YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 14, 2017

Skin in the game

Adam video game

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/fights-in-advance-of-saturday-protest-in-charlottesville/2017/08/12/155fb636-7f13-11e7-83c7-5bd5460f0d7e_story.html?undefined=&utm_term=.ffba0ee1bc89&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1. Compare to  http://althouse.blogspot.com/2017/08/there-was-no-police-presence-we-were.html, a fine analysis by Harry Lewis regarding the role of the police in failing to separate the warring sides and more.

This blog is mainly about the missing terms in the media discussion of the Charlottesville riot: the fantasy of “unity,” present-mindedness, “fascism,” and discipline.

Moderation. The press has reverted during and after the weekend Charlottesville riot to its “moderate” position: condemning both (equally culpable) “extremists” as evil, while implying that its “moderation” is laudably (progressive). So the “moderate men” continue to hold the “center.” (See Yeats’s famous formulation.) Also, https://clarespark.com/2015/04/07/who-are-the-moderate-men/.)

This a deeply deceptive way of talking, for analysis suffers when we cannot identify class interests: what social groups inhabit the so-called “alt-Right”? Are they all “white” workers? Do the  protesters know the first thing about actually existing “fascism” (that was distinctive in say, Italy, Germany, France and Spain?)

Unity. And Fox News Channel (like the others) has been united in the hope that we can “come together” to defeat the dark forces on both sides. I have been wondering for some time if we are living in some variant of a “fascist dictatorship,” for (populist) Nazism stressed the Volk or the “people’s community,” in the effort to stamp out (divisive) communism, and the longing for an impossible unity reminds me of Hitler’s utopian deadly premise.

Any student of US history knows that sectionalism is paramount, and defies any attempt to reconcile the conflicting regions of our country. (https://clarespark.com/2014/03/13/what-is-cultural-relativism/.)

Discipline. Which brings me to the traditional Jewish imperative to subdue the negative part of “human nature.” This sets up a conflict with those ideologies that see the self as all good or all bad. So the press (including many assimilated Jewish journalists) calls for “love” all around, presumably encompassing faith, hope and charity.


Arthur Szyk, Lodz, Poland, ca 1939; pinterest.com

But the racism that is and was opposed by progressives/the New Left is not quickly or easily eliminated, for it is embedded in the existing major ideologies, each requiring separate analysis. For we must refrain from reading our current values into the past (present-mindedness), while still recognizing those pseudo-progressive institutions holding minorities back (e.g., teachers unions).

But such analysis is missing from our dumbed down culture where “ignorant armies clash by night.” (Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold)


March 13, 2014

What is cultural relativism?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

[From Chapter Five of HCA:]

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

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

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

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

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

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

No King could govern, nor no God could please;

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

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

These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,

Began to dream they wanted liberty;

And when no rule, no president was found

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

They led their wild desires to Woods and Caves,

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

NOTES to book excerpts

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

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

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

July 9, 2013

Preconditions for “hard liberty”

mammon-euro-dollar1I asked my Facebook friends what were the preconditions for a functioning democratic republic. The most offbeat answer was “peace and quiet.” I can understand that frustration with the constant undeclared warfare between fragments of the American polity. It is difficult to think rationally in the eye of the storm brought about by a strident, loud, and intrusive public culture. It is not only noisy out there, but many of our young cannot tell the difference between “real” and “fake.” Giving up on that distinction would mark the end of the American Idea.

I had promised a blog about democratic republicanism, but changed my focus because I believe that the libertarianism promised by the Founders is on the defensive. So is their New Rationalist belief in empiricism, checks and balances, separation of powers, and a marketplace of ideas. Through such novel institutions, “the truth will out.” The notion that America is a collection of truth-seeking individuals has been supplanted by collectivist, organic notions of grouplets, group-think, and exaggerated “racial” or “ethnic” differences. Walls have been erected that not even the most skilled rock climbers can surmount: anti-imperialists and postmodernists control teaching in the humanities. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/07/02/groupiness-group-think-and-race/.)  The result? Most of us lack the tools (or the access) to determine who is lying to us, and who is not. Between such doctrines as “the pastness of the past” (i.e., the past is unknowable) and cultural relativism, a.k.a. radical subjectivism, we are left scratching our heads. If they are so lucky as to be able to read Moby-Dick, our young cling to “interdependent” Ishmael, not truth-seeking  and demystifying Captain Ahab.

Not surprisingly, irrationalism has supplanted the rationalism of the 18th century. It helps to remember that vanguard ideas like “hard liberty” are always threatened by traditional elites, who prefer “servile pomp” (quoting Mammon’s speech, Book II, Paradise Lost. I am not claiming that either John Milton or Herman Melville was unambivalent about digging to find the truth.)

[Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 4: excerpt:]

Ahab’s uncracked militancy has been badly misread; it is Ishmael who deems him a monomaniac, Satanically driven to destroy God and his ship; the same insults were hurled at the abolitionists by proslavery apologists and utopian socialists or land reformers during the 1840s and 1850s. Rather, Moby-Dick relates one big moment in the West’s progress toward intellectual freedom and responsibility: the withdrawal of legitimacy from duplicitous or confusing authority. Just as the narrator Ishmael attacks Ahab in Moby-Dick, the narrator of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (1667) initially presents Mammon as a gold bug plundering Mother Earth:

There stood a hill not far whose grisly top

Belched fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire

Shone with a glossy scurf, undoubted sign

That in his womb was hid metallic ore,

The work of sulphur. Thither winged with speed

A numerous brigade hastened. As when bands

Of pioneers with spade and pickaxe armed

Forerun the royal camp, to trench a field,

Or cast a rampart. Mammon led them on,

Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell

From heaven, for even in heaven his looks and thoughts

Were always downward bent, admiring more

The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,

Then aught divine or holy else enjoyed

In vision beatific: by him first

Men also, and by his suggestion taught,

Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands

Rifled the bowels of their mother earth

For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew

Opened into the hill a spacious wound

And digged out ribs of gold. Let none admire

That riches grow in hell; that soil may best

Deserve the precious bane. (PL, I, 670-692, my emph.)

But during Satan’s council with the fallen angels, Mammon does not jibe with the greedy transgressor of Book I; rather, he demystifies Heaven and withdraws deference from an omnipotent yet darkly angry and inscrutable God. Has Milton turned about?

“…how wearisome

Eternity so spent in worship paid

To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue

By force impossible, by leave obtain’d

Unacceptable, though in Heav’n our state

Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek

Our own good from ourselves, and from our own

Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,

Free, and to none accountable, preferring

Hard liberty before the easy yoke

Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear

Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,

Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse

We can create, and in what place so e’er

Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain

Through labour and endurance. This deep world

Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth heaven’s all-ruling sire

Choose to reside, His glory unobscured,

And with the majesty of darkness round

Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar

Mustering thir rage, and Heav’n resembles hell?

As he our darkness, cannot we his light

Imitate when we please? This desert soil

Wants not her hidden lustre, gems and gold;

Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise

Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?

Our torments also may in length of time

Become our elements, these piercing fires

As soft as now severe, our temper changed

Into their temper; which must needs remove

The sensible of pain. All things invite

To peaceful counsels, and the settled state

Of order, how in safety best we may

Compose our present evils, with regard

Of what we are and were, dismissing quite

All thoughts of war: ye have what I advise.” [i] (PL, II, 247-283, my emph.)

Seventeenth-century readers would have understood Mammon’s mining as the insatiable curiosity of materialists; in the twentieth century, some influential anticapitalists claimed mining as a defining ingredient of the hated capitalist system.[ii] In his own eloquent voice, Mammon’s productivity was lustrous with moral effort and simplicity; “gems and gold” could signify enlightenment, for magnificent display had been tarnished as “servile pomp.” Mammon urges the rebel angels to abandon Satan’s war against God, to create a paradise on earth won by labor and endurance. Like Milton’s Mammon, the ‘radical’ puritan Ahab has chosen hard liberty: if necessary, the artist will stand alone against evil emanating from Leviathan (the State) or an irrationally punitive God himself, but with his sturdy (Providential) God-given conscience intact. Mammon’s freedom does not lead to anarchy or chaos: the golden reward is self-respect. [End, book excerpt]

In order to respect oneself, there has to be a (relatively autonomous, striving) self. Too much of our current political culture has abandoned the very notion of the individual. It is not too late to take it back. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/. The “intolerable national egotism” is declared off limits to the moderate men. Also for more demonic characters in contemporary culture see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/. This links Ahab, Bruno Heller, Patrick Jane, and Bobby Goren. For more on the suppression of primary source materials during the Melville revival, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)



[i] 30. Melville owned John Martin’s print of Satan Presiding At The Infernal Council (the setting for Mammon’s speech). Mammon has described the “peace and prosperity” that Henry Murray would accurately associate with the promises of “Communism” (not capitalism!), contrasting communism with militaristic, power-mad fascism in his 1943 report on Hitler’s psyche. Milton’s ambivalence is explored in Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (New York: Viking, 1977), but without discussion of Mammon’s speech. For a nineteenth-century reading, see David Masson, The Three Devils: Luther’s Milton’s and Goethe’s (London: Macmillan, 1874), 26-27. Masson revealingly distorts the text: “…some of the Angels appear to have been ruminating the possibility of retrieving their former condition by patient enduring…Mammon was for organizing their new kingdom so as to make it as comfortable as possible.”Cf. Carolyn Merchant’s use of Milton’s Mammon as arch-destroyer of the earth in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row paperback, 1983), 39. The “radical subjectivity” that stems from the fortunate fall has been seen as the beginning of “the power of positive thinking,” or “bourgeois order”; see Herman Rapaport, “Paradise Lost and the Novel,” Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost, ed. Galbraith M. Crump (New York: Modern Language Association,1986), 141; Rapaport teaches PL and M-D together; in a richly ambiguous remark he notes Milton’s “satanic leviathan” as an influence on Melville.


[ii]31. See W.P. Witcutt, “The Future of Capitalism: A Note on Werner Sombart,” American Review 5 (Oct. 1935): 531-535. Comparing Hilaire Belloc and Sombart, Witcutt wrote (praising Sombart for his “objectivity”), “By Capitalism Sombart, like Belloc, does not mean the régime of private property, as opposed to Socialism. He does not give any formal definition of Capitalism, but indicates certain constituent elements which may be gathered under the following headings. The Capitalist system consists: (1) of a society stratified into possessors of capital, entrepreneurs, and workers, pure and simple, possessing nothing–proletarians; (2) in the intensive utilization of mineral wealth. “The exploitation of riches beneath the earth’s surface and modern Capitalism are at bottom different aspects (natural and social) of one and the same phenomenon” (531-532). Cf. A.J. Penty, “The Centrality of Money and Machinery,” American Review 6 (Nov. 1935): it is the financiers who first destroyed the stability of peasant life and property. The merchants were the “haves,” the peasants the “have-nots” (2-3).

March 27, 2013

Power in gay and/or heterosexual attachments

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 7:02 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,
Gay marriage opponent Leonard Gendron, a local pastor, holds a sign reading "Homosexuals are Possessed by Demons" outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston March 11, 2004 where the Massachusetts Legislature is debating an amendment to the state's constitution banning gay marriage.  On November 11, 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state must issue marriage licenses to gay couples.       REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Gay marriage opponent Leonard Gendron, a local pastor, holds a sign reading “Homosexuals are Possessed by Demons” outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston March 11, 2004 where the Massachusetts Legislature is debating an amendment to the state’s constitution banning gay marriage. On November 11, 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state must issue marriage licenses to gay couples. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The media are embroiled in the gay marriage debates as arguments are delivered in the Supreme Court this week, with persons opposed to gay marriage and those supporting it rallying in the nation’s capital. [This blog is not about the pros and cons of legalizing gay marriage, but about the bureaucratic categories that are imposed by the State and that we are expected to view as legitimate categories that exist, unproblematically, in the real world.]

So far, the media are guessing whether a national law will be passed legalizing gay marriage in all the states, or whether the matter will be returned to the states, and “democratically” worked out over time, with citizen input (as if some rational consensus will make itself obvious!). One concern is the effect on children of gay couples, a matter that is held by such as Justice Kennedy to be in an early experimental stage. He too expects a rational consensus, susceptible to statistical evaluation in the future.

This is a rich subject for me as a student of human behavior and social movements that are either radical or conservative in their objectives. As usual, I will complain bitterly about the bureaucratic approach to questions that are highly controverted and which are unique to individuals and to their specific relationships. And as usual I will complain about the black and white categories we assign to the parties in a conflict. In short, I will argue that “gender” assignments are either unstable or so variable that any laws grounded in clear boundaries between the genders betrays the variation not only in men and women, but in the institution that the laws purport to either protect or liberalize.

Here in outline form are just a few of my concerns and objections to the media coverage, including what I have seen posted on some conservative websites where “traditionalists” face off against “neocons.” (For instance, Roger Simon, a former New Leftist, brought up the subject of “marriage” as such yesterday, and was then challenged by indignant readers who reminded him of the sacred character of the institution, one which was not susceptible to modification in any way. This is a typical culture war confrontation.) My own objections follow, and will necessarily neglect religious considerations, as I am not qualified to discuss sectarian religious differences, and assume that in a pluralistic country, there is room for both secular and religious approaches to the subject of all institutions that engage us today.

  1. Too many persons jump into marriage while still wet behind the ears. Sadly, our biology lags behind emotional maturity. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/05/02/teen-age-sex/.) The mass media sell sexuality, princess weddings, and adorable babies to the detriment of a rounded intellectual and emotional development in adolescents. Young people are deprived of instruction in those values and skills that make for solid marriage (or non-marriage) and competent parenthood. Why? Because there is no consensus. Where is the borderline between what subjects are under the purview of parents and what may be taught in schools? The whole field of mental health is off limits because of the fragmented history of this country, divided as we are on the most intimate questions.

2. What is “masculine” and what is “feminine” are culture-specific. It is generally thought by adherents of democracy that the sharp differentiation between sex roles is typical of authoritarian or undeveloped societies, with much depending on technological advances. Since there is sharp ideological conflict in the US over what consists of “masculinity” and what consists of “femininity” there is no universal model of “marriage” or competent parenthood for that matter. As for “androgyny” that is more likely to be found in “artistic” types, and is perhaps more tolerated in bohemian circles than elsewhere.

3. There are power struggles in every relationship, whether these are between husband and wife, romantic lovers (straight or gay), parents and children, siblings, friendships, or political clubs. These struggles are not easily put in boxes, such as correct male conduct or correct female conduct, with a consensus over what is rightfully a male prerogative or a female prerogative. Couples in gay relationships may strive for equality, but be settling into stereotypical male or female roles. In heterosexual marriage, the husband may be femininely submissive in some situations, and dominant in others. Such matters are highly individualized and not susceptible to bureaucratic rules. Sadly the law is a meat-axe, not a scalpel.

Princess Grace 1956

Princess Grace 1956

4. Finally, keep in mind that adolescence is a moment in human development that is closely watched by order-loving elders whatever their political orientations, for teens are likely to be reactive to parental rules and examples, and may drift off into attachments that are anathema to parents. It is no wonder that romantic comedies, like formulaic fairy tales before them, end in a glorious marriage ceremony. What are excluded are the fading of sexual passion, the diversion of libido toward infants in many women, or the multiple other disillusionments as reality impinges upon fantasy. And I have not even mentioned adjusting to in-laws, who have their own mishegas. Two people may embark upon marriage, but it is a much larger group of people who find themselves engaged with a not-so-private relationship. And upon this subject, the law, like ideology, fails us. We are on our own, and only in retrospect should we survive into older age, may we wonder or cringe at earlier choices and conduct.

The better novelists, playwrights, and artists,  are not so naïve as our legislators, Supreme Court justices, pollsters, or other authorities on the misnamed “body politic.”

androgynous girl

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.

September 25, 2012

Thought police on Fox?

You can’t say “savage” on Fox News Channel.

This morning, Jamie Colby, a Fox News anchor, explained to the audience that she could not bring herself to quote the ad, formulated by Pamela Geller, which, upon a judge’s orders, is now placed on subways in NYC and other venues.  For Ms. Colby, the words (later described as “fighting words” by her guests) were simply unmentionable in polite company. I gather from the ad that the word “savage” (along with “savages”?) takes its place with F-bombs and other evil expletives.

Here is the advertisement, part of which is a quotation from Ayn Rand:

Geller’s ad was responding to anti-Israel ads that had been placed in New York City subways for several years, and had to sue the MTA to get it posted. It was not that long ago that a Harvard professor as prestigious as F. O. Matthiessen could divide up humanity into the civilized and the savage, seeing this as a core conflict around which one could write literary history. But that was 1941, in his still read American Renaissance. And Matthiessen was no friend to American expansion.  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/).

What is at issue here is the ongoing victory of the forces of political correctness. The ad in contention nowhere says that all Muslims are enemies of Israel; rather it singles out jihadists, about whose intentions to wipe Israel off the map, no one should be in doubt.

I first found out that the adjective or noun “savage” or “savages” was forbidden to the politically progressive when I read Richard Slotkin’s book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, at the recommendation of my friend Michael Rogin, author of Fathers and Children, a controversial book on Andrew Jackson’s policies as genocidal toward native Americans, and that further maintained that all American institutions shared  Jackson’s  paternalistic and hierarchical military model.  (Rogin told me himself that he was very wounded when his colleague, political scientist John Schaar, also a famous New Leftist, had criticized Rogin for placing Indian removal at the heart of American history; perhaps the anti-expansionist line was too simplistic.) Professor Slotkin has continued his theme through decades of books and novels dedicated to his thesis, identical with Rogin’s and with other celebrities in American Studies. (For a rundown on the anti-American celebrities in academe, including Edward Said, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.) Cultural relativism demands that we erase the notion of “savagery” from our memory banks, and we are ordered to understand alien cultures on their own terms. One society is not better than any other: this is what liberals mean by “diversity.” (This notion was sharply criticized by Ralph Bunche while he was assisting Gunnar Myrdal in the preparation of An American Dilemma. What the libertarian-leaning Bunche wanted was an America that would live up to its founding creed.)

Jackson swats Amerindian

Fast forward to my years in graduate school, and a visiting professor who specialized in the history of native American warfare and politics. A silence spread over the room when the professor declared that American Indians were highly various in their social organization and that they constantly fought with each other. This would seem to be common sense, but it cut into the narrative propagated by the U.S. field at UCLA that “civilized” Europeans had literally invaded America and [savagely] destroyed the indigenous peoples all by themselves. I.e., Michael Rogin’s anti-American narrative had been complicated, too complicated for persons who preferred to tell a simple story of American [savagery] at its core.

One might ask: what is civilization? To Walter Lippmann, writing in The Good Society, the idea of the individual’s equality with other individuals before God was a turning point in the rejection of barbarism. (An assimilated Jew, Lippmann awarded that honor to Christianity; he might have mentioned Judaism See https://clarespark.com/2013/03/18/babel-vs-sinai/.) Before that, the Massachusetts Senator who was notorious for his aggressive arguments against slavery, Charles Sumner, defined the liberal state as protecting individual rights through equality before the law, and his notion of law was limited mostly to national security and the protection of individual welfare, inseparable from liberty.  Here was no coward, bending the knee to those forces demanding unquestioning obedience to those supporting chattel slavery. For his efforts on behalf of equality before the law he was suspected of carrying Jewish blood through his mother by his most important biographer, a Southerner by birth. (For details on David Herbert Donald’s bio of Sumner see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/.)

We now should have an idea of what “fair and balanced” means in the practice of Fox News Channel.  As I have argued previously, this cable news outlet, though it broadcasts some dissenting voices on the Right, is centrist, moderate, and progressive. Welcome to the world of 1984. The thought police are everywhere. The founders gave us a republic, and it is up in the air as to whether or not we can summon the will to keep it.

March 30, 2011

Eric Foner’s Christianized Lincoln

Columbia U. Professor Eric Foner

Eric Foner’s recent history book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery ((N.Y.: Norton, 2010) has received the coveted Bancroft Prize. In this blog, I deploy a critical tool used by postmodernists, but with a different purpose. According to the “pomos,” all history writing necessarily falls into one literary genre or another, and the “master narratives” used in the writing of the history of the West are suspect (because the Pomos reject Progress and the [protofascist ]Enlightenment). Much as I deplore the cultural relativism and epistemological skepticism of the pomos, I found such an analytic approach useful in identifying trends in Melville criticism, especially biography. Early revivers of Melville’s reputation followed the Narcissus/Icarus myth. “Ahab”(i.e., Melville) over-reached in the writing of Moby-Dick, so crashed and drowned in the crazy book that followed—Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Drowned, he was done for and lost his reading public. But a competing myth or narrative followed that one (and it is deployed by Foner in his Lincoln study): the conversion narrative as exemplified in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  In this rendition, Melville, sobered up by the blood bath or quagmire of the American Civil War, recovers to write Clarel: a poem and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land–his very long “Christian” poem (the narrator is devout, but not the title character) and later his supposedly Christianity-infused “Billy Budd,” with Billy blessing the State that is killing him. Of course, all Melville scholarship is controversial, and Melville never followed the neat and consoling mythic narratives that are used to reconcile the deep ambivalence he felt about most issues that roiled the 19th century. Real lives, unlike myths, are messy.

Eric Foner’s new book follows the conversion narrative: Lincoln begins as a conventional white racist, but is pushed by events and the pressures of Radical Republicans away from his earlier desire for colonization of American blacks to Africa, and toward redemption. Like Foner’s massive book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, Foner’s latest history makes Reconstruction utterly unfinished. But in this one he more overtly praises growing state power to remedy injustice, and pulls the reader along as Lincoln “grows” even in his religious references and belief in a God that intervenes in the affairs of humans. Foner’s narrative, dry and boring as most of it is, made me weep by the time I got to the end. Hence, the reader is left responsible to remedy the deficiencies of Andrew Johnson’s awful administration and everything that follows. Foner, a populist-progressive (as far as I can tell), mentions Karl Marx only once, to buttress the notion that the real American Revolution followed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Charles Sumner is lauded throughout because he, like the other Radical Republicans, pushes Lincoln in the correct direction. This is the most positive evaluation of Sumner that I have seen since the 19th century, when he was the object of adulation in New England among the abolitionists and thousands of blacks as well. However, in his earlier book on Reconstruction(1988), Foner misreported that Sumner opposed the 8 hour day for workers (p. 481), which was not true, for Sumner came around and voted for the eight-hour day as a result of his friendship with Ira Steward. Another source reported that Sumner thought that labor was overworked and needed the time for education and leisure. (See also a sarcastic reference to Sumner, p.504, footnoting David Herbert Donald’s mostly hostile biography of [the crypto-Jew] Sumner.) So I take this deviation from the usual anti-Sumner line to be opportunistic. (In the writings of others, especially the cultural historians, Sumner is an extremist, another monomaniacal, war-instigating Captain Ahab.) We the readers are supposed to follow the lead of the Radical Republicans into the Promised Land of racial equality, whatever that means. (For a related blog noting the triumph of communist-inflected black nationalism see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/01/petit-bourgeois-radicalism-and-obama/.)

November 6, 2010

Moderate Men Falling Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 8:19 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Diderot statue in Paris, image publ. 1884

[Most of the following is an updated and revised version of a radio talk I gave on Pacifica Radio in the early 1990s, hence the reference to an article in The Nation edited by Julian Bond and Adolph Reed, Jr. It is not about the concept of balance or moderation as envisioned in The Federalist, or elsewhere in the writings of Alexander Hamilton or his 19th century admirer, Charles Sumner.]

This blog is about the concepts of balance, point of view, and cultural relativism as deployed by radicals, conservatives, and cultural nationalists. It is above all on the bogus notion of “moderation” as a feel-good answer to all conflict. “Moderation” is usually attributed to the rational mediator (like the supposedly neutral state) that stands above the crazies fighting on the ground. It is this superior, ever-balanced individual who through artful manipulation and inner poise, brings the fighting factions to their senses. I am not making this up.

I. How my thought has evolved. In graduate school, I wrote an essay “Who’s Crazy Now?” I have been trying to develop an approach to a materialist psychoanalysis, by which I do not mean the chemistry of the brain as it responds to primarily family-induced messages (although that kind of approach is crucial), but more, a diagnosis that situates personal conflicts and troubles in the larger setting of twentieth-century history and politics. This interest is an outgrowth of my doctoral dissertation on the revival of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, neglected at his death in 1891, but reportedly resuscitated after 1919. As I demonstrated in my published book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006), I discovered that the historic figure Herman Melville had been mostly erased by numerous key Melville scholars; that a fictional character had been erected in his place, but not as an icon of American literature; rather as a cautionary tale; a warning that Ahab-style romantic revolts destroy social order and lead to a loss of mental balance; i.e., Melville, on balance, was at best, an odd duck, “off the track” as Lawrence Clark Powell told me; at worst a psychotic, alcoholic, wife-beater, and confidence-man; his character Captain Ahab a prefiguration of Hitler and Stalin. Today, Moby-Dick is sometimes cited by Canon Warriors as a white male text oppressive to women and minorities; or Melville’s belated recognition after 1919 is cited as an example of cultural relativism: 20th century readers were hip where Melville’s contemporaries were not. In my view, American writers with ultra-democratic (i.e., antiracist) sympathies have never been unambiguously promoted in élite universities; that Melville as he was to himself, has not been canonized as many assume.

What was the particular threatening character of Melville’s writing to the Ivy League professors who managed his reputation and attempted to control readings of his texts? I have concluded that Melville’s unmasking of phony liberals, of duplicitous authority, was his most terrifying gesture; moreover that he identified double-binds in modern institutions that made it impossible to please authority whatever he did. Given the ideological need to carve clear channels between the free West and slave East after the Bolshevik victory of 1917, Melville’s clear-eyed portraits of unfree “Ameriky” and whacko genteel families could not be tolerated. Melville, financially and emotionally dependent on a conservative Democratic family, of course, had to blacken up, to take the point of view of frontiersmen, common sailors, non-whites, and working-class women to describe the madness of upper-class authority. Here is Melville’s character Pitch, a “hard case” from Missouri, confronting “the herb-doctor” in The Confidence-Man (1857):

“…’You are an abolitionist, ain’t you?’

[Herb-doctor:] ‘As to that, I cannot so readily answer. If by abolitionist you mean a zealot, I am none; but if you mean a man, who, being a man, feels for all men, slaves included, and by any lawful act, opposed to nobody’s interest, and therefore, rousing nobody’s enmity, would willingly abolish suffering (supposing it, in its degree, to exist) from among mankind, irrespective of color, then I am what you say.’

‘Picked and prudent sentiments. You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man. You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but are useless for right.’

‘From all this,’ said the herb-doctor still forgivingly, ‘I infer that you, a Missourian, though living in a slave state, are without slave sentiments.’

‘Aye, but are you? Is not that air of yours, so spiritlessly enduring and yielding, the very air of a slave? Who is your master, pray; or are you owned by a company?’…. (Ch.XXI)

So Melville, as Pitch for instance, wrote under a mask, but one easily penetrated by the alert reader; thus the need for college teachers to guide student readers who might be emboldened and inspirited by Melville’s willingness to separate from illegitimate authority, to walk away from the Big Lie of the perfectly happy family, either on ships or in domestic sanctuaries: in Melville’s “hard case,” this was the notion that groups with opposing economic interests could be harmonized without coercion. Contrary to the prevailing notion (Ishmael’s) that Melville/Ahab was unbalanced and a bad example to questing youth, I have argued that Melville achieved the balance and poise that follow an accurate reading of the institutions in which he functioned; that at his best, he was a superb historian and critical sociologist, assessing with empathy and compassion both the opportunities and limits of contemporary institutions. I have described the conflict between Melville and his 20th century Revivers as a battle between radical liberals and conservative liberals to control the terms of science, democracy and Enlightenment. The conservative Enlighteners have used key ideas of the radical Enlightenment to switch “the lower orders”: those artisans and scientists who were increasingly educated (often self-taught) to challenge traditional, hypocritical authority that claimed to act in the public interest while serving mostly themselves.

Because two key Melville revivers (Charles Olson and Henry A. Murray) were active in government psychological warfare during World War II my research branched out; I began a systematic study of how fascism, Hitler’s psyche, and mass death were explained to a broad public before, during, and after World War

II. To my horror, I discovered that Hitler was often read as an unbalanced Romantic artist/savage Hebrew prophet/bearer of Baron Rothschild genes, America was characterized as a country of proto-Nazis/Bad Jews by public intellectuals I have characterized as the aristocratic radicals (enemies to the rising middle-class and “feminized” Victorian culture). Many of these figures proclaimed that Hitler, the diabolically powerful and persuasive artist, was able to switch normally stolid, conservative Germans (little men like himself) into romantic radicals through brilliantly conceived propaganda (inspired by American advertising, according to Lukács, 1952); meanwhile Hitler was said to be dripping with contempt for the masses he had cynically swindled; Mein Kampf is frequently cited (but rarely quoted) to substantiate Hitler’s embrace of the Big Lie. There is no textual evidence either in Mein Kampf or Hitler’s wartime Table-Talk to verify this claim; on the contrary, that Hitler, the good father, ever presented himself as the fearless seeker of truth, defining himself against Jewish/ Marxist big liars intent on leading German social democratic workers to division and the disaster of global tyranny (that of finance capital), while his völkisch revolution would deliver unity, harmony, equilibrium, and stability once Jewish cosmopolitans and unnatural Jewish institutions (Wall Street, mass media, money, the study of political economy) were purged. Small but key words in the chapter on War Propaganda have been mistranslated in ways that make it harder to see Hitler’s fear of complexity (multi-causal historical explanations), ambiguity and lack of closure to the problem of defining what is real or what is understood. Specifically, the critical tools of modernity: history and critical sociology blurred boundaries in ways that terrified him and made him lose his balance; criticism of authority made him feel he was sinking into the mire.

Understanding the key concepts of cultural/moral relativism and balance can decode discussions of social policy as they pertain to the reform of school curricula, public media, and arts funding alike. Hitler’s ideology bears disturbing resemblances to that of American corporatist liberals (like FDR) and theorists of group or ethnic identity who have been promoting multiculturalism in public education and the media since the 1920s (not since the tenured radicals of the 1960s began their rampage, as most conservative critics claim). I begin with the concept of point of view, or cultural relativism.

III. The idea of contrasting points-of-view, or relativism was advanced by the revolutionary bourgeoisie challenging the alleged rationalism and superior morality of corporatist rulers. In the 17th and 18th centuries John Locke and Denis Diderot attacked feudal élites who conflated their interests with those of the lower orders or who failed to practice what they preached. Taking the point of view of the people, the radical liberals demanded one set of rules for rich and poor; one universal standard of morality. Similarly, 19th century anti-imperialists like Melville, speaking from the point of view of the Marquesans massacred or exploited by French and English colonizers, attacked the arrogance and complacency of the civilized West who treated the islanders as savages, while behaving savagely themselves. (Melville did not embrace savagery, but called upon the missionaries to live out their professed Christian values of equality and dignity for all.)

The aristocrats counter-attacked with the accusation that middle-class morality associated with political analysis was a form of jacobin tyranny: individual moral reform (understood as control of “the passions” or “a change of heart”), not political reform, was the medicine of choice; democratic “politics” was a recipe for disaster. Today’s conservative liberals have indeed drawn a straight line from the English revolutionary puritans through jacobins through English Chartists and abolitionists, feminists and Bolsheviks to Nazism. When superstar cultural critics like Fredric Jameson talk about “middle-class hegemony” they are arguing in this aristocratic, counter-Enlightenment tradition. Moreover, the aristocratic radicals often say they are anti-imperialists: rules and standards of the Western Enlightenment are not universally valid and have destroyed non-Western cultures. Their target is especially the animal called bourgeois individualism or subjectivity, with its practices of freethought and due process institutionalized in the state as the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The aristocratic anti-imperialists claimed that it was élitist to hold non-Western societies to the same standards. No less than choppers of rain forests, we Western intellectuals were destroying diversity and difference; the universalist claims of science were a swindle by absolutists with an ungovernable will to power.

Non-Western cultural nationalists defending traditional hierarchical societies have seized upon this argument because it makes themselves (petit-bourgeois intellectuals) look like emancipators from the tyranny of the dread white male. Instead of narrative history grounded in empirical, archival research, we now get “theory,” cultural anthropology and the new historicism: one point of view is as valid (or invalid) as any other, for we are all embedded in our historical context, utterly shaped by rules and structures, unable to stand back from the system or outside of our bodies to make an objective assessment of our situation; moreover particular societies are incomparable and finally unfathomable to strangers: the past (rooted in a multiplicity of historicist individualities) has become radically Other. Informed by the irrationalists following the linguistics professors, we learn that misperceptions make history: for the semioticians, it is not humanity that shapes its world, moved by describable social institutions and social forces, but language that acts (or interacts): tropes that go bump in the night.

IV. Balance is what keeps us steady, prevents our falling down, helps us to cope with a confusing and often hostile world filled with rival claims for truth and justice. If we are cultural relativists/multiculturalists, what are the consequences for the desirable quality of balance, that is, proportion, poise, completeness, coherence in our bodies and in our pictures of controversial issues and events? Co-existence is not necessarily a route to balance. Balance disappears as a concept when competing ideas do not engage each other and slug it out. Because corporatist liberals have cynically accommodated to cultural nationalism, their social policies now advocate proportional representation in a mechanical way, as if cultural groups, each blaring its message, will somehow fill in a meaningful pattern to guide social action. Meanwhile, for many in the policy making elites, race or ethnicity has replaced class as the telling social division that matters. However, this position is strenuously opposed by some other conservatives, who want interest group politics to be based on class, not ethnic, differences; that is, in their theory of balance (one derived from the 18th C. political theorist, Montesquieu), economic interest groups, like the different branches of government, will normally vie with one another, clash, and compromise to achieve social harmony and wise social policy–the system of checks and balances. A sane, mature individual will accurately perceive his economic interest, but also be balanced, that is, conciliatory, willing to compromise; will not insist on the possible existence of irreconcilable antagonisms between groups that cannot be wished away (especially in times of economic downturn). Cultural nationalists and conservatives with class analyses have clashed recently over the issue of affirmative action or other ameliorative social reform: Shall these be implemented by classifying their beneficiaries by class or race? (see The Nation, edited by Julian Bond and Adolph Reed, Jr.)

What would a classically liberal concept of balance look like? How would a feeling of balance be achieved? We start with an analysis of the institutions in which we are asked to function or support (the family, the media, schools, corporations, markets, governments). How is power distributed, how are conflicts identified and resolved, how is authority legitimated, i.e., tested and made accountable by all its members? Second, we are unremittingly self-aware: how do we resist idealizing authority and other love objects? What do we do with the disillusion that inevitably comes when the return of repressed facts confront and puncture our dreams and fantasies? Do we turn cynic and despair of earthly happiness and amelioration? Or do we adjust our expectations and time-lines for social change; perhaps conceive of a new set of tasks and institutional transformations to achieve a safer, more peaceful, friendlier world? What unbalanced qualities are brought out as a function of our class position: arrogance, resentment, anti-intellectualism, sadomasochism, a penchant for muckraking (as opposed to institutional analysis), paranoia, etc? I am of course describing a life-long social process; but one which could lead to “balance”; that is, a relatively undistorted picture of society and ourselves which of course will probably not depict equilibrium, stability, and social harmony (the neo-classical ideal). However, we may feel balanced, that we are standing on solid ground, because we have a relatively clear, demystified picture of our situation and can defend our interests appropriately; we do not have unrealistic expectations of loved ones, bosses and co-workers because we understand the range of behavior that our institutions call forth and tolerate, that hamper our well-meant interventions; we thus may better assess whether personal or institutional reform (or both) is indicated. But to exercise this degree of critical evaluation, children and young people must be allowed to develop the quality that aristocrats have stigmatized as bourgeois subjectivity, the so-called narcissistic “I”/eye willing to separate from arbitrary authority, to walk away from a humiliating relationship.

By contrast, Hitler’s Big Lie was the touting of a “rooted” people’s community of cultural homogeneity which therefore possessed balance, harmony, and equilibrium; Hitler (like other “radicals” identified with natural aristocracies but loving the masses) attempted to deprive the people of a materialist history, sociology and psychoanalysis: the critical tools that would help them to distinguish between heaven and hell, freedom and slavery, romantic caresses and Tory flagellation.

V. How balance and relativism have been coopted. America is understood to be the inheritor of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment; co-option occurs when radical ideas are apparently incorporated, then turned against the lower orders whom they proposed to empower. Thus “balance” and “relativism” came to mean something different than their [classical liberal] Enlightenment originators intended. In today’s news organizations, balance is said to be achieved when two sides of a question are included: in practice this may mean a “crossfire” in which two more or less hysterical people (one from “the Left,” one from “the Right”) have their say, as if there were not a world of facts out there to be gathered and evaluated, with existing pictures of “reality” revised and reconfigured to make our analyses of events more coherent and comprehensive, guided by factual accounts that all or most sentient beings can agree upon (however much effort that may entail).

To sum up: organic conservatives have transmuted an initially challenging idea of the radical liberals: that a different point-of-view (sometimes called cultural relativism) may expose the class biases in our leading definitions of truth and justice. We may achieve a less prejudiced, more balanced perspective on people and events. This emancipating insight has been turned against the radical liberals; for the cultural nationalists/separatists, “point-of-view” remains, but balance has disappeared; similarly, for many of today’s anti-liberal “postmodernists” there can be no agreement or even empathy between individuals and groups: we are terminally trapped in radical subjectivity and the elusiveness of meaning in language; ethnic (or gender or party) differences translate into unbridgeable gaps in perception. It is no wonder that Michael Kinsley and John Sununu yell past one another on CNN. Is it not the case that as a culture, more and more we have lost our balance, perhaps even the memory that such a quality exists or should be desired in a democratic society?

Diderot’s 18th C. Encyclopedie

April 4, 2010

“What is truth?”

Giotto’s Pontius Pilate

Wander about public space these days and wear dark glasses, for it is very bad out there, and friends can turn out to be bosom enemies. I cannot recall a period during my lifetime (with the exception of the 1960s) when our country was this polarized about the very meaning of words.

In the pivotal chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab addresses the crew in an attempt to gain their allegiance as he pursues the White Whale, leaving commercial considerations aside. At the climax of his peroration, he declares, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is not a statement that has inspired much commentary from the academic establishment that tries to control acceptable [i.e., anti-Ahab] readings of Melville’s masterpiece, but it has inspired me for decades, and made me a renegade. In my reading, Ahab’s ruling idea is ultra-democratic and aligned with the antislavery men and women for whom the immorality of slavery was paramount. It also recapitulates the significance of popular sovereignty as partially established in the American and French Revolutions, and prefigured in the English Civil War of the 1640s. Over a period of centuries, mobs have been turned into citizens*, a process that is nowhere near complete, either in the West or elsewhere.

To continue Captain Ahab’s impudent assertion:  ruling classes, whether they were comprised of English aristocrats or Southern slaveholders who dominated the American government in the antebellum period (while Melville was writing his major fiction), could not keep their secrets from the public with impunity. (See Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a book Melville read before he commenced on his great whale hunt.) These new “levelers” (my sympathetic readers and I) expect the powerful, like all others,  to cough up the truth so that citizens may choose their representatives, not out of coercion or blind charisma, but because concrete policy, enunciated without double-talk,  protects them and helps improve their condition.

I looked for images of Pontius Pilate on the internet, and was not surprised to see a website entitled “What is truth” that asserted the subjectivity and relativity of all knowledge. That is the winning line in our age of multiculturalism, an ideology and a practice that asserts that cultural (read “racial”) differences mean just that: we cannot reach each other over the “racial” or national divide to arrive at an agreement over what is or what is not a fact, as opposed, say, to an opinion based on limited knowledge. That we are all entirely irrational is now the ruling ideology, and if you want a job in academe or wish to ingratiate yourself with the mass media establishment, you had better adhere to that line. Sadly, some persons of my acquaintance who have a background in science, seem to doff their hats to power when they leave their laboratories or classrooms. When challenged, they wash their hands and defer to force. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/29/the-neutered-state/.)

*Think about the title of the “greatest”  movie ever, Citizen Kane. I had focused previously on the link to Cain and the Wandering Jew myth, but the word “citizen” is ironic and suggests that the writers had a dim view of the French Revolution, emphasizing the Terror as its essential gesture, rather than the movement away from absolute authority toward popular sovereignty.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.