YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 2, 2011

The Whiteness of the Whale

Frederick Douglass not black enough

I have just listened to an 8 minute rant against the OWS protesters by podcaster Adam Corolla: (http://biggovernment.com/mrctv/2011/11/30/adam-carolla-explains-the-ows-generation/).  These polarized times are friendly to those personalities who can harness and provide a catharsis for conservatives and independents outraged by the ostensibly spoiled brats of hippie parents and others who like Big Government  (a.k.a. the Nanny State) as a solution to social inequality, or who were part of the self-esteem movement in multicultural education.

There may be something to what he says regarding giving undeserving kids trophies so that they won’t feel bad about losing to the stronger or more competent in school athletics and progressive education.  What Corolla did not include in this particular rant is the sea change in American education since the civil rights movement took hold in the 1960s. An entire generation of senior scholars in American history absorbed the troublemakers who instigated scary and destructive urban riots after the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy (the latter friendly to those who would relieve the horrors of urban ghetto life). By 1968, the white northeastern liberal establishment consciously co-opted what by then was militant black nationalism, while the “cool” leaders in the media industry went primitive, feeding into long term trends in popular culture—for instance the minstrel shows, later 1920s embrace of such as Josephine Baker and flamboyant sexuality in general.  Both strategies would have been labeled as escapist by such lucid political thinkers as the late Ralph Bunche (d.1971). See https://yankeedoodlesoc.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/carnegie-corp-and-the-negro-problem/.

By the time I hit graduate school in US history in the early 1980s, the determining structures were in place: American history was taught as if instructed by Soviet anti-American propaganda. Rather than being an exceptional nation, unprecedented in its governmental reliance on popular sovereignty as a source of instruction and legitimacy, “Zionist” America* was a rotten apple with a polished red skin, but rotten to the core. The entire field of American Studies (and its affiliated cultural studies) were devoted to proving this proposition. And even post-Civil War immigrants were held responsible for the misery of “Afro-Americans” as some called the black population, even Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and held to be communistic infiltrators.

Not surprisingly, conservative intellectuals are recuperating the Founding Fathers and writing about the making of the U.S. Constitution, in order to combat the Democratic Party’s emphasis on the antebellum period, the Civil War, and the failure of Reconstruction, events said to have entirely disabled living blacks today! How do we know this to be true? The history profession gives its major awards to those cultural historians who assert that the Civil War and white racism are the central sources of American character and cultural identity. The vanguard of Chosen People (asserted by Herman Melville! https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/) has been banished to the back of the line in Ivy League universities and in the humanities in general.  If you are not writing about “race” you are simply not in the academic game, and heaven help the feminists who do not focus their research on women of color. Similarly, if you write about the labor movement, you had better note their earlier hostility to black, Chinese, and Latino competitors. Throw in the Draft Riots of 1863, or the inherently narcissistic character of “American individualism,” or the peculiar institution (Southern slavery) as indistinguishable from capitalism (or its financial haul from slave labor funding capitalist development), and you are on your way to a job in the history profession in actually existing major universities.

To return to Adam Corolla’s rant against OWS. Beside the strong Third World or Maoist contingent of the current organized Left in OWS, add those who were educated to believe that capitalism is not merely a failed experiment, but is positively evil and an expression of our species’ “dark side”; that whiteness itself  is proof of demonic possession and the will to plunder and disrespect the whole, wide world.  Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

* See this excerpt from Dmitri Volkogonov, The Psychological War (1986):  “The capitalist mass media are greatly influenced by the Zionist circles.  For example, Zionist organisations in the United States control half its magazines, more than half of its radio stations, and a large number of press and radio bureaus abroad.  In other capitalist countries the picture is very much the same.  In addition to that, various Zionist organisations run more than a thousand publications in 67 countries.  This is where the military-industrial complex draws its ideological support. The capitalist mass media spread outright lies about socialism, create a climate of fear for the future, of gloom and doom.  The main idea of this vast system of disinformation is to prove that “socialism is bad” and the “free world” is good. This is how the capitalist mass media are waging the psychological war against the Soviet people, also against their own people whom the bourgeois radio centres feed with disinformation.  This is how opinions in the West are shaped when people are unable to understand the true state of things, when they think and act only under the influence of the extraneous forces that manipulate them.”

NOTE. This blog reflects my reading of the week: Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1962) and David Blight, Frederick Douglass’s Civil War (1989). 

February 27, 2011

Remembering Ralph Bunche, American

Ralph Bunche at UCLA, 1926

Dr. Ralph Bunche, political scientist and Acting Mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948-49, did not want to remembered as an African-American or an African American. Bunche wrote that his ancestors had helped build this country, and wanted no insinuation that he should be racially identified, though there was no doubt that he was a tireless defender of “my people.”

In the last few blogs, I have been complaining about a powerful group of white cultural historians who believe they are accurate in describing American descendants of slaves as African-Americans or African Americans without the hyphen. These include such luminaries as David Brion Davis, David Blight, Seymour Drescher, Steven Mintz, and John Stauffer. They are all hard working and productive scholars, good men all, who have done much to remind Americans that the sectional reconciliation that followed the Civil War did not fulfill the emancipatory promise of that momentous conflict. I do not depart from their general view that white supremacy still lingers; see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/the-persistence-of-white-racism/.

But I do not understand why they persist in a racialist discourse. Africa, a huge continent, was the site of numerous, distinct societies that were too various to be gathered under the umbrella of pan-Africanism. As cultural historians, they would argue that African survivals created a cohesive community of blacks in America that share a common culture. But such a category, however fluid it may be imagined, covers over class differences and other conflicting interests. These scholars follow W. E. B. Dubois, not Ralph Bunche. They also frequently cite Gunnar Myrdal, who knew nothing about race relations in America, and was chosen by the Carnegie Corporation for precisely that reason, lest their mammoth study of “the Negro problem” be seen as one-sided. So Ralph Bunche, who had been outlining a big study on this very subject, but could not proceed for lack of powerful fundors, was hired as Myrdal’s lead collaborator, and Bunche was not to be intimidated by Myrdal or his sponsors. His voluminous memoranda and correspondence, housed at UCLA Special Collections, were a revelation to me, for the internal debates in the making of An American Dilemma (1944) that were never published told me a lot about “liberal” sponsorship of American history projects with their emphasis on intercultural communication and understanding. For examples, see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/16/the-antiquated-melting-pot/.

Bunche and his close friend and mentor at Howard University, Abram L. Harris, had great hopes for integrated industrial unions, but recognized that union bosses (the bureaucratic layer) were a menace to the interests of the rank-and-file, white as well as the black workers who were to unite with their working brethren to lift all workers out of the mire of the Great Depression. Bunche was a radical during the 1930s, hence he was no acolyte to those I have called elsewhere “socially responsible capitalists” or “corporatist liberals.” All this is worth remembering as the nation argues about public sector unions and unions in general.

Though Myrdal attacked Bunche and his colleagues as “economic determinists” Bunche never neglected culture and ideology. But what may have made him unacceptable to high society was his plain spoken condemnation of all black nationalist tendencies, seen by him as escapist and often antisemitic. Bunche’s constant reminders to Myrdal that Jews were the only pro-labor members of Negro Betterment Organizations (such as the Urban League) could not have sat well with those who read his memoranda. But it is worth remembering that Bunche spoke out against antisemitism when it was not fashionable to do so.

Although Sir Brian Urquhart has written a commendable biography of Bunche, no one can write a complete biography as long as his voluminous  letters to his wife are sealed until the death of his children, Ralph Jr. and Joan. I would like to have been the one to have written that biography, but it cannot be. Still, the many months I have spent in his papers are a highlight of my years in research, and did much to dispel the lingering racism that was my unfortunate inheritance as a student in the 1940s and 1950s. One more memory before Black History Month disappears: the professors I mentioned above are disturbed by the lingering effects of racism into the present, though they are vague about precisely what that entails beyond “race inequality.” Bunche had no doubt on that score: 19th century job competition between black and white workers bred bitterness, he thought, and it would take work to overcome that cultural inheritance. But that kind of talk is forgotten in the age of liberal guilt and “reparations” that do not, and cannot, repair. See https://clarespark.com/2013/06/23/the-origins-of-political-correctness/.

February 20, 2011

Are we still fighting the Civil War?

[Added 2-26-2011: I have finished reading David Blight’s book, quoted below, and now have a better idea of the obsessions of Blight and his academic cohort at Yale and Harvard. They are hostile to modernity, for that signifies the rule of capital, machines, and materialism. The white working class is nailed as part of the Herrenvolk democracy that they decry. So Charles Sumner, notwithstanding his reputation as a great man and friend among 19th century blacks, has to go, for he was a modernizer. Blight is clearly a Populist sympathizer and entirely “anti-imperialist,” and though not a Marxist, his version of U.S. history is identical with that of Soviet critics of the U.S, and he may be viewed, overall, as a cleaned-up Reverend Wright.  So although Blight is fiercely critical of the South, his hostility to modernization ironically aligns him with Southern organic conservatives similarly opposed to markets and the modern world. The South did win the Civil War, ideologically speaking. ]

Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg

This blog is about flawed historical analogies and the appropriation of the Civil War for partisan ends. Writing in Pajamas Media, a non-historian Rand Simberg rejected the usual analogies being tossed about in the media between the uproar in Wisconsin and Egypt or the Spanish Civil War, but chose Gettysburg, forcefully making the point that the unionized state workers were more correctly seen as slaveholders with the citizenry of Wisconsin in a position analogous to those of slaves.  I for one found this comparison to be not just distasteful but disturbing, as are many other analogies that are politically motivated, and often used as a short cut to analytic understanding of a specific conflict. Indeed I wrote about another distasteful analogy in a recent blog: https://clarespark.com/2011/01/25/american-slavery-vs-nazi-genocide/.

When I was considering my doctoral dissertation, I had to defend the idea of comparing the 19th century family of Herman Melville with the situation of academics in the humanities writing after 1919.  Some members of my committee insisted that I had to choose, but I held fast to my interest in both the humanities curriculum as it had been revised between the 20th century wars, and in the ways in which Herman Melville coped with his own family—a family more conservative in most ways than he was, given his life experience as a common sailor and then a form-challenging romantic artist. So I looked around and found that some sociologists considered such violations of strict historicism (the incomparability of individual historical events with one another; i.e., history never repeats itself) to be permissible in the case of a “functional group.” With respect to Melville’s family group, if the purpose of the family was socialization into a particular ideology, with similar relations of the “children” to parental authority, and if this socialization could be shown to be arguably identical with that of academics in elite universities during the decisive phase of the Melville “revival”, then I could be on solid ground. In both cases, archival research strongly indicated that cognitive dissonance abounded, or to put it my way, both institutions inflicted double binds on their members: There could be no conflict between Truth and Order. Melville faced this contradiction head-on in his fiction, while his revivers suppressed it, turned him into a moderate man like themselves,  and got sick or extremely depressed while studying and writing about Melville.

In the blog linked above, I objected to the notion that Americans should “work through” their treatment of black slavery and their promotion of the slave trade just as the Germans had been urged to “work through” the Nazi past, specifically the Holocaust.* I queried a former professor of mine about the propriety of the comparison, and in his answer he ended a long exposition comparing the brutalities of the persecution of the Jews and the slave trade and slavery with the adjuration that the effects of slavery were still with us, implying that the Holocaust and antisemitism were something of a dead letter—a problem already solved.  If that was his implication, I cannot agree.

I got a better understanding of the latter’s mind-set when reading a fascinating cultural history of how the Civil War was memorialized through 1865-1913. The book is Yale Professor David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 2001). In this passage, Blight summarizes the situation that apparently motivates an entire generation of activist historians who cut their teeth during and after the civil rights movements of the mid-1950s onward, and who were inspired by the massive contributions of my Cornell professor. Referring to a number of Congressional hearings looking into activities of the Ku Klux Klan, beginning in March 1871, Blight wrote:

“These public hearings are a unique testament of how law and order collapsed in many areas of the South, and to the shuddering brutality of many white Southerners toward blacks and many whites judged to be complicitous with the Yankee conqueror. They are America’s first public record where ordinary freedmen, public officials, poor white farmers, Klansmen, and former Confederate generals came before federal officials and described, or evaded, what the war had wrought—a revolutionary society that attempted forms of racial equality without the means or ultimate will to enforce them against a counterrevolutionary political impulse determined to destroy the new order. The hearings were designed to produce prosecution and justice. Some justice was achieved, but the reconciliation that the country ultimately reached ironically emerged through avoidance and denunciation of the mountain of ugly truths recorded in those hearings.” (p.117)

An entire generation of cultural historians has not only corrected the record, but has taken unto itself a grand piece of the conscience of the nation insofar as it supports big government programs or black studies programs (with a black nationalist flavor) to instruct the unregenerate nation. Ironically, some of these same historians have tended to view Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, proponents of land reform to start the freedmen on the road to capitalist independence, as extremists, as too harsh or even paranoid in their critiques of the old South/the Slave Power/unrepentant rebels (see my conference paper, https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.)

In other words, their hearts are in the right place, but having been focused upon a piece of history that has been at least partly transcended since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and onward, they appear to me to remain invested in the cruelty of white people—a series of injustices that seems to them never to have been fully repaired, and which crowds out those antislavery Americans who rejected big government bureaucratic and collectivist remedies for a divided nation.  It remains to be seen whether this cohort will ever see school choice (as Joel Klein has advised) as a road to “social justice” for inner city schools.  Are our public schools everywhere, but especially in still backward cities and towns practicing a kind of bondage to ignorance, a bondage that can be compared to slavery? Now that is an analogy I can live with.

*In further reading by academics with similar mind sets, I see that I have missed the point: the persons I criticize here are anti-materialists, and write history through the prism of religion, and also epistemological idealism. They believe in “identity” politics, and through appropriate “working through” followed by reparations, believe that a more positive national identity can be achieved. But first, one must acknowledge the atrociousness of the past, repent, undergo a change of heart, and then redemption is possible. This kind of history writing, focusing on myth and symbols, is foreign to me as an epistemological materialist and advocate of secular modernity. Not surprisingly, their anticapitalist, anti-machine mentality, is as ferocious as any academic dare put down on paper.

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