The Clare Spark Blog

May 17, 2016

Real or Fake?

demonicpossessionMy friends on Facebook were asked by me recently to give their impressions regarding the comparative power of “professional politicians” versus “the media.” Though most agreed with me that the mass media were more responsible for defining reality, one person said that they were all in the same class, moving back and forth between worlds: persons such as Ben Rhodes and George Stephanopoulos.

My own view is a bit more complicated. We talk about “the media” without considering that “mass media” are inseparable from religion. For instance, if we are taught that this world is an illusion (to be corrected after we have “passed” from this vale of tears to our just reward in heaven, or passed from evil capitalism to perfect communism); that our apparent sharp political divisions are a ruse; that “materialism” caused the uproarious mob-driven French Revolution (sharply contrasted with the divinely inspired and decorous American War for Independence), then we may agree that unity is both desirable and a realistic goal, if only we listened to our betters—mostly those pundits/authority figures who divide the “real” from the “fake.”

In my last blog, I figured out that, beneath all the “political history” written by the moderate men (the Centrists of both Left and Right), was a common antipathy toward the too rapid development of “technology,” culminating in nailing our catastrophic domination of Nature/women. (https://clarespark.com/2016/05/14/the-difference-between-communists-and-social-democrats/)

Were we in touch with our “real” (demonic) natures instead of imposing “puritanical” (female) values bequeathed by the Victorian culture machine, we would accept “natural” hierarchies, so that the hubris/mob-engendered apocalypse could be forestalled and we could be liberated from the evidence of the senses. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/). John Locke is old hat, but not his polar opposite, Robert Filmer.

We are all Tories now, “spiritualized” and unable to tell the real from the fake.

samueljohnson

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June 25, 2014

Penny Dreadful’s sinister significance

Frankensteinpenny-dreadfulIn the US, late 19th century dime novels were the precursors to early movies; while in the UK, their similarly cheap, sensational analogs were “penny dreadfuls” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful).

Surely working class males are not the target audience for the Showtime series Penny Dreadful that is winding up its first season this Sunday; otherwise how can we account for its deliriously positive reception in, say, The New York Times and Vanity Fair?

CoverPennydreadful

When I commented on the postmodern slant of this serialized horror thriller with pretensions to serious high art, one of my Facebook friends groaned. This blog explains why I think the fact of its existence and its considerable success is of more than passing interest. I had thought that horror movies with their vampires, zombies, and werewolves, were for adolescents with kinky tastes. But the successful writer for screen and theater, John Logan, author of the series, is no kid (born 1961), but as a graduate of Northwestern University, he may have been exposed to the techniques of postmodernism, along with a fine cast of actors who probably think that this is a high class production, appropriately critical of this entirely mechanized, overly rational and complacent world we supposedly inhabit. I sometimes think that the production is a postmodern emphasis on “acting” and the theatricality of everyday life, along with the postmodern/youthful preoccupation with “real or fake”–a question I have taken up before on this website. What ever its intentions, it surely plays up the irrational and could not be more emphatically counter-Enlightenment, and even anti-American, particularly “America’s” treatment of its indigenous peoples, cruelly uprooted from their native culture and languages by the (ever imperialistic, expansionist) White Man.

Eva Green as Artemisia in

Eva Green as Artemisia in “300: Rise of an Empire”

The “pomos” deploy pastiche, distort prior genres, and appropriate prior cultural figures at will, all to comment on the horrors of modernity, most famously rendered in the Tory Terror-Gothic genre, and exemplified in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus. Wordsworth and Keats are quoted, while one of the characters is lifted out of Oscar Wilde—Dorian Gray. Significantly, Jack the Ripper hovers over the production, as if the overarching theme is that the social fabric is ripped to shreds by 19th century optimism and confidence in progress through market capitalism. Logan’s target is clearly the empiricism and leftish Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. For the theme of the series, despite its mysterious plot twists and turns and lurid developments, is this: science (including medicine) is destroying our humanity and fellow-feeling, by ignoring the invisible world of demons—the monsters within, and who lead us to perdition when we deny their existence. Even the Catholic Church, possibly represented in the lead character “Vanessa Ives” cannot overcome the unpredictable demon(s) who torments her. And that demon, if we are to believe the publicity surrounding the series, may be inescapable “destiny”–a doctrine opposed by Catholic emphasis on free will and personal responsibility for our actions. Or compare the emphasis on “fate” with Milton’s Mammon, a puritan character who argues for “hard liberty” instead of submission to an unaccountable deity. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/07/09/preconditions-for-hard-liberty/.)

Penny-Dreadful-image-penny-dreadful-36465075-450-253

Prometheus, along with the rest of the Judeo-Christian West, is so over. As for individual moral accountability, that too is gone with the desert wind: we are left with a reproach to God as Frankenstein’s omnivorously reading monster quotes Adam’s lament in the season finale: “O fleeting joys Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes! Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me Man?”[ Paradise Lost, Book 10]. More: in the last words of the season finale, a Catholic priest asks Vanessa (the femme fatale who stands in for the demon-touched, hence “sacred” Romantic artist, i.e., Logan himself) “Do you really want to be normal?”

For in Logan’s Terror-Gothic world, a world shared by many opponents of “modernity”, “reality” exists solely in a chaotic invisible world that is inaccessible to our eyes, brains, and control. Could anything be more reactionary, hence agreeable to antidemocrats?

December 1, 2013

Reflections on the Affordable Care Act

demondoctor“Obamacare” is rightly the domestic issue that is upsetting the nation, so although I am neither a lawyer, nor a physician, I will lay out some of the difficulties that I see in the debates to date. In no particular order, then

First, the Democratic Party’s obliviousness to the enforced changing of doctors is indicative of a pandering and incompetent mind-set: Compassionate beings that they claim to be, Democrats would never argue that it is no big deal to change mothers. The benefit of a doctor who knows your history, and is invested in your good health, is comparable to the trust we place in our mothers (and present loving fathers).  How to explain this blind spot? Society (like the body) is not a machine, with interchangeable parts, though some political groupings seem to be.

Second, to what degree are we responsible for our health? With the body, we can choose not to drink to excess, not to smoke, to practice correct hygiene, to eat for maximum nutrition and to exercise. It is not so clear how we can control our mental states, which in turn impact our immune systems and the degree to which we take care of ourselves. I cannot understand why these matters are not taken up in our school curricula and in the media, though I suppose that religious diversity plays a large role, with some belief systems rejecting the physiological lessons of modernity.

Third, don’t look to the hip universities to be sympathetic to either medicine or psychiatry. At the university where I received my graduate training in history, the history of science encompassed the history of medicine and psychiatry, and the Foucauldians and the Left were in charge. Science was held to be a joke, and amusing, just as eighteenth century quacks were to be written about and mocked. The radical historicism I encountered at UCLA could not possibly distinguish between antique fads and misconceptions and modern medicine. Post WW1 German Expressionism has a grip on many academic mentalities–those sports who inhabit “the dark side” or, who are irresistibly drawn to the femme fatale.

cabinet of doctor caligari

Fourth, when I was much younger, I recall the responsibility that doctors and dentists alike felt for the poor. So they volunteered at free clinics, or might travel to the central valley in California to treat farm workers. Medicine, like dentistry, was held to be a noble profession, perhaps because parents or grandparents were immigrants.  Nowadays, many doctors expect to be multi-millionaires; ironically, their wives and children benefit from a life of luxury, while the physician (male or female), is expected to care for too many patients. This is a world I did not know in my youth, and do not like now.

Finally, the chant from ACA boosters that the Republican Party is simply obstructionist and has no alternative proposals, is tiresome and ludicrous.  Tort reform and competition across states lines for insurance companies are only two of oft-repeated suggestions. I would be even happier with the ACA opposition if they proposed changes in the curriculum that would put health, physical and mental, at the top of the list in curriculum reform.  That will never happen here until outdated notions such as demonic possession and/or fallen flesh are finally banished from our public schools and related institutions.

fallen flesh

September 14, 2009

Historians, journalists and polarization

Jean-Jaques Rousseau

I suppose you could call this blog a kind of discourse on method, with apologies to Descartes.

The term “polarization” does not mean that a group (in this case the U.S.) simply has sharp disagreements over policy. Rather it describes a situation that is highly irrational, in which hatred of the opposition is the dominant emotion. In such heightened emotional states, it is pointless to ask that we step back and 1. Describe with accuracy the status quo that the policy aims to reform; 2. Analyze proposed policies in detail, asking whether the reform in question can achieve the stated goals of its proponents; 3. Imagine better alternatives, describing these in sufficient detail to elicit either assent or opposition from concerned voters.

That sounds reasonable, right? But it is impossible to get agreement over the basic facts, or to even want to know them, in a society that is moved by partisan propaganda, often vitriolic, and where key words mean different things to different individuals and groups. (Take the word “secular” for instance. More on that later.)

Note that I did not specify what polarizing policy I had in mind. These (rational) protocols listed above could be applied to any of the current debates that roil the country: health care (or health insurance) reform; the war in Afghanistan; U.S. relations with Israel; whether or not radical Islam poses a deadly threat to the security of the West; the chief cause of the recession and measures that would aid recovery. (The latter dispute could include the causes of the Great Depression and how we got out of it.); gay marriage and compliance with the SCOTUS  decision; and immigration reform, etc.

During the month of August and early September I blogged here almost every day, hoping that an historical perspective that was also informed by depth psychology might contribute to the return of curiosity and rationality in a public sphere that seems to me to be spinning out of control toward either violent confrontations, even race riots, or toward the instituting of dangerous, misconceived policies that could hurt people with even greater inhumanity. In particular, I have emphasized embedded antisemitism in popular culture, an ever more visible phobia that defeats the rational scrutiny of controversial subjects as listed above. Not every historian does this kind of analysis, and why this is so is in itself historically determined.

First, there is the chasm between 1. Those whose intellectual and emotional makeup leads them toward skepticism to all authority until that authority is able to justify its existence and power to affect individual life; and 2. Those who are driven by faith in leaders, and who generally submit to their will, without too many questions. Let me stipulate here that historians are, by training, supposed to line up with the first group, whether their emphasis is on institutional structures, cultural patterns, the decisions of leaders, or the imperatives of the natural world and its slow or rapid transformations. Preferably, historians should provide an explanatory synthesis that comprehends, however tentatively, all of these great forces for change or stasis, but few have the training, the imagination, and the nerve to attempt it. Could it be that some do not want to appear as ”Jewish” troublemakers and catalysts of social change?

Unfortunately, given the immensity of the task facing the historian who wants to explain any conflict of significance, it is rare to find one with the imaginative skills and time to develop a satisfactory theory on all but a limited terrain. That is why I wish historians would shake off their graduate school training and its approved “lines” of interpretation coming from senior faculty, and move toward greater intellectual independence. “Faith” in our dissertation directors or other mentors must give way to bold forays into uncharted waters, where we identify those areas and conceptions most helpful in depolarizing the conflicts that rule the day.* One challenge is deciding the level of detail and context needed by a broad public in assessing foreign and  domestic policy. (I tried to do that yesterday in my account of oil politics and Obama’s framing of the Arab-Israeli conflict: I drastically reframed the conflict as generally transmitted in schools and in the media.) Another area of activity would be to define key words as they are deployed by competing social movements, for instance “secular” forces as opposed to “traditional” ones.

The word “secular” has changed its meaning: no longer commonly understood as a reference to the separation of church and state, i.e., a plurality of institutions affecting our orientation to public policy, hence enhancing “choice,”  “secular” now is often a curse word for some opinion leaders on the Right who take it to mean the mindless destruction of American values, as these are embodied in the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Whereas, instead of using scary words implying parricide and patricide, they could be doing real, appropriately detailed investigations, assuming that they are allowed to by their colleagues and employers. Or how about historians decoding the omnipresent admonition to “take responsibility” for one’s health? How can there be meaningful choice when determining structures remain invisible, and where we have only limited understanding of the emotions within ourselves that muddle “rational choice?”

One more word about journalists who are not trained historians, but who work for the media, and for whom loyalty to the organization often trumps loyalty to seeking the truth and educating the public about events and their causes. Newspapers and other media are in my view, adding to the polarization owing to the political postures of the owners and their advertised intentions to act as the “newspaper of record” or to achieve “fairness and balance.” Of course, the New York Times and Fox (owned by Newscorp) provide neither a complete record, nor fairness and balance, for few even know what “balance” signifies (as I have argued in a previous blog); nor is it widely known that “balance,” like “equilibrium” is a word used in psychological warfare to soothe the target audience. That is why the failure of the Pacifica Foundation remains such a bitter disappointment in my own personal history, for I once thought that listener-sponsorship would remedy the structural causes of bias and finally bring about a vibrant marketplace of ideas, but I did not take into consideration the overwhelming influence of corporatist liberalism and its concealed collectivist (“multicultural”) outlook, a matter discussed on this website at length.

Will the internet provide the much-needed way out of this imbroglio, a tangle of clashing opinion pushing us into some form of madness? As long as our schools and families do not prepare children to “quarrel with God” as Herman Melville did throughout his literary career (and for this he was read as a “Jew” by some prominent critics), the internet will add to the noise, but will not help us distinguish between true and false claims as to the crucial facts that affect public policy-making in a democratic republic: a democracy that does not call the primitivist Rousseau its intellectual parent, but is the creature of  Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century.

[Added 1-9-11:] I did not mention demonizing as a habit of the media, along with demonic possession as an explanation for psychosis or sociopathy. If your core readers believe in the Devil or in innate evil in human nature, calling out the dark forces is another strategy for selling newspapers and increasing traffic on cable television and websites. Goethe (illustrated) made a dramatic intervention in the Faust legend when he wrote his two-part drama in which Faust does not sell his soul, but makes a bet with Mephistopheles, a point that is ignored by those who don’t study intellectual history. But the Romantic Goethe, like Schiller, did become more conservative after the French Revolution, and it shows in their dramas.]

*One such historian is Niall Ferguson, whose masterful synthesis explaining Western ascendancy is of intense interest to me.

Tischbein portrait of classicist Goethe

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