The Clare Spark Blog

July 20, 2014

“National character”: does it exist?

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nationalcharacterOne of the worst habits of journalists and academics is to refer to countries or regions as if they were one individual, all virtuous or all evil, depending on the author: hence “America” or “Germany” or “the South” as opposed, say, to the real material and ideological divisions in a particular country or region, and to individual differences and variations within those divisions. The same goes for class stereotypes, such as “bourgeois” or “working class.”

The omnipresent “multiculturalists” try to correct this habit of personifying nations, by pointing to the need for “inclusiveness” in societies characterized by “diversity”. But they don’t mean that individuals count for anything, for their discourse is collectivist, whether applied to countries or classes. Thus American blacks, for instance, have group character that is incomprehensible to other groups (especially white people), unless they are “people of color” who know the White Man’s nasty habits. If the [dominant culture] is “good” (i.e., anti-racist) it will practice “toleration” and give a leg up to “people of color” through various state-imposed programs such as affirmative action or immigration reform. Since the multiculturalists control the dominant discourses, their opponents are ipso facto “racists.”

So don’t expect a revival of the [evil] melting pot, as that was a bourgeois, culture-crushing imposition on its victims. No, we will devolve into a society of grouplets, each with its own “group facts.”

This social theory we owe to German Romanticism, that was then revived in the 20th century, particularly by the “ethno-pluralists” of the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s, trying to explain Nazism. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/04/12/multiculturalismethnopluralism-in-the-mid-20th-century/. Hayek was up against this tradition in all his books: see https://clarespark.com/2010/10/09/david-riesman-v-friedrich-hayek/.

Ukrainian souvenirs

Ukrainian souvenirs

Is there anything, then, to this notion of “national character”? It comes down to this: either we have a collectivist discourse or we look at individual differences and deviations from imputed group character. There are numerous scholars who believe that “traditions” create national character. For instance, all native born Brits are stoic, all Frenchmen and other Latins are sensualists, while for many Marxist-Leninists, the working class has its own group character, which is pure and hell bent for revolution under the benign guidance of bureaucratic centralists and dialectical materialism.

In my view, we pursue such easy classification at our peril.

John Bull

John Bull

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February 13, 2012

Feminism on the docket (2)

Gorgon, recent rendering

During a long thread on my Facebook page that started by my remark that I found it incomprehensible how feminists could simultaneously fight the Catholic Church on matters having to do with reproductive rights, and also to stick with the Democratic Party position on illegal Latino immigration that, if perpetuated, would drastically enhance the voting power of the Catholic Church, an institution that entwines sexuality with procreation, preaches abstinence until marriage, and forbids abortion, contraception, and abortifacients. As the thread lengthened, it evolved into a debate over the respective policies of Democrats and Republicans, with feminism firmly attached to the Democratic Party. I then promised a blog on how it was that I call myself a feminist.

First, consider the world in which I grew up. When the famed David Riesman wrote to a prominent teacher of American literature, Richard Chase, the mutual loyalty to traditional sex roles was apparent. (This excerpt is from my Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival.) I was sixteen years old, and still in high school. Had I read this private letter then, I would not have noticed that “the artist” was a male, nor would I have suspected that young women at Smith College were aggressively contesting Riesman’s segregating “bluestocking” “girl(s)” to weekday “blue-jeans informality.”

[University of Chicago Committee on Human Development sociologist David Riesman to Chase, 15 Apr. 1953:] What remarkable observations are contained in your letter of April 1! I wish you could write something about these experiences you have had with students. Your point that art is “insincere” seems to me a correct interpretation. The artist is not “being himself” so that the standard question “who does he think he is” is particularly applicable.  I spoke recently at Smith College and got into a lengthy discussion in which I was defending the non-coeducational colleges. The students attacked me very, very fiercely on the ground that segregation is insincere and artificial and they would not listen to the possible advantages when, for instance, I suggested that it was pleasant to vary one’s pace, to live in an exciting intellectual and blue stocking culture five days a week and a boy-girl culture on the week-ends. They felt it was just this dichotomy which was insincere. They were in search of a blue-jeans informality seven days a week. [End, Riesman letter to Chase, first published in my book. Chase died under mysterious circumstances, a possible suicide, at the pinnacle of his career.]

Although I was an outstanding student at Forest Hills High School at the time, it never occurred to me that I should develop myself in any direction that conflicted with marriage and a family. I was, in short, the very type of woman to whom Betty Friedan was writing in The Feminine Mystique. Nor did I find friends or role models at Cornell University who deviated from the type.

[A brief digression, though I don’t like to talk about my family: My mother didn’t like housework or cooking, and was absent from the home much of the time, either doing social work (investigating welfare recipients in Harlem or writing gossipy pieces for the local press in Queens, New York). I felt obliged to take her place, probably to curry favor with my father the doctor, whom I worshipped. Yet this same male hero warned me not to allow boys and romance to derail from my future as either a great artist or a great scientist of some kind. “Men are all fickle,” he warned, binding me to him ever closely, while my mother warned me that men preferred women as “cows” and who listened to them intently. When he left my mother at my age 19, I was literally hysterical with grief, and used my fellowship at Harvard to find a father-substitute, i.e., a husband. Those were great hunting grounds for a girl who could cook. And I was a good listener.]

As I have related here before (https://clarespark.com/2012/01/07/feminism-and-its-publicists/), I was appalled by the second wave of feminism. I was still married and had yet to antagonize my husband by following his suggestion that I follow up an invitation to produce and write radio documentaries on the art world for the local Pacifica radio station. I mention this, because he probably wanted both a traditional wife and my development as a creative person (I had been painting and practicing the piano assiduously during the marriage), little dreaming that public activity would turn my head and render me less submissive to his authority.

During that period (1969-71), I supposed that indeed, I could “have it all” as such feminists as Betty Friedan were claiming. She was mistaken. I was not of that generation of women whose husbands shared in child care and housework and who delighted in the extra-family accomplishments of their wives. Very few such men existed, and if they were so enlightened, were already “taken.”

My husband declared, three years into my life as a radio producer and personality, that he was leaving me for another woman. Thus, this man, a Harvard Law School graduate and good liberal, emancipated me for a second time. And yet, to this day, I would have sacrificed my life in the wide, wide world, for my children (ages 10, 8, and 3 in 1971), had such a gesture saved their lives from the indelible trauma of a broken family.

So, I have great sympathy for those “traditional” women who are suspicious of “secular” feminists, and who put their children’s welfare above their own “fulfillment” as professionals or artists. I also understand those working class women who must work outside the home to support their children or to supplement the family income. I also sympathize with “conservative” women who are alarmed by the hyper-sexualization of popular culture, and the general dumbing down, acting out, and licentiousness that afflicts our period.

I am not sympathetic to those women who, in a stunning but predictable role-reversal, use the feminist revolution to dominate and guilt-trip their mates, using the generally subordinate position of women (still!) as if their significant others had single-handedly opposed the Enlightenment and those revolutions and advances in medicine that suddenly or incrementally adjusted the status and aspirations of women. The Battle of the Sexes rages on, and I feel empathy for both sides in a struggle that will probably never end, for the genders are put together differently.

Feminism is about female solidarity, equality of opportunity and real choices for young persons of both genders. The women artists and designers whose careers I had helped promote on the radio in the 1970s have allied themselves, with few exceptions, to the “anti-imperialist” Left from which they had originally emanated. Talented as they are and were, as cultural relativists they betray all the social revolutions that endowed them with public voices.

Medusa, A. Bocklin

October 9, 2010

David Riesman v. Friedrich Hayek

David Riesman, public intellectual

It is a revelation to compare David Riesman’s conception of American character in The Lonely Crowd (1950) and the possibility of individuality with that of Friedrich Hayek’s stubborn seeker after truth in The Road to Serfdom (1944).

Riesman’s book (co-written with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney) identifies three social character types, all of whom could be found in postwar America: the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed. Since I had used the last two terms in previous blogs, I checked his book to see if my memory was correct: whether or not the inner-directed type (with which I identify myself) was a desirable type, in Riesman’s view. It turns out that he doesn’t believe that this “Puritan ascetic” bourgeois is an independent thinker at all, but rather one who has internalized the goals injected by his parents. Oh, oh, I thought. So then I wondered, what was his father’s occupation?

But before I get to that remarkable fact, I was not surprised to see that Riesman’s affinity group included many of the names in the burgeoning social sciences that I had analyzed in my book on Melville as read between the wars: Harold Lasswell, Gardner Murphy, Henry A. Murray, T. W. Adorno, Erik Erikson, and others who did not appear in my work, such as refugees Erich Fromm and Leo Lowenthal. All of these figures saw [Hayek’s] “individual” as pathological in some way, especially when, as Lasswell put it, they caused crises of deference by questioning authority.

Friedrich Hayek had written one of the great books of the twentieth century (though it would not be in Robert Hutchins’s list of must-reads): in no uncertain terms, Hayek warned that the totalitarianisms of Europe had made huge collectivist inroads in the United States, and the project of his book was to save classical liberalism from the new misnamed “liberals” whose statism had almost erased the conception of the 19th century individual as understood by those influenced by Adam Smith: Macaulay, John Stuart Mill, and Gladstone, to name a few. What particularly endeared me to Hayek was his recognition that German culture had been pushing both Prussian militarism and volkisch notions of “community” in order to displace the Renaissance/Reformation notion of the peace-loving, innovating, self-reliant individual for several centuries, and that Hitler, Mussolini, and American progressives had not invented anything new in their statist remedies for the social problems of industrialization.

Back to David Riesman, whose achievements as a young man had already identified him as future member of an intellectual elite: his editorship of the Harvard Crimson, his making Harvard Law Review, his clerkship for (Progressive) Louis D. Brandeis, for instance. But since he denied that the inner-directed person was self-reliant, but rather the puppet of his parents and then the flotsam and jetsam of consumerism, I looked up his genealogy and could only get some material on his father, a noted physician and Professor of Clinical Medicine in Philadelphia (The University of Pennsylvania Medical School), where he had been raised. His father’s name was also David Riesman, and Wikipedia simply states that Riesman (fils) was a Jew. The name Riesman does not evoke the Eastern European recent immigrant, but rather the German Jews who came to America perhaps in the 19th century, where they rapidly achieved upper-class status (even though they were excluded from WASP playgrounds and much of corporate America). Moreover, Jews are not allowed to name their children for themselves, and Riesman fils did not even get the Junior appended. But he did go on to write a book claiming that in the new postwar consumer society, no one was free, nor were their ancestors.

According to Riesman fils what the now stigmatized inner-directed parent (along with female teachers) did wrong was to plunge their unknowing offspring into the anxiety-ridden, constantly shifting world of the fashion-driven “other-directed” society of consumerism. Recall now that the Frankfurt School refugees had blamed the rise of fascism on the revolt of the masses, unlike themselves, gullibly consuming Nazi propaganda and loving every minute of it. Whereas Hayek, deeply suspicious of these same recent refugees, warned his readers that they were communist/fascists of the most dire collectivist mentality.

In Riesman’s sad, lonesome world, no separation from illegitimate authority is possible (after all, he never did it): there are only masks and mutual manipulation. In Hayek’s world, such separation from authoritarian collectivism is the test of the civilized individual. And toward the end of his book he cites John Milton several times, who once wrote that “the mind is its own place.” Milton, Hayek noted, was being repudiated in the new collectivist America, shades of the turn against Melville’s Captain Ahab.

I finally stopped reading the Riesman book, for it seemed to me that he was painfully struggling with his own problems, and had no evidence to back up his frequently changing view of “the American social character.”

Hayek with students at London School of Economics, 1948

September 24, 2010

Dale Carnegie and the organization man/woman

Here is how Wikipedia summarized the main points in Dale Carnegie’s famous and hugely successful book How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936). My first impression upon reading the summary was: this is how I was raised as a woman, to be above all a good listener, empathic, a flatterer, and non-combative. At the end of the summary, I will guess to whom the book was directed, and how Carnegie envisioned leadership and success in America.

[Wiki summary:]

Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

  1. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.
  2. Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.

 Six Ways to Make People Like You

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile.
  3. Remember that a person’s name is, to him or her, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  5. Talk in the terms of the other person’s interest.
  6. Make the other person feel important and do it sincerely.

Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking

  1. Avoid arguments.
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never tell someone that he or she is wrong.
  3. If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  4. Begin in a friendly way.
  5. Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.
  6. Let the other person do the talking.
  7. Let the other person feel the idea is his/hers.
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  9. Sympathize with the other person.
  10. Appeal to noble motives.
  11. Dramatize your ideas.
  12. Throw down a challenge; don’t talk negatively when a person is absent; talk only about the positive.

 Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

  1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  2. Call attention to other people’s mistakes indirectly.
  3. Talk about your own mistakes first.
  4. Ask questions instead of directly giving orders.
  5. Let the other person save face.
  6. Praise every improvement.
  7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  8. Encourage them by making their faults seem easy to correct.
  9. Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.

 Seven Rules For Making your Home Life Happier

  1. Don’t nag.
  2. Don’t try to make your partner over.
  3. Don’t criticize.
  4. Give honest appreciation.
  5. Pay little attentions.
  6. Be courteous.
  7. Read a good book on the sexual side of marriage. [End, Wikipedia summary]

[Clare:] I have not researched the reception of Carnegie’s advice book, but offhand it seems to be directed to pushy and/or feisty recent immigrants, whose aspirations did not reach above middle-management. It is sort of an Emily Post for the former denizens of the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and parts West of Manhattan. It is also a handbook for women, including the route to successful motherhood. It also evokes the “other-directed” type that was described by David Reisman in The Lonely Crowd (1950), in which (I thought) he noticed the drastic departure from the 19th century “inner-directed” type person, who was indeed able to rely on individual conscience and research while putting out into the world opinions that might arouse opposition, rancor and even violence.  (See my blog on Riesman and Hayek for what Riesman really thought: I was thinking of myself, not Riesman’s copycat good son. https://clarespark.com/2010/10/09/david-riesman-v-friedrich-hayek/) Which suggests the question: what is a leader? Are “the people” the leaders? If not, is the leader primarily a teacher? Or, are we talking about demagogues, i.e., the person who can sense the mood of the masses, and then embody those mass feelings in program proposals that make the masses feel good (whether or not they are realizable or sincerely held by the “leader”)? Or is it someone or a group that takes risks, attempts to see problems in all their facets and nuances, formulates programs to relieve the malaise and other forms of needless suffering, and then forthrightly puts out into the world suggestions and policies that would advance the cause of humanity, taking into account failed experiments/policies in the past?

  There was nothing original in Carnegie’s handbook for success in America. It was a highly simplified recipe that reiterated “politeness” as it was exemplified in an imagined aristocracy, one that was learned, tactful, and skillful in avoiding destructive and costly wars. That the European aristocracy was anything but that when its interests were threatened, was perhaps beyond the ken of the masochistic man from Missouri who wrote the perennial best seller.

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