of earlier aristocratic radicals/corporatist liberals with an antimodern, antidemocratic agenda.  Rather than institutional analysis they purge/muckrake, implying that good fathers will make the system work; “corruption” or exploitation may not be structural in origin, but solely the product of moral weakness, e.g., an immoderate will to power and greed or decadent effeminacy and narcissism (consumerism).  Conspirators make history; conspiracy theories have prestige among groups lacking political education.  How should we deal with their “paranoia”?  Indeed, I have been charged by both leftists and conservatives with conspiratorial thinking even where I demonstrate institutional sources of unethical behavior.  Such attempts to discredit destabilizing historical research are to be expected; it is a form of psychological warfare that may cause all of us to distrust our own perceptions, experiences, and educated sense of danger.  But there are real paranoids out there, and opportunistic radicals have indulged irrational fears and hatreds, for instance in their uncritical support of cultural nationalism and populism, indulging the petit-bourgeois radicalism which sees money or “finance capital” as the demonic enemy.

In my view, good history drives out bad.  I respect the suspicions of oppressed people by identifying real historical conspiracies, but attempt to locate them at least partly in institutional imperatives and constraints.  Biographies will often demonstrate the clash between values and behavior, not because of the predilection for lying or hypocrisy, but because of class allegiance and mixed-messages dispensed by societies resisting the transition to a creative democracy  (e.g., multiculturalism is a form of “indirect rule”: an attempt to conciliate lower-class demands for autonomy while maintaining élite control).

B. The production of hopelessness.  College professors, like all intellectuals, have a choice; they may choose topics for research that examine class institutions and reform movements, showing how industrial societies, unlike their predecessors, produce the conditions for their possible transcendence or improvement.  Or, as is more often the case, professors may attack the “hegemony” of philistine puritans, the bourgeois businessmen who supposedly control their careers with an iron fist.  The first approach produces winning tactics and reasonable time lines for change; the second produces cultural despair, has chosen the bleak world-view of the dispossessed aristocrat railing against the false optimism of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.  The first approach emphasizes favorable conditions and possibilities for amelioration where they exist; the second dotes on human weakness, promotes dropping-out/ suicidal adventurism, ends with a sigh, in practice the passivity which only blesses the forces that are killing us. “Ah, Bartleby! Ah humanity!” and “God bless Captain Vere!”

C. Living with ambiguity and suspended judgments.  The condition of modernity is the unending search for truth, for an accurate description of ourselves and of the system (insofar as there is a single coherent system, which I doubt).  In my book, I called it Ahab’s “meandering railroad.” We inspect our closest attachments so that we may be less deluded about our own “pure” motives, desires for control, and other defenses against fear, anger, and rage.  It is a terrible thing to espouse radical politics for purposes of revenge, to mobilize others by stirring up traditional group hatreds.  I see no reason for any “democrat” to appeal to such emotions.  Marx’s irrational polemics stand in contrast to his ostensibly rational analysis of the capitalist system, to his compassionate account of the nightmare of tradition that burdens the brain of the living.  In my own experience, I have found that irrationally motivated radicals are identified by an attachment to labels: like conservative bureaucrats they want to file us in the proper drawers, the better to be manipulated, squashed if potentially “unmanageable” and “unpredictable.”

I doubt that I will ever be able conclusively to separate structure from agency, or pin Herman Melville or myself down.  What we are, where we were, where we are: these are portraits and maps that will more or less change as we revise and reconfigure the past and present, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly working ourselves out of primitive fantasies and defenses.  Hence we emphasize the dynamics of change (not Jungian archetypes) in an atmosphere of safety and trust.  These comments about the fluidity of perception should not be marshaled to relativize the objective conditions of social institutions.  Whether or not workers are exploited, whether or not ordinary people have access to quality education, health care, mass media and state secrets, whether or not citizens are consulted about the decisions that affect their lives, the existence or non-existence of corporal punishment and other cruelties in the family, can all be established as facts in the real world.  Without an exhaustive and accurate assessment of  institutions (and they may be anarchic and messily unpredictable), we cannot test and judge “authority” or choose between rival claims for love and friendship.

How then will such values be expressed in practice?  If we wish to understand people in motion or mired in apathy we avoid typing people as conservatives, radicals, and liberals or as moderates and extremists as if everyone knew what that meant, as if these words had timeless meanings, as if no one ever changed her mind.  People have describable imaginations, values, and interests that may be modified in changing circumstances; these should be specified concretely.  Similarly, the appropriation of good buzz words in particular moments of struggle should be described: concepts such as pacifism, balance, the people, multiplicity, diversity, relativism, pluralism, and democracy may be claimed by democrats and authoritarians alike.  For instance, socialists might be pacifists in August 1914; American Nazi-sympathizers might be pacifists in 1938; during the same period isolationist conservatives might have feared that international war would create the conditions for another civil war (like the Russian Revolution).

Ideal formats for alternative or oppositional media cannot be prescribed in a vacuum.  “Innovation” and “experimentation” are good or bad insofar as they attempt to promote critical, independent thought and heightened awareness of ourselves and our environments, no foible left unexamined, no nuance of thought or feeling unexpressed.  If our goal is self-management and informed consent to management by experts, then there is no mystery about what to do and how to do it.  We must first determine the condition and preconceptions of our audience in all its varying states of consciousness.

If “commercial” (i.e., jewishly contaminated) mass media present a more or less phony aura of objectivity, self-control, and sanity should we defiantly praise subjectivism, stridency, and irrationality as “radical?”  I believe the competition should be praised for positive achievements where they exist; where their coverage of personalities and events falters, we should fill in the gaps and reconfigure the problem, if necessary, calling attention to the greater freedom that listener-sponsorship makes possible.  If we are not more objective, self-possessed, and rational, more open and scientific, more historically and sociologically informed, more respectful of the audience, more completely descriptive than “mass culture” and “mass media,” then there is no legitimacy to our claim for moral superiority.

Warmth need not yield to stridency or manipulative charm; nor should we talk down to the audience.  We ask ourselves if our revolts are primitivist, ascetic and sadomasochistic, the desire to be punished or to humiliate others; we may be pandering to sadism and masochism in the audience through the endless parade of atrocities and bondage.  Our élitism is communicated through excessive secrecy, obscurantism, false modesty, reductiveness, snideness, sloganeering, slang and obscenity.  We have a beautiful, expressive language that is hardly used; instead as radicals, we punkishly use the speech of the street to exhibit our trustworthiness.  Whom are we fooling?

[Bernard Mandeville, The Sixth Dialogue from Fable of the Bees, Vol.2, Oxford U. Press, 1924, first publ. 1714:]

 Cleomenes.  The natural Ambition and strong Desire Men have to triumph over, as well as persuade others, are the occasion for all this [fiery oratory].  Heightning and lowring the Voice, at proper Seasons, is a bewitching Engine to captivate mean Understandings; and Loudness is an Assistant to Speech, as well as Action is: Uncorrectness, false Grammar, and even want of Sense, are often happily drown’d in Noise and great Bustle; and many an Argument has been convincing, that had all its Force from the Vehemence it was made with: The Weakness of the Language it self may be palliatively cured by the strength of Elocution.

Horatio. I am glad that speaking low is the Fashion among well-bred People in England; for Bawling and Impetuosity I cannot endure.

Cleo. Yet this latter is more natural; and no Man ever gave in to the contrary Practice, the Fashion you like, that was not taught it, either by Precept or Example: And if Men do not accustom themselves to it, whilst they are very young, it is very difficult to comply with afterwards: But it is the most lovely, as well as the most rational Piece of good Manners, that human Invention has yet to boast of in the Art of Flattery; for when a Man addresses himself to me in a calm manner without making Gestures, or other Motions with Head or Body, and continues his Discourse in the same submissive Strain and Composure of Voice, without exalting or depressing it, he, in the first place, displays his own Modesty and Humility in an agreeable manner; and, in the second, makes me a great Compliment, in the Opinion which he seems to have of me; for by such a Behavior he gives me the Pleasure to imagine, that he thinks me not influenc’d by my Passions, but altogether sway’d by my Reason: He seems to lay his Stress on my Judgment, and therefore to desire, that I should weigh and consider what he says, without being ruffled or disturbed: No Man would do this unless he trusted entirely to my good Sense, and the Rectitude of my Understanding…(291-292).  When a Man has only his Words to trust to, and the Hearer is not to be affected by the Delivery of them otherwise, that if he was to read them himself, it will infallibly put Men upon studying not only for nervous Thoughts and Perspicuity, but likewise for Words of great Energy, for Purity of Diction, Compactness of Style, and Fullness as well as Elegancy of Expressions (293).

The various cultures, institutions and social movements we encounter, like all human phenomena, are difficult, if not impossible, fully to comprehend: still we should be wary of simplistic calls for “complexity.”  Rather than a healthy respect for the difficulty of achieving precise and relatively complete accounts of our condition, such warnings (directed at “levellers”?) may mean that we can’t ever know what we are experiencing: events are just too over-determined, too individualized, too particularistic, too mystical, too mysterious.  What was Hayek saying about the “social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand”?  Was his statement descriptive of the present (1946), or was he saying that, given the limits of research into the motives and actions of others, at any period a Titanic, perhaps unfeasible project, the unfettered market offers the least coercive form of regulation and the most efficient and accurate marker of merit?  Shouldn’t “the Left” engage these and other libertarian arguments with an open mind? Is it not a sign of intellectual and moral weakness when opponents do not engage each other’s facts and programs, no holds barred? Can we say that either side of a debate is “scientific” when they do not engage?

Eloquence and sublimity are not achieved through bombast and obfuscation, but almost rush forth when we have mastered the precision and subtlety of language, when we care for others, as artists, giving them everything we’ve got, understanding suffering and sincerely striving to alleviate it.  In my own experience as a teacher and broadcaster, I have found that “ordinary” people–non-intellectuals–often ask for my assistance in illuminating the historical background of everyday problems; they appreciate being pushed a bit, they do not expect perfection from me or themselves, but self-criticism and progress.  I have succeeded when listeners and readers feel more confident in their own capacities to penetrate, comprehend and at least partially master reality.  Aristocratic radicals will scoff at such aspirations as the rotten odor of mechanical materialism.

Cultural cues are transparent when all the relevant conflicts are brought to conscious awareness; psychological warfare can be decoded and made as easy to read as comic books.  However, “prudence” and the defense of “expertise” forbid the direct, unpretentious communication of institutional or personal goals and operations.  “Two-way communication” is subtly authoritarian when we have not equal access to technology, facts, and skills; we have the microphone, they have the telephone.  We should not abuse our authority.  For instance “call-in” shows, like seminars, usually do not allow follow-up questions; hence may not identify areas of agreement, partial agreement or impasse.  Instead these interchanges sound like a play by Ionesco; the participants take turns speaking into the void.  To put it another way, program hosts ask for feedback from listeners, but do not necessarily act upon legitimate criticisms by self-examination or further research and reflection, nor do they often address the anxieties, rational and irrational alike, that have produced hostile responses.

Trust requires a prolonged period of testing through the individual and group processes of interactivity; this endless, boundless, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful process of testing authority, made meaningful through ongoing self-education and group education, is the distinctive feature of democratic institutions.

Notes: [1] Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research & Pyschological Warfare 1945-60 (Oxford U.P. 1994).

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, 1937, reprinted in Gail Kennedy, ed., Evolution and Religion: The Conflict Between Science and Theology in Modern America (D.C. Heath, 1957): 94.

[3]  Roger L. Shinn, The Search for Identity: Essays on the American Character (New York: Harper & Row, for the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, 1964), 2-3. Shinn is quoting from a Fromm essay of 1944 “Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis,” American Sociological Review Vol.9 [1944], pp.380-384, and reprinted in Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture, Clyde Kluckhohn and Henry A. Murray, editors (Knopf, 1948), 407. Shinn tips his hat to Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma, p. x, a theme taken up in the essay by Kyle Haselden, “Race–And The Divided American Soul,” 133-152. But Myrdal, under the influence of Ralph Bunche, described “the American Creed,” not group character. For this author, however, the American character is divided and marred. “…the racial problem more than any other single factor has been the crux of our history. …the clash of the white man and Negro in American society–has had more influence on developing American character than any other single factor.” Haselden blames white racism for its handling of a “racially different minority in the social structure.” (p.137) The author ends with an appeal to moderation, avoiding “Uncle Tomism on the one extreme and aggressive black nationalism on the other” (152).

The call for inclusion, balance and stability within a restored natural American character runs throughout. See Harold K. Schilling, “The Transforming Power of the Sciences,” 39-54. Religion, not science, should direct the future. Using Loren Eiseley’s term “lethal factor,” Schilling warns of the coming apocalypse: “Since science has taught us what nature is really like, and what it means to be “natural,” we now realize that with the arrival of man on earth, there appeared a disturbing, lethal factor that has somehow upset the balance, self-consistency and naturalness of nature. Sometime in his history man has succeeded in producing an ever more destructive black whirlpool that is threatening to drag both him and his world into the bottomless abyss of death and oblivion. (Italics in original, p.54.)

[4] Students of alternative media should study the influence of evangelical Catholicism (revolutionary conservatives, the born-again moderns) in the theorizing of public broadcasting (as well as the formation of the academic disciplines of cultural history and the history of science, confessional psychoanalysis, and the ideology of “cultural pluralism”).  See Calvert Alexander, The Catholic Literary Revival (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1935), with its conclusion calling for a Catholic “free press” (copying the independent publications of Jews, Communists and Socialists) to combat the pernicious influence of mass media.

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