The Clare Spark Blog

January 3, 2012

The Race Card

Sumner bio paperback cover art

This blog responds to the playing of “the race card” by such politicians as Eric Holder, Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson, plus a cast of thousands of militant black nationalists, along with academic allies who favor ethnic studies. Their separatism and taxonomy of “African-Americans” suggests not only an underlying loyalty to (racist) Pan-Africanism, but a fashionable version of US history as unmarked by moral and political outrage at the institution of slavery or horror at the failed struggle for Reconstruction after the supposed ending of the Civil War. At bottom, this blog suggests that the President’s continued popularity may be partly attributed to white liberal guilt (as suggested early on by Shelby Steele and others), and certainly not to powerful “liberal” blows against the racism that permeates our society, with some exceptions.

I will try to contrast two important books on race and class in the 19th century; one by the late David Montgomery, writing from the Left, and another by the late David Herbert Donald, writing from the moderate middle.  As I have shown in other blogs on the website, such success as the ex-slaves and their descendants have achieved in America is explained by the overt or subtextual racism of primitivism and  multiculturalism. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/.

I.    After having faulted upper-class antebellum and post-bellum Radical reformers (through 1868) for their obliviousness to structural class conflict, the late labor historian David Montgomery concluded that “the Radicals” (including Charles Sumner), nevertheless exerted a positive influence on American politics. In Beyond Equality, (1967) the book that established him as a leading historian, Montgomery ended with this paragraph:  “…though their moment in power was brief and their response to the dilemmas of that moment confused, the Radicals left America a legacy that was both rich and various. To Negroes they bequeathed the promise of equality, enshrined in the organic law of the land. To Liberals they imparted faith that an educated and propertied elite might shepherd the nation through the morass of democratic ignorance toward an increasingly prosperous, harmonious, and rational life. Upon the Sentimental Reformers, and through them, on the working classes, they bestowed the ideal of popular use of governmental machinery to promote the common good, and a conception of that good as something nobler than a larger gross national product. Henry Carey’s sense of revulsion toward the consecration of “selfishness and individualism as the prime feature of society,” and Thaddeus Stevens’s aspiration for a community ‘freed from every vestige of human oppression,’ jettisoned by a nation in frantic pursuit of wealth, were left in trust to its labor movement.”

(For David Montgomery’s views on his membership in the Communist Party see http://rhr.dukejournals.org/content/1980/23/37.full.pdf+html.)

II.   I have quoted from Montgomery’s first book, not because I sympathize with his Marxist analysis of the future of the labor movement, but because Montgomery’s positive view of the abolitionists and antislavery men (including Senator Charles Sumner, 1811-1874) stands in such sharp contrast with that of his Ivy League colleague David Herbert Donald, author of a much lauded two-volume biography of Sumner, that leaves out the labor question altogether, focusing rather on Sumner (a catalyst for Civil War) as a pain in the neck (perhaps with Jewish, Negro, or Indian blood), deserving of endless psychological analysis. But even more importantly, Donald sees the race problem as one of “prejudice,” without consideration of labor competition, in Ralph Bunche’s view, the lingering cause of white racism (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/) .

Here are some passages that illustrate my point:

David Herbert Donald

[From Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), footnote: pp.4-5:] “…Barry [1853] asserted that Sumner’s mother was ‘probably of Jewish descent’; this allegation led…Stearns [1905]…to identify ‘the Hebrew element in Sumner’s nature; the inflexibility of purpose, the absolute self-devotion, and even the prophetic forecast.’ Such a theory of inherited racial traits is, of course, highly unscientific. But, in any case, the Jewish strain in Sumner’s ancestry is dubious. At no point in his career, when virtually every other possible weapon was used against him, were anti-Semitic charges raised.” In the text on p. 5, Donald reports that “Boston maiden aunts speculated—without any evidence whatever—that the mysterious [Esther Holmes, Sumner’s paternal grandmother, never married to Major Sumner] had been ‘partly of Negro or Indian blood.’” But then, Donald hints that there may be something to these speculations seeking to account for Sumner’s passion for Negro human rights: “Prudently the new senator preferred to draw the veil over the whole subject of his genealogy (referring to CS’s autobiography): “It seems to me better to leave it all unsaid.”

In Charles  Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970), Donald takes a slightly more positive view of his subject, but no sooner does he declare Sumner’s belief in the brotherhood of humanity, than he finds a quote that attributes distinct racial qualities to Negroes (though this typical 19th century view of national or racial character never affects Sumner’s view of such crucial matters as freeing the slaves immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter, or endowing the freedmen with some of the land that they had worked, plus a full panoply of civil rights, including desegregated quality education, male suffrage, the right to testify in trials, desegregated public space, etc.

[Donald, V.2, p. 422, referring to Sumner’s anti-segregation speech “The Question of Caste”:]  “Invoking the new prestige of evolutionary science, he declared that ethnology and anthropology proved the ‘overruling Unity’ among the races of man, ‘by which they are constituted one and the same cosmopolitan species, endowed with speech, reason, conscience, and the hope of immortality, knitting all together in a common Humanity.’… [The Switch:] When the bars of caste were lifted, the Negroes would exhibit their basic racial traits of ‘simplicity, amenity, good-nature, generousity, fidelity,’ and these, when added to the ‘more precocious and harder’ characteristics of white Americans, would result in a civilization where ‘men will not only know and do, but they will feel also.”….

Near the end of Vol. 2, Donald reveals his affinity with Gunnar Myrdal, the white liberal foundations who funded and controlled the production of An American Dilemma (1944), and other cultural historians who hoped that reduction of “prejudice” and interracial understanding (or the constant reiteration of “white guilt”) will alleviate every kind of racism, through a change of heart:

[Donald, p. 533, referring to Sumner’s proposed civil rights bill:] “The subordination of the Negroes was less a matter of economics than of prejudice, deep-seated and ineradicable so long as black men legally were marked as belonging to an inferior caste. Only by securing equal rights to all citizens could the United States live up to its promise and become a land where even-handed justice ruled.”

This rejection of economic considerations (e.g. labor competition) is precisely what Myrdal’s associate Ralph Bunche or his mentor Abram L. Harris, were repudiating in the late 1930s.

What to take away from this dip into the conflicted mind of the late David Herbert Donald, a Mississippian with a Vermont ancestor who fought for the Union? How did he climb the academic ladder to become one of the most honored historians in the field? Why should we pay attention to his Sumner obsession?

I have two primary reasons for writing this blog:

  1. Having reread the two-volume Donald  bio of Sumner, I am more convinced than ever that Melville modeled his character Captain Ahab after Sumner. Just as “Ahab” was a “fighting Quaker”,  Sumner’s first scandalous public oration– on the Fourth of July 1845, in Faneuil Hall, Boston, to an elite assemblage that included military brass sitting in the first row—denounced all wars and pledged his life to peace.  The “fighting Quaker” moniker, plus the compassion that Ahab feels for the black boy Pip, going so far as to take “crazy” Pip into his cabin and promising never to abandon him, clinches the deal for me. For Sumner’s writing completed as Melville was writing Moby-Dick see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/. Or see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.

2. The notion that a career such as Sumner’s, passionately averse to slavery, that then fights for reconstruction of an American post-Civil War Union, could be the sign of a mental disorder or even tainted blood, is so bizarre as to be a sign of mental  incompetence and perhaps outright hostility in Sumner’s biographer. It was noted in one obituary (the New York Times) that Volumes one and two of  Donald’s major work were different in tone, owing to the growing civil rights movement. Clearly, that writer did not read the new, improved model with sufficient care.  Donald never relinquishes his characterization of a foppish, somewhat gay, anti-social, supremely arrogant and Negro-fixated Charles Sumner. His complexion may have been olive-tinted in Volume 1, but he goes out in Vol. 2 with “So White a Soul” (referring to Emerson’s characterization of Sumner’s moral  purity, but with a suggestion of underlying racism).

TO BE CONTINUED.

September 29, 2011

The Abraham Lincoln Conundrum

The example of Abraham Lincoln’s conciliatory, moderate  leadership is now offered as the solution to the dramatic polarization of the American electorate by such as Bill O’Reilly, co-author of a new book Killing Lincoln, advertised as a “thriller” but certainly not a novel contribution to the massive literature on the controversial President, assassinated shortly after his second term as President was under way. Nor is it likely that O’Reilly has looked into the attempt by leading social psychologists affiliated with the Roosevelt administration to merge the “idealized” images of good father figures: Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. I wrote about their attempts here, in my study of the teaching of American literature for propaganda purposes, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. The materials from which this startling advice to other progressives was drawn are held by the Harvard University Archives, and consisted of numerous worksheets, distributed nationally to citizen groups interested in Henry A. Murray and Gordon Allport’s program of “civilian morale,” circa 1941-42. After this excerpt from a published work, I will reflect upon the differing assessments of Lincoln and the more “radical” or “Jacobin” members of the Republican Party.

[ Book excerpt, chapter two, quoting Murray and Allport; the narrative is mine:]  The section “General Attitudes Toward Leaders” anticipated the criticism that American propaganda duplicated Nazi methods. First the authors warned “the less the faith in sources of information, the worse the morale.” The next item suggested “Linking of Present Leader to the Idealized Leaders of the Past”: ‘The more the present leader is seen as continuing in the footsteps of the great idealized leaders of the past, the better the morale. (Picture of Roosevelt between Washington and Lincoln would encourage this identification.) The more the present leader is seen as falling short of the stature of the great idealized leaders of the past, the worse the identification (11). By effective leadership the group’s latent communality may emerge through identification with the leader. If this smacks of the Führer-Prinzip, we would insist that identification is a process common to all societies, and that what distinguishes the democratic leadership from the Nazi leadership is not the process of identification but the content of what is identified with. It is the function of the democratic leader to inspire confidence in the democratic way of life, in its value for the individual or the society and not mere identification with his person, or the mythical Volk (16).’ (my emph.)

For the tolerant materialists Murray and Allport, as with David Hume before them, there is no foreordained clash between individuals and institutions, no economic relationships to undermine altruism and benevolence: man is naturally communal and “society” as a coherent entity, a collective subject, actually exists. The good leader is neither autocratic nor corrupt, “does not waver, is not self-seeking, is impartial, accepts good criticism” (#4, 10). As we have seen, tolerance, i.e., criticism of leadership, had its limits.[i] The Constitutionalist legacy had to be reinterpreted because critical support of political institutions in the Lockean-Freudian mode is not identical with “identification,” an unconscious process whereby primitive emotions of early childhood are transferred to all authority, coloring our ‘rational’ choices and judgments. Only the most rigorous and ongoing demystification and precise structural analysis (with no government secrets) could maintain institutional legitimacy for political theorists in the libertarian tradition, but, for the moderates, such claims to accurate readings as a prelude to reform were the sticky residue of the regicides. And where is the boundary between good and bad criticism? Alas, just as Martin Dies had suggested that the poor should tolerate the rich, Murray and Allport advised Americans to tolerate (or forget) “Failure in the Nation’s Past.” We must do better, of course.

The worksheet continues, recommending that traditional American evangelicalism embrace the disaffected, for there may be moderate enthusiasts in the new dispensation: “The submerging of the individual in enthusiastic team work is not altogether foreign to the American temper. This means Jews, the “lower” classes, the draftees, labor unions, and so on. It cannot be done by fiat, but the inequalities might be mitigated if not removed, so that otherwise apathetic groups would feel a stake in the defense of the country, and the middle and upper classes more aware of the meaning of democracy (16).”

These latter remarks were intended to answer the question Murray and Allport had posed at the beginning of their worksheets: “Certain themes in Axis propaganda are continually stressed, notably the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the democracies in general and of the U.S. (and President Roosevelt) in particular. What’s to be done about it?” (4). Virtually the entire postwar program of conservative reform was foreshadowed in these pages. As formulated in the mid-nineteenth century, abolitionist and working-class demands for universal education, equal rights, and enforcement of the Constitution would be redirected into the quotas of affirmative action or multiculturalism. In worksheet #17, “Long Term Aspects of Democratic Morale Building,” a program of integration and deferential politeness would rearrange the American people’s community:

” …far from ignoring or suppressing diversities of intelligence, the objective of democratic morale-building should be their conscious integration into an improving collective opinion. The techniques of such integration exist. They are inherent in the democratic tradition of tolerance and the democratic custom of free discussion. They exist, however, in outline rather than in any ultimate or perhaps even very high state of development (4). [Quoting Gordon Allport:]…Our pressure groups are loud, their protests vehement and our method of electioneering bitter and sometimes vicious. In the process of becoming self-reliant Americans have lost respect, docility, and trust in relation to their leaders. Our habit of unbridled criticism, though defended as a basic right, brings only a scant sense of security to ourselves in an emergency, and actively benefits the enemies of the nation (5). (“integration” Murray’s and Allport’s emph., bold-face mine)

And one such source of insecurity (i.e., subversion) was anti-war education and pacifism: “insofar as the disapproval of war was based on a rejection of imperialist patriotism, it engendered war-cynicism” (Red-bound typescript, 4). In other words, Murray and Allport were admitting that involvement in the war could not be legitimated as an anti-imperialist intervention, nor could there be any other appeal to reason. Leaders, past and present, would have to be idealized; all criticism bridled in the interest of “integration.” The disaffected should moderate their demands, settling for mitigation, not relief.
And if, despite the neo-Progressive prescriptions, the road to national unity remained rocky, scapegoating, properly guided by social scientific principles, would certainly deflect aggression away from ruling groups. [end, excerpt, Hunting Captain Ahab.]

Left-liberal historians vs. Southern historians on Lincoln: That the historic figure Lincoln has been appropriated for present-day partisan concerns should be obvious. Richard Hofstadter debunked him as well as Roosevelt in The American Political Tradition (1948): for Hofstadter, Lincoln was a calculating, ambitious politician, who followed public opinion without leading it. That same sub-text can be found in the more recent popular biography by David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 1995), foreshadowed by Southerner T.  Harry Williams’s anthology of Lincoln’s speeches (Packard, 1943).  For instance, in reporting Lincoln’s last public speech, Donald takes him to task: “…Nor was he about to issue a proclamation for the general reorganization of the Southern states. The sole item on the agenda was peace, and Lincoln did not in this speech—or elsewhere—offer a broad vision of the future, outlining how the conquered South should be governed. He stipulated only that loyal men must rule. His view was not that of the  Conservatives, who simply wanted the rebellious states, without slavery, to return to their former position in the Union, nor was it the view of the Radicals, who wanted to take advantage of this molten moment of history to recast the entire social structure of the South. [Williams wrote an entire book on Lincoln and the Radicals.] He did not share the Conservatives’ desire to put the section back into the hands of the planters and businessmen who had dominated the South before the war, but he did not adopt the Radicals’ belief that the only true Unionists in the South were African-Americans. (p.582).”

Donald, originally a Southerner. later a Harvard professor of note, and author of a hostile biography of Charles Sumner (Donald refers to the Radical Republicans as “Jacobins” in the Lincoln book)  is writing partly in the Hofstadter tradition, as he demonstrates throughout this minutely documented study of Lincoln’s life—a study that strongly contradicts the conversion narrative offered up by leftist historian Eric Foner (see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/30/eric-foners-christianized-lincoln/). By contrast, Foner uses the Lincoln example to buttress the case for reparations, in concert with other left-liberal historians such as David Brion Davis, David Blight, Steven Mintz, and John Stauffer. They are not interested in Lincoln’s purported moderation (that in Donald’s account slips into rank opportunism and lack of principle).

Eric Foner made much of Lincoln’s growing religiosity as his presidency progressed, but one wonders if the religious rhetoric of the Second Inaugural Address was not at least partly inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861), with an almost identical appeal to Providence, hence an evasion of personal responsibility for the welfare of the freedmen, for Lincoln’s recurrent depression and sense of horror over the casualties of the Civil War must at least partly account for his distressing lack of personal security that allowed Booth’s conspiracy to triumph. It is not an unreasonable inference to suggest that Lincoln was suicidal, and not only at the end, when the country remained enraged, as it had been for many years over such matters as the expansion of slavery and states rights. Add to that the slaughter that we have just learned was underestimated in its numbers of killed and wounded–estimates now exceed 750,000, and perhaps that too is low! See http://www2.bupipedream.com/news/professor-rethinks-civil-war-death-toll-1.2613738.

I find it impossible to laud Lincoln’s record as a moderate who succeeded in conciliating sectional conflict, as O’Reilly imagines; no human being could have done. We are still fighting over the causes and conduct of the Civil War; the proposals of the so-called Radical Republicans might have done much to allay the bitterness that remains over this irrepressible, unresolved, traumatic and traumatizing conflict. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/20/are-we-still-fighting-the-civil-war/.) For a treatment of Herman Melville’s treatment of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War in general, see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. And oh, yes, I still maintain that the antislavery Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, was at least one contributor to Melville’s world-famous Captain Ahab. See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/, for similarities between Sumner’s views and Ahab’s words.


[i]        David Hume had confidently asserted that unpredictability enters politics when factions are infiltrated by radical religion; by triumphalist hypermoralistic, hyper-rationalist puritan extremists: the link between cause and effect would no longer be obvious. See History of England, Vol. 6, year 1617. The Hume entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1971, presents Hume as a philosopher whose major contribution was his demonstration that there could be no theory of reality, no verification for our assertions of causality. Faced with the necessity of action we rely upon our habit of association and (subjective) beliefs. And yet Hume is described as a thinker who saw philosophy as “the inductive science of human nature.” He is not  described as a moderate or a Tory.

May 20, 2011

The Mentalist, Melville, Blake, and Israel

Simon Baker as The Mentalist

SPOILER ALERT. The popular CBS show The Mentalist had a razzle-dazzle finale ending its third season. Not only was Captain Ahab mentioned, and the Blake poem that had ended the second season reiterated, but Patrick Jane confronted his White Whale, Red John, and shot him point blank in a shopping mall. (It turned out to be a bad man, but not Red John.)

Melville’s Moby-Dick has come up several times in this series, as has the problem of vengeance, and it is the question of “vengeance” and the problem of evil (the dark side of humanity) that is being talked about today on the internet.  As I wrote in my prior blog on The Mentalist, the Blake poem, The Tyger* was written in 1794, and whatever religious resonances it contained, it also clearly referred to the Reign of Terror as perpetrated by the Jacobins. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/.) Today’s undereducated television audience is probably more attuned to the Devil or fallen flesh (our purported dark interior) than it is to specific historical provocations that stir a poet, so today’s blog will try to pull together some themes that question the morality of “vengeance.”**

If there is an archetype for humanity seeking to stamp out evil, it is the Promethean Captain Ahab, his leg torn away by “Moby Dick.” His detractors (Ishmael, Starbuck, and the majority of Melville scholars, including those on the Left) have seen him engaged on a vindictive, futile, hubristic, and suicidal quest to abolish evil. If one understands that Melville wrote his masterpiece after decades of antislavery agitation that threatened to sunder the Union, one must concede that Melville had a very specific evil in mind, and that was the Slavocracy, as Charles Sumner and other antislavery men termed the national government as controlled by Southern slaveholders.

It is not irrelevant that Melville was sometimes read as “Jew” or “Hebraic” and identified with Ahab, or that David Herbert Donald, Sumner’s biographer, hinted that he was driven by Jewish blood through his mother (See Vol.1 of Donald’s biography, published 1960; the tone abruptly changed in Vol.2, published 1970, possibly because of the civil rights movement.)

The Mentalist is no New Age mystic, indeed is not a psychic as some viewers would like to think. He is rather something very like Captain Ahab: a “fighting  Quaker,” a materialist, a loner, and a shrewd mapper of his environment and the correlation of forces arrayed against his individuality. He sees corruption in high places, and cannot count on the legal system to catch the serial killer who murdered his wife and child; indeed, the legal system is hand-in-glove, he thinks, with evildoers, and is compromised by procedures at best. Thus the analogy I am making here with Melville as moralist, horrified by the institution of slavery, but also constrained by his family’s connections to take a public stand against it, except through indirection in his novels.

Consider now the hatred directed against the Jews of Western Europe after their emancipation in the 19th century. The polarizing Dreyfus case was only one example of the failure of a civilized government to enact justice. It was from this crucible that the journalist and playwright Theodore Herzl conceived the daring mission to create a Jewish state.  What role did the civilized nations play in the accelerating events that led to the horrors of the 20th century, and that threaten the Jewish state as I write this? The “Christianized” West was either complicit or indifferent to the murder of the Jews, and continued their indifference when the war was concluded, notwithstanding the supposed U.S. or U.N. support for the Jewish state. It was the willingness of Jews to take casualties in 1948 (plus arms supplied by a briefly friendly Soviet Union with its own agenda) that made the State of Israel possible, not helpful Western intervention. Writing in the early 1940s, Harvard’s star sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose “structural functionalism” still rules in academe, and who was cited favorably by David H. Donald, in Sumner Vol.2,  described the Jewish national character as reflective of a vindictive, savage God. One wonders how many liberal Jews today are fleeing from that archetype, joining in the anti-Ahab chorus as they imagine themselves to be assimilating and therefore acceptable to the American ruling class, those “moderate men” who hold to “virtuous expediency” (as Melville would have derisively put it).

Which brings me back to the higher law. John Locke wrote of the right to resist authority when the constituted government breaks its contract with the people. What makes Patrick Jane such an interesting character to me, is his uniqueness in popular television crime shows (with the possible exception of Bobbie Goren). You don’t see many apparent atheists depicted as the hero of a series, by necessity taking the law into his own hands, appealing to rough justice, or perhaps the higher law of Truth and Justice, as Sumner would have seen it. (Compare this series with Blue Bloods, frankly Irish Catholic in its sympathies, and where everything is done “by the book.”)

What do we mean, then, by “vengeance,” and who defines its legality?  And is the unforgiving Bruno Heller/Patrick Jane a writer who is running ahead of public opinion, indeed running ahead of his own authorial instincts? Melville, insofar as he identified with his mad Captain Ahab, surely was.

*Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye.
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright.
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye.
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

** On 6-2-11, CBS replayed the episode “Red Moon” that ended with a serial killer, set on fire by a guard, reciting some lines from “The Tyger” as he is dying. This episode was written by Bruno Heller and directed by Simon Baker. After the poem is heard, “Patrick Jane” looks extremely disturbed. I suspect that both actor and author are more interested in “the dark [Satanic/vengeful] side” of our species than in exploring the moral dilemma of a man seeking justice in a society where the law is unevenly applied. See recap here: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_mentalist/recaps/310/recaps.php?season=3. To sum it up: without religion, the hounds of hell are released. “The mentalist” is an anti-hero, not meant to be an exemplar, and he is often read that way by viewers, as Red John himself. But as a regular viewer of the show, I prefer to think that both Heller and Baker know what they are doing, and that their view of [Ahab] coincides with mine.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.