YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 1, 2013

Power, relationships, identity

identityI wrote this blog because the notion of “power” as an end in itself is often mentioned by some friends on Facebook, or at times by politicians who accuse their opponents of not having real issues, but only unseemly “ambition” of the type that leads to world wars. To me, there is no such thing as a perverse and demonic will to power. “Power” to me is highly moral and involves self-control, concrete achievements, and the habits that foster humility and lifelong learning. I was raised to value individuality, but never at the expense of responsibility to a larger human community. In my youth, a healthy identity was contrasted to mental illness; the functioning self could distinguish between reality and fantasy, between Real and Fake. Little did I know that I was living in a dream world, for the very notion of the individual is passé, as is originality. Indeed, I should probably view my stubborn search for the truth, no matter how much mockery I engender, as “oppositional defiant disorder.”

If there is any one theme that characterizes this website it is in dating the turn away from the individual as the source of value and identity, to “the individual-in-society”. In other words, at some point in history, we would be defined by our relationships to groups, not by the accuracy of our perceptions. “Society” referred to a bunch of “sub-cultures” that have their own “focal concerns”, e.g. for the urban lower classes that focal concern is “trouble.” At least that is what I learned during my year in graduate school at Harvard in 1958-59. I also learned in the history of science course, taught by I. Bernard Cohen that science was a bit of a racket, and that the skeptic David Hume had proved it beyond cavil.

Fast forward to my stint as program director of radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, 2/1/81 through 7/31/1982. Unbeknownst to me, the concept of the relatively autonomous individual was long gone, and I was hired to implement a policy of “multiculturalism,” and my firing was coincidental with my plans for a Fall Fund Drive where we would challenge myth-making versus science and why such a conflict even existed. The pretext for my firing was that I was bad at smoothing over inter-station conflicts: I should have manufactured harmony where irreconcilable conflicts existed between Trotskyists, Stalinists, and the counter-culture.  (I have told much of this story here: https://clarespark.com/2010/10/21/links-to-pacifica-memoirs/.)  From what I was told, the local CP organized against me because I had allowed too many Trotskyists on the air, and they were speaking about the Spanish Civil War, breaking the Popular Front line that the way to view history during the interwar period was to postulate “the People” against “Fascism.” And only communists opposed fascism, in their view. I was denounced to local progressive organizations by Dorothy Healey, former secretary for the Southern California branch of the CPUSA, as an anti-feminist, an antisemite, and as personally destructive.

It was not until I returned to graduate school at UCLA and was fixated on witch hunts (!) that I figured out why I was purged from Pacifica Radio, which had become my home away from home, and the primary source of my identity as a plucky defender of artistic and intellectual freedom. As long as I was a mere programmer concentrating on free thought, I was safe, for I had listeners who ponied up during Fund Drives. It was my role as administrator that cooked my goose (despite our increasing subscriptions). Until then, I had no idea that individualism was “out” while “culturalism” was “in.”

I was fired for telling the truth (as I understood it), for protecting my hard-won identity as one who recognized conflicts inside myself and in the culture at large. You might say that I benefited from the ecological approach to institutions taught to me at Cornell, where I graduated from the science teaching program available free to all New York State residents in the School of Agriculture (assuming that you had good grades). So much of my programming on “The Sour Apple Tree” involved how institutional constraints limited artistic creativity.

A lot of good my adherence to footnotes and scientific method did me later on: at UCLA, I was labeled as that “hysterical feminist” or “the last positivist.”  I had yet to be called a troublemaking Jew to my face. So much for Cornell U. and its respect for empiricism. But despite the insults, I pressed on. How long had this “culturalism” thing been going on? Based on my research at UCLA, I could date the beginning of the turn toward “culturalism” in the mid-1930s, and have done so here: https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/. (A version of this essay was published on History News Network.) But I would prefer to begin with the response to the Soviet Coup of October 1917, as the progressives at the Nation magazine advised conservative readers to move sharply to the left to outflank both the Socialist Party and the I.W.W. This dates the turn away from “materialism” toward “idealist” formulations of social conflict to 1919. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. Even that periodization has flaws. I researched the preferred style in teaching American literature from the Gilded Age to the present here: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/.

(Much of this material was incorporated into my book on the Melville Revival, Hunting Captain Ahab.) In sum, all my studies strongly suggested that scientific method was questioned and usually discarded for the sake of “the moderate men,” social cohesion, and political stability. Some reviewers of my book ms. prior to publication accused me of liking my own readings too much: I was obviously another bossy Captain Ahab. Is it any wonder I emphasized his declaration of independence: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”  (For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/18/blogs-on-mental-health/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/.)

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January 2, 2011

The Watchbird State

I object to the term “nanny state” as sexist. Here is an argument for “Watchbird State” as alternative, taken from chapter 9 of my book Hunting Captain Ahab. The powerful social psychologists I cite here viewed themselves as “moderate conservatives”. Today, they occupy the “left,” having purified the republic of the dangerous extremists who once perched on our shoulders.  The watchbird was an invention of Munro Leaf, and during the 1950s, was a familiar cartoon figure.  (For a related blog, preparing the reader for this one, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/.)

[book excerpt:]    Pragmatic Harvard social psychologists appropriated Madisonian pluralist politics, ignoring the libertarian, anti-corporative* aspect of their theoretical underpinnings. For the new moderates, social stability was achieved when triumphalist factions (instigated by religious enthusiasm or other forms of zealotry such as an inordinate love of gain), were replaced by amoral interest groups; relieved of (Hume’s) plundering or leveling extremists, bargains could be struck, reconciling private interest with public good: the moderates would have clambered onto solidly “mobile-middle ground.”[i]

Reading Madison in Federalist #10, they could infer that free speech was a safety valve, circumscribed spatially and irrelevant to political processes with realistic goals.[ii] Having banished irrationality from their own procedures, the Harvard clique could see themselves as resolutely antifascist, for it was the mob-driven Nazi movement (likened by Talcott Parsons to romantic puritans in other writing of 1942) that was pathological. Ritual rebellions could be safely confined within psychiatrists’ offices or the pages of Typee (or in the bed Ishmael shared with Queequeg). Parsons’ contribution appeared in Psychiatry along with a germinal article “Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth,” by Erik Homburger Erikson, another colleague of Murray’s at Harvard. Erikson presented Hitler as a “great adventurer” possessed of “borderline traits”; he was the perennial adolescent, a big brother to other unyielding gangsters. Erikson held that broken-spirited German fathers lacking inner integration and authority were responsible for the (hysterical) romantic revolt of the sons.[iii] Erikson’s identity politics owed more to Henry A. Murray and the romantic conservative Jung, a theorist of racial character, than to the cosmopolitan and bourgeois Freud. Soon the Jungian analyst Murray (who admired the Wandering Jew Freud’s eyes that penetrated walled-up areas of the psyche) would be advising President Roosevelt that Hitler, the autodidact Id-man, the Dionysiac Man of the Crowd who had overcome big Capital, was an “arch-Romantic,” a composite of Lord Byron and Al Capone, a paranoid schizophrenic, a homosexual, and probably a carrier of Jewish blood through his father; ergo Hitler’s “uncanny knowledge of the average man” should “be appropriated to good advantage.” Disillusion with the Führer was perilous; Murray argued for “a profound conversion of Germany’s attitude” after the Allied victory:

“Disorganization and confusion will be general, creating breeding ground for cults of extreme individualism. A considerable part of the population will be weighted down with a heavy sense of guilt, which should lead to a revival of religion. The soil will be laid [sic] for a spiritual regeneration; and perhaps the Germans, not we, will inherit the future.[iv]

Harold Lasswell and Murray, both progressives, thought as one. In his Power and Personality (1948), Lasswell contemplated the continuing plausibility of Marxist analysis, worried about “paranoids” with their fingers on nuclear buttons, and urged “genuine democrats to expose the dubious and dangerous expectation of democracy through mass revolution.” The world revolution of the twentieth century would probably culminate in mutually annihilating technocratic garrison states unless “the scientists of democracy” intervened to create the “sociocapitalist” “free man’s commonwealth.” Murray’s personality tests (developed in the mid-1930s and during his stint with the OSS during the war) fertilized Lasswell’s febrile, holistic imagination. While deploying the concepts of accountability and openness that for John Locke had been indispensable to the functioning of popular sovereignty, Lasswell, with Murray’s personnel assessment tests in tow, had turned Locke upside down:

One of the practical means by which tensions arising from provocativeness can be reduced is by the selection of leaders from among non-destructive, genuinely democratic characters…. This has already gone far in appointive jobs. Several businesses are accustomed to promote executives not only on the basis of the general administrative record but according to scientific methods of personality appraisal. The aim is to discern whether factors in the personality structure counterindicate the placing of heavier responsibilities on the person.

“To a limited extent selection procedures in army, navy and civil administration have been directed to the same end. But the procedure is not yet applied to elective office. What is needed is a National Personnel Assessment Board set up by citizens of unimpeachable integrity which will select and supervise the work of competent experts in the description of democratic and antidemocratic personality. The Assessment Board can maintain continuing inquiry into the most useful tests and provide direct services of certifications of testers. When this institution has been developed it will slowly gather prestige and acceptance. Sooner or later candidates for elective office will have enough sense of responsibility to submit voluntarily to an investigation by the board, which would say only that the candidate has, or has not, met certain defined minimum standards. Gradually, the practice of basic personality disclosure can spread throughout all spheres of life, including not only local, state, national or inter-nation government personnel, but political parties, trade unions, trade associations, churches and other volunteer associations.

“It is an axiom of democratic polity that rational opinion depends upon access to pertinent facts and interpretations. Surely no facts are more pertinent than those pertaining to character structure of candidates for leadership. Progressive democratization calls for the development of such new institutions as the Assessment Board for the purpose of modernizing our methods of self-government.[v]

The National Personnel Assessment Board set up by citizens of unimpeachable integrity,” “gradually” penetrating every institution, would control definitions of acceptable rational opinion. And yet Lasswell was no friend to totalitarian regimes; as member of the Research Advisory Board and spokesman for the Committee For Economic Development (CED), he condemned loyalty investigations. Instead of imitating sleazy witch-hunters on the Right or the “negative” tactics of the ACLU on the Left, he called for an overhaul of leaders and the led (the latter ultimately responsible for protecting First Amendment freedoms). A balance would be struck between national security and individual freedom through formation of community discussion groups, to be fed by appropriately cautious government experts supplying an interactive (but “expert”-controlled) free press and public broadcasting system. [vi] In the 1950s, Lasswell’s study of political symbols helped social scientists refine their tools in the surveillance of blooming political dissidents. Murray’s OSS recruitment test of 1943 could weed potentially disloyal government employees, while his Thematic Apperception Test (1935) could enhance content-analysis of mass communications. Lasswell frankly explained the purposes that infused the new discipline of communications studies, said to be relevant to literary scholars and historians; indeed he decoded authoritarian styles of discourse throughout. [vii]

Watchbird sights bad boy

Modern preventive politics did not begin with the machinations of Lasswell & Co. but with Humean or Burkean autopsies of the regicidal English and French Revolutions. According to the reform-or-ruin school of preventive hygiene, foul winds and cancers appear when aristocrats allow vices to ferment in the bowels; the social bond is broken, virtue and vice trade places.[viii] Through alert planning (like education and sports for the masses and psychoanalysis for their betters), elites would become more flexible while containing their passion for libertine excess and luxurious display; meanwhile the People would have healthy outlets for their discontent and desirousness–like libertine excess and luxurious display especially in the mass media. Thus Reason, Conscience, and the State would be brought into congruence. The reform-or-ruin strategy of social hygiene and preventive politics would dominate the political science and social psychology created by moderate conservatives. Understrapping their dreams of thoroughgoing surveillance, the watchbird watched everybody, leaders and the led.

*Corporative does not signify a state in cahoots with big business and Wall Street (as New Leftists and OWS folk would have it), but rather organizing representation by occupation, such as Mussolini’s “corporative state” where the state regulated relations between the sindicati, imposing harmony from above and erasing the conception of the dissenting individual.

NOTES.

[i]               21. Richard Chase, “New vs. Ordealist,” Kenyon Review, 11 (1949): 12-13, cited again below.

[ii]               22. See discussion of Madison and the Whigs, Daniel Walker Howe, Political Culture of the American Whigs, 90-91. As I interpret the Federalist Papers, the authors (Jay, Hamilton, and Madison) defined their republicanism against all feudal and corporatist entities– the sources of imbecility, war and anarchy. Liberty was a quality of the rational individual. Collectivities were fictions necessarily sustained by myth, not political science. Their interest groups corresponded to economic interest alone; there was no talk of national “identity.” The idea of using (irrationalist) propaganda to obtain consensus would or should have been anathema. Madison’s Federalist #10 does not discuss free speech directly. Addressing men of property alarmed by Shays Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and demands for several separate confederacies, the acutely class-conscious essay distinguished the benefits of a balanced republic controlling a large territory as compared with the vulnerabilities of small states and the confiscating propensities of small-scale popular democracies. The more interest groups the better, since no one group, unified by economic interest, could attain a legislative majority to oppress other citizens. Madison’s view of human nature does not include moral categories as such: individuals differ in their capacities to acquire property. Men of property, properly chosen (elected) to represent their constituencies for their inner  poise and sense of justice, would be fair to contending parties, abiding by the rule of law–rules that were the same for rich and poor alike. These may be the moderate men interrogated by Melville’s dark characters.

 [iii]             22. Erik Homburger Erikson, “Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth,” Psychiatry 5 (Nov. 1942): 475-493. On 30 Nov. 1952,  Murray sent Erikson a copy of his paper on Ahab, In Nomine Diaboli. On 4 Mar. 1952, Murray asked for a copy of Erikson’s paper “Growth and Crises of the Personality.” On 30 Nov. 1962, Talcott Parsons invited Erikson to present a study of Max Weber in the style of his Luther psychobiography for the 1964 meeting of the American Sociological Association, noting Weber’s “great creative contributions to our culture.” Erikson Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[iv]              23. The register of the Murray Papers at Harvard state that his analysis of Hitler’s psyche was in process since 1938: it is possible that Murray influenced Erikson, not vice versa. See Henry A. Murray, “Analysis of the personality of Adolph [sic] Hitler with predictions of his future behavior and suggestions for dealing with him now and after Germany’s surrender,” October 1943, 5-7, 31, 46-53, 83, 143, 145, 211 and passim. Declassified confidential report, FDR Library, Hyde Park, quoted with permission. Cf. Anton T. Boisen, “The Form and Content of Schizophrenic Thinking,” Psychiatry 5 (Nov. 1942): 23-33 (the same issue contained the Parsons article on propaganda). Primitives, children, romantic explorers, materialists, individualists, modern artists, and persons undergoing “conversion” experiences are conflated and diagnosed as anxious, fragmenting (“hebephrenic”) schizophrenics. Also see Charles Kligerman’s diagnosis of Melville’s paranoid schizophrenia in “The Psychology of Herman Melville,” Psychoanalytic Review 40 (Apr. 1953): 125-143.

[v]               24. Harold D. Lasswell, Power and Personality (New York: Norton, 1948), 222, 211, 186-187.

[vi]              25. Harold D. Lasswell, National Security and Individual Freedom (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950). Howard B. Myers of CED wrote the brief forward which explained that “This report examines the problems that confront us in seeking national security without forfeit of the basic values and principles of American life.”

[vii]             26. Harold D. Lasswell, Daniel Lerner, Ithiel de Sola Pool, The Comparative Study of Symbols, 24-25. Murray may have gotten the term “apperception” from Goethe’s comments on the rigid moralist Dr. Stilling (aka Jung), an example of a God-intoxicated type, overly impressed by “experience,” that Goethe described in his Auto-biography: “The things sympathetic persons of this kind love most to talk of, are, the so-called awakenings and conversions, to which we will not deny a certain psychological value. They are properly what we call in scientific and poet matters, an “aperçu;” the perception of a great maxim, which is always a genius-like operation of the mind; we arrive at it by pure intuition, that is, by reflection, neither by learning or tradition. In the cases before us it is the perception of the moral power, which anchors in faith, and thus feels itself in proud security in the midst of the waves.” (Truth and Poetry, Vol. II, 75).

[viii]             27. See Richard A. Soloway, “Reform or Ruin: English Moral Thought During The First French Republic,” Review of Politics (Jan. 1963): 110-127.

September 29, 2009

Anne Hutchinson’s Red Regiment and the Cultural Historians, part one

The Uppity Woman in Context

This is the first part of a multi-part blog series about irrationalist renditions of the Reformation. Readers of prior blogs will recognize my  opponent: the “moderate man,” who, I argue, cannot identify irreconcilable conflicts, but believes that all conflict is susceptible to mediation by “rational” arbitrators. The strange historiography on the famous troublemaker Anne Hutchinson serves as instructive example of the rule of “moderates” in the academy.

I.     During the mid-1630s, Anne Hutchinson, a middle-aged gentlewoman, self-appointed lay preacher, midwife and healer, rocked the infant colony of Massachusetts Bay with sufficient vehemence to toss it, bloodied and adrift, into the cold waters of religious and political controversy.  Hutchinson and her large Boston following had challenged the credentials of all but two of the Bay Colony ministry, hence the legitimacy of the ruling group.  Accordingly, the Hutchinsonians, who included wealthy merchants and artisans as well as the humble, were disfranchised, disarmed, or otherwise terrorized and persecuted, while Anne Hutchinson herself was imprisoned, banished, excommunicated and denounced as a Familist, a witch, and a degenerate.[i]

Across the Atlantic in 1636, the very year that Governor John Winthrop declared Anne Hutchinson a troublemaker, another upper-class radical was arrested.  An esteemed English cleric, Dr. John Everard, was accused of preaching Familism, a radical utopian doctrine originated a century earlier by Hendrick Niclaes of Münster which “undermined clerical control over the psychological lives of ordinary people” by encouraging “the newly literate sectors of society–women, artisans, servants and laborers” to read the Bible for themselves and, if need be, challenge the interpretations decreed by their betters. “The heightened self-esteem literacy fostered and the intellectual independence it encouraged suggested to working people that they were not innately sinful and enabled them to believe that one day they might create a perfect society here on earth–an idea that sapped the foundations of Tudor government.” [ii]

Although Anne Hutchinson, the eminently respectable wife of a merchant, landowner and judge, repeatedly disavowed any radical sympathies, her detractors just as persistently characterized her as the non plus ultra of extremists, poisoning the body politic and inciting civil war. John Winthrop fretted that her confidence in “immediate revelation” was “the most desperate enthusiasm in the world…Of all the revelations that ever I read of I never read the like ground laid as is for this. The Enthusiasts and Anabaptists have never the like.”

The Deputy Governor Dudley agreed with Winthrop’s historical analogy:  “These disturbances that have come among the Germans have been grounded upon revelations, and so they that have vented them have stirred up their hearers to take up arms against their prince and to cut the throats of one another, and these have been the fruits of them, and whether the devil may inspire the same into their hearts here I know not, for I am fully persuaded that Mrs. Hutchinson is deluded by the devil, because the spirit of God speaks truth in all his servants.”

Thomas Weld complained that her venom had diffused into “the very veines and vitalls of the People,” dividing every institution: churches, courts, town meetings, the militia, “and in families setting division betwixt husband and wife!”  For Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing two centuries later, Anne Hutchinson was an archetype: “the woman” as riveting agitator. She stares down her persecutors during the civil trial that had arraigned her for criticizing ministers:

[Hawthorne:] “In the midst, and in the centre of all eyes, we see the woman. She stands loftily before her judges with a determined brow; and, unknown to herself, there is a flash of carnal pride half hidden in her eye, as she surveys the many learned and famous men whom her doctrines have put in fear. They question her; and her answers are ready and acute: she reasons with them shrewdly, and brings Scripture in support of every argument. The deepest controversialists of that scholastic day find here a woman, whom all their trained and sharpened intellects are inadequate to foil. But, by the excitement of the contest, her heart is made to rise and swell within her, and she bursts forth into eloquence….”

Hawthorne’s sketch of that enlarged and bursting heart would be realized in Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, Zenobia’s passion flower, Miriam’s ruby jewel, and the Wandering Jew’s “blood-incrusted pen of steel,” then in Melville’s prideful, eloquent Captain Ahab, a character read as a “mystic” by Melville’s first modern biographer, Raymond Weaver.[iii] Today Anne Hutchinson is a heroine to some feminists and libertarians, a protofascist to one prominent New Americanist.  This is how Richard Brodhead, then dean of Yale college and Professor of English, depicted the lineage she spawned, worsened by “the emotional dependencies produced in the hyperaffectionate, inward-turning, hothouse family newly prominent in Melville’s time”:

“Captain Ahab is a figure of the psychically damaged man as visionary authority and charismatic leader.  Ahab knows and persuades others of the One Sole Truth, the truth of his demented obsession.  Pierre is another incarnation of a type that has run through American history, from the antinomian religious dissidents of the 1640s [sic] to the civil disobeyers and antislavery radicals of Melville’s generation to the sect and militia leaders of our own time.  In its harrowing rendition of the cult of private visionary calling, “Pierre” envisions this urge as leading not just to violent trashing of the conventional social world but to a meltdown or disorientation of the moral world.” [iv]

But what of the historic figure? How has “the Woman” been appropriated in the twentieth century? How might we rehistoricize this provocative personality, “the Woman,” not only as a fascinating and complex problem in itself, but as a spotlight into academic politics?  Is there a contrast between the seventeenth-century nexus of the Antinomian Controversy vs. the context and pivotal actions as they have been asserted by recent cultural historians?  Has fear within the professoriate itself of upper-class dissent and agitation tout court distorted a conflict with quite different dynamics than the ones reported heretofore?

There is a dearth of diaries, letters or other primary sources in Hutchinson’s own hand to cast light upon her private beliefs and intentions.  Commentators must rely on “transcripts” of her civil trial and ecclesiastical examination to find her words, and these were delivered in the heat of battle.[v] The other major sources are the memoirs and propaganda of her opponents, such as Governor Winthrop, the minister Thomas Weld, and her once-beloved teacher, the “turncoat” John Cotton. The paucity or one-sidedness of the sources, however, has not prevented many scholars and biographers from making elaborate conjectures concerning Hutchinson’s politics and motives.  Moreover, corporatist ‘liberal’ political assumptions have led biographers to blame the victim by implying that the Antinomian controversy could have been smoothed over or its more repressive consequences averted had its leading figures, especially the ambitious, sharp-tongued, fanatical, and intransigent Anne Hutchinson, commanded the skills of political maturity: self-control and a state of mind conducive to compromise, conciliation, and those democratic procedures necessary to “conflict-resolution” and “adjustment” in the pluralist society of today, the “milieu” in which scholars are expected to function, a setting with little resemblance to the conditions experienced by the English settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Some historians, choosing to emphasize gender antagonisms as the major feature of the controversy, have failed to examine all of the other conflicts in the Bay Colony which could have impinged upon the social crisis of 1636-38, yet we cannot find a balanced assessment of Anne Hutchinson’s role without such a systematic reconstruction.  For “the woman’s” martyrdom was not the only instance of persecution.  To be sure, the writings of ministers and magistrates are so replete with misogyny and hysteria directed against her that the Antinomian controversy may seem like a gender conflict in which an uppity woman got her just desserts.  But women and men of different classes and ‘races’ were at odds during this period; the sex war cannot be detached from other conflicts which perhaps allowed it to surface and which made it seem so threatening.  For instance, as Rutman notes, “Boston’s enlarged servant population…was almost entirely excluded from church membership following the Hutchinsonian disturbances.” [vi]   Defending himself from charges of presentism, Lyle Koehler exposed a weakness which runs through the literature: he has no theory of ideology to connect political economy and culture, hence cannot sort out the variables of class, gender, and ‘race.’  To the complaint from Sidney A. Hart and John Walter Putre that the Antinomian controversy was a conflict grounded in religious differences, not an outbreak of “primitive feminism,” Koehler could only respond: “My concern…was to deal with the question why so many women became “Antinomians” and how the authorities responded to them.  I was concerned with the juxtaposed [his emph.] theological and social dimensions of the Antinomian unrest, but only insofar as those dimensions affected the women’s arm of that unrest.” [vii]  It has been acknowledged by writers of the past and present alike, say Hume in the eighteenth century and Robert Brenner today, that religion provided the vocabulary that subsumed all social conflicts; have other contemporary cultural historians, like Koehler, relieved themselves of customary critical tools?

The Pequot War (May 1637) was fought during this period. To account for the extreme individual and mass political emotions generated in the Antinomian controversy, historians might consider and reject the “fortress mentality” of a colonial society displacing both hostile and friendly natives, but perceiving itself besieged by “papistical Frenchmen and pagan Indians”–a society which saw itself as the victim, not the perpetrator of aggression.[viii] James Axtell explained that “the colonist’s [were] a chosen if momentarily abandoned people.  As the Israelites had suffered oppression and attack in another wilderness, the English felt themselves besieged by Satan’s minions in the form of pagan Indians and papistical Frenchmen.”  Ancient Jews, however, did not characterize their opponents as the Devil’s minions.  Although it is true that Indian relations were a preoccupation for John Winthrop that surely intensified his urgent desire for group solidarity, Axtell has put a dubious spin on this element of the explanatory context; his is an organicist formulation that, like Richard Brodhead’s, subtly smears “Hebraic” radical puritanism.  This essay is intended to historicize all such irrationalist, corporatist explanations founded upon the dodgy notion of group character.

It has been a common Tory strategy to attribute Jewish characteristics to the rebels, first after the English Civil War, then after the American Revolution; the ex-colonists were hypocrites, preaching godliness and equality while killing Indians and enslaving Africans, although I did not see it when I began to write about the Antinomian controversy in 1983-84.  The essentialist anti-puritan/anti-Jewish/misogynistic reading of the Antinomian controversy of this century had powerful precedents in the writing of earlier Tories seeking upper-class unity to stave off another civil war, and in their ideological brethren on American soil.  Take two examples; first, the nineteenth-century American historian Charles Frances Adams: [ix]

It was a struggle for civil power and ecclesiastical supremacy in a small village community.  As such it naturally–it almost necessarily–resulted in a display of the worst qualities of those engaged in it.  It illustrated also with singular force the malign influence apt to be exercised by the priest and the woman as active elements in political life.  Stirred by an access of ill-considered popular enthusiasm, the body of the freemen had, at the election of 1636, put a slight upon the time-honored magistrates of the colony, by placing the boyish Vane over their heads, in the office of governor.  An ambitious woman, with her head full of Deborahs and the like, and with a genius for making trouble, had then sought to drive from his pulpit, in the chief town, its long-settled pastor, in order to install her own favorite preacher in his place, with her kinsman as that preacher’s associate and successor.  In her day-dreams she herself probably occupied, in the new order of things she proposed to bring about, the position of a prophetess,–the real guiding spirit of the whole, –with her husband possibly in the judge’s seat.  Altogether it was an exhilarating vision,–such a vision as self-conscious and usually unappreciated natures have in every time and most places been wont to revel in….(569)…At the hands…of an historian whose intelligence is not mastered by his sympathies, she and her friends, including Governor Vane, are entitled to no consideration.  They went on a fool’s errand, and they brought great principles into lasting odium (574).

[Adams, cont.] On the other hand, the way in which the adherents of Vane and Mrs. Hutchinson were suppressed cannot be defended, without including in the defence the whole system of religious and political intolerance of that time.  But why should it be defended?  It is impossible to ignore the fact, and worse than useless to deny it, that the New England Puritans were essentially a persecuting race.  They could not be otherwise. They believed that they were God’s chosen people.  As such, they were right; all others were wrong.  If, therefore, they failed to bring up their children in the strait and narrow way, and to protect them and all the people from the wiles of the Evil One, God would not hold them guiltless.  The Israelites were their models in all things, and the precedents which guided their action were precedents drawn from the books of the Old Testament.  “So, by the example of Lot in Abraham’s family, and after Hagar and Ishmael, he saw they must be sent away.”  The Israelites were not an attractive or an amiable or a philosophical race; they were narrow, devout and clannish.  No one ever presumed to sophisticate away their cruelties or their persecutions.  Yet withal they were a strong and aggressive people, believing certain things implicitly; and accordingly they impressed themselves and their beliefs on the human mind.  Their very imperfections were essential elements of their strength.  They believed to fanaticism; and it was the strength of their fanaticism which caused their belief to dominate.  It was the same with the Puritans of New England. They persecuted as a part of their faith (Adams, 574-575).

The impartial historian Adams’ misreading of ancient history is remarkably sturdy; it has buttressed antidemocratic, antirepublican social movements since the English Civil War.  In his portrait of the usurping Anne Hutchinson, we have the ahistoric archetype of the totalitarian agitator, the clingy maternal superego that holds humanity, rulers and ruled alike, to universal and timeless ethical standards, that sends unwary men like Ahab and Pierre on utopian crusades that are sure to fail. [x]  It is fascinating and alarming to contemplate the birthing of Adams’-style “pluralism,” scattering the dark shadows of ‘intolerant’ Hebraic Puritanism, cradle of both factions in the Antinomian controversy.

A voluble eighteenth-century predecessor to Adams was the Tory David Hume, noted today more for his contributions to skeptical philosophy than for his massive History of England. It was Hume who eloquently and subtly argued for “toleration” as the only option for societies facing the mayhem fomented by science, printing and mass literacy.  I shall quote at length and comment upon key passages in Hume’s recipes for preventive politics and social stability in an unprecedented and unpredictable social environment; Hume is our guide to the vicissitudes of civil liberties, extending from the sixteenth century to the hard-fought culture wars of the late twentieth century; he was seeking the third way, the moderate solution to the polarizing tendencies of the Reformation-Counter-Reformation; in Hume’s diagnostics, exemplary conduct in the upper-classes is crucial, yet his remedies do not make sense.[xi] Hume’s post-new model intellectual persists today in the humanities, dispensing confusion, not enlightenment.

In my first example, Hume describes the debates between Catholics and radical Protestants aroused by the proposal to disseminate a corrected version of the Tindal translation of the Bible during the reign of Henry VIII.  His remarks demonstrate the urgent need to control what, indeed, the revealed word of God commanded:  While Protestants demanded that all believers, one by one, inspect the written Word to check the veracity of their instructors and to choose more rationally amidst the competing claims of sects, Catholics argued that ambiguity, internal contradiction, and arousing but confusing metaphors in the Bible itself were ingredients that torched the too-vulnerable bodies of “silly women and mechanics”:

[Hume:]  The friends of the reformation asserted, that nothing could be more absurd than to conceal, in an unknown tongue, the word of God itself, and thus to counteract the will of Heaven, which, for the purpose of universal salvation, had published that salutary doctrine to all nations: that if this practice were not very absurd, the artifice at least was very gross, and proved a consciousness, that the glosses and  traditions of the clergy stood in direct opposition to the original text, dictated by supreme intelligence: that it was now necessary for the people, so long abused by interested pretensions, to see with their own eyes, and to examine whether the claims of the ecclesiastics were founded on that charter which was on all hands acknowledged to be derived from Heaven: and that, as a spirit of research and curiousity was happily revived, and men were more obliged to make a choice among the contending doctrines of different sects, the proper materials for decision, and above all, the Holy Scriptures, should be set before them; and the revealed will of God, which the change of language had somewhat obscured, be again, by their means, revealed to mankind.

The favorites of the ancient religion maintained on the other hand, that the pretence of making the people see with their own eyes was a mere cheat, and was itself a very gross artifice, by which the new preachers hoped to obtain the guidance of them, and to seduce them from those pastors whom the laws, whom the ancient establishments, whom Heaven itself, had appointed for their spiritual direction: that the people were by their very ignorance, their stupidity, their necessary avocations, totally unqualified to choose their own principles; and it was a mockery to set materials before them, of which they could not possibly make any proper use: that even in the affairs of common life, and in their temporal concerns, which lay more within the compass of human reason, the laws had in a great measure deprived them of their right of private judgment, and had, happily for their own and the public interest, regulated their conduct and behavior: that theological questions were placed far beyond the sphere of vulgar comprehension; and ecclesiastics themselves, though assisted by all the advantages of education, erudition, and an assiduous study of the sciences, could not be fully assured of a just decision, except by the promise made them in Scripture, that God would be ever present with his church, and that the gates of hell should not prevail against her: that the gross errors adopted by the wisest heathens, proved how unfit men were to grope their own way through this profound darkness; nor would the Scriptures, if trusted to every man’s judgment, be able to remedy; on the contrary they would much augment those fatal illusions: that sacred writ itself was involved in so much obscurity, gave rise to so many difficulties, containing so many appearing contradictions, that it was the most dangerous weapon that could be intrusted into the hands of the ignorant and giddy multitude: that the poetical style in which a great part of it was composed, at the same time that it occasioned uncertainty in the sense, by its multiplied tropes and figures, was sufficient to kindle the zeal of fanaticism, and thereby throw civil society into the most furious combustion: that a thousand sects must arise, which would pretend, each of them, to derive its tenets from the Scripture; and would be able, by specious arguments, or even without specious arguments, to seduce silly women and ignorant mechanics into a belief of the most monstrous principles: and that, if ever this disorder, dangerous to the magistrate himself, received a remedy, it must be from the tacit acquiescence of the people in some new authority; and it was evidently better, without further contest or inquiry, to adhere peaceably to ancient, and therefore the more secure establishments. [Hume, 221-222].

Will the fiery class of Bible readers feel too great a confidence in its own strength?  Now Hume makes his anxiety about role-models explicit; speculative thought in the Head provides a perilous example to the ignorant and giddy multitude, progressively disintegrating the body politic; mass religious instruction was spinning out of control:

[Hume:] The king [Henry VIII] made in person a speech to the parliament on proroguing them; in which, after thanking them for their loving attachment to him, which, he said, equalled what was ever paid to their ancestors by any king of England, he complained of their dissensions, disputes, and animosities in religion.  He told them that the several pulpits were become a kind of batteries against each other; and that one preacher called another a heretic and Anabaptist, which was retaliated by the opprobrious appellations of Papist and hypocrite: that he had permitted his people the use of the Scriptures, not in order to furnish them with materials for disputing and railing, but that he might enable them to inform their consciences and instruct their children and families: that it grieved his heart to find how that precious jewel was prostituted, by being introduced into the conversation of every alehouse and tavern, and employed as a pretence for decrying the spiritual and legal pastors: and that he was sorry to observe, that the word of God, while it was the object of so much anxious speculation, had very little influence on their practice; and that, though an imaginary knowledge so much abounded, charity was daily going to decay.  The king gave good advice; but his own example, by encouraging speculation and dispute, was ill fitted to promote that peaceable submission of opinion which he recommended. [in year 1545, p.298].

Ever the mediator between extremes, Hume distances himself from the Catholics; Hume is a modern and an enemy to superstition.  Repression is no alternative to Protestant disputation, he argues; ignorance but exacerbates feelings of emnity: Hume, as doctor to society and a man of the world, prescribes the toleration of difference, but apparently not from a desire for the intellectual engagement that could lead to rational social action in the body politic he wants to preserve; rather he wishes to forestall outbreaks of barbarism in the lower orders.  The good king will relax the hold of religion, constricting its sphere so that men may be flexible; free to seize new opportunities by ingratiating themselves with more powerful others whose ethical beliefs are different from their own.  Here Hume expatiates upon the wages of persecution during the reign of Queen Mary; no one is so opinionated, irrationally dogmatic and hence destructive of good order, as “polemical divines”; again, Hume reconstructs the debate:

[Hume:] The practice of persecution, said the defenders of Pole’s opinion, is the scandal of all religion; and the theological animosity, so fierce and violent, far from being an argument of men’s conviction in their opposite sects, is a certain proof that they have never reached any serious persuasion with regard to those remote and sublime subjects.  Even those who are the most impatient of contradiction in other controversies, are mild and moderate in comparison of polemical divines; and wherever a man’s knowledge and experience give him a perfect assurance in his own opinion, he regards with contempt, rather than anger, the opposition and mistakes of others.  But while men zealously maintain what they neither clearly comprehend nor entirely believe, they are shaken in their imagined faith by the opposite persuasion, or even doubts, of other men; and vent on their antagonists that impatience which is the natural result of so disagreeable a state of the understanding.  They then easily embrace any pretence for representing opponents as impious and profane; and if they can also find a color for connecting this violence with the interests of civil government, they can no longer be restrained from giving uncontrolled scope to vengeance and resentment.  But surely never enterprise was more unfortunate than that of founding persecution upon policy, or endeavoring, for the sake of peace, to settle an entire uniformity of opinion in questions which, of all others, are least subjected to the criterion of human reason.  The universal and uncontradicted prevalence of one opinion in religious subjects can be owing, at first, to the stupid ignorance alone and barbarism of the people, who never indulge themselves in any speculation or inquiry; and there is no expedient for maintaining that uniformity so fondly sought after, but by banishing forever all curiosity, and all improvement in science and cultivation.  It may not indeed appear difficult to check, by a steady severity, the first beginnings of controversy; but besides that this policy exposes forever the people to all the abject terrors of superstition, and the magistrate to the endless encroachment of ecclesiastics, it also renders men so delicate that they can never endure to hear of opposition; and they will some time pay dearly for that false tranquillity in which they have been so long indulged.  As healthful bodies are ruined by too nice a regimen, and are thereby rendered incapable of bearing the unavoidable incidents of human life, a people who were never allowed to imagine that their principles could be contested fly out into the most outrageous violence when any event (and such events are common) produces a faction among their clergy, and gives rise to any difference in tenet or opinion.  But whatever may be said in favor of suppressing, by persecution, the first beginnings of heresy, no solid argument can be alleged for extending severity towards multitudes, or endeavoring, by capital punishments, to extirpate an opinion which has diffused itself among men of every rank and station.  Besides the extreme barbarity of such an attempt, it commonly proves ineffectual to the purpose intended, and serves only to make men more obstinate in their persuasion, and to increase the number of their proselytes.  The melancholy with which the fear of death, torture, and persecution inspires the sectaries, is the proper disposition for fostering religious zeal: the prospect of eternal rewards, when brought near, overpowers the dread of temporal punishments: the glory of martyrdom stimulates all the more furious zealots, especially the leaders and preachers: where a violent animosity is excited by oppression, men naturally pass from hating the persons of their tyrants to a more violent abhorrence of their doctrines: and the spectators, moved with pity towards the supposed martyrs, are easily seduced to embrace those principles which can inspire men with a constancy that appears almost supernatural.  Open the door to toleration, mutual hatred relaxes among the sectaries; their attachment to their particular modes of religion decays; the common occupations and pleasures of life succeed to the acrimony of disputation; and the same man who, in other circumstances, would have braved flames and tortures, is induced to change his sect from the smallest prospect of favor and advancement, or even from the frivolous hope of becoming more fashionable in his principles.  If any exception can be admitted to this maxim of toleration, it will only be where a theology altogether new, nowise connected with the ancient religion of the state, is imported from foreign countries, and may easily, at one blow, be eradicated, without leaving the seeds of future innovation.  But as this exception would imply some apology for the ancient pagan persecutions, or for the extirpation of Christianity in China and Japan, it ought surely, on account of this detested consequence, to be rather buried in eternal silence and oblivion.

Though these arguments appear entirely satisfactory, yet such is the subtlety of human wit, that Gardiner and the other enemies to toleration were not reduced to silence; and they still found topics on which to maintain the controversy.  The doctrine, said they, of liberty and conscience, is founded on the most flagrant impiety, and supposes such an indifference in all religions, such an obscurity in theological doctrines, as to render the church and magistrate incapable of distinguishing with certainty the dictates of Heaven from the mere fictions of human imagination.  If the Divinity reveals principles to mankind, he will surely give a criterion by which they may be ascertained; and a prince who knowingly allows these principles to be perverted or adulterated, is infinitely more criminal than if he gave permission for the vending of poison, under the shape of food, to all his subjects.  Persecution may, indeed, seem better calculated to make hypocrites than converts; but experience teaches us, that the habits of hypocrisy often turn into reality; and the children, at least, ignorant of the dissimulation of their parents, may happily be educated in more orthodox tenets.  It is absurd, in opposition to considerations of such unspeakable importance, to plead the temporal and frivolous interests of civil society; and if matters be thoroughly examined, even that topic will not appear so universally certain in favor of toleration as by some it is represented.  When sects arise whose fundamental principle on all sides is to execrate, and abhor, and extirpate each other, what choice has the magistrate left but to take part, and by rendering one sect entirely prevalent, restore, at least for a time, the public tranquillity?  The political body, being here sickly, must not be treated as if it were in a state of sound health; and an affected neutrality in the prince, or even a cool preference, may serve only to encourage the hopes of all the sects, and keep alive their animosity.  The Protestants, far from tolerating the religion of their ancestors, regard it as an impious and detestable idolatry; and during the late minority, when they were entirely masters, they enacted very severe, though not capital, punishments against the exercise of all Catholic worship, and even against such as barely abstained from their profane rites and sacraments.  Nor are instances wanting of their endeavors to secure an imagined orthodoxy by the most rigorous executions: Calvin has burned Servetus at Geneva; Cranmer brought Arians and Anabaptists to the stake; and if persecution of any kind be admitted, the most bloody and violent will surely be allowed the most justifiable, as the most effectual.  Imprisonments, fines, confiscations, whippings, serve only to irritate the sects, without disabling them from resistance: but the stake, the wheel, and the gibbet must soon terminate in the extirpation of banishment of all the heretics inclined to give disturbance, and in the entire silence and submission of the rest. [Hume, 416-419].

For Hume, the curbing of speculative thought among the people will discourage science, a bad thing; and in this horrible practice, Protestants have been as guilty as the Catholics.  Toleration, then, entails incorporation or co-option of social irritants; tolerated as long as the troublemakers do not stray from their assigned turf to convince others, that is until they switch allegiances, good opportunists and moral relativists that they are, jumping to a different prospect.  The reader may judge for herself to what degree Anne Hutchinson’s friends and enemies diverge from Hume’s centrist formulation, fed with controversy that is not too hot, not too cold, but [the] Just Right.


[i]. See Darret B. Rutman, Winthrop’s Boston(Chapel Hill, 1965): 121. In addition to the familiar epithets of “antinomian,” “Anabaptist,” “Familist,” and “Opinionist,” all of which connoted varieties of anarchy, free love, and even communal ownership, Rutman has uncovered the appellation, “this red Regiment.”

2. See T. Wilson Hayes, “John Everard and the Familist Tradition,” The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism, ed. Margaret C. Jacob and James Jacob (London, 1984): 60-61, 63.  Thomas Chaundler, a clothier, and Robert Sterete, a clerk, were arrested in 1561 and forced to give “lengthy confessions” about the practices of their Familist community.  They testified that “in their community they had all goods in common and met, thirty at a time, ‘to hear Scriptures expounded.’  The host furnished meat, drink and lodging for the night.  They attended church but objected to confessing to be ‘miserable sinners’ because such confessions lessened self-respect and made it more difficult to stop sinning.  They affirmed that all things are ruled by nature and not directed by God.  They prohibited weapons until they were attacked.  All marriages were performed ‘by the brethren’ and they allowed divorce by mutual consent after one year of marriage.  They denied that Christ is equal to God or is the son of God and believed that everyone must first be in error before understanding the truth.  They insisted that ‘heaven and hell are present in this world among us and that there is none other.’  They refused to hold funeral services or believe in the efficacy of church ceremonies, and thought all ministers should be itinerants and that every day should be a sabbath, for God made the earth to be enjoyed.  They believed Christ was in them, that there was a world before Adam’s time, that no one should be punished for his opinions, and, most important, that everyone has a right to interpret Scripture.”  If this community of Familists was typical, then there are no grounds for comparison between Hutchinsonian theology or social practice.  Hayes’ account differs from Larzer Ziff in Puritanism in America (N.Y.: Viking, 1973): 72.  Ziff writes, “‘Familists’ meant members of the Family of Love, a sect that believed that free love was a permitted result of the gracious life freed from the law.”  The Familists were merely a “counter-culture” “drawn from the disinherited of the earth” comforting themselves “in the little they do possess.”  Ziff’s description has trivialized the Familists and depoliticized their materialist challenge to the dominant culture.

For the Weld quote see David D. Hall ed., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638, A Documentary History (Middletown, 1968): 207-209.

3. The moderate David Hume, foe to all forms of zealotry, described the end of Cranmer, burned at the stake by the Catholic Queen Mary, but uncompromised and united to his principles: “It is pretended, that after his body was consumed, his heart was found entire and untouched among the ashes; an event which, as it was then the emblem of his constancy, was fondly believed by the zealous Protestants.”  Cf. the remains of “Ethan Brand,” the prideful autodidact who haunted Nathaniel Hawthorne. See David Hume, History of England Vol. 3 (Boston, 1856): 434.

4. Richard Brodhead, “The Book That Ruined Melville,” New York Times Book Review, 1/7/96, p.35.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Mrs. Hutchinson,” in Tales, Sketches and Other Papers (Cambridge, 1878): 224.  See also Michael J. Colacurcio, “Footsteps of Anne Hutchinson: The Context of the Scarlet Letter, “ ELH 39, #3 (1972): 459-94.  Anne Hutchinson was the symbol of libertarian revolt and cultural dissolution;  the Antinomian Controversy is the sub-text of The Scarlet Letter. Anne Hutchinson and John Cotton were parents of the “monstrous birth” Antinomianism, just as Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale produced the monstrous child Pearl.

5. Historians have not seen the original reports of the two trials, nor can it be known whether the first transcripts were accurate.  The first account of the civil trial was appended to Thomas Hutchinson, The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (Boston, 1767), but it was taken from “an ancient manuscript” which “may have disappeared in the sacking of Hutchinson’s house during the Stamp Act riots of 1765.  The proceedings of the church trial are an eighteenth-century copy of another lost “seventeenth-century original,” copied by Ezra Stiles, a Newport minister who became president of Yale College.  See Hall, Antinomian Controversy, 311, 350.

6. Rutman, Winthrop’s Boston, 146.

7. Lyle Koehler, William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, XXXII (January 1975): 170.

8. See James Axtell, The European and the Indian (N.Y.: 1981): 310.

9. Charles Francis Adams, Three Episodes of Massachusetts History Vol.II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903, Revised Edition).

10. See the Robert Altman-Donald Freed film Secret Honor, in which the Quaker Richard Nixon is dominated by his mother, the source of his over-reaching and tragic descent into madness.  First his mother’s little dog, he is set up to become the running dog of the fascistic nouveaux riche southwestern capitalists after the war.  It is hinted that the Eastern corporatist liberal establishment erred in not taking the talented young veteran and lawyer into their club; i.e., they lacked the necessary stabilizing pluralism that keeps capitalism afloat.

11. Quotes are from David Hume, History of England vol.3 (Boston, 1856), to be abbreviated HE

September 28, 2009

Common readers dangerous to the body politic

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The British philosopher David Hume is better known today for his materialist philosophy than for his once-popular History of England. Here are some passages from his account of 16th century England: that ordinary people might read biblical texts for themselves struck fear in the upper classes. Hume lets us know what was radical about the Reformation and the threat it posed to Order. Organic conservatives proclaimed that we should not believe our lying eyes, nor should we dispute the meaning of texts with our betters:

David Hume History of England vol.3 Boston, 1856.

 pp.221-222: Hume describing the debates aroused by the proposal to disseminate a corrected version of the Tindal translation of the Bible during the reign of Henry VIII.

      The friends of the reformation asserted, that nothing could be more absurd than to conceal, in an unknown tongue, the word of God itself, and thus to counteract the will of Heaven, which, for the purpose of universal salvation, had published that salutary doctrine to all nations: that if this practice were not very absurd, the artifice at least was very gross, and proved a consciousness, that the glosses and and traditions of the clergy stood in direct opposition to the original text, dictated by supreme intelligence: that it was now necessary for the people, so long abused by interested pretensions, to see with their own eyes, and to examine whether the claims of the ecclesiastics were founded on that charter which was on all hands acknowledged to be derived from Heaven: and that, as a spirit of research and curiousity was happily revived, and men were more obliged to make a choice among the contending doctrines of different sects, the proper materials for decision, and above all, the Holy Scriptures, should be set before them; and the revealed will of God, which the change of language had somewhat obscured, be again, by their means, revealed to mankind.

      The favorites of the ancient religion maintained on the other hand, that the pretence of making the people see with their own eyes was a mere cheat, and was itself a very gross artifice, by which the new preachers hoped to obtain the guidance of them, and to seduce them from those pastors whom the laws, whom the ancient establishments, whom Heaven itself, had appointed for their spiritual direction: that the people were by their very ignorance, their stupidity, their necessary avocations, totally unqualified to choose their own principles; and it was a mockery to set materials before them, of which they could not possibly make any proper use: that even in the affairs of common life, and in their temporal concerns, which lay more within the compass of human reason, the laws had in a great measure deprived them of their right of private judgment, and had, happily for their own and the public interest, regulated their conduct and behavior: that theological questions were placed far beyond the sphere of vulgar comprehension; and ecclesiastics themselves, though assisted by all the advantages of education, erudition, and an assiduous study of the sciences, could not be fully assured of a just decision, except by the promise made them in Scripture, that God would be ever present with his church, and that the gates of hell should not prevail against her: that the gross errors adopted by the wisest heathens, proved how unfit men were to grope their own way through this profound darkness; nor would the Scriptures, if trusted to every man’s judgment, be able to remedy; on the contrary they would much augment those fatal illusions: that sacred writ itself was involved in so much obscurity, gave rise to so many difficulties, containing so many appearing contradictions, that it was the most dangerous weapon that could be intrusted into the hands of the ignorant and giddy multitude: that the poetical style in which a great part of it was composed, at the same time that it occasioned uncertainty in the sense, by its multiplied tropes and figures, was sufficient to kindle the zeal of fanaticism, and thereby throw civil society into the most furious combustion: that a thousand sects must arise, which would pretend, each of them, to derive its tenets from the Scripture; and would be able, by specious arguments, or even without specious arguments, to seduce silly women and ignorant mechanics into a belief of the most monstrous principles: and that, if ever this disorder, dangerous to the magistrate himself, received a remedy, it must be from the tacit acquiescence of the people in some new authority; and it was evidently better, without further contest or inquiry, to adhere peaceably to ancient, and therefore the more secure establishments. [221-222].

     The king [Henry VIII] made in person a speech to the parliament on proroguing them; in which, after thanking them for their loving attachment to him, which, he said, equalled what was ever paid to their ancestors by any king of England, he complained of their dissensions, disputes, and animosities in religion. He told them that the several pulpits were become a kind of batteries against each other; and that one preacher called another a heretic and Anabaptist, which was retaliated by the opprobrious appellations of Papist and hypocrite: that he had permitted his people the use of the Scriptures, not in order to furnish them with materials for disputing and railing, but that he might enable them to inform their consciences and instruct their children and families: that it grieved his heart to find how that precious jewel was prostituted, by being introduced into the conversation of every alehouse and tavern, and employed as a pretence for decrying the spiritual and legal pastors: and that he was sorry to observe, that the word of God, while it was the object of so much anxious speculation, had very little influence on their practice; and that, though an imaginary knowledge so much abounded, charity was daily going to decay. The king gave good advice; but his own example, by encouraging speculation and dispute, was ill fitted to promote that peaceable submission of opinion which he recommended. [in year 1545, p.298]. 

 [Hume on persecution during reign of Queen Mary:]

      The practice of persecution, said the defender’s of Pole’s opinion, is the scandal of all religion; and the theological animosity, so fierce and violent, far from being an argument of men’s conviction in their opposite sects, is a certain proof that they have never reached any serious persuasion with regard to those remote and sublime subjects. Even those who are the most impatient of contradiction in other controversies, are mild and moderate in comparison of polemical divines; and wherever a man’s knowledge and experience give him a perfect assurance in his own opinion, he regards with contempt, rather than anger, the opposition and mistakes of others. But while men zealously maintain what they neither clearly comprehend nor entirely believe, they are shaken in their imagined faith by the opposite persuasion, or even doubts, of other men; and vent on their antagonists that impatience which is the natural result of so disagreeable a state of the understanding. They then easily embrace any pretence for representing opponents as impious and profane; and if they can also find a color for connecting this violence with the interests of civil government, they can no longer be restrained from giving uncontrolled scope to vengeance and resentment. But surely never enterprise was more unfortunate than that of founding persecution upon policy, or endeavoring, for the sake of peace, to settle an entire uniformity of opinion in questions which, of all others, are least subjected to the criterion of human reason. The universal and uncontradicted prevalence of one opinion in religious subjects can be owing, at first, to the stupid ignorance alone and barbarism of the people, who never indulge themselves in any speculation or inquiry; and there is no expedient for maintaining that uniformity so fondly sought after, but by banishing forever all curiosity, and all improvement in science and cultivation. It may not indeed appear difficult to check, by a steady severity, the first beginnings of controversy; but besides that this policy exposes forever the people to all the abject terrors of superstition, and the magistrate to the endless encroachment of ecclesiastics, it also renders men so delicate that they can never endure to hear of opposition; and they will some time pay dearly for that false tranquillity in which they have been so long indulged. As healthful bodies are ruined by too nice a regimen, and are thereby rendered incapable of bearing the unavoidable incidents of human life, a people who were never allowed to imagine that their principles could be contested fly out into the most outrageous violence when any event (and such events are common) produces a faction among their clergy, and gives rise to any difference in tenet or opinion. But whatever may be said in favor of suppressing, by persecution, the first beginnings of heresy, no solid argument can be alleged for extending severity towards multitudes, or endeavoring, by capital punishments, to extirpate an opinion which has diffused itself among men of every rank and station. Besides the extreme barbarity of such an attempt, it commonly proves ineffectual to the purpose intended, and serves only to make men more obstinate in their persuasion, and to increase the number of their proselytes. The melancholy with which the fear of death, torture, and persecution inspires the sectaries, is the proper disposition for fostering religious zeal: the prospect of eternal rewards, when brought near, overpowers the dread of temporal punishments: the glory of martyrdom stimulates all the more furious zealots, especially the leaders and preachers: where a violent animosity is excited by oppression, men naturally pass from hating the persons of their tyrants to a more violent abhorrence of their doctrines: and the spectators, moved with pity towards the supposed martyrs, are easily seduced to embrace those principles which can inspire men with a constancy that appears almost supernatural. Open the door to toleration, mutual hatred relaxes among the sectaries; their attachment to their particular modes of religion decays; the common occupations and pleasures of life succeed to the acrimony of disputation; and the same man who, in other circumstances, would have braved flames and tortures, is induced to change his sect from the smallest prospect of favor and advancement, or even from the frivolous hope of becoming more fashionable in his principles. If any exception can be admitted to this maxim of toleration, it will only be where a theology altogether new, nowise connected with the ancient religion of the state, is imported from foreign countries, and may easily, at one blow, be eradicated, without leaving the seeds of future innovation. But as this exception would imply some apology for the ancient pagan persecutions, or for the extirpation of Christianity in China and Japan, it ought surely, on account of this detested consequence, to be rather buried in eternal silence and oblivion.

     Though these arguments appear entirely satisfactory, yet such is the subtlety of human wit, that Gardiner and the other enemies to toleration were not reduced to silence; and they still found topics on which to maintain the controversy. The doctrine, said they, of liberty and conscience, is founded on the most flagrant impiety, and supposes such an indifference in all religions, such an obscurity in theological doctrines, as to render the church and magistrate incapable of distinguishing with certainty the dictates of Heaven from the mere fictions of human imagination. If the Divinity reveals principles to mankind, he will surely give a criterion by which they may be ascertained; and a prince who knowingly allows these principles to be perverted or adulterated, is infinitely more criminal than if he gave permission for the vending of poison, under the shape of food, to all his subjects. Persecution may, indeed, seem better calculated to make hypocrites than converts; but experience teaches us, that the habits of hypocrisy often turn into reality; and the children, at least, ignorant of the dissimulation of their parents, may happily be educated in more orthodox tenets. It is absurd, in opposition to considerations of such unspeakable importance, to plead the temporal and frivolous interests of civil society; and if matters be thoroughly examined, even that topic will not appear so universally certain in favor of toleration as by some it is represented. When sects arise whose fundamental principle on all sides is to execrate, and abhor, and extirpate each other, what choice has the magistrate left but to take part, and by rendering one sect entirely prevalent, restore, at least for a time, the public tranquillity? The political body, being here sickly, must not be treated as if it were in a state of sound health; and an affected neutrality in the prince, or even a cool preference, may serve only to encourage the hopes of all the sects, and keep alive their animosity. The Protestants, far from tolerating the religion of their ancestors, regard it as an impious and detestable idolatry; and during the late minority, when they were entirely masters, they enacted very severe, though not capital, punishments against the exercise of all Catholic worship, and even against such as barely abstained from their profane rites and sacraments. Nor are instances wanting of their endeavors to secure an imagined orthodoxy by the most rigorous executions: Calvin has burned Servetus at Geneva; Cranmer brought Arians and Anabaptists to the stake; and if persecution of any kind be admitted, the most bloody and violent will surely be allowed the most justifiable, as the most effectual. Imprisonments, fines, confiscations, whippings, serve only to irritate the sects, without disabling them from resistance: but the stake, the wheel, and the gibbet must soon terminate in the extirpation of banishment of all the heretics inclined to give disturbance, and in the entire silence and submission of the rest. [416-419].

 [Cranmer is burned at the stake by the Catholic Queen Mary, but uncompromised and united to his principles:] It is pretended, that after his body was consumed, his heart was found entire and untouched among the ashes; an event which, as it was then the emblem of his constancy, was fondly believed by the zealous Protestants. [434].

September 6, 2009

The Hebraic American Landscape: Sublime or Despotic?

Daniel Boone and entourage

In one of my blogs tracing the impact of multiculturalism in the U.S. (https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/),  I argued that “progressives” in numerous disciplines have been writing history as a subset of a poetic natural history, taking their cues from German Romanticism. In today’s blog, written as millions of American children return to school after Labor Day to be taught the national biography by teachers influenced by  progressive historians, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, I contrast their negative assessments of the American Sublime with that of Herman Melville’s character White-Jacket in his most Hebraic pronouncement.

The BBC series American Visions, was written and presented by Australian-born Robert Hughes, played by PBS and sponsored by BMW.  The segments plainly linked Chosen People, Barnum-esque 19th century landscape painters of the sublime (distinguished from the quiet Luminists and the retiring celibate Winslow Homer), frontiersmen, nouveaux riches money and its offspring Hollywood. Together these sinister forces have raped the Indians and the environment and romanticized the short-lived Old West with malevolent nativist intent.  In Hughes’ rendering, the appropriation of the land was total and uncontested: “It’s ours” says a proud American, a woman on the rim of the Grand Canyon, remarking on the interest taken by foreign tourists in the sublimity of the American landscape.  Not atypically, Frederick Jackson Turner is cited as author of the frontier theory of American identity as if he approved of it.  In fact, Turner was appalled by the growth of monopoly that rendered Marx’s predictions plausible; it would be a small step to transfer social control of a few huge industries to popular control; the antimonopoly populist movement, active while Turner wrote his famous essay on the closing of the frontier (1893), was a warning to prescient conservatives.

The Hughes version of the nineteenth century is the narrative favored by the American Studies movement and many other cultural anthropologists/historians.  In my view, the discipline is a Tory leftover deployed against their enemies, the radical Whigs, also Turner’s target. Following their trajectory of Nature’s Nation and its popular landscape paintings, it is first and foremost the physiognomy of the wild West that has determined American kitsch taste, its vulgarity and arrogant claims to superior moral purity, the latter signified by the gorgeous light pervading these landscapes.  Here is their Master Narrative: The God revered by the Chosen People does not smile on the gift of the senses, reason, and cultural freedom in the service of social amelioration and intellectual and moral development of each and every individual; rather the light of the Hebrew God oversees Manifest Destiny in its most brutal projects of annihilation. In the opinion of one prominent literary historian, the  American Sublime is “the end of the line” for humanity (a notion reiterated in film noir, see https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/).

In a book that energized anti-Melville forces from the late 1920s on, “White-Jacket” gave a ringing meaning to youth revolt that was unmistakably Hebraic/radical Protestant. It was the sublimity of a visionary republic that brought melancholy to dispossessed aristocrats, energizing the measures taken in retribution:

“…in many things, we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nationals must, of right, belong to ourselves. There are occasions when it is for America to make precedents, and not to obey them. We should, if possible, prove a teacher to posterity, instead of being the pupil of bygone generations. More shall come after us than have gone before; the world is not yet middle-aged.

Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people–the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and, besides our first birthright–embracing one continent of earth–God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience our wisdom. At a period when other nations have but lisped, our deep voice is heard afar. Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America, but we give alms to the world.” [White-Jacket (1850), Ch.36, my emph., quoted in Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 4]

Since the late 1930s, numerous scholars have claimed that Captain Ahab was an arch-imperialist, compared by many to Hitler and Stalin. Was White-Jacket’s statement made in the spirit of Jefferson and world republican revolution or in the spirit of James Polk’s defense of slavery and expansion at the expense of Indians and Mexicans? Given Melville’s constant references to abused South Sea islanders, Indians, sailors and factory workers, these words need not be taken as crypto-imperialist, unless one confuses political emancipation with slavery or self-assertion with self-sacrifice, which some anti-imperialist scholars may have done. [See a retitled blog “Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty? https://clarespark.com/2009/09/03/advice-for-the-lovelorn-with-thoughts-on-hero-worship/ . An extended endnote, updated here, followed this book excerpt and ends the blog:]

[Endnote:] Compare with White-Jacket’s approbation of a Hebraic America, Melville’s well-known comments in Israel Potter on America as “intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but a savage at heart” (Chapter XIX), but also the “essentially Western” Ethan Allen: “frank, bluff, companionable as a Pagan, convivial, a Roman, hearty as a harvest” (Chapter XXII). David Brion Davis has used the White-Jacket quote as an example of Manifest Destiny in Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology (Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1979). Similarly, Eric Foner, in a talk “The Struggle For Freedom,” delivered at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, has cited the White-Jacket passage as an example of American forgetfulness of the past, its (selfish) future-orientation with respect to the notion of freedom, and its moralistic imposition of American values upon different societies; Foner thus makes Melville an imperialist (KPFK broadcast, 7/5/99). I am questioning these judgments.

American nationalism (as expressed in the American and French Revolutions, and constantly invoked by the anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner) had an ideological component that asserted the common good against privilege; it was not simply a claim for territory, language or ethnicity as conservative nationalism would be.  Compare the liberal nationalism defended by Charles Sumner* with that of Andrew Stark, “Adieu, Liberal Nationalism,” New York Times, 11/2/95. The author, a teacher of management at the University of Toronto, defines liberal nationalism in terms of primal differentiation from the mother, making it “even more irrational than chauvinistic nationalism. Bereft of any appeal to ‘mystical’ qualities like race, religion and culture, it relies on more primal, elusive entities like consciousness, existence, sense of self.” Stark’s definition reveals the depoliticizing inherent in any and all “identity” politics.

One standard reference in the field of American Studies is Ernest Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1965), 51. Tuveson first presents Marxism as counter-Enlightenment, then links it to millennial movements in Britain and the U.S. The mocking epigraph of the book is a statement by Woodrow Wilson: “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.” Elsewhere he suggests a continuity of identity between “the young republic” (1), “the ancient Jewish tradition of apocalyptic” (2); the epic form and sublimity (5); and “the evil” of (naively hopeful) American participation in World War II (8). The passage from White-Jacket was quoted 156-57, without the analysis of context; Tuveson notes Melville’s apparent “profound disillusionment with these high expectations” in Clarel.

See also Edward Said, Culture And Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993). Said begins by defending anti-Western cultural nationalists from the charge of separatist chauvinism: “…far from invalidating the struggle to be free from empire, these reductions of cultural discourse actually prove the validity of a fundamental liberationist energy that animates the wish to be independent, to speak freely and without the burden of unfair domination (xx-xxi).” But this standard disappears when applied to Melville: “There is…a dense body of American writing, contemporary with the British and the French work, which shows a peculiarly acute imperial cast, even though paradoxically its ferocious anti-colonialism, directed at the Old World, is central to it. One thinks, for example, of the Puritan “errand into the wilderness” and, later, of that extraordinarily obsessive concern in Cooper, Twain, Melville and others with United States expansion westward, along with the wholesale colonization and destruction of native American life (as memorably studied by Richard Slotkin, Patricia Limerick, and Michael Paul Rogin); an anti-imperial motif emerges to rival the imperial one” (63). Puritans, Melville and Ahab now merge: (citing C.L.R. James and Victor Kiernan) “Captain Ahab is an allegorical representation of the American world quest; he is obsessed, compelling, unstoppable, completely wrapped up in his own rhetorical justification and his sense of cosmic symbolism” (288). Is Melville Ahab or not? Melville was critical of Ahab, Said notes, but follows his qualifier with the vehement scientistic statement, a non sequitur: “Yet the fact is that during the nineteenth century the U.S. did expand territorially.” Is Melville then a hypocrite? Commenting on the comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler during the Iraq war, Ahab is a cynical scapegoater: “Anyone who has read Moby-Dick may have found it irresistible to extrapolate from that great novel to the real world, to see the American empire preparing once again, like Ahab, to take after an imputed evil” (295).

Too much purity and stridency disturbs the pluralist peace: the “imputed evil” Americans profess to find in Third World dictatorships is a pretext for a more sinister domination. For a critique of the counter-Enlightenment “anti-imperialist” intellectuals, including Said, see Christopher Norris, Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992), 127-130: “To imagine that truth might at length win out through a detailed, critical, investigative treatment of the relevant source materials is merely to demonstrate one’s lingering attachment to the old Enlightenment paradigm” (127). Richard Rorty and his cohort in ‘postmodern bourgeois liberal pragmatist’ culture are practicing a cynical Realpolitik imposed from above (128). Counter-narratives don’t solve problems: we need facts (130). It must be said that none of the scholars upon whom Edward Said relies has done the empirical investigation of Melville and Ahab that could justify Said’s characterization of Ahab the crazed imperialist.**

*For Sumner’s views on liberal nationalism, see archived blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: Rival Visions of National Unity.”

**Cf. Hume’s distinction between Presbyterians and Independents, History of England, Vol. 7, 18-19 (year 1644): “The enthusiasm of the [comparatively moderate, C.S.] Presbyterians led them to reject the authority of prelates, to throw off the restraint of liturgy, to retrench ceremonies, to limit the riches and authority of the priestly office: the fanaticism of the Independents, exalted to a higher pitch, abolished ecclesiastical government, disdained creeds and systems, neglected every ceremony, and confounded all ranks and orders. The soldier, the merchant, the mechanic, indulging the fervours of zeal, and guided by the illapses of the spirit, resigned himself to an inward and superior direction, and was consecrated, in a manner, by an immediate intercourse and communication with Heaven.” Ahab, a “fighting Quaker,” would seem to be an example of the latter.

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