YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 28, 2014

Bat Ye’or’s EURABIA: more relevant than ever

anti-women-2Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis was written by Bat Ye’or and published in 2005 by Associated University Presses. The author had already published other books on this and related subjects, mostly in French and translated into English, Hebrew, and Russian. Her general terrain has been the transformation of Europe in its ill-conceived alliance with the Arab world; she dates the turning point in 1973 (the oil crisis), but also alludes to Charles De Gaulle’s foreign policies in the 1960s.

Her argument is easily summarized: European elites made common cause with Pan-Arab elites, establishing the EAD (Euro-Arab Dialogue) to further the aims of 1. Muslims interested in re-establishing the caliphate that would compensate for its losses in Spain and Southern Europe during the late medieval and early Renaissance periods; and 2. A mostly French elite that wanted to challenge US supremacy in the world after the second world war.
The result was an aggressive (as opposed to a peaceful) multiculturalism. I.e., Ye’or holds to the school of international diplomacy that rejects Wilsonian internationalism/the United Nations for Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis.

The outcome of the Eurabian cultural offensive has been intensified immigration of non-assimilating Muslim immigrants into Europe, and the propagation of what she calls the “Andalusian myth” that the misnamed Western civilization itself owed everything to Muslim arts and sciences, and nothing to ancient Greece and Rome, the Byzantine Empire, “the Judeo-Christian heritage,” or to all societies prior to the propagation of Muslim religion from the 6th century onward. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Islam.)

Scholars such as the late Edward Said have been prominent adherents to Eurabian thought: their goal, she states, has been to attack the legitimacy of Israel, to undermine Christianity, to devalue the United States, and to establish a condition of “dhimmitude” (limited freedoms characterized by servility to the Muslim master and the Sharia law) in all regions where militant jihadists seek hegemony. Her book, written after 9-11, accentuates the cultural offensive or a one-sided “dialogue” between the West and jihadism in which the West has yielded its achievements to the claims of militant Islam and putting cultural pluralism (her “peaceful multiculturalism”) in dire jeopardy. These policies are supported, the author notes, by ambitious Muslim elites, some of their striving middle classes, communists everywhere, and nazified social movements of the far Right. (She does not include, obviously, those European politicians and social movements who oppose sharia law as advanced by Muslim immigrants.)

edwardsaidcard13

Wikipedia dismissed her claims as a “conspiracy theory”; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurabia. But it is well known that Wikipedia is controlled by the same “postcolonial” leftists who oppose Israel and the West as hopelessly imperialist and repressive. Eric Hobsbawm himself could have written this curt dismissal of Eurabia as entirely lacking in academic merit. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/.)

obamaisrael3

A daring work such as Bat Ye’or’s should be judged on its documentation as well as its predictive value. With Iraq now threatened by ISIS a.k.a. ISIL, Eurabia deserves a second look. (You will absorb her argument if you read the introduction and conclusions. The book has endnotes and multiple appendices.)
For a CV, see http://www.dhimmitude.org/d_bycv.html.

BatYeor

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March 15, 2013

Nirenberg’s mischievous ANTI-JUDAISM

David Nirenberg

David Nirenberg

[Abstract: Norton has published a wandering, lengthy, unreadable book whose unintended consequence may be the weakening of the current coalition between Jews and their (conservative) Christian allies in defense of Israel and of Western values.]

Nirenberg summarizes his argument here. http://chronicle.com/article/Anti-Judaism-as-a-Critical/136793/.  It is reviewed by poet and critic Adam Kirsch in a publication aimed at assimilated Jews who are either social democratic or “moderate.” http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/123971/a-world-without-jews.

I recently heard that the hot new book for students of relations between Jews and Christians was David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism (Norton, 2012). Though I wondered why this superstar cultural historian did not deploy the usual phrase “antisemitism”, I looked forward to learning how Jews were viewed in periods where I had neither languages nor deep reading knowledge: Egypt, ancient Greece, and medieval Europe. (Nirenberg is an endowed professor in the University of Chicago’s History of Social Thought department, educated at Yale and Princeton: see publications http://home.uchicago.edu/~nirenberg/publications.shtml.)  Not content to remain within his specialty, DN takes us up through the present, for this is a cross-over book, intended for the eyes of the lay reader.

I tried valiantly to make my way through this long tome, but finally gave up on it, for I find it unreadable and one step above gossip, skipping back and forth in time. I did note along the way that Nirenberg had done no archival research himself, but had mined the labors of the trendiest historians working today. The project of the book seems to be an assault not only on the bigoted West (and Islam too), but a rough ride through thousands of years of history, quoting the famous and the less famous, but ever noting continuities in “civilization’s” negative references to Jews and Judaism. (We never learn what Judaism is or was, for his topic is images disseminated by pagans, Christians, deists, atheists), nor does he adequately explain why he discards the customary phrase antisemitism.) It is my view that in a book addressed to the lay reader, an author has a responsibility to be organized, chronological, and to clearly state arguments, with constant guideposts to the uninitiated reader. For instance, you first lay out the project of the book and why non-scholars should care about it, acknowledge prior scholarly and popular literature on the subject, state an allover argument that breaks new ground, then recapitulate the journey in the conclusions. Conclusions should synthesize a new narrative, something for the reader to take away, something new in the world of thought and feeling that corrects and refines the work of colleagues.

antisemiticart

What to make of this failure to commit to either method or objectives, especially since in his last chapter he quotes Hannah Arendt, Adorno and Horkheimer, though distancing himself from their particular rationales for antisemitism or counter-Enlightenment (e.g., Jews were really “overrepresented” in commerce and finance, so who can entirely blame Hitler’s base, an accusation I have heard from other bigots.). He does, however, cite Edward Said, famously anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist. (See long footnote on the anti-Western Said in https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.)

It was not until I googled “Judeo-Christian heritage” that I could guess at the project of the book (that may be invisible to Nirenberg): besides throwing yet more red meat for the nourishment of living, active antisemites (not noted in the Tablet review), Nirenberg may intend to break up the alliance of many Christian Zionists, other non-bigoted Protestants and Catholics, with their Jewish partners in defense of Israel and of “the West” in general. It is all suggested here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judeo-Christian. (The Judeo-Christian coalition began in the 1950s, and is strong today on the conservative New Right.) Call me Paranoid.

Finally, consider the jacket to the hardback edition ($35, no pictures). It refers to anti-Judaism being built into the “genome” of the West. This is a misappropriation of genetics for a tendentious argument that “the West” has transmitted its deplorable characterizations of “Jews” through its very DNA. I have already written about such binary opposites as Nirenberg describes, but for the purpose of understanding Nazi ideology, not in undermining (consciously or not) a political coalition that is aimed to protect Jewish life and those humanistic values that are shared by Christians and Jews, notwithstanding a problematic history of persecution and religious/political/economic antagonism. See https://clarespark.com/2010/08/15/nazis-exhibit-der-ewige-jude-1937/ or for a more refined distinction between two strands of “Western” thought, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/18/babel-vs-sinai/.

Judaism and Christian Art

Judaism and Christian Art

December 22, 2012

My “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” and Eric Hobsbawm

Oppositional_Defiant_Child_ODDToward the end of his autobiography (Interesting Times), the recently deceased ‘most important historian in the world’, Eric Hobsbawm, showed his contempt for the American Constitution, writing “Forced into the straitjacket of an eighteenth-century constitution reinforced by two centuries of talmudic exegesis by the lawyers, the theologians of the republic, the institutions of the USA are far more frozen into immobility than those of almost other states in 2002.” (p.409)

During the last month or so, I have read all of Hobsbawm’s famed tetralogy, his grand synthesis of world history from the French Revolution to the 1990s. As one exegete (Gregory Elliott) of Hobsbawm’s intellectual development claims, EH’s Marxism no longer lauds Marx as prophet of revolution, but rather as analyst of the disastrous globalization perpetrated by the bourgeoisie. To put it plainly, Hobsbawm adapted to the Leninist anti-imperialist moment approved by the younger Leninists. These avatars of “social justice” dominate the humanities today, including history, sociology, comparative literature, art history, etc. (For one blog on Hobsbawm related to this one, see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/.)

As I have written previously, few would admit to being a Stalinist any longer, but Lenin’s anti-imperialism remains untarnished among not only the “hard left” but among Democratic Party activists. In other words, the Popular Front lives on, with the cooperation of George Soros (Interesting Times, p.310), Oliver Stone and his facilitators at Showtime or HBO, most movie and television celebrities, the professoriate at the better universities, and all progressive media. None of them, to my knowledge, has come out against anti-Zionism. Nor, I would guess, would any of them find anything objectionable about Hobsbawm’s depiction of the frigid American Constitution, deemed insane by the greatest historian ever, as numerous obituaries aver.

It is most curious that Hobsbawm the internationalist par excellence, not only remained a Communist all his life, but that he presents himself constantly as a “Jew”, but “anti-Zionist,” as anti-sectarian, as the avatar of Popular Front politics, as one for whom national loyalty and identification are out of date; rather, he divided the world up between fascists and anti-fascists. It is obvious from his writings that America, like Israel, like those Republicans (or a few centrist Democrats) who think that the Constitution was a good idea and still relevant and worth enforcing, are on the Wrong Side of History.

Some definitions are in order: Popular Front tactics were devised by the Comintern to trick New Dealers and other social democrats into supporting the Reds. The latter came out as “anti-fascists” in a broad oppositional front to Hitler and Franco around 1935. This tactic supplanted the “sectarianism” of the Third International, that defined New Dealers as “social fascists.” Hobsbawm wrote his books against “sectarianism” by which he meant not only the disastrous comrades from 1928-1934 (who allowed Hitler to prevail), but anything that smacked of Trotskyism or New Leftist go-it-alone operations. (Perhaps Pop Front politics are not relevant, for EH mentions Kondratiev waves to explain the weakness of capitalism, and such an economic theory would lead him to what he and others deem to be “democratic socialism.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Schumpeter.)

Hobsbawm’s position is puzzling, for during the halcyon Pop Front days, the Stalinist New Masses wrote favorably about the progressive bourgeoisie that had developed the progressive forces, empowering and presumably radicalizing the new working class. But the Leninist anti-imperialism line changed all that: no matter how regressive, any anti-Western movement in what used to be called the Third World was seen as a Good Thing, no matter how brutal and backward the society in question. Edward Said pushed this line and thousands of academics cheered. Even feminists who should have known better.

Perhaps I am suffering from “oppositional defiant disorder” for taking issue with the British Leftists who have, in my experience, invaded America, for they dominated UCLA and other top schools while I was in graduate school during the 1980s and early 1990s. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppositional_defiant_disorder.) Surely, my shrink at UCLA (once a forensic psychiatrist in Massachusetts) thought that I was irrationally defiant in not knuckling under to authority, for he told me that after I had received the doctorate, much to his relief (or surprise?). As I have confessed before, it was confided to me by one in the know that my numerous critics referred to me as that “hysterical feminist.” Which was odd, for I viewed myself during those years as an old-fashioned Marxist, annoyed by the right-wing social democrats on the faculty who were sponsoring separatist ethnic and gender studies, and who were patently oblivious to the conflicts engendered by class position. But they did focus on “inequality.” I was chastised and mocked in private and public for deviance, for thinking that white male professors should catch up on their reading and integrate the latest scholarship on women and minorities. (For a partial index to my research on mental health theories see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/18/blogs-on-mental-health/.)

oppositional-defiance-disorder-1

Since then, I have rejected any particular political alignment, favoring the stance of the independent scholar, faithful to archival research and criticizing other historians for departing from the objectivity once lauded by scholars writing in the humanist tradition.

Meanwhile, watch out for the British Leftists. They can impress an American reader, for they are highly acculturated, display their cultural capital promiscuously, and can mislead the unwary reader into thinking that they are other than a cult, a guild characterized by Eros und Bund, and speaking mostly to each other, their impressionable students, and apparently POTUS and his appointees. See https://clarespark.com/2012/07/19/communist-ideas-go-mainstream/. (I learned about Eros und Bund from the late George L. Mosse, the prolific historian of popular culture in the Third Reich and in pre-Nazi Germany. Almost all  his books are fascinating, though I deplore his debt to German Idealism.)

September 25, 2012

Thought police on Fox?

You can’t say “savage” on Fox News Channel.

This morning, Jamie Colby, a Fox News anchor, explained to the audience that she could not bring herself to quote the ad, formulated by Pamela Geller, which, upon a judge’s orders, is now placed on subways in NYC and other venues.  For Ms. Colby, the words (later described as “fighting words” by her guests) were simply unmentionable in polite company. I gather from the ad that the word “savage” (along with “savages”?) takes its place with F-bombs and other evil expletives.

Here is the advertisement, part of which is a quotation from Ayn Rand:

Geller’s ad was responding to anti-Israel ads that had been placed in New York City subways for several years, and had to sue the MTA to get it posted. It was not that long ago that a Harvard professor as prestigious as F. O. Matthiessen could divide up humanity into the civilized and the savage, seeing this as a core conflict around which one could write literary history. But that was 1941, in his still read American Renaissance. And Matthiessen was no friend to American expansion.  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/).

What is at issue here is the ongoing victory of the forces of political correctness. The ad in contention nowhere says that all Muslims are enemies of Israel; rather it singles out jihadists, about whose intentions to wipe Israel off the map, no one should be in doubt.

I first found out that the adjective or noun “savage” or “savages” was forbidden to the politically progressive when I read Richard Slotkin’s book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, at the recommendation of my friend Michael Rogin, author of Fathers and Children, a controversial book on Andrew Jackson’s policies as genocidal toward native Americans, and that further maintained that all American institutions shared  Jackson’s  paternalistic and hierarchical military model.  (Rogin told me himself that he was very wounded when his colleague, political scientist John Schaar, also a famous New Leftist, had criticized Rogin for placing Indian removal at the heart of American history; perhaps the anti-expansionist line was too simplistic.) Professor Slotkin has continued his theme through decades of books and novels dedicated to his thesis, identical with Rogin’s and with other celebrities in American Studies. (For a rundown on the anti-American celebrities in academe, including Edward Said, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.) Cultural relativism demands that we erase the notion of “savagery” from our memory banks, and we are ordered to understand alien cultures on their own terms. One society is not better than any other: this is what liberals mean by “diversity.” (This notion was sharply criticized by Ralph Bunche while he was assisting Gunnar Myrdal in the preparation of An American Dilemma. What the libertarian-leaning Bunche wanted was an America that would live up to its founding creed.)

Jackson swats Amerindian

Fast forward to my years in graduate school, and a visiting professor who specialized in the history of native American warfare and politics. A silence spread over the room when the professor declared that American Indians were highly various in their social organization and that they constantly fought with each other. This would seem to be common sense, but it cut into the narrative propagated by the U.S. field at UCLA that “civilized” Europeans had literally invaded America and [savagely] destroyed the indigenous peoples all by themselves. I.e., Michael Rogin’s anti-American narrative had been complicated, too complicated for persons who preferred to tell a simple story of American [savagery] at its core.

One might ask: what is civilization? To Walter Lippmann, writing in The Good Society, the idea of the individual’s equality with other individuals before God was a turning point in the rejection of barbarism. (An assimilated Jew, Lippmann awarded that honor to Christianity; he might have mentioned Judaism See https://clarespark.com/2013/03/18/babel-vs-sinai/.) Before that, the Massachusetts Senator who was notorious for his aggressive arguments against slavery, Charles Sumner, defined the liberal state as protecting individual rights through equality before the law, and his notion of law was limited mostly to national security and the protection of individual welfare, inseparable from liberty.  Here was no coward, bending the knee to those forces demanding unquestioning obedience to those supporting chattel slavery. For his efforts on behalf of equality before the law he was suspected of carrying Jewish blood through his mother by his most important biographer, a Southerner by birth. (For details on David Herbert Donald’s bio of Sumner see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/.)

We now should have an idea of what “fair and balanced” means in the practice of Fox News Channel.  As I have argued previously, this cable news outlet, though it broadcasts some dissenting voices on the Right, is centrist, moderate, and progressive. Welcome to the world of 1984. The thought police are everywhere. The founders gave us a republic, and it is up in the air as to whether or not we can summon the will to keep it.

August 16, 2012

Marx, anarchist rivals, and our enigmatic President

[For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/06/diagnosing-potus/. Also, https://clarespark.com/2012/09/14/ron-paul-anarchist-in-chief/]

Because the history of radical thought is rarely taught objectively, if at all, in the universities, much of the electorate is at the mercy of any anti-statist conservative who takes it upon himself to write a book about his political enemies, tarring them with the brush of either communism, fascism, or “totalitarianism” (the latter conflating communism and Nazism/ fascism, which have differing political genealogies, and differ sharply with respect to the Enlightenment).

We remain in an attenuated political culture, because leftists and liberals alike dominate the teaching of the humanities in the public schools, and elite universities (both private and public). Right wing protest attempts to overcome the leftist monopoly with largely religious claims that are often flawed, for instance, holding “atheism” or “materialism” or “science” or “technology” or “feminism” or “gays” responsible for the perceived decadence of our times.

At the same time, many vocal post-60s leftists refuse to acknowledge that this is a big country, with diverse belief systems. Hence their political tactics may be intolerant and lacking in empathy for those who find purpose and meaning in Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, etc. Enter the fiercely argued culture wars, where “secularism,” to take one example, has been transformed from the separation of Church and State to “godless Communism.” Do we enjoy Ayn Rand’s novels? She must be the devil, for she was a materialist who lauded creative achievement in this world. What we may not do is view her as the product of a particular moment in history, when collectivism (either Soviet Communism or the New Deal) was justified as the realization of altruism, a quality held to be lacking in dog-eat-dog hyper-individualistic industrial society, controlled by “economic royalists” as FDR named his opponents. At a moment when social bonds were mystical (as envisioned by either the corporatist liberals or the Soviets), Rand defended science, technology, and the materialist Enlightenment:  for Rand social bonds were rational and based on competence in manipulating the materials of this world.

What to do when there is no common basis for agreement regarding fundamental values, let alone the application of the Constitution to an industrialized or post-industrial society such as our own? My personal solution is to defend scientific method, political pluralism (on “cultural pluralism” see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/26/cultural-pluralism-vs-multiculturalism/), and creative freedom against all authoritarian tendencies, whether these emanate from the Left, the “moderate men,” or the Right. That is the purpose of the website, and decades earlier, was the project of my radio programs on KPFK-FM, Los Angeles. Whereas “leftists”(including anarchists) claim to stand with “the oppressed,” I stand with artists, the unleashed imagination, and the creative spirit in general, which I believe each one of our species possesses.

Yesterday, I promised my Facebook friends that I would try to write a blog distinguishing between Karl Marx and his anarchist rivals. Looking over the various Wikipedia biographies of the major actors in this (anarchist) trend in European history (see below), I was daunted, even floored. But I did discover that Noam Chomsky admired such anarchist thinkers as Bakunin (add Perry Anderson to that list), while Martin Luther King, Jr. is better seen as a descendant of Tolstoy.

As for Marx versus Lenin versus Mao-Tse-tung, I will summarize all too briefly what their differences were here (and note that I am drastically oversimplifying, and everything I write will be seen as reductionist and dumb by those who are intellectuals in the many left-wing sects):

  1. Marx was  hardly the sole critic of industrial society, but it is his apocalyptic prophecies of socialist revolution that distinguish him from his rivals. He believed that the working class would become immiserated, and that portions of the bourgeoisie would desert their class to join with the workers to “expropriate the expropriators.” This could  only happen in advanced industrial societies where the working class comprised the majority. Marx had little use for petit-bourgeois radicalism  (such as utopian socialism advanced by many of his contemporaries, including Robert Owen and the Fourierites in America). And he famously despised “the idiocy of rural life” and societies he considered to be backward, which aroused the fury of such as the anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist Edward Said, along with other primitivists and antisemites. Most controversially, Marx predicted the withering away of the state after a relatively brief period of working class dictatorship. In his fantasies, the creative spirit soon would be enjoyed by everyone, once the commodifying capitalist boot was lifted from the necks of hapless workers.
  2. Soviet Communism. It was not supposed to happen in a backward country, but Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades took advantage of the Great War and Russia’s defeat to mount a  coup and a separate peace. Lenin was deeply influenced by J. A. Hobson, and one emphasis was breaking the stranglehold of finance capital (“the Jews”). Rather than allowing worker’s councils (as had sprung up in numerous locales), he supported “war communism” and “bureaucratic  centralism” that easily was transmuted by Stalin to “socialism in one country.” Meanwhile, Trotskyists broke with Stalinism to foment international revolution, while I. N. Steinberg, leader of the Left Social Revolutionaries, fled for his life.
  3. Maoism. The Chinese Communists broke with Moscow from about 1958 onward. Mao’s theory that the peasants were the revolutionary class in China appealed to many radicals  with an agrarian bias. Such incendiary radicals as H. Bruce Franklin,  however, managed to defend Stalin while advocating Third World revolution  in the 1960s. Here is where the New Left and the anti-urban, libertarian, anarchistic “counter-culture” could join hands. “Old Guard” members of SDS finally lined up with the Democratic Party, while some of the “direct action” folk blew themselves up and their ideological offspring can be found in parts of the Occupy Wall Street, anti-globalization demonstrations. In pop culture they may “rage against the machine.”
  4. The irony of Marxism. For true Marxists, the bourgeoisie was a progressive class. This is basic, for without Adam Smith and Company, there would be no industrial society that could lead to a utopia that would eliminate toil and drudgery for the majority of humanity. For the others mentioned here and below in the biographies of the most important European anarchists, the bourgeoisie was evil, amoral, and thieving of the labor of workers and peasants. Nihilistic  gangs such as Baader-Meinhof or the Weathermen (as embodied in Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers) hold to the violence of George Sorel. To what extent their beliefs have penetrated youth culture I cannot say for certain, but it should worry us all.

Bernadine Dohrn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_materialism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proudhon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bakunin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Tolstoy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Kropotkin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Sorel

Finally, given the intricacy of these European social movements and their chief ideologues, I hesitate to apply them willy nilly to American political figures. We are too given to easy labels, without nuance and without knowledge of revolutionary theories that were developed on crowded continents with autocratic ruling classes. There is no substitute for studying the labor movement in America. Let the intellectuals fret over “Why there is no socialism in America.”  We might do better to study shifting coalitions in American political parties as they existed in the past and in the campaign year of 2012. Are the varied components of either the Democratic or the Republican parties compatible with each other, or are they at odds? And does or does not this internal incoherence complicate our picture of the often enigmatic Barack Obama and his challengers?

[Illustrated: Isaac N. Steinberg, briefly in a coalition government with Lenin, leader of the Left Social Revolutionaries, and author of Workshop of the Revolution, that denounced the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and the suppression of the mutinous Kronstadt sailors. Steinberg and his family–including his son Leo who went on to be a great and revered art historian–fled the Soviets in 1923. Steinberg went on to search for a homeland for the Jews that would not make them vulnerable to a sea of Arab neighbors.]

I.N. Steinberg

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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