YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

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 (Max Weber, not Karl Marx!) 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


August 22, 2013

The Godfather, Jamie Wyeth Gorgon, culture wars and rustic chivalry

Jamie Wyeth unsettles Dr. Taussig

Jamie Wyeth unsettles Dr. Taussig

I was gone for a week, and ONLY 52 viewers (outside of regulars who come to the home page) came to my last blog (https://clarespark.com/2013/08/13/victor-hugos-93-and-condorcet/), which quoted from Victor Hugo’s 93. I haven’t had numbers that low since I started the website. What was unattractive about this contrast of Terror and Mercy? Was a preference for absolute standards in morality the problem? Be warned, as a historian, I understand that morality is culture-specific, though the Enlightenment popularized the notion of universalist ethics as first advanced by the early French Revolution, and before the Reign of Terror. The Enlightenment philosophes were looking to a future where all people would live in republics and abide by the rule of law.

While gone I had three or four interesting encounters with popular and high culture.

First, the New York Times article about the controversy regarding Jamie Wyeth’s long-hidden painting of a famous female doctor. See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/arts/design/a-showing-for-jamie-wyeths-portrait-of-a-cardiac-pioneer.html?pagewanted=all. Helen Brooke Taussig was the subject, but when her portrait was unveiled in May 1964, male doctors/colleagues freaked out. Look at the portrait yourselves and leave comments if you care to. (Jamie Wyeth preceded by famous painters and illustrators N. C. Wyeth, grandfather, and Andrew Wyeth, father and realist painter.)

Second, I have been reading both academic and coffee table studies (written by professors here and in Germany) of the history of the movies. Before that I read a recent biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, and to leave him out of the story where dopy Jewish moguls (all by themselves) are said to have caused mass degeneracy and a misreading of history in our most popular art form, and without mentioning either Joe Kennedy, Will Hays, Joseph Breen, and the Catholic Legion of Decency, is yet another depressing episode in the cultural history we teach to our eager beaver tech-savvy children who adore images and are virtually on their own in finding out how stories and images can shape their emotions and politics. What the “history of the movies” reveals, for these liberal writers, is the inevitability of radical subjectivism, mystery, and the unknowability of even the most famous, documented lives. A running theme in many of these film histories:  McCarthyism caused brain drain in Hollywood, so the 1950s were beneath contempt, except for Vertigo (Hitchcock learned from the German refugees) and On the Waterfront (“cold war liberalism,” thumbs down on snitch Elia Kazan).

The recent film histories, obviously directed to an upper-class readership, are glitzy, often lavishly illustrated, sensitive in a superficial English major way, and hardly do justice to individual artifacts. If these English professors or culture studies specialists ever turned in such hasty plot summaries to a graduate seminar, they would possible be thrown out of school. As for film noir, blame it on the German refugees and their immersion in German Expressionism and post Great War angst, which, though partly true, does not fully explain disillusion and cultural pessimism (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled Film Noir, decoded.)

Speaking of angst, on the flight home I watched all of The Godfather  (175 minutes). Like zillions of others, I thought it was a powerful and well-made movie; I have done zero research on it yet, but here are some guesses ahead of my future study. First, it was obviously Coppola’s FU to the Hollywood system. The first villain, though not identified as Jewish, was vulgar (rather like Citizen Kane/Cain). His name was Woltz (sounds German, could be German-Jewish). The corruption of Hollywood stands for a society that is utterly bought and sold by criminal elements: politicians, law enforcement, newspapers, everybody that shapes public opinion or protects us from the bad guys: (more Citizen Kane). The transformation of war hero, Ivy-educated Michael from “civilian” to his father’s successor as head of the family “business” could signify that brutalization of the young that is said by many historians to have followed the Great War. Note that conflicts between gang bosses are always referred to as wars, not disputes between criminals. In the world we see depicted everybody is guilty, except for the women, who are merely hysterical when they are not putting up with spousal abuse or neglect. They are both protected from the world of men, or are contented to be Sicilian breeders and feeders. Finally, I noted the importance of neighborhood, religion, family and ethnicity to Southern Italian immigrants. The Godfather series came out during the height of the social policy transition from an emphasis on class, to an emphasis on the durability of ethnic ties over class ties. The Corleone family has not assimilated, and doesn’t care. They hew to the colorful ways of 19th and 20th century urban ethnics with their scofflaw patronage systems, or in the case of the Corleones, Sicilian peasants and the patriarchal system. In comes localism, radical historicism, and multiculturalism. In other mass media offerings, the demonic is celebrated, in dangerous neo-Romantic fashion, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/30/philip-roth-the-following-and-identification-with-the-aggressor/.

Third, I found a copy of a documentary study and chronology of the Culture Wars, that covers the censorship of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, and focuses primarily on events during the Reagan administration and the first years of Bush 41. The introduction that I raced through made the claim that the artist freedom jeopardized by right-wing kvetching about tax dollars going to the National Endowment for the Arts, was tied to working class benefits. It does have a useful chronology of government funding of the arts since the Kennedy administration, and it is something to look into. How “high art” that many Americans see as handmaidens to the wealthy became a matter of interest to the labor movement and other ‘slobs’ defies comprehension. Artist Richard Bolton explains away this seeming  contradiction, “It is more than passing interest that ‘populist’ conservatives, while rejecting ‘high culture’ in the name of the masses, also detest the popular culture–television, music, and film—commonly shared by these same masses. And in matters of policy, conservative activists and officials  have consistently opposed government programs that would benefit the typical worker….” (Culture Wars, ed. Richard Bolton, p.5) Bolton goes on to describe statist interventions against the market that ostensibly benefit the working class. In other words, Bolton’s ‘populist’ conservatives are hypocrites. Mapplethorpe and Serrano et al are the true populists.

But there was solidarity of a sort evident in the movie The Big Chill that I watched on my way back East. This cloying cluster of U. of Michigan graduates, ex-radicals who have gone bourgeois in their forties and feel guilty about it, is hardly worth mentioning, though it was interesting to see how major movie stars looked when much younger. The one Jewish character was something of a geek (played by Jeff Goldblum) whose attempts to fit in were ludicrous.

Give me Cavalleria Rusticana transferred to post WW2 America any day over 60s-70s nostalgia felt by successful hippies.  Or perhaps The Big Chill was a less obvious form of rustic chivalry as the Glenn Close character makes a gift of her husband (Kevin Kline) for a night to fertilize the egg of her chum (played by Mary Kay Place). After all, the story was set in the South.

July 27, 2013

O’Reilly’s riff on ‘race’ relations

MLKJrReacting in part to the uproar over the George Zimmerman verdict, Bill O’Reilly (“number one in cable news”) started the week of July 22, 2013 with an outraged “talking point memo” on the subject of the black family and its disintegration, blaming the current polarization over the jury’s decision to aquit CZ on “’73% illegitimacy” in the ‘African-American’ population. O’Reilly’s causation is typical of culture wars argumentation. Bring the strong father back, and “African-American” culture will right itself again.

The passion, even anger, of his talking points made news all week on Fox News Channel. On Thursday, in the interests of fairness and balance, he invited an assistant professor of sociology and Black Studies from CCNY,  R. L’heureux Lewis-McCoy.  The youthful professor contradicted the notion that fatherlessness caused poverty and crime, but insisted that poverty and lack of access to jobs was the cause of the disintegration of the black family. In other words, O’Reilly had a cultural explanation for the [unruly] black population, while the sociologist offered an economic explanation to explain black problems, (The segment can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYFS_qon3zs. It starts out concerned with a hip-hop artist and Al Sharpton, but at about two and a half minutes in, pivots to a discussion of the disintegrating, tattoo-loving black family. O’Reilly gave the professor a “D” for not answering a question to his liking.)

The notion of the father-directed nuclear family as the fundamental unit of society providing for stability is a throwback to the medieval order, when peasant fathers remained at home, directing the distribution of resources. “Exit the [family] king” under an advanced industrial society, and women have too much power over young males who are thereby feminized and may go homo, another fear of culture warriors. Enter the now fashionable argot that identifies all public health initiatives as vile offshoots of “the nanny state.” (For details on Ionesco’s play Exit The King see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exit_the_King.)

On the Tuesday (July 23, 2013) edition of The Factor, trained psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer straight out told O’Reilly that not all problems could be solved, Surely he was thinking about the family and its proposed O’Reilly remedy: no illegitimacy and marriage. As I have suggested on this website, intact families are no panacea, but rather are the site of lifelong ambivalence or worse, owing to sibling rivalry, prolonged attachment to the parent of the opposite sex, and hard-to-control instinctive aggression identified by the now stigmatized Freud and his followers.  Indeed, social psychologists attached to the New Deal (such as Henry A. Murray) fretted about mother-son attachments as leading to an overactive social conscience that could go all the way to communism. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/11/07/he-loves-his-mommy-too-much/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/02/16/nazi-sykewar-american-style-part-two/, plus others in this series: https://clarespark.com/2010/04/18/links-to-nazi-sykewar-american-style/.)

I will say this for the efficacy of having a father in the home. Single mothers, no matter how many children, face an exhausting challenge. A modern male who is willing to take part in family life, including child care and housework, is a blessing.

But the presence of both parents in the family constellation is no guarantee that children will achieve upward mobility or avoid a life of crime. Bill O’Reilly, like other Fox anchors, has replicated the terms advocated by multiculturalists (“African-American Community”), avoiding the thorny questions concerning welfare policies, education reform, and the teaching of parenting skills and other useful mental health concepts. [I added welfare policies to this blog in light of Joe Nicolosi’s comments below.]

Such attention to factors other than father-headed families may be a bridge too far for the employees of Rupert Murdoch.


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

March 11, 2013

Do House hard-liners want a theocracy?

CabaretAre the culture wars heating up?

Some right-wing websites are calling for a re-energized cultural offensive, one that would dislodge the monopoly that “the Left” has attained in education, particularly in public schools, in the elite universities, and in popular culture. For these warriors (including “moderate” Bill O’Reilly), social democrats (once known as liberal anticommunists) and various Leninists are all under the same statist umbrella, and they must be stopped cold.

The rightist culture warriors will be blocked and court discouragement, for they face opposition from “RINO’s” (a.k.a. the big businessmen who joined the progressive Keynesians in 1942), as well as from the new “Jacobins” out to get them in the Democratic Party. In short, movement conservatives partake of a discourse of degeneration, and I understand their panic, for small businessmen and many medical professionals will take the brunt of Democratic initiatives such as Obama-care.

Underneath the angst is a now explicit belief that Hollywood Jews have created the hyper-sexualized culture, money-worshipping mass culture that flouts religious warnings about the dire effects of pornography, adolescent sexuality, gay marriage, and abortion on demand. Thus conservative novelist Andrew Klavan defended Seth MacFarlane’s performance at the Oscars 2013, for moral laxity should be boldly and freshly confronted. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/03/04/romney-v-the-cultural-politics-of-mean/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/02/25/potus-michelle-and-the-end-of-the-democratic-republic.)

Many of my readers are aware that a prime ingredient in contemporary antisemitism is the association of Jewry with a money-mad, materialist culture. But fewer perhaps know about the Nazi trope (shared by both Julius Streicher and Hitler) that Jews were intent on corrupting the pure flesh of Christian women, indeed were the chief white slavers/whoremasters. How should a moral Christian respond to this apparently unstoppable “Jewish” offensive that is engendering hyper-sexualization, single-mother families, illegitimacy, and devil worship? Have we not seen very effective plays, movies, and television series transmitting the notion that “decadence” (i.e. degeneration) is inimical to the (unitary) values of the Christian West? I am thinking of productions such as CABARET, CHICAGO, and perhaps THE GOOD WIFE (also set in Chicago, and suggesting that the legal profession is similarly intent on materialism and sex, in or out of marriage).


What the rightist culture warriors neglect is the plain fact that modern medicine and public health measures have drastically lengthened life expectancy, postponing marriage more than a decade after the onset of puberty. In this technologically advanced world, the old rules are outmoded. Who exactly is resisting sex education in middle school and high school? Laura Ingraham, sitting in for Bill O’Reilly last Friday, was visibly discomfited when one of her guests suggested that sex education was necessary to teach nubile young girls the difference between sex and a relationship.

The social conservatives seem so intent on taking over the Republican Party, dislodging what they view as an “establishment”, that they may be consigning themselves to permanent irrelevance. Cultural pluralism and the secular state are broadly institutionalized.  Pace Klavan et al, the culture warriors may be too internally uptight to make popular culture artifacts that reach out to a broad public.Chicagoposter

The advice from this scholar and political independent is to focus on fiscal conservatism, to divest oneself and one’s party of embedded and explicit antisemitism, and to cherish the pluralistic society that welcomes all belief systems and all social criticism, under the rule of law. Now remind me who censored the movie version of Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer? (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/02/roman-polanski-and-his-critics/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/09/27/cannibals-negro-jazz-and-servile-revolt/.)

February 2, 2013

“Totalitarianism,” polarization, and single-issue politics

Leninism-picturePolarization. Pundits and politicians today often complain about “polarization” as an obstacle to “compromise,” without acknowledging that there may be irreconcilable conflicts that cannot be mediated, no matter how skillful or flexible the warring parties. However, it is acknowledged that the two major political parties are at odds over the best way to achieve economic growth: Democrats  want Keynesian demand-stimulus and government spending, while conservative Republicans and libertarians want free markets and limited government as the road to prosperity, for it is the private sector that holds their attention, though some of their admired forbears advocated a government safety net (the Friedmans, Hayek). Perhaps we should calm down a bit: there are two capitalist parties, and no one is ideologically inclined to eliminate the other Party, at least not yet.

Single-issue politics. Social movements of the 1960s that piggy-backed off the civil rights movement  (antiwar, feminism, gay rights, animal rights, environmentalism, now Latino/Hispanic rights) are generally supported by liberals, but tend to dismay conservatives, who see such issues as feminism and gay rights as destructive to the family and even causes of cultural decline and coarsening): hence the “culture wars.” And no one is giving an inch, so that single-issue politics tend to polarize us even further, with each side in the various struggles accusing their opponents of authoritarianism, narrow-mindedness or even “totalitarian” tendencies.

Leftists would have to view single-issue politics as mostly disruptive and even a bourgeois distraction to the class struggle, which will, after the revolution, remove all obstacles to the development of the human personality under the new dispensation. Whereas I see these various movements as incommensurate, that is, they should be treated as separate entities with different histories and implications for how we manage the economy. They should not be jumbled together or even compared to the struggle of black Americans to achieve equality of opportunity.

Totalitarianism. I asked some of my Facebook friends to explain what they meant by “totalitarianism.” They agreed that it signified a kind of statism that would go beyond anything we have now in the West, eliminating all civil liberties, freedom of speech, etc. Nearly all read Orwell, and already feel the heat of Big Brother in some tendencies of the Obama administration, or even in the social movements mentioned above insofar as they impose PC or are alarmingly “secular.” Orwell was unenthused over “secularism” too: see https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/. Meanwhile, pundits of the Right and even the middle, tend to use “totalitarianism” in a manner that equates Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany as functional equivalents, which Orwell did not, hoping for an English “Socialism.” (Orwell did see Socialism as an ongoing theme in Nazi Germany, but he was mistaken. (See https://clarespark.com/2014/12/10/were-nazis-socialists/.) For other writers, the Holocaust is viewed as terrible, but a distraction from the millions of victims under the Soviet Union and Communist China.

In his conclusions to The Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution: Ideological Polarization in the Twentieth Century (UC Press, 1981, Transaction Press paperback ed., 1991) Jacob Talmon does not equate the terror states of Nazis and the Soviets, reducing each to a kind of ultra–statism, though both regimes had to resort to terror in order to discipline their constituencies. They had different historical trajectories as I have constantly argued here before. Nazis regressed to the brutalities of the archaic and to feudal social relations, while Reds believed they were emancipating the lower orders from the modern world as directed by the imperialist bourgeoisie. Reds would complete the unfulfilled bourgeois project, while Nazism was a counter-revolution. (Irving Louis Horowitz appropriates Talmon to paper over the polarities that Talmon emphasizes between Nazis and Soviets, in my view, because Horowitz is allied with such as Hannah Arendt. Page numbers below are from the Transaction Press version.)

Several years ago, I vehemently criticized Jonah Goldberg’s best seller Liberal Fascism as misleading and wrong-headed. (See  https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.) Since reading the Goldberg  book, one that was much admired on the Right, I have read Eric Hobsbawm’s  tetralogy on modernity that does find communism to be an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and of the bourgeois revolution that the French mounted in 1789, but certainly not Fascism or Nazism. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/, https://clarespark.com/2013/01/15/golden-globes-lincoln-clinton-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/) .

The redoubtable historian Jacob Talmon covered the same period as Eric Hobsbawm, but from a liberal anti-communist point of view. He faults both Leninism and the various fascisms for erasing the conception of humanity and the value of the individual, but would never agree with Jonah Goldberg that progressivism was a precursor to a kind of “liberal fascism”, i.e. to the excessive statism that alarms the Republican Party, libertarians, and some of the writers for National Review.

Jacob Talmon Stamps

Jonah Goldberg, a popular writer, was in over his head.

Here is an example of what Talmon means by “totalitarianism” in the drive toward Soviet bureaucratic centralism or “totalitarian democracy” : “Lenin experienced that sense of movement, of the eternal tug of war, of unbridgeable contradictions, of the approaching crisis, with an intensity and urgency unmatched by anyone in his circle….movement, contradiction, conflict, breakthrough, change were to him encased in an evolving totality held together by the iron-cast law of historical inevitability. The irresistible march of history could neither be affected nor could be allowed to be interfered with by human arbitrariness, caprice, preferences, feelings, sentiments, residual inhibitions.” (p.339) In Lenin’s historical imagination, the bourgeoisie (finance capital) was the oppressor standing in the way of the development of “personality.” A dictatorship of the proletariat” would destroy the bourgeoisie, thus going all the way to fulfilling the promise of Enlightenment and its liberation of thought.

For these authors, “totalitarianism” is less about total control, but rather a “breakthrough,” a “vision of revolution” that seeks to overturn the world as it exists in its totality. Totality is the essence of the world “totalitarian.”  Nazism overthrows the German Right and the Weimar social democrats, while celebrating neo-feudal social relations, with the Leader directing the organic racially purified “people’s community” (the integral Nation). By contrast, communism imagines an international working class proletarian brotherhood, who have abolished nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. Without these evil “isms” all people would be able to develop a full individuality. But the fascisms deter anything smacking of the individual, glorifying instead the State/Party/as the embodiment of the people’s community. For Mussolini there was nothing outside the State, and the State would work its coercive magic on the sindicati (He had once been a revolutionary Syndicalist, influenced by George Sorel, and his masculinist cult of violence and war.)

(Hitler’s volkischness would be enlarged globally so that each state, under German leadership, would be its own racially pure polity, but his war aims were mostly directed to stopping the  Soviets and expanding into the Slavic areas that were bread  baskets; that would entail enslaving the inferior Slavs.)

Populism. But everyone, Populist-Progressives, anarchists, George Sorel, and all the anticapitalists in Europe, including Nazis and Leninists alike, hated the rule of money, going so far as to stigmatize “economic determinism” as a Jewish imposition. For  Lenin. insofar as he was influenced by J. A.  Hobson,  finance capital was seen as a Jewish plot to take over the world (see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/, and Talmon pp. 204, 439, 473-74 and passim); for Hitler, “Jewish Bolshevism” was a front for finance capital (also “Jewish”) and worse, the Jews were the “anti-race,” for they valued, from antiquity onward, humanity as one species: Talmon insists on this.

We should get our history straightened out, recognizing the stunted political imagination that the careless use of political language imposes. Now that defiled brain is a species of terror. And it feels “totalitarian” to me.

January 24, 2013

Culture wars and the secular progressives

Marianne, symbol of the French Republic

Marianne, symbol of the French Republic

Walter Hudson has written an essay for Pajamas Media ( http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2013/01/15/whose-morality-is-it-anyway/) touting religion as the sole building block of social order, the only belief system that prevents “evil.”  Hudson, like many other believers, holds Communists (and by implication, “secularists”) responsible for wanton killing and mass death, perhaps of the kind we have seen at such locales as Newtown, Connecticut, or in the underreported incident in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as perpetrated by Nehemiah Griego (the fifteen-year-old killer, whose father was a local pastor and reportedly  liberal).

It is true that communists have inveighed against religion as “the opiate of the masses” that holds workers in bondage to a fantasy at best, or terrorizes them at worst (with threats of eternal hell), but Hudson’s privileging of religion as the sole source of morality is repugnant to me. I am one of the dread secularists, which puts me in the same category as those who drafted the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, that forbade any established state religion. It is cultural pluralism that has enabled diverse immigrant groups to come to America, and protected them from forced conversion to a state religion. Has Hudson forgotten that “equality under the law” was a salutary innovation that protected all of us from murder and from what Hudson regards as “evil” in general?

But worse, Hudson’s essay negates the Enlightenment, which removed truth, absolute authority and “virtue” from Kings and established Churches, instead investing knowledge, power, and (potential) virtue in the People and their political institutions.  This disestablishment of monarchs and clergy was laid at the feet of the rising bourgeoisie (themselves the children of the French Revolution), who were then attacked by both the deposed monarchists of the ultra-right and future hard leftists. The new popular freedoms were associated by the ultras with the Cult of Reason (symbolized by Marianne), cannibalism, and a host of other horrors, including parricide and deicide.  And so Mary Shelley wrote her famous Frankenstein;  or the Modern Prometheus, while Herman Melville fretted about his own Promethean impulses throughout life. (For more on this theme see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/26/decoding-call-me-ishmael-and-the-following/.)

Much of what Hudson has written is directed at Ayn Rand, her followers, and “Objectivism” in general.  I conclude that it is the “atomized” individual (along with free market society) that is his target. This so-called “atomized” individual was also the target of the moderate men, the Progressives who hoped to stave off Red Revolution through a compassionate welfare state, that would stop just short of turning the world upside down,  and would co-opt religion in the service of those buzz-words “social cohesion” and “political stability.”

Not all moderate conservatives believed that modernity and capitalism would lead to widespread mayhem. See for instance the social thought of Charles Sumner, the anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, whose moral code embraced all of humanity, and most particularly slaves and then the freedmen, while his bosom enemies sought to return the freedmen to new forms of bondage after the Civil War. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/ )  Sumner was a visionary, and for his sacrifices to humanity at large, he has been assailed as a carrier of Jewish blood by his major 20th century biographer.


If Walter Hudson and those who agree with him want to improve morality, he should come down on the authoritarian family and all those institutions that fail to educate their children to the obligations of citizenry, or those families who believe in demonic possession as the explanation for mental illness. We need more science in our thought patterns, and less regression to pre-capitalist forms of authority, authority that cannot be made legitimate through any appeal to Reason as embodied in the laws, laws that men and women of all colors fought for and formulated out of an abundance of experience.

January 2, 2013

Index to blogs on culture wars

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 10:58 pm
Tags: , ,
Joyce Kozloff: Voyages5: Lesbos

Joyce Kozloff: Voyages5: Lesbos









https://clarespark.com/2013/08/22/how-i-spent-my-summer-vacation/ (retitled The Godfather, Jamie Wyeth Gorgon, the culture wars, and rustic chivalry)








Culture warriors and the Enlightenment

enlightenment[My most comprehensive treatment of this vexed subject is here: https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.]

Bill O’Reilly, the most popular history writer in America today and the dominant draw in cable news, has announced to his millions of viewers that he will accelerate his assault on “secular-progressives” and implied that he expects to win the culture wars for “traditionalists” like himself. He has started his campaign because he believes that the breakdown in family structure (i.e. the absent father in minority and other poor families) is the primary cause of dependency on the redistributionist welfare state.

What O’Reilly fails to see is that many, if not all, of his secular progressive enemies are as much committed to the organic society as is he, for they are often moderate men given to “compromise,”  and thus healers of every conceivable rift in the “body politic.”

As I have demonstrated on this website and in my book on the Melville Revival, there was not only one Enlightenment, but two streams of thought contributing to what O’Reilly calls “secular progressivism.” One stream watered the New Deal, while the other fed the notions of free market capitalism as explicated by Hayek and the Friedmans, to name a few.

Take Peter Gay (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Gay) , whose volumes on the Enlightenment energized the fields of cultural history, social history, and the history of medicine, sub-fields of history that lean toward the organic society (the class collaboration furthered by the New Deal and other conservative reformers), though that is not generally seen, as these academics are a tightly knit group that fends off “mechanical materialist” intruders, who deny, say, the notion of Zeitgeist as formulated by such counter-Enlightenment figures as Herder and other German Romantics. And yet in his Freud For Historians (Oxford UP, 1985), Gay distances himself from such mystical formulations as Zeitgeist.

Here is what Peter Gay wrote in the second volume of his massive tome The Enlightenment: An Interpretation Vol.II: The Science of Freedom (Knopf, 1969):

“There was nothing new in the philosophes’ perception that society is a fabric with interdependent, interacting parts:* what they did that was new was to take this perception as a justification for their own importance. After all, if progress is infectious, then to teach truth, expose error, and inculcate confidence—and all this, of course, the philosophes were sure they were doing—was to spread reason and shed light over large areas, even in unsuspected places. Thus the philosophes enlisted the enlightened atmosphere of their day in the service of their movement.” (p.25, “The Spirit of the Age, ” my emph.)

I quote Peter Gay because I want to distinguish between what I call the Conservative Enlightenment and the (materialist) Radical Enlightenment. The former type is covertly Burkean, emphasizing continuities with the past through “interdependence” and (implied) deference to Platonic Guardians, while the latter was a rupture with the past. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/.)  The American Constitution was one such rupture, especially as its original favoritism toward white males was rectified by the antislavery and voting rights for women amendments.

What is at stake in these competing notions of Enlightenment is the conception of the autonomous individual, capable of standing apart from passions, from families, from tribal associations, to read the world (reality) and hence to make decisions as an independent citizen. Such a one can throw off the conception of “national character” or group mind that [collectivist] Peter Gay supports through his rhetoric and his reverence for “the secular social conscience” (p.39), Kant and other German thinkers. The notion of Zeitgeist is imaginary, like the widely used term “cultural climate,” or, to use Peter Gay’s scientistic language “enlightened atmosphere.”

Today, the cultural climate that alarms Bill O’Reilly (e.g. the “culture of violence”) has taken on the agency once attributed to the individual. But such culturalist formulations go well with the corporatist liberal/communist notion of “social engineering.” Fix the “cultural climate,” bring back the moderate, healing good father (Lincoln, JFK, O’Reilly), and such events as the Newtown massacre will end, and we shall indeed live to see the best of all possible worlds.


*Compare Gay’s formulation to that of Joyce Appleby, Margaret Jacob, and Lynn Hunt: “Historians cannot comprehend all the variables bombarding a single event. Human beings participate in a dense circuitry of interacting systems, from those that regulate their bodily functions to the ones that undergird their intellectual curiosity and emotional responses. A full explanation of an event would have to take into consideration the full range of systematic reactions. Not ever doing that, history-writing implicitly begins by concentrating on those aspects of an event deemed most relevant to the inquiry.” (From Telling the Truth in History, Norton, 1994, p.253)

December 12, 2012

White Rage, Black Surrogates

Jamie FoxxThis blog started out as a meditation upon a book about “caste sanctions” on the Negro written during the late 1950s, by Bertram P. Karon, a highly regarded Freudian clinical psychologist and psychometrician, who was writing about The Negro Personality: a rigorous investigations of the effects of culture (N.Y.: Springer Publishing Co., 1958).

Since Karon appeared to be yet another corporatist liberal, managing those blacks who were potential troublemakers, and since he cited psychologists and sociologists working in the Harvard tradition personified by Talcott Parsons, Gordon Allport, Henry A. Murray, and other propagators of adjustment to a society mottled by structural problems and deeply flawed institutions, I expected to assess his book negatively, focusing on his collectivist categories (the Southern Negro, the Northern Negro). Then I would refer the reader to those liberals who had enabled black nationalism, for reasons having little to do with improving the material condition of the black population. ( See https://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/.)

Particularly, I wanted to suggest that white people (and all women) were often angry and bottled up too, and might be using black rage as expressed say, by ‘comedians’ such as Jamie Foxx (who joked about killing all white people in a recent movie), or by the numerous gangsta rappers as surrogates for their own inexpressible rage. And this is a thought I hold to, for probably everyone has reasons to be angry, whether at “stable” families, divorcing parents, bosses, the government, schools, the human condition, etc. But, such strategies are yet another injustice perpetrated by white people and cooperated with by opportunistic, politically unserious black persons. As for violence and catharsis, it is an ancient technique deployed by elites to keep the lower orders in line. (For a blog on such “ritual rebellions” see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, retititled “Rappers, Primitivism, Ritual Rebellion.”)

But then I came upon some remarks in Karon’s conclusion that softened my own annoyance with his structural-functionalist pedigree. For instance, he responds to those who believe in a hopelessly imperfect “human nature” and hence are pessimistic about any amelioration in our condition (or worse, preposterously deny that there remains racism).

[Karon:] “…it is not necessary to create a perfect world, it is only necessary to create a perfectable one, in which things can be a little better than they are. Any partial improvement, it seems, will be reflected in a decrease in the human cost.” (p. 173)

I was especially moved by his concluding paragraph: “The contrast between northern and southern Negroes is striking: we are led to ask what protects the northern Negro’s personality. Perhaps the southern Negro, whose whole society tells him he is wrong even to resent his treatment, can never be completely sure that he isn’t wrong, nor can he bring himself to completely accept the treatment he receives. The northern Negro, on the other hand, may be made to suffer, but he feels that those who make him suffer are wrong, and he has a right to resent it. He is engaged in an unequal struggle which he may never win, but he knows that he is engaged in a struggle which is not hopeless. Apparently, being able to face the fact that one is being mistreated preserves a sense of personal integrity which, in turn, serves to ward off much of the destructive impact of oppressive experiences. It would seem that when we face the truth, the truth really does, to a large extent, set us free.” (p.175) Which is fine: we will be in touch with our angry feelings, but with no way forward to remove causes of oppression. ‘Free’ for what? If we want ameliorative politics, then we should not fail to address the structural causes of suffering, which entails stringent evaluation of all our institutions. Or is classical liberalism the best we can hope for?

Bertram P. Karon, Ph.D.

More recently, Dr. Bertram P. Karon has voiced unorthodox views on the possibilities of treating and curing schizophrenics with psychoanalytically oriented therapy, rejecting entirely the notion of genetic causes for paranoid schizophrenia. You can see his acceptance speech for an empathy award here, where he lays out his alternative treatment for schizophrenics. Big pharma won’t like it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tisFkl5gdtc.

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