YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 17, 2016

What does “liberty” signify?

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freedom_by_hnde“…You know how I feel
Scent of the pine
You know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel….” (Volvo freedom commercial: complete lyrics here: http://www.brandnewlyrics.com/avicii/feeling-good/)

In this background lyric for a recent Volvo commercial, “freedom” is not a gesture or an attractive state of being, but an emotion, a possession, a perfume, or a sensation that presumably links the driver with wild Nature, which the car, the singer, and presumably a friend comprehend.

Many persons link the word “liberty” with freedom: it could be “free will” or liberation from oppression (as in the American Revolution—a statement critical of the former British boot), but in today’s irrationalist political argot, it may mean “religious liberty.”

But such “liberty” may not signify the separation of church and state (see https://clarespark.com/2016/01/25/is-the-us-constitution-godless/) but rather a view that the USA is a Christian Commonwealth that represents the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. To Cornell historian Isaac Kramnick, such a conception exists in tension with the secular state, the latter an innovation of Thomas Jefferson and the (rationalist) Enlightenment views that inspired him.

If there was ever an irreconcilable conflict between factions, this clashing notion of “liberty” is it. Yet few pundits ever identify it as such. In its stark opposition, it reminds me of a similar conflict: free will versus determinism. (https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.) At least in the free will debate, a thoughtful person will do her best to recognize limited (moral) choices, given the state of our ignorance about all the forces that mold our “will.”

Not so in the super-safe Volvo that links safety with the “scent of pine.” And don’t we all pine for that sense of security and composure in our search for “liberty”?

“Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing,
sits in
calmness and light, is positive and composed,
and knows no discouragement.” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Illustration credit: Freedom by HNDE (Deviant Art)



May 26, 2014

Triumphalism, dogma, and the Left or Right

benshapirodestroy.jpgI was distressed to see a new booklet distributed David Horowitz’s Freedom Center, penned by Ben Shapiro. Its title is “How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them.”

Much as I have condemned the moderate men on this website with their ruling idea that all conflict can be conciliated without war (see https://clarespark.com/2009/08/09/what-is-a-corporatist-liberal-and-why-should-they-frighten-us/), I balk at any variety of triumphalism on either Left or Right, unless we are already living under a fascist (one party) dictatorship. If we want to find the truth, while mired in the many controversies that beset us, the absence of countervailing argument is lethal to fixing that which ails us, in private or public life alike.

Moreover, it is un-Jewish to be dogmatic. Despite efforts of antisemites to describe Jews as bent on conquest of the world’s economies and the elimination of all belief systems except for their own, the hard fact remains that to be Jewish is to live in a constant state of questioning, of intellectual combat, not destruction of the enemy or of competing arguments. Without pluralism and civility, that task is impossible, for the irrational parts of our makeup will overtake good sense. “Tory” (i.e., reactionary) artists and writers understand this very well, and seek to terrorize us with images of the inquiring mind and modernity as lethal and disgusting. They offer us countless variations of the Frankenstein myth, lately visible in the new Penny Dreadful series on Showtime. This is right-wing Romanticism with a vengeance directed against “the mob” supposedly empowered by literacy, numeracy, and practice in critical thought, though you would never know that from the reviews.

In order to sniff out liars and ideologues, institutions must be pluralistic, or, as the US Constitution demands, institutions must provide for checks and balances, so that no element of government or of the electorate can impose its will on others without a cautious, careful weighing of facts, many of which remain in dispute or indeterminable. To say that it is too soon to draw conclusions, is considered to be a sign of weakness or feminization. Yet this task of weighing and measuring in a humble state of mind is the very essence of modernity and of the most radical elements of the Enlightenment.

Some “traditionalists” find this imperative dangerous and unsettling, so they pin derogatory labels on their “secular progressive” opponents, projecting their own theocratic and bullying propensities upon persons who are innocent of the same dogmatism. Enter the culture wars.

To practice this demanding habit of mind and heart is very difficult for most persons, who seek group identity/“social cohesion” and “political stability” above the search for the best form of social organization to protect individuality, and one most conducive to well-being for the majority of its citizens. One could look at this “Talmudic” approach to life as either tormenting or stimulating. Obviously, I prefer the latter, which reflects my restless, buzzing brain that finds a home everywhere and nowhere.


February 2, 2013

“Totalitarianism,” polarization, and single-issue politics

Leninism-picturePolarization. Pundits and politicians today often complain about “polarization” as an obstacle to “compromise,” without acknowledging that there may be irreconcilable conflicts that cannot be mediated, no matter how skillful or flexible the warring parties. However, it is acknowledged that the two major political parties are at odds over the best way to achieve economic growth: Democrats  want Keynesian demand-stimulus and government spending, while conservative Republicans and libertarians want free markets and limited government as the road to prosperity, for it is the private sector that holds their attention, though some of their admired forbears advocated a government safety net (the Friedmans, Hayek). Perhaps we should calm down a bit: there are two capitalist parties, and no one is ideologically inclined to eliminate the other Party, at least not yet.

Single-issue politics. Social movements of the 1960s that piggy-backed off the civil rights movement  (antiwar, feminism, gay rights, animal rights, environmentalism, now Latino/Hispanic rights) are generally supported by liberals, but tend to dismay conservatives, who see such issues as feminism and gay rights as destructive to the family and even causes of cultural decline and coarsening): hence the “culture wars.” And no one is giving an inch, so that single-issue politics tend to polarize us even further, with each side in the various struggles accusing their opponents of authoritarianism, narrow-mindedness or even “totalitarian” tendencies.

Leftists would have to view single-issue politics as mostly disruptive and even a bourgeois distraction to the class struggle, which will, after the revolution, remove all obstacles to the development of the human personality under the new dispensation. Whereas I see these various movements as incommensurate, that is, they should be treated as separate entities with different histories and implications for how we manage the economy. They should not be jumbled together or even compared to the struggle of black Americans to achieve equality of opportunity.

Totalitarianism. I asked some of my Facebook friends to explain what they meant by “totalitarianism.” They agreed that it signified a kind of statism that would go beyond anything we have now in the West, eliminating all civil liberties, freedom of speech, etc. Nearly all read Orwell, and already feel the heat of Big Brother in some tendencies of the Obama administration, or even in the social movements mentioned above insofar as they impose PC or are alarmingly “secular.” Orwell was unenthused over “secularism” too: see https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/. Meanwhile, pundits of the Right and even the middle, tend to use “totalitarianism” in a manner that equates Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany as functional equivalents, which Orwell did not, hoping for an English “Socialism.” (Orwell did see Socialism as an ongoing theme in Nazi Germany, but he was mistaken. (See https://clarespark.com/2014/12/10/were-nazis-socialists/.) For other writers, the Holocaust is viewed as terrible, but a distraction from the millions of victims under the Soviet Union and Communist China.

In his conclusions to The Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution: Ideological Polarization in the Twentieth Century (UC Press, 1981, Transaction Press paperback ed., 1991) Jacob Talmon does not equate the terror states of Nazis and the Soviets, reducing each to a kind of ultra–statism, though both regimes had to resort to terror in order to discipline their constituencies. They had different historical trajectories as I have constantly argued here before. Nazis regressed to the brutalities of the archaic and to feudal social relations, while Reds believed they were emancipating the lower orders from the modern world as directed by the imperialist bourgeoisie. Reds would complete the unfulfilled bourgeois project, while Nazism was a counter-revolution. (Irving Louis Horowitz appropriates Talmon to paper over the polarities that Talmon emphasizes between Nazis and Soviets, in my view, because Horowitz is allied with such as Hannah Arendt. Page numbers below are from the Transaction Press version.)

Several years ago, I vehemently criticized Jonah Goldberg’s best seller Liberal Fascism as misleading and wrong-headed. (See  https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.) Since reading the Goldberg  book, one that was much admired on the Right, I have read Eric Hobsbawm’s  tetralogy on modernity that does find communism to be an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and of the bourgeois revolution that the French mounted in 1789, but certainly not Fascism or Nazism. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/, https://clarespark.com/2013/01/15/golden-globes-lincoln-clinton-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/) .

The redoubtable historian Jacob Talmon covered the same period as Eric Hobsbawm, but from a liberal anti-communist point of view. He faults both Leninism and the various fascisms for erasing the conception of humanity and the value of the individual, but would never agree with Jonah Goldberg that progressivism was a precursor to a kind of “liberal fascism”, i.e. to the excessive statism that alarms the Republican Party, libertarians, and some of the writers for National Review.

Jacob Talmon Stamps

Jonah Goldberg, a popular writer, was in over his head.

Here is an example of what Talmon means by “totalitarianism” in the drive toward Soviet bureaucratic centralism or “totalitarian democracy” : “Lenin experienced that sense of movement, of the eternal tug of war, of unbridgeable contradictions, of the approaching crisis, with an intensity and urgency unmatched by anyone in his circle….movement, contradiction, conflict, breakthrough, change were to him encased in an evolving totality held together by the iron-cast law of historical inevitability. The irresistible march of history could neither be affected nor could be allowed to be interfered with by human arbitrariness, caprice, preferences, feelings, sentiments, residual inhibitions.” (p.339) In Lenin’s historical imagination, the bourgeoisie (finance capital) was the oppressor standing in the way of the development of “personality.” A dictatorship of the proletariat” would destroy the bourgeoisie, thus going all the way to fulfilling the promise of Enlightenment and its liberation of thought.

For these authors, “totalitarianism” is less about total control, but rather a “breakthrough,” a “vision of revolution” that seeks to overturn the world as it exists in its totality. Totality is the essence of the world “totalitarian.”  Nazism overthrows the German Right and the Weimar social democrats, while celebrating neo-feudal social relations, with the Leader directing the organic racially purified “people’s community” (the integral Nation). By contrast, communism imagines an international working class proletarian brotherhood, who have abolished nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. Without these evil “isms” all people would be able to develop a full individuality. But the fascisms deter anything smacking of the individual, glorifying instead the State/Party/as the embodiment of the people’s community. For Mussolini there was nothing outside the State, and the State would work its coercive magic on the sindicati (He had once been a revolutionary Syndicalist, influenced by George Sorel, and his masculinist cult of violence and war.)

(Hitler’s volkischness would be enlarged globally so that each state, under German leadership, would be its own racially pure polity, but his war aims were mostly directed to stopping the  Soviets and expanding into the Slavic areas that were bread  baskets; that would entail enslaving the inferior Slavs.)

Populism. But everyone, Populist-Progressives, anarchists, George Sorel, and all the anticapitalists in Europe, including Nazis and Leninists alike, hated the rule of money, going so far as to stigmatize “economic determinism” as a Jewish imposition. For  Lenin. insofar as he was influenced by J. A.  Hobson,  finance capital was seen as a Jewish plot to take over the world (see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/, and Talmon pp. 204, 439, 473-74 and passim); for Hitler, “Jewish Bolshevism” was a front for finance capital (also “Jewish”) and worse, the Jews were the “anti-race,” for they valued, from antiquity onward, humanity as one species: Talmon insists on this.

We should get our history straightened out, recognizing the stunted political imagination that the careless use of political language imposes. Now that defiled brain is a species of terror. And it feels “totalitarian” to me.

January 2, 2013

Culture warriors and the Enlightenment

enlightenment[My most comprehensive treatment of this vexed subject is here: https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.]

Bill O’Reilly, the most popular history writer in America today and the dominant draw in cable news, has announced to his millions of viewers that he will accelerate his assault on “secular-progressives” and implied that he expects to win the culture wars for “traditionalists” like himself. He has started his campaign because he believes that the breakdown in family structure (i.e. the absent father in minority and other poor families) is the primary cause of dependency on the redistributionist welfare state.

What O’Reilly fails to see is that many, if not all, of his secular progressive enemies are as much committed to the organic society as is he, for they are often moderate men given to “compromise,”  and thus healers of every conceivable rift in the “body politic.”

As I have demonstrated on this website and in my book on the Melville Revival, there was not only one Enlightenment, but two streams of thought contributing to what O’Reilly calls “secular progressivism.” One stream watered the New Deal, while the other fed the notions of free market capitalism as explicated by Hayek and the Friedmans, to name a few.

Take Peter Gay (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Gay) , whose volumes on the Enlightenment energized the fields of cultural history, social history, and the history of medicine, sub-fields of history that lean toward the organic society (the class collaboration furthered by the New Deal and other conservative reformers), though that is not generally seen, as these academics are a tightly knit group that fends off “mechanical materialist” intruders, who deny, say, the notion of Zeitgeist as formulated by such counter-Enlightenment figures as Herder and other German Romantics. And yet in his Freud For Historians (Oxford UP, 1985), Gay distances himself from such mystical formulations as Zeitgeist.

Here is what Peter Gay wrote in the second volume of his massive tome The Enlightenment: An Interpretation Vol.II: The Science of Freedom (Knopf, 1969):

“There was nothing new in the philosophes’ perception that society is a fabric with interdependent, interacting parts:* what they did that was new was to take this perception as a justification for their own importance. After all, if progress is infectious, then to teach truth, expose error, and inculcate confidence—and all this, of course, the philosophes were sure they were doing—was to spread reason and shed light over large areas, even in unsuspected places. Thus the philosophes enlisted the enlightened atmosphere of their day in the service of their movement.” (p.25, “The Spirit of the Age, ” my emph.)

I quote Peter Gay because I want to distinguish between what I call the Conservative Enlightenment and the (materialist) Radical Enlightenment. The former type is covertly Burkean, emphasizing continuities with the past through “interdependence” and (implied) deference to Platonic Guardians, while the latter was a rupture with the past. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/.)  The American Constitution was one such rupture, especially as its original favoritism toward white males was rectified by the antislavery and voting rights for women amendments.

What is at stake in these competing notions of Enlightenment is the conception of the autonomous individual, capable of standing apart from passions, from families, from tribal associations, to read the world (reality) and hence to make decisions as an independent citizen. Such a one can throw off the conception of “national character” or group mind that [collectivist] Peter Gay supports through his rhetoric and his reverence for “the secular social conscience” (p.39), Kant and other German thinkers. The notion of Zeitgeist is imaginary, like the widely used term “cultural climate,” or, to use Peter Gay’s scientistic language “enlightened atmosphere.”

Today, the cultural climate that alarms Bill O’Reilly (e.g. the “culture of violence”) has taken on the agency once attributed to the individual. But such culturalist formulations go well with the corporatist liberal/communist notion of “social engineering.” Fix the “cultural climate,” bring back the moderate, healing good father (Lincoln, JFK, O’Reilly), and such events as the Newtown massacre will end, and we shall indeed live to see the best of all possible worlds.


*Compare Gay’s formulation to that of Joyce Appleby, Margaret Jacob, and Lynn Hunt: “Historians cannot comprehend all the variables bombarding a single event. Human beings participate in a dense circuitry of interacting systems, from those that regulate their bodily functions to the ones that undergird their intellectual curiosity and emotional responses. A full explanation of an event would have to take into consideration the full range of systematic reactions. Not ever doing that, history-writing implicitly begins by concentrating on those aspects of an event deemed most relevant to the inquiry.” (From Telling the Truth in History, Norton, 1994, p.253)

July 4, 2012

Index to Fourth of July blogs

Sumner as painted by Eastman Johnson

I included the most substantial blogs on America’s favorite holiday. The whole website is dedicated to the ongoing interpretation (including distortions) of the Declaration of Independence.



https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/  (Sumner argued that the Declaration of Independence had the force of law, hence must be seen as an anti-slavery document.)










November 14, 2010

The ABC’s of Antisemitism

19th C. image of The Wandering Jew

[For an index to many of my blogs on antisemitism, see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/29/index-to-blogs-on-antisemitism/.]

Antisemitism entails much more than a direct assault upon Jewish life. But as a multifaceted part of the imagination, certain aspects of this phobia emerge at different moments in the history of the West.  These notes are a crude, first attempt to locate particular aspects of modern antisemitism in the turning points listed below. I list them so that readers can identify certain tropes that evoke images of the Bad Jew* even when Jews themselves are not directly under investigation.

It is widely recognized that Jews have come to represent modernity in the eyes of their enemies, but the entire history of the West contributes to the power of the antagonism.

Legacy of Greek antiquity: gloom and narcissism. Narcissus was in love with himself, hence deaf to cries from community, self-destructs. Matthew Arnold famously contrasted gloomy Hebraism with the sweetness and light of Hellenism, a distinction that Herman Melville, for one, internalized.

Legacy of New Testament antisemitism: lucre-loving hence materialistic, demonic, legalistic and unforgiving (Shylock); Christ-hating hence antithesis to Christian love; carnal “Chosen People” seek subjugation of all non-Jews. The Jewish God is wrathful and genocidal, transmitting these characteristics  to his “chosen” ones. Hence, “Wall Street” under the guise of “wealth creation” is out to “slaughter” the (non-Jewish) “middle class.” A Jewified (modern, secular) world is infested with bloodsucking vampires. (I do not deny that many Christians have denounced this legacy, and now stand with Jews against antisemitism and against anti-Israel policies. See http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/2011/09/what-jews-should-know-about-christians.html).

Legacy of Reformation: Protestants seen as Church-destroying Jews, and as such lack reverence for established authority. These Faustians focus on worldliness as opposed to other-worldliness. The Christian myth of the repentant, indestructible Wandering Jew takes hold (see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/). Jews will always be alien, “a people apart,” even if they convert or are born into a family of converts.  They can never be rooted in the nation, no matter how assimilated they may appear to be (see the Nazi movie Der ewige Jude with its emphasis on the masked Jew).

Legacy of Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and market societies/capitalism: the innovating (mad) scientist seeking perfection and direct contact with reality (cf. the contrasting views of Plato, Matthew Arnold, Nathaniel Hawthorne). The Jew becomes associated with the rise of the moral mother (Locke says mothers imprint tabula rasa), and misogyny results as woman becomes the Jew of the Home, the voice of conscience: clinging, criticizing, and kvetching. Romantic poets are attracted to Prometheus and the Romantic Wandering Jew myth as limited revolt against philistine (Jewish) materialists and their “leveling,” historicizing (i.e., desacralizing) analyses of the Bible, of “traditional” social structures and ideologies, with their utopian mishegas.

Legacy of German Romanticism/Aufklärung: Jews are natural destroyers of the Volk, Gemeinschaft (the organic community mystically bound by language, blood and soil). Jew becomes incarnation of selfish individualism, universal ethics, and resistance to the national, ethical, racial state. In Germany’s case, Deutschland is chosen by Fate to purify the world of the “Jewish” idea of individual responsibility and free will. The German Romantic idea of “national character” (the primacy of ethnicity over class) takes hold in American universities during the late 1960s, but was already trotted out in the nineteen teens by Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen, in the latter case to oppose the rootless cosmopolitanism advocated by “proletarian internationalism.”

The Bolshevik triumph of October 1917. Antisemites often view all Jews as either communists or potential communists, latter-day self-righteous Jacobins bending human nature to make the new man and heaven on earth.** Even as conservative businessmen, Jews are agents of modernity, and modernity, having given birth to a new industrial working class,  spawned the likes of Marx and Lenin. Scholars of Hitler and the Nazis frequently neglect mentioning this crucial component of their antisemitism. Similarly, many Jewish scholars think it is irrational to conflate themselves as liberal capitalists with communists, whom they often vigorously oppose to protect social democracy.

Prominence of “Jewish” Communists in civil rights movement. It is no secret that persons of Jewish ancestry were prominent supporters of blacks in the civil rights movement–even during the 1930s, though with the rise of black nationalism, that relationship became strained to the breaking point. Although “Jews” who joined the Communist Party gave up their “particularist” Jewish identity to join “proletarian internationalism,” that renunciation means nothing to far right racists, whose antisemitism is intertwined with white supremacy. For them, Jews are not white people at all, but the red enemy who supports either the Democratic Party or some leftist variant. They may seize upon the supposedly “Jewish” Frankfurt School critical theorists as the source of decadence, though these same individuals (e.g. Adorno and Horkheimer) bonded with mainstream Protestant-progressive social psychologists, and abjured the “materialist” Enlightenment.

*By “Bad Jew” I do not mean a non-observant Jew as judged by orthodox Jews, but rather the antithesis of the Good Jew who is considered “useful” to European ruling classes, or who joins with upper-class businessmen as “socially responsible capitalists.” Hence the Good Jew is accepted insofar as s/he is “assimilated.” For more, see my blog Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews. https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/.

**Crane Brinton, the influential Harvard historian characterized the Jacobins as possessed by “Hebraic fury” and in their self-deceiving, fanatical, revolutionary virtue, were allied to Calvinism. This link between the angry God of the Old Testament Jews and Calvinism is often applied to puritanism in general by organic conservative scholars. It is entirely ahistoric, for there is no one brand of puritanism. For a case study of how colonial puritans have been lumped together and stigmatized as persecuting, see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/.

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

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