YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 2, 2015

Catholics, Marxists, and a sprinkling of neocons

Cardinal Mindszenty sculpture, Wikipedia

Cardinal Mindszenty sculpture, Wikipedia

It has occurred to me that there is a close affinity between the early Marx essays and medieval Catholicism. The notion of “profit” (now called “greed”) was anathema during the Middle Ages, and considered a cause of decadence (See Mark La Rochelle’s note on the “just price” in the comments section.) Plus, those of my ex-friends on the Left who are professional scholars have found jobs at Catholic universities and colleges. It may be counter-intuitive, but such Catholic movements as liberation theology, and the Dorothy Day Catholic Workers movement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Day) are more evidence that segments of the Church would have to mirror leftist rejection of Israel, siding with irredentist Palestinians; moreover Pope Francis has lined up with the left-leaning Green movement.

On the face of it, there could be no affinity between Catholicism and Marxism, for weren’t Catholics such as Cardinal Mindszenty (1892-1975) a major figure in the resistance to Communism before and after World War II? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B3zsef_Mindszenty).

And are not Catholics and evangelical Protestants, notwithstanding their doctrinal differences, on the same side in the culture wars, with both sides devoted to family life, and taking up arms against [jewified] modernity? Was not the chief item in the controversial Moynihan report on the alarming increase in black welfare assistance and illegitimacy, the reconstitution of the father-led nuclear family? (https://clarespark.com/2015/08/08/the-moynihan-report-march-1965-and-instability-in-the-black-family/).

The early Marx essays (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844) were not widely published and read until the turmoil of the 1960s (their first publication date was 1932). Anyone who has studied them must be struck by Marx’s argument that “money” is the “universal pimp”, turning ugliness into beauty. During the same period, he decried Jewish “hucksterism” as the obstacle to the Utopia that would be realized through communist revolution. Similarly, the influential German sociologist Max Weber, would describe the rise of capitalism after the Reformation as an onslaught against the lovely sensuality shattered by the iron cages of “materialism,” i.e., worldliness. (The German “radical” Werner Sombart (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Sombart), a colleague of Weber’s, would echo these sentiments, arguing that Jews were incapable of relating to Nature without mysticism:

“[We see “the teleological view”] in all those Jews who, with a soul-weariness within them and a faint smile on their countenances, understanding and forgiving everything, stand and gaze at life from their own heights, far above this world…Jewish poets are unable simply to enjoy the phenomena of this world, whether it be human fate or Nature’s vagaries; they must needs cogitate upon it and turn it about and about.  Nowhere is the air scented with the primrose and the violet; nowhere gleams the spray of the rivulet in the wood.  But to make up for the lack of these they possess the wonderful aroma of old wine and the magic charm of a pair of beautiful eyes gazing sadly in the distance…Goethe said that the essence of the Jewish character was energy and the pursuit of direct ends.” [End, Sombart quote}

Because of our hegemonic racialism, Marx is thought of as a Jewish materialist, though his Jewish father converted to Protestantism for social advancement in 1819. (http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2013/11/karl-marx-as-radical-protestant-infidel.html), and Marx (and his Leninist descendants) continue to rail against religion as the opiate of the masses, an element of feudal socialism (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Feudal+Socialism).

I have written about the “moderation” of ex-Marxists and ex-New Leftists before, especially in blogs about nostalgia for the Middle Ages, and especially an apparent desire for the return of the Good King, who stands with the People against the social chaos wrought by revolting factions (e.g., feminists!). The same reconstructed historians, political scientists, and journalists, may promiscuously use the term “totalitarianism” to equate communism with fascism (https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics).

So did Cardinal Mindszenty.


July 2, 2015

Are secular societies devoid of “virtue”?

Rationalism defended by Nirmukta

Rationalism defended by Nirmukta

(This is the second of two blogs on the gay rights decision by SCOTUS this week.https://clarespark.com/2015/06/27/gay-marriage-and-what-liberty-signifies/)

I was stunned to read these lines in Dan Henninger’s weekly op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, July2, 2015: “In the North, on campuses and in sophisticated circles, we are rapidly becoming unchurched, secularized. Which raises a question: Where will a predominantly secularized society learn virtue?”

I should not have been shocked, for I am aware that WSJ, like Fox News, is run by the moderate men, whose ersatz moderation masks their organic conservatism. That is, they are not embarked on a search for truth, let alone virtue; rather, they want national unity (no matter how illusory): political stability and social cohesion above human rights and facts. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/.)

The moderate men are thus aligned with the “ethical state,” a state that is antagonistic to the Enlightenment and its materialism and preference for individual human rights over group-think. According to these organic conservatives, mystical bonds unite warring factions, with the management of opinion-elites who scaled the Olympian heights by their discreet and mostly unseen, or deliberately hidden, stratagems.

There is no contradiction between secularism and virtue except in the minds of various hysterics. Secularism as understood by the US Constitution guarantees that there is to be no established religion.(I recall from my reading of the Federalist papers that God is mentioned only once.) This disturbs ultramontane Catholics and communists alike, for pluralism and individuality, like scientific evidence,* is damnable and a threat to aristocratic or bureaucratic leadership and their version of social control. Meanwhile, a few cranks fulfill the worst fantasies of ultraconservatives by Romantic identification with Satan, or by seeking to banish all religious artifacts from public spaces.

Such militant atheists are then deployed as weapons in the culture wars, distracting the public from pressing issues such as education reform, health reform, a high divorce rate, the real or imagined threat of climate change (a controversy that only science can solve), and foreign policy.

Here is how one Orthodox Rabbi suggested that we move on toward more pressing issues: https://www.facebook.com/RabbiShmuleyBoteach/videos/10153022077966089/.

It is my own view that the gay rights decision raises the dread specter of blurred gender identity, but that horse has already been beaten to death on this website. Artists will know what I mean.

*It is objectively true that we are interdependent with each other and with Nature.

Newton imagined by William Blake

Newton imagined by William Blake

June 27, 2015

Gay marriage and what “liberty” signifies

Mediaite sign pro-gay marriage

Mediaite sign pro-gay marriage

The SCOTUS decision legalizing gay marriage throughout all the states, despite voter opposition in many instances, has aroused furious debate, including the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which is semi-hysterical in nature. This blog situates the SCOTUS decision within the culture wars, and argues that “liberty” and “freedom” are terms that do not invoke a common meaning between factions.

I will not go into the mixed motives that inform defenses of both heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriages (androgyny; misogyny; resentment of male power; defense of, or opposition to, state’s rights; deference to ancestors; monogamy; bisexuality; hyper-masculinity; to mention only a few factors).

Some social conservatives, not content with the religious pluralism inherent in the separation of Church and State, may wish to impose their beliefs on others. Already some comments suggest that “democratic debate,” not decrees from Big Government under pressure from a particular interest group, should have decided the issue, as if social conservatives would suddenly relinquish their belief systems in recognition of rational argument, or similarly would abandon their beliefs in the slippery slope toward perdition (if gay marriage is okay, what is next: polygamy? pedophilia? bestiality? children of gay parents diverted from heterosexual into gay relationships?)

I have argued before that there is no reconciliation possible between libertarians and social conservatives through “democratic debate,” for their conceptions of “liberty” are incompatible. Traditionalists are defending the submission to their gods as “liberty”, while libertarians believe in choice dependent on the individual and her or his unique proclivities, whether chosen or genetically transmitted.

We have been having this fight since the Enlightenment. It is yet another irreconcilable conflict, like antebellum slavery/Reconstruction or abortion rights today.

(For related blogs, see https://clarespark.com/2014/01/23/androgyny/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/05/10/androgyny-with-an-aside-on-edna-ferber/, or https://clarespark.com/2013/03/27/power-in-gay-andor-heterosexual-attachments/.)

Satyr and Goat

Satyr and Goat

July 1, 2014

The Rightist Culture War Strategy Won’t Work

culture-war1It is not surprising that persons who make their living in publishing or writing on behalf of conservative or libertarian causes would envision “culture” as the battleground on which to halt the slide toward “fascism” or “totalitarianism” or “statism” or whatever you want to call the direction of the Democratic Party. The latest to enter the fray is publisher Adam Bellow, son of the illustrious Saul Bellow. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/381419/let-your-right-brain-run-free-adam-bellow. (For my one and only blog on Saul Bellow see https://clarespark.com/2011/11/12/the-woman-question-in-saul-bellows-herzog/.)

Leaving aside for the moment, whether there is a single, coherent right wing culture to spawn artists, let me ask some related questions: Do artists and filmmakers make revolutions in human relationships, or do material factors that are often avoided, put down, or erased by mystical science-hating organic conservatives? For these persons often view themselves as postmodernists or moderates or entirely alienated anarchists.

Think about the onset of modernity in the West for a moment. What factors enabled the elevated status of women? Novels and tracts by soi-disant feminists, or the Industrial Revolution that removed patriarchs from the home, hence raising the status of the women who were now, by default, more in charge of socializing children and supported by John Locke’s empiricist idea of the tabula rasa (i.e., by the outcome of experience and study on our judgments, as opposed to Plato’s innate ideas and shadows on caves)?


As for the sexual revolution, how can we discount the effect of “the pill” that prevented unwanted pregnancies and enabled greater freedom in sexual pleasure for both partners? Or do we want movies that take us back to the good old days when women were entirely subservient to husbands and children, lived for the family alone, and endured endless pregnancies? (See Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927): her portrait of “Mrs. Ramsay.”)

It is true that the mass media have had a great effect publicizing social movements, but close examination of their politics reveals a motion toward populism, not social transformation in human relationships that would lead to wider acceptance of free markets, the end of racism and sexism, and to an aversion to overregulation by the State. Populists are not leftists, but petit-bourgeois radicals angry at “elites” (perhaps stand-ins for authoritarian parents). Such resentment may be found in much of the conservative movement, currently in an uproar over “progressives” in disguise as “RINOS.”

No culture produces so many geniuses that we can simply call out brilliant artists and/or critics who can move mountains and change consciousness to the degree required by our current polarization and sense of injustice on both sides of the great divide.

But we can read good literature from many sources to our children, and we can teach them to extract the messages contained in specific texts. The same goes for music and art. That is what European and American “elites” did, and they ended up ruling the world, enhancing life for the billions, and continuing to ask the big, still unsolved questions. If we want to let “the right brain run free,” we have still to look for excellence in whatever genre or artist we can find. Forget political correctness on both left and right: Study how individual works of art work on us to get us thinking and moving again.

Will satire and spleen of the sort recommended by Adam Bellow and other culture warriors change hearts and minds on the liberal Left? Or will it be taken as yet more agitprop and bad faith emanating from reactionaries?


June 1, 2014

The Hunger Games trilogy: reactionary and postmodern

Catching_Fire_Katniss_Everdeen_WallpaperI am going to try not to have any spoilers in this blog, so will be more general in my critique than usual.

I have now read all three volumes of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, at the request of my daughter Jenny who studied with Jacques Derrida and Samuel Weber, champion promoters of postmodernism. It was she who made the connection between the film version of The Hunger Games and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, especially in its posing of the question “Real or Fake?”

Before this latest read, I had thought primarily of the anticapitalist, antimodern aspect of postmodernism: its emphasis on indeterminacy/uncertainty, the fallibility of the human senses, its critique of science as a bourgeois plot to snare the unwary mass man and woman (misappropriating Thomas Kuhn), but above all its assault on the ordinary, overly credulous reader of “texts.” And for the “pomo” everything is a text to be “deconstructed” for the purpose of revealing the silences of official language, the relevant clues pushed to the margins or entirely submerged. I find postmodern theory useful in many cases; see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/08/postmodernism-cultural-pluralism-and-the-will-to-power/–retitled “Reading between the lines.” Also https://clarespark.com/2014/08/07/modernity-versus-modernism/.

Postmodernists believe they are enablers of the voices that have been submerged by official inhuman modern cultures—worshippers of consumerism and nature-killing technology. Hence their primitivism, celebration of the archaic and/or tradition (potlatches!), including the empirical wisdom of hunting societies, but also peasant cunning and use of herbal remedies for injuries and disease, and above all the celebration of Greek popular culture as I laid out here: https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/.

Especially read this paragraph:”Think of the good king, the paternalistic welfare state, the touching loyalty of its servants, fatalism, magic, the intervention of wise god figures in daily life (grey-eyed Athena or a wise Latina), superheroes, shape-changing creatures, gorgeous tall women and men, the glitter of gold and silver along with artisanal triumphs designed for the aristocracy, the increasing blending of gymnastics with dance, but most of all, the aestheticization of violence that Walter Benjamin described as the culture of fascism and Nazism in his famous defense of modern mass media “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.” Writing at the same time as Freeman and Crossman, Benjamin declared that such artists as Marinetti had glorified war to the point where humanity was contemplating its own destruction as an aesthetic experience. What would Benjamin have said about the humanizing beauty of Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors and the female slaves who had slept with them?– A slaughter that left the poet in awe of the “lion” figure of Odysseus, covered as he was with the blood and gore of his enemies.”

Has not Suzanne Collins aestheticized violence in her trilogy? And why do so many of our young people live without hope, expecting to die young?

During the second wave of feminism, there was a strong tendency on behalf of matriarchy and Amazon- or Goddess worship: the long-dead and discredited Bachofen was de rigueur in some circles. The left feminists thought that goddesses were bogus and reactionary, but to the extent that the audience for The Hunger Games is “feminist,” it is the goddess-worshipping counter-cultural tendency that has prevailed.

Suzanne Collins, a Roman Catholic and an admirer of Greek antiquity, the daughter of an officer in the Viet Nam war, probably set out to write a dystopian novel attacking war, income inequality, and modern mind-control, in the spirit of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. But she has instead arguably added to modern paranoia, and undermined the confidence of the ordinary people she ostensibly wishes to protect, like the Übermenschen (Gale, Peeta, and Katniss), oddly (given the multicultural times we live in), all white people of apparently Northern European extraction. (And who are the agricultural workers in District 11, obviously all black people, like Katniss’s pet “Rue”?)

By naming the President of the rebels “Coin,” Collins takes her place among petit-bourgeois populists of the past.

Prometheus, once the friend of humanity, is vanquished, along with world-destroying and Nazified industrial capitalism: Oh so “Green” Katniss Everdeen has taken their places. Has anyone noticed that the novels and movies are culture war events that deserve our close attention, especially as its target audience won’t know how to read its sub-text? For more on reactionary nostalgia see https://clarespark.com/2014/05/03/elie-kedouries-nationalism-am-i-stumped/ (retitled “The Good Old Days”).

The author in her favorite color

The author in her favorite color

May 26, 2014

Triumphalism, dogma, and the Left or Right

benshapirodestroy.jpgI was distressed to see a new booklet distributed David Horowitz’s Freedom Center, penned by Ben Shapiro. Its title is “How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them.”

Much as I have condemned the moderate men on this website with their ruling idea that all conflict can be conciliated without war (see https://clarespark.com/2009/08/09/what-is-a-corporatist-liberal-and-why-should-they-frighten-us/), I balk at any variety of triumphalism on either Left or Right, unless we are already living under a fascist (one party) dictatorship. If we want to find the truth, while mired in the many controversies that beset us, the absence of countervailing argument is lethal to fixing that which ails us, in private or public life alike.

Moreover, it is un-Jewish to be dogmatic. Despite efforts of antisemites to describe Jews as bent on conquest of the world’s economies and the elimination of all belief systems except for their own, the hard fact remains that to be Jewish is to live in a constant state of questioning, of intellectual combat, not destruction of the enemy or of competing arguments. Without pluralism and civility, that task is impossible, for the irrational parts of our makeup will overtake good sense. “Tory” (i.e., reactionary) artists and writers understand this very well, and seek to terrorize us with images of the inquiring mind and modernity as lethal and disgusting. They offer us countless variations of the Frankenstein myth, lately visible in the new Penny Dreadful series on Showtime. This is right-wing Romanticism with a vengeance directed against “the mob” supposedly empowered by literacy, numeracy, and practice in critical thought, though you would never know that from the reviews.

In order to sniff out liars and ideologues, institutions must be pluralistic, or, as the US Constitution demands, institutions must provide for checks and balances, so that no element of government or of the electorate can impose its will on others without a cautious, careful weighing of facts, many of which remain in dispute or indeterminable. To say that it is too soon to draw conclusions, is considered to be a sign of weakness or feminization. Yet this task of weighing and measuring in a humble state of mind is the very essence of modernity and of the most radical elements of the Enlightenment.

Some “traditionalists” find this imperative dangerous and unsettling, so they pin derogatory labels on their “secular progressive” opponents, projecting their own theocratic and bullying propensities upon persons who are innocent of the same dogmatism. Enter the culture wars.

To practice this demanding habit of mind and heart is very difficult for most persons, who seek group identity/“social cohesion” and “political stability” above the search for the best form of social organization to protect individuality, and one most conducive to well-being for the majority of its citizens. One could look at this “Talmudic” approach to life as either tormenting or stimulating. Obviously, I prefer the latter, which reflects my restless, buzzing brain that finds a home everywhere and nowhere.


December 22, 2013

What is missing in the Duck Dynasty flap?

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DuckdaintyThe suspension of Duck Dynasty “patriarch” Phil Robertson by the Arts and Entertainment Network, following the publication of a story in the men’s magazine GQ that quoted Robertson’s fundamentalist Christian rejection of homosexuality and sins to follow via the slippery slope, has dominated the chatter on Fox and other mass media.

This blog takes issue with the undue emphasis on such issues as free speech versus rights of corporations to control speech, or the public relations failure of A & E, or whether GLAAD –part of the gay rights movement– came on too strong (Mark Steyn). In other words, the event has been covered as yet another over-the-top episode in the Great American Culture Wars.

What virtually everyone I have heard misses is the content of the original article by Drew Magary. (See http://www.gq.com/entertainment/television/201401/duck-dynasty-phil-Robertson. Those who have emphasized Robertson’s “racism” are oblivious to the fact that the comments on happy blacks was set off from the piece almost as an inset, and was possibly derived from a ghost-written autobiography that Robertson claims he never read. In any case, he was a poor white working alongside black farm labor, not spurning their company.)

First, Magary was both attracted and repelled by the Louisiana “rednecks” and their way of life. What the observant reader might have noticed is the style of the piece: Magary is a “gonzo” journalist, drawing upon the fashionable Hunter Thompson innovation, in which subjectivity replaced any attempt to describe with minimum personal bias, the object of one’s reportage. Even a casual reader might have noticed Magary’s ambivalence, perhaps the result of an urban, effete reporter getting down with American primitives in their native habitat. We used to call this primitivism, or a test of manhood and a retreat from feminized American culture. (Ernest Hemingway did it most famously, and will be ever adored by the literati.)

Second, given Robertson’s counter-culture youth, it might have been useful to reflect on the journey from 1960s pseudo-romanticism (anarchism and the lack of boundaries) to family reunification as provided by evangelical Christianity. I have written before about those moderate conservatives who feared that an overly harsh superego would drive children into the arms of either fascist or communist extremists, so proposed a more gentle or “balanced” nurture (see https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/t-w-adorno-and-his-funny-idea-of-genuine-liberalism/). But the moderate men of even such “rightist” refuges as Fox News or The Wall Street Journal are structurally precluded from reporting their own adherence to “fairness and balance”.

In the interest of attracting maximum readers and viewers, we can’t talk about ambivalence or primitivism. For a partial index to my blogs on primitivism see https://clarespark.com/2013/04/16/blogs-on-anarchismpunkprimitivism/.


December 13, 2013

Culture wars, religion, and the (neurotic?) historian

modernity1One reason for the endurance of the American experiment is cultural and religious pluralism as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. And yet, every year about this time, renewed angst and outrage is expressed that “secular progressives” are out to remove the Christ from Christmas. I have written endless blogs on the culture wars; see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/02/index-to-blogs-on-culture-wars/.

But I have not always spelled out in plain language how a historian differs from an organic conservative or a leftist whose ideology is a substitute for religion. [Note: this blog is not intended as an attack on either religion or leftism as such. It is about the tools in the historian’s tool box, and what may not be used in our analyses. I admit that the writing of history is an enlightenment science.]

First, a historian may choose to write a history of a religion or of religious conflict. But if that writer is making judgments within a particular religion, and defending that religion against competitors, that person is not a historian, but a special pleader or advocate. Such a one is Bill O’Reilly, one of the most popular and prolific of the would-be “moderates” and healers, but whose world view is possibly tempered  by Rerum Novarum (see the encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, 1891), by his desire to maintain his audience ratings, and the protection of his own considerable wealth. It is no accident that O’Reilly becomes especially heated when “atheists” attack Christmas.  Or, for another example, see my essay on “cultural historian” Nicholas Boyle: https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.

Second, a religious framework may implicitly deny human agency and institutional structures, relying instead on “Providence,” “God’s plan,” or any other superhuman force (e.g. “dialectical materialism” or any other telos) that determines the destinies of humans and planets. There are some deep ecologists who view “Nature” within a religious framework, hence tend to be allergic to facts that contradict their often apocalyptic predictions.

Third, as in the case of Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle, such an organic conservative in historian’s clothing may refuse to mark turning points in world history: historians call this marking of “change over time”  “periodization.” Current organicist/mystical examples are nostalgic for the Middle Ages, when troublesome challenges to authority are believed to have been alleviated by the Good King or “the King’s touch.” See https://clarespark.com/2013/05/30/nostalgia-for-the-middle-ages/.

Another feature of the Middle Ages was the absence of feminism, for birth control in its modern forms was unknown at that time, and women were lucky to live beyond child-bearing age. Television pundits or even fictional characters in the media may view themselves as good Kings, uniting warring factions/taming the wild man within, as Good Kings were imagined to do. For instance, the episode of Blue Bloods broadcast December 13, 2013, served the multicultural agenda by showing sympathy for a disaffected Muslim, who had already bombed his local mosque and was determined to bomb thousands of fellow Muslims in a big parade. Why? Losing his job as a computer technician had alienated the terrorist from God and Allah’s plan for his life. But the good King, in the guise of a NYC Catholic policeman, returned him to peace and tolerance by showing him his daughter, a symbol for all the other innocent children who would be harmed were the Muslim not to divulge where he had planted the fatal bomb. Order and inter-religious comity was restored to interchangeable persons of “faith.” (For a related blog emphasizing the power of “family” rhetoric, with the family/tribe headed by the charismatic leader see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/07/charisma-and-symbolic-politics/.)

Modernity is a distinct period in world history, and remains hotly contested. Why? Because technology has wrested control from the old elites, who are now routinely criticized by dissenters.  Historians are, or should be, professional dissenters. It is our role to unearth materials that change our view of past and present.  We do not throw up road blocks to such adventures into the unknown, nor do we claim that earthly knowledge is inevitably distorted and unreliable, nor do we fail to identify terrorists as a sop to the levelers of multiculturalism. That does not mean that it is child’s play to assign causes and effects, or that there is no ambiguity in separating human agency (free will) from structural imperative. Indeed, Herman Melville wrote a classic book about just that subject: see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/ That is why (necessarily secular) historians are troublemakers, and must face public and often professional obloquy, for many powerfully placed historians are protecting their jobs, and, sad to say, the early work that got them tenure. It is they who usually control academic publication. And many a ‘modern’ artist resents the “mechanization” they see everywhere. For that reason, I call them primitivists. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/04/16/blogs-on-anarchismpunkprimitivism/.) modernlife Reconfiguring the past is not yet classified as a personality disorder, but it is a source of very objective anxiety. And such kaleidoscopic new looks may have nothing to say about “progress.”

September 26, 2013

Cultural pluralism vs. multiculturalism

Pandora's_boxAbstract. Multiculturalism imitates cultural/religious pluralism, while undermining it by denying that we can understand persons of different “races” or genders, for each category is self-contained and indecipherable to other groups. Cultural pluralism should be about lots and lots of competing political parties and religions. The very fact that there is no state religion can call into question dogmatic upholders of any one belief system, religious or otherwise. Intellectual diversity can freak out the true believer, no matter how affiliated or indoctrinated.

Several Facebook friends have asked me to define my terms more carefully, because I assume too much when using academic jargon that is unfamiliar to them.  Today’s topic is “cultural pluralism.”

Cultural pluralism is a confusing term because of the word “culture.” Much of this website is devoted to tracing the history of the term “culture” as a substitute for a more materialist analysis of our society and its institutions (i.e., substitute secular for materialist to distinguish me from a dialectical materialist). As currently practiced, cultural pluralism is almost synonymous with “multiculturalism,” which is adhered to by those envisioning a happy cooperating system of grouplets based on race or ethnicity. The multicultural assumption is that the race or ethnicity they name is free of internal divisions or divergent and/or incompatible economic interest. Thus it may be imagined that all “African-Americans” think alike, have the same economic and gender interests, and are “different” from other Americans, even though the (better) Founders and their 19th century admirers imagined that we would all live under the rule of law as distinct individuals endowed with inalienable rights.

A better term than cultural pluralism, not weighed down with “cultural” differences, would be intellectual diversity or “the marketplace of ideas.”

But in order for the marketplace of ideas to work, all participants need to be able to decode propaganda, whether the propaganda is transmitted through buzz words like “family” or through images that compel our allegiance or frighten us.  Herbert Marcuse’s theory of repressive tolerance remains useful, but when first presented, it aroused a firestorm of opposition because Marcuse wanted to ban all but left-wing speech. Can anything be reclaimed from his theory? My view is that we lose when we allow the opposition to define the terms of the debate.

We are familiar with such tactics today, as Harry Reid and others define the Republican Party as “obstructionists” or “anarchists” or “defiant.” Reid and his ilk could define the competing ideas that motivate different political factions today (for his own party does not think as one), but he cannot do that, for he MUST smear the opposition in order to 1. present a united front of Democrats; and 2. to please the political class that supports him. It is the way things are done in Washington DC today. I could point to some polarizing Republicans as well.

These are hard times for intellectual diversity.  That is why I admire Eva Moskowitz’s notion of having her charter school kids learn how to extract the message of a poem in grade school! Reading comprehension has never been more important. I could add to that the decoding of images.

Another confusing tactic use by authoritarians of either party is the accusation of “power-seeking” as an end in itself.  I have been watching House of Cards on Netflix, and “Francis Underwood” talks to the viewer explaining that he is not out for money but “power.” But in a few episodes later, we learn that he has risen up from Southern “white-trash”.  So his delight in “power” is all about revenge for the snobbery, bullying, and exclusion he undoubtedly experienced as a boy.

Displaced aristocrats (or those working for them) originated the notion of the organic society, or the organic nation, or “races”. For wannabe “aristocrats” today, nothing is so forbidden as reasoned differences of opinion, or as I call it intellectual diversity, including the summoning of “facts.”  For once you open Pandora’s Box, there is no telling what monstrosities will fly out. Better to keep that box shut tight, lest the inquiring mind acquire the legitimacy that it occasionally enjoyed in eighteenth century England, parts of the United States, the Netherlands, and France.  (On Pandora in Greek mythology see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandora.)

Collage, Clare Spark, early 1990s

Collage, Clare Spark, early 1990s

September 8, 2013

Reading between the lines

Humpty-DumptyIn an often contentious thread on my Facebook page yesterday, I responded to a critic who suggested that I view my website as if it had the legitimacy of Biblical texts and rabbinic commentary. As part of my response, I argued that Biblical texts and associated commentary were “texts” susceptible to criticism and analysis (just as my blogs are meant to be by readers who fault my reasoning and/or facts).

Mine was postmodern talk (i.e., that all communications are “texts” susceptible to deconstruction) so this blog is about where I stand regarding postmodernism, which I do use selectively as part of my critical toolbox, along with “historicism” (See https://clarespark.com/2013/09/04/the-syria-crisis-and-historicism/.).

I.First, wherefore the term “postmodernism”? Here is the Wikipedia definition of the movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism. Its critics are vehemently opposed to this movement in criticism because of its “nihilism,” its denial of “truth,” its challenge to the authority of “science,” its tendency to “anarchism,” and its “moral relativism.” In practice, the postmodernists often point to bureaucratic rationality and mechanistic thinking as the cause of such catastrophic phenomena as the Holocaust. Since the general tendency of cultural studies follows the postmodern/poststructuralist agenda, I will explain why I find much of it useful, if not all.

While in graduate school at UCLA, many postmodernists saw me as sympathetic to their cause, perhaps because I was doing “reader-reception theory” (exploring the drastically changing meanings assigned to Herman Melville’s texts since the 19thcentury). I.e., I was looking competing narratives that explained Melville’s sometimes difficult texts . There was a similar interest in my finding that many of the key Melville revivers were practicing psychological warfare, while in some cases, caving to academic pressures that conflicted with their spontaneous responses to Melville’s often ambiguous, even mysterious life and art.

The key word is “ambiguity” along with “indeterminacy,” terms espoused by “pomos.”  Being an introspective person, I do find my own life to be ambiguous in the sense that I cannot relate a personal history with a definite cause and effect sequence. Where I depart from postmodernism is in its insistence that all of science is “a swindle”, or that “mechanical materialism” is a philistine element of the Enlightenment that caused “the Holocaust,”  or that all attempts at reconstructing the past are fool’s errands.

II. Second, a few words about cultural pluralism as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It is undoubtedly offensive to some readers that I view the Bible as a text, rather than seeing it as God-originated revelation; I imagine that my Orthodox Jewish son-in-law would see my position as Talmudic and typically Jewish. One reason for the duration of our representative republic is the notion of tolerance and relatively free exchange of ideas. Whereas Europe was engulfed in war following the Reformation, the Founders very wisely insisted in a separation of Church and State: there would be no established state religion. The culture wars are fought over this point, and they have polarized the country around competing readings of the Constitution, with “secular progressives” read out of the polity by some pundits on the Right.


III. Third, the notion of “the will to power” (the title of one of Nietzsche’s books).  I have seen many Facebook comments attributing “the will to power” as the driving purpose of their ideological opponents. Indeed, in a past field exam for the U.S. history graduate students, one question asked us to comment on feminism as “the will to power.” I took this to be a hostile response to such usurpers of male authority as Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But in my dissertation research, I noticed that aristocrats threatened with dispossession by partly emancipated women, Jews, and workers after the French Revolution, attacked these rising groups as motivated solely by a demonic, hence illegitimate, desire to control them. It is my view that Foucault and his followers come out of this aristocratic reaction to the rise of the bourgeoisie with its all-engulfing “cash nexus.”

During the period that I was shopping my book manuscript, an occasional reader would accuse me of too closely identifying with the dastardly Captain Ahab, and imagining that I had the right answer to the Melville problem, notwithstanding that I refused to conclude anything in particular other than the suppression of key documents in Melville’s life and art that would have made his more influential critics look really bad. There are problems that are insoluble, particularly where the human psyche and a dearth of primary source documents are involved.

Some other Melvilleans claimed that I was vindictive owing to my firing as Program Director of KPFK in 1982! Obviously, I, a female with strong views about censorship, must be possessed by “the will to power” over authoritative male literary historians.  Whereas I should have backed off and admitted that there are a “multiplicity of readings” on all matters of fact. For these nay-sayers I perhaps invoked Hawthorne’s sketch of the uppity, puffed-up “Woman” : Hester Prynne was modeled on Anne Hutchinson as Michael Colacurcio once argued.

As the late Norman J. Levitt insisted in his takedown of the postmodernists among the academic Left, some science is “settled.”  But the “bourgeois apologist” Levitt is dead, and I hear rumors that 2+2=5.

will to power

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