The Clare Spark Blog

April 29, 2012

Fred Siegel’s melodrama of 20th C. cultural history

Fred Siegel of Manhattan Institute

The April 2012 issue of Commentary features an article by Fred Siegel, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/how-highbrows-killed-culture/#.T5mYHo0AEuZ.facebook. (See his mini-bio here: http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/siegel.htm). The essay is illustrated with a picture of Sir Lawrence Olivier as the diabolical King Richard III.* Originally a lecture delivered to the American Enterprise Institute, the essay has been featured on Facebook, and is highly recommended by John Podhoretz and Richard Miniter.

The chief villains in Siegel’s piece are a motley crew of intellectuals who ostensibly spurned “mass culture” and “mass man”: Nietzsche, the Frankfurt School critical theorists (he mentions Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse), Ortega y Gasset, Dwight MacDonald, Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, the disillusioned authors of the 1920s (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson). Siegel’s positive models are few, but include Robert M. Hutchins, T.S. Eliot, and apparently himself, as one who would rescue “middlebrow” taste and  “American” culture from its hatchet men. Presumably this rectified “mass culture” is the best defense against leftist and liberal statism and elitism. (Using the word “rectified” was a Marcel Duchamp joke, readers.)

Siegel, seizing the populist moment, perhaps, wants to rehabilitate the middle class and its cultural preferences away from European-friendly snobs, Western Marxists (i.e., the Frankfurters), Trotskyists, and New Leftists too. How he manages to upgrade organic conservatives such as Hutchins and Eliot to his camp is a mystery, for Hutchins was a leader in the semi-public move toward elite rule, relying for instance on Plato, no friend to the masses. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/, https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/ .  Hutchins and his cohort of “moderate men” were frank and public manipulators of the masses Siegel says he wants to protect, while Eliot abhorred “free thinking Jews” (1933) as well as the decadence they brought to the modern world, e.g. “damp souls of housemaids” in his “Morning at the Window” (1920).

I have been thinking how to transmit my horror upon reading this type of “cultural” history. There have been other such essays and books purporting to give the reader a cultural or intellectual history of the 20th century, similarly detached from politics, economics, social movements, divergent ideological/class tendencies, and the ongoing controversies over the causes of wars and mass death. For these “culturalist” authors, “ideas” or “philosophy” are the very engines of history, and anyone who protests such a narrow view is ipso facto a “historical materialist,” i.e., a communist or fellow traveler: I am not one of this dragon crew.

There is simply no way to describe “culture” in a vacuum. It is the same problem that I have found in other culture war manifestoes. The organic conservatives (like the apparently “moderate” Siegel) ignore all of history since the invention of the printing press. (For a summary of elite moves against autodidacts see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/11/review-excerpts-re-hunting-captain-ahab/, especially the “letter to the editor” that explains why non-literary critics should read my book.) Without examining constant offensives against the newly literate and numerate, there can be no “cultural history.” That would entail, pace Siegel, a grander sweep than he has attempted. Since the Reformation, elites threatened with displacement have drenched ordinary people with counter-revolutionary, irrationalist propaganda, whether this takes place in the realm of language, or ongoing debates about human nature, or the Promethean impulse (always a bad thing for fact-hoarding elites), or what is or is not fascism.

To summarize, readers and other consumers of “culture” want to know (or should want to know) what they are experiencing. They (should) want to know who made this or that artifact (including her or his biography), who paid for it, what it is saying about past and present conflict (for instance, the range of permissible emotions, disobedience to authority or the role of Church and State in everyday life). Whereas organic conservatives are interested in none of the above. They value social cohesion/stability over the search for truth, and trot out their celebrities or institutions du jour to guide the autodidact away from the abyss they most fear:  rupture with the past—a past that is irrationalist to its very core, that makes objective reality a phantasm pursued only by monomaniacs.

Fred Siegel wants to be a friend to mass man, and to the middle class consumer of masscult. Yet he does not respect the very tools that ordinary people have developed, against the wishes of their betters, critical tools such as science and empiricism that point the way to understanding past and present.

*Siegel actually praises the large audience for the television presentation of Richard III, as part of his defense of 1950s popular culture, but the deployment of Richard III’s face by Commentary suggests a group assassination to me. And where oh where is John Milton and Paradise Lost? It was once the case that Shakespeare and Milton were paired as the leading voices in English poetry, but Milton, the puritan whose “Satan” “traced the ways of highest agents,”  and, with Eve, purveyor of the Fortunate Fall, is nowhere to be found in the new dispensation.

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May 28, 2011

Diane Ravitch and the higher “moderation”

Diane Ravitch with Jon Stewart, March 2011

[Added 5-29-2011: As I write this, the UFT and the NAACP are attacking charter schools and supporting multiculturalism.] Diane Ravitch (often considered the most astute historian and critic of educational reform) is now an opponent of charter schools.   This is how she ends her history of conflict in education policy in New York City:

[Ravitch, The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973: A History of the Public Schools as Battlefield of Social Change (Basic Books, 1974):] “While the language of school wars relates to educational issues, the underlying contest will continue to reflect fundamental value clashes among discordant ethnic, cultural, racial, and religious groups. And this very fact underlines the importance of comity in the politics of education—comity, that basic recognition of differences in values and interests and of the desirability of reconciling these differences peacefully which the school itself aims to teach. The effort to advance comity, in educational affairs and in the affairs of the larger society, has always been at the heart of public education. Whatever their failings, whatever their accomplishments, the public schools have been and will be inescapably involved in the American search for a viable definition of community” (p.404).

Ravitch is writing from the higher moderation and hence inflicting the double bind that has been the theme of this website.  Yes, we have “fundamental value clashes”, but properly managed by a professionally disinterested elite, comity and community are attainable goals despite “discordant ethnic, cultural, racial, and religious groups.” Left out of this volatile yet potentially cooperative crucible is “class” difference. Yet it is upper class delinquency that she frequently mentions earlier in the book as the source of substandard ghetto schools in the big cities. Nowhere does she mention the unbounded search for truth as the aim of public education, nor does she criticize the notion of race, for that would offend parties to the Grand Reconciliation of E Pluribus Unum that Ravitch is advocating to the reader of her “history.” Ravitch does not want to be another Captain Ahab or any other opponent of state-imposed harmony.** Ravitch is no daughter of Eve, eating the forbidden apple of the Tree of Knowledge. Moral relativism does not disturb her sleep. Or perhaps it does, for it is my impression that she understands the contradictions in her work, but has chosen to paper them over for reasons I cannot fathom. This is a very insightful writer, and what I say here should not diminish her positive contributions.

Do I exaggerate about her moderation? Here is one section of her Wikipedia entry: “ Vincent N. Parrillo, author of Diversity in America, wrote, “She, too, emphasized a common culture but one that incorporated the contributions of all racial and ethnic groups so that they can believe in their full membership in America’s past, present, and future. She envisioned elimination of allegiance to any specific racial and/or ethnic group, with emphasis instead on our common humanity, our shared national identity, and our individual accomplishments.”

But racial theory is the sworn enemy to common humanity, let alone individuality: ask any “diversity” advocate. In the olden days when Hitler’s racial state was on the march, there was a significant debate in the West regarding the very notion of “race.” Yes, there were obvious physical variations among “races”, but to attribute common mental and character traits that were passed down through the genes was considered either proto-Nazi or misguided Lamarckianism. Even “ethnicity” was seen as a misunderstanding of the ancients (especially Herodotus), who, according to Julian Huxley in We Europeans, used ethnos to refer solely to a particular population, with no implication of national character or any other type of “national identity.”

Such beliefs in a shared bond between members of a “race” or “ethnicity” can only be mystical, not grounded in empirical fact. Yet that does not stop the “historians” of racial or ethnic conflict from writing books and playing leading roles in the formulation of national, state, and local policy, as is the case with Dr. Ravitch, or her humanist predecessor Robert M. Hutchins, whom she cites favorably in the last chapter of her big book, and in passing in other synoptic works. (See Hutchins and his colleague Paul Hoffman illustrating https://clarespark.com/2010/07/04/pacifica-radio-and-the-progressive-movement/. Also https://clarespark.com/2011/07/17/literary-criticism-ravitch-variant/.)

If such historians of education are going to do the work usually done by empiricist historians, then they should do history, not theology.** As a subsidiary issue, freedom in the classroom is at stake, namely the willingness of the teacher to encourage the full range of debate where controversial matters are concerned, even if the students do not reach an agreeable consensus or “compromise” (see “comity” one of Ravitch’s favorite words).

Ravitch wanted to bring “different” communities together, though her means remain utopian. Today, because of the alliance between radical intellectuals of the Left with militant cultural nationalists (an alliance burnished in the late 1960s, but echoing Leninism), the project of the Left and masochistic Left-liberals is no longer community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but the political imperative to demonstrate that foreign and domestic policies of the U.S. government are outgrowths of some essential American project of imperialism, patriarchy, capitalism, ecocide, racism and so on as the New Americanists claim (e.g. William Spanos Jr.) against the prior notion of American exceptionalism (which had to do with advancement through merit, not hereditary status). Such are the wages of the moderate men, or, as I prefer to name them, the corporatist liberals. Instead of incorporating dissenters and other troublemakers to defuse their militancy through “inclusion,” they have yielded the field to America’s most determined enemies. And it is the latter who have rehabilitated the once discredited notion of “race.”

For a related short blog, see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/.

*[Ahab speaking in “The Quarter-Deck”:] “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”

**After many chapters relating the internal contradictions of the evolving civil rights movement (e.g., color-blindness vs. color consciousness), Ravitch ends one of her essays with this appeal to “spirit”: “As a people, we are still far from that sense of common humanity to which the civil rights movement appealed. We may yet find that just such a spirit is required to advance a generous and broad sense of the needs and purposes of American society as a whole.” (See The Schools We Deserve, p.259.) This is a thoroughly idealistic conception that there is a “spirit” or any such entity as “American society as a whole.” Ravitch reminds me of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who fretted about the fragmentation of America, wishing for unity even as material interests drive us apart. In another book, The Troubled Crusade, she writes that ” literacy” should be the aim of education, but does not spell out whether that skill should decode propaganda and false ideas. I gather that for Ravitch, literacy signifies that knowledge that advances “the public interest.” As a fan of Hutchins, she must ally herself with the Platonic Guardians–an antidemocratic and ultimately anti-intellectual position.

May 8, 2010

The Free Will-Determinism Debate

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exhibition announcement, Cal State Dominguez Hills

My fight with a Reagan Republican Catholic who hates housework and feminism. 

Two days ago, a Facebook friend who describes herself as a Reagan conservative and as a Catholic, posted on her FB page a protest against housework, which she HATED (she did use caps).  I responded, unwarily, that “after the revolution, men would clean a new dirty house every day.” I was thinking of the day workers (often illegals) whose life did in fact consist of such dreary and repetitive tasks, not pacing their work as a stay-at-home middle-class housewife might (with the potential cooperation of a considerate family), but faced with the accumulation of many days of scum, grease, and other forms of dirt, and dependent on the savvy of the employer with respect to toxic chemicals and allergens. What followed next was a stressful interaction, for this person was in a rage against me, and my supposed cohort, 60s feminists such as Gloria Steinem, who were melded in her mind as disgruntled man-haters. If I had had any painful experiences, I had it coming to me.  Women in general had no grievances: she loved men, period. There was no way to pacify her, but it did give me an insight into how those second-wave feminists might be regarded by a conservative woman age 41. This happened the day of the stock market plunge, and to calm myself I wrote the recent blog on social cohesion and adjustment.

 Some personal history.   Oddly enough, during the late 1960s when I heard the first rumblings of the new feminism, I thought that these must be unnatural women who had abandoned their maternal responsibilities. (I was not that different from the conservative woman who freaked out on May 6.)  Not long afterwards, I began my radio programs on the art world and how artists were faring in powerful arts institutions. That activity took me away from the nest into a wider world of political and social controversy, and the spell of traditional marriage was broken and my political education finally began in fits and starts, but I remained relatively naïve, compared to what I might have been had I been raised in a feminist household. Meanwhile, I had used my Pacifica radio program to publicize the growing movement of feminist art and design, and collected slides of sex and violence in the images of women artists and photographers while I was teaching part-time at Calarts. At some point, during this period of personal transition, I must have read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (a book that was not only pro-woman, but anti-imperialist), for I used passages from that book to illustrate the slide show I presented during the 1970s at numerous public venues. After I had returned to graduate school, I saw that the 60s women’s movement had elevated some feminists to prestigious positions in the postmodern academy where they confined themselves to women’s issues, and with a few exceptions, did not embed the situation of women in a larger social context. And most disturbingly, some of the women I had assisted had bonded either with the Left (even when those Left factions were supporting Third World countries that were barbaric with respect to gender relations) or had gone entirely mystical.

 Am I socially irresponsible?   To return to the subject at hand: my Facebook adversary had resorted to “free will” as her explanation for my failed marriage. It later occurred to me that she, like many other religious conservatives, had rejected any kind of historical, materialist, and structural explanation for the condition of women, including her own: She was a good woman, had chosen a good man (who did the floors for her), and I was very bad and irresponsible, deserving my fate.  Oddly, she, the out-of-control happy/unhappy housewife, was in a fury, while I remained relatively placid (though inwardly churning) as I attempted to explain myself, finally ending the FB friendship as it was clear that our differences were too deep to negotiate.  

Return of the unrepressed.    As prior blogs here should have made clear, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct a personal history that cleanly separates structure from agency, or as Herman Melville constantly reminds us in his stories, to separate “fixed-fate” from “free will.” We are left with uncertainty and ambiguity–a no-no to classicizing politicos of either Left or Right who prefer clean boundaries to messy conjectures and possible contradictions. And here, perhaps, we come to the double-binds I have been relating on this website.

    The law holds us personally responsible for all infractions, and yet many of the television crime shows depend on “profiles” of the criminal to track him or her down. These profiles commonly relate parenting deficits and other family catastrophes that shaped , indeed sculpted the future murderer or rapist. In Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger Thomas’s lawyer, a Jew named Max, unsuccessfully uses Bigger’s childhood and adolescence of racial oppression and trauma to argue for Bigger’s acquittal in several murders, one accidental, the other deliberate. Nor could any other type of insanity defense been effective, for the McNaughton Rule (still holding in half the states of the U.S.?) states that the test for insanity is to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. And long before that, Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise for eating of the Apple of the Tree of Knowledge—the knowledge of good and evil that elevated them, hubristically, to equality with God. And Eve, distant mother of Pierrot and Lulu,  is the femme fatale in the story. (I am inviting my lawyer friends to explain to me how there is no double bind as described above.)

    Cherchez la femme as they say, but don’t look for me.  I’m still in hiding. And Happy Mother’s Day.

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