YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 2, 2013

“Free Speech” and the internet

Moreau's Prometheus

Moreau’s Prometheus

This is not the first time I have broached this subject. See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/04/what-is-truth/.

When Melville’s Captain Ahab exclaimed “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines,” the author left the exact meaning of “truth” undefined. For many Christian readers of Moby-Dick, truth signified the truth of Christ the Saviour and Redeemer, hence Ahab must be a wicked blasphemer and opponent of God. But for secularists (including deists), truth signified empirical fact, ethical universalism, and human rights. In my view, the “fighting Quaker” Ahab was another Father Mapple, an abolitionist. Many “anticlericals” of the 18th C. railed against censorship by authoritarian religious institutions, but their notion of the truth was intended to protect their own writing; such as Voltaire scrambled, using either pen names or publishing anonymously.

Sometime during the research for my book on Herman Melville’s resuscitation between the wars in the 20th century, I read the collected letters of Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was clear that for these three icons of U.S. history, free speech was not about libel or slander, but about the search for worldly truth. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton, in the Crosswell case, argued that “truth” should be the standard in cases of libel and slander; that plaintiffs had to prove that their targets were actually lying before crying foul. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/.)

Several centuries later, Walter Lippmann, worried about the propensities of the new mass media to spread propaganda distortions, suggested that a special class of intellectuals be developed to determine who was lying in controverted matters: controversies where the facts were faraway and otherwise hidden from citizens who would then be asked to vote on problems that were foreign to their direct experience. (Update 5-14-17: And yet Lippmann is dismissed as a T.R. type progressive!) (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)

When I was appointed Program Director of KPFK-FM (the local Pacifica station in Los Angeles) in February 1981, I was asked immediately to discipline a late-night young programmer who was enamored of punk rock music, and who was allegedly using language that could have cost us our broadcasting license. After warning him, he resisted, and I cancelled his show, irritating his listeners. This action was the least of my troubles at Pacifica, but it got me thinking about our using the phrase “free speech” as a rationale for supporting our famously “non-commercial” radio station.

Now with the internet and the widespread use of fake screen names to shield individuals from litigation or any exposure at all as they vent their dissatisfaction and hatred of individuals and policies, along with pressure from organized groups to control speech in public space ( see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/05/26/who-is-a-racist-now/) the question of free speech remains a live, controverted issue. What do I think about it?

It seems to me that venting rage, either directly through insulting one’s opponents, or through catharsis by listening to or playing raucous music or watching horror films, is no substitute for the careful analysis of problems, whether these be personal or social in scope. Indeed, it may be counter-revolutionary and  destructive apart from the relief of yelling at one’s enemies du jour. Venting and kvetching is no substitute for thoughtful analysis and the labor of organizing opposition.

I used to warn my Pacifica radio listeners that contributing to the radio station was only the beginning of a lengthy process. Later I read Stephen Eric Bronner’s book on the political limitations of German Expressionism that made the same point. There are numerous intellectuals and would be journalists and bloggers who hope to make a living wagging fingers (on both the Left and Right), and some succeed brilliantly at it, but following them accomplishes nothing apart from feeling entirely alienated from their targets, whose different life experience and opinions should be understood as a required prelude to social/political action.

So I end up with a typical 18th C. Enlightenment (classical liberal) view of “the truth.” It is about discovery and innovation, especially the willingness to swim against all currents and to cherish memory and a more accurate history, letting chips fall. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.) If this be romantic defiance or an attack upon “unity” as many an order-loving leftist or conservative would have it, so much the better for romantic defiance. The urge to forget and to conform knows no ideological boundaries. But we warned: as fictional detective Bobby Goren warned at the end of one of his episodes on Law and Order Criminal Intent: “The search for truth is not for the faint-hearted.” It was an Ahab/Hamiltonian moment.

1960s Berkeley radicals

1960s Berkeley radicals


October 27, 2012

Melville, Orwell, Doublethink

 This is my second major Orwell blog: see https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/ for the first one.

During my recent forays into the changing interpretations of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), I was surprised to learn that Orwell had read passages from Herman Melville’s White-Jacket (1850) while broadcasting on the BBC during the early years of WW2. Specifically, he excerpted a gory description of a naval doctor performing an unnecessary and fatal amputation on a wounded U.S. sailor. Elsewhere in White-Jacket, HM had sharply and vividly written about “flogging through the fleet,” a practice that he abhorred, possibly because he had been caned as a child by his own father. Indeed, Roy Porter sent me an ad from a British newspaper offering White-Jacket as sadomasochistic porn. (On the dynamics of sadomasochism see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/21/managerial-psychiatry-jung-murray-and-sadomasochism-2/.)

Though at least one Orwell biographer (Jeffrey Meyers) has emphasized GO’s masochism, I have not found a source yet that relates where the conception of Doublethink originated. Did Orwell know about “cognitive dissonance” from experience, or reading, or had he read Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), where Melville not only describes his mother’s frequent mixed messages, but invents “Plinlimmon’s Pamphlet” that praises “virtuous expediency” as the best morality attainable on this deceptive earth. My book on the Melville Revival (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival)  is nearly entirely devoted to this theme of the double bind/cognitive dissonance/virtuous expediency, all of which signify what Orwell chose to call Doublethink.

Here are the double binds that I suggest were made apparent in Melville’s novels, and then may have driven his academic revivers in the 20th century into all manner of psychogenic symptoms and illnesses. (It is my contention that Melville readers who wished to advance in academe had to suppress the evidence before them in order to please the reigning ideology in the universities that employed them, so many derided Melville/Ahab as crazy, while defending Plinlimmon’s sensible philosophy, that they attributed to their “moderate” Melville/Ishmael .) But first take Doublethink in Pierre.

  1. There is no conflict between “truth” and Order. Mary Glendinning, Pierre’s mother in the novel, wants her son “just emerging from his teens” to grow into a manly individual, but not such an individual that he disobeys her choice  in choosing his future wife, who will also be perfectly obedient to her wishes.
  2. Pierre is expected to revere his dear perfect (Christian) father, but he must not be so good a Christian as to rescue from near-beggary his “natural” half-sister Isabel.
  3. Pierre reads the double bind, jilts his mother-chosen fiancée, runs off with Isabel, and mother dies of insanity. This book will not end well. (See Pierre’s scolding mother in this hard to find set of illustrations by Maurice Sendak, for a truncated edition of Pierre. https://yankeedoodlesoc.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/pierre3.jpg.)

In the much quoted Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick, the abolitionist preacher speaks of snatching the truth even if it lies hidden under the skirts of judges and Senators. It is unclear here whether “truth” signifies the truth of Christ, or of the truth as defined by lawyers (or today, scientists). But it is a fact that during Captain Ahab’s speech on “the quarter-deck”, he declares that “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Since Ahab is widely described as a blasphemer, I suspect that it is empirical truth that the relatively powerless see, and which is denied by their superiors, that Melville meant to call out. Which links him now to Orwell’s famous “dystopia.”

For Winston Smith works in “the Ministry of Truth” where he rewrites history to suit the propaganda requirements of Big Brother and the Inner Party. Recall Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), where he denounces journalists for taking the Soviet line that all anarchists and Trotskyists were in league with Franco’s fascists. John Dos Passos, in Century’s Ebb, remembered Orwell as an individualist striking out at those man-made institutions that forced him to lie for the sake of Order. Compare Dos’s elevation of Orwell as truth-seeker to the trendier line that Orwell, like Melville, was a premature anti-imperialist, and for that alone we honor his life and work.

[Added 11-10-12 Dos quote: )“If one thinks of the artist as…an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped the patron and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat…. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and to the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilisation perishes. I have not yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.” (George Orwell, in TRIBUNE, 1944). Quoted by Arthur M. Eckstein, “George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on Capitalism,” The Revised Orwell, ed. Jonathan Rose (Michigan State UP, 1992), p.204.

Another double bind that is especially relevant today:  There is no conflict between national identity and international identity. Hence, the United Nations is our best bet to avoid wars of the catastrophic magnitude of the world wars of the 20th century, or to halt “voter suppression” on November 6, 2012. Such are the psychic requirements of political correctness, the term itself an example of Doublethink, for facts (correctness) are non-partisan. Melville’s takedown of “virtuous expediency” is more to the point.

For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/10/14/reality-and-the-left/. For “political correctness” as decorum, an idea passed out by liberal elites, see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/, especially the suggestion by Christopher Edley, whose career has been remarkable.

April 9, 2011

Jean-Francois Revel and Father Mapple

This blog is about Jean-François Revel’s How Democracies Perish (1983), and how recent “anti-imperialist” scholarship as conducted in the most elevated reaches of academe has added to the demoralization of “the West” as it faces the threat of Islamic jihadism.

Revel (1924-2006) was a prolific French author, whose political background had put him in a favorable position to evaluate the weak response to Soviet aggression. He was a member of the French resistance during WWII, and later worked for President Mitterand as a speechwriter. One Facebook friend complained that Revel was a right-wing social democrat, implying that he was untrustworthy, but I find the liberal anticommunist position to be of great interest, since Revel seems to be a giant among public intellectuals. Compare his love of freedom to those in the current liberal academic elite who are leaders in condemning America and the civilized world as “white racists” and which, to this day, illicitly profit from “white skin privilege.” The latter academic opinion leaders have succeeded in ratifying the old Soviet line that the “free world” was in fact a slave world, undeserving of its defense against the peace-loving Soviet empire or Communist China and their client states in the Third World. The writing of U.S. history is almost entirely controlled by this cohort of Stalinoids. I do not refer solely to ethnic studies departments that are known to be separatist and bogus.

Such a claim that the West remains essentially racist takes the focus off of the foreign policy blunders of all American Presidents (up to Reagan) and most of the West after WWII. Revel’s major claim is that there was no Cold War at all, for that would assume that both superpowers acted in their own interest. Pas du tout, wrote Revel: The West was entirely submissive as the Soviets expanded without opposition, breaking their treaties, most of all the Yalta agreement, that had not “carved up the world” (as I was taught) but rather promised free elections in Poland, to give one stunning example of public ignorance of the facts. Stupidly and self-destructively, he wrote, the Allied armies abandoned Europe to the Soviets, allowed the Soviets to take and hold all of Eastern Europe and East Germany, were toothless when the Berlin Wall went up, and then the Soviet-directed Western peace movement imagined that the U.S. was not militarily weak and inferior to Soviet arms. In short, a failure of nerve and reluctance to use the traditional tools of diplomacy (i.e., you don’t make concessions before you begin negotiations), consigned the West to a foreign policy that was at best, flaccid. I have not begun to exhaust the claims of Revel’s classic work, all of which ring true to me.

I could have titled this blog “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” That was a quote from the first chapter of Moby-Dick, and was written in the voice of Ishmael, the narrator. Most academic Melville critics pass over that remark as if it had merit as a statement of the human condition. But in the text itself, Ishmael has just rationalized his (unmanly) submission to an abusive ship’s captain. Ishmael’s passivity is contrasted to the abolitionist Father Mapple’s subsequent fiery and defiant sermon in seeking out the truth, no matter how apparently powerful the adversary.  Revel reminds us how weak the Soviet Union was immediately after the war, and moreover, that Stalin would have remained allied to Hitler had the latter not invaded the Soviet Union. What were our leaders thinking? (See my book Hunting Captain Ahab for a portrait of one Stalinist Melville biographer and critic, Jay Leyda, who remains untainted to this day in legitimate Melville circles, though he was a wily subverter of literary history and obviously a convinced communist and anti-American.)

We were chumps then, and the question remains, are we similarly toothless in resisting internal subversion and the threat from foreign terrorists alike? Will even liberal anticommunists such as Revel be dismissed as “rightists” who are paranoid and/or superpatriots?

[My thanks to political scientist Tom Nichols for recommending this book to me. Diane Ravitch even placed it in a recommended reading list, before she switched sides.]

September 3, 2009

Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty?

de Chirico imagines Apollinaire

The poet Apollinaire once wrote that he was more interested in what divided men than in what united them, and most of all, he said, he wanted to know what gnaws at their hearts. That sentiment remains uppermost in my thoughts, especially at this time when the U.S. is confronted with a health reform bill that proposes funding for preventive medicine and mental health services, even though there is zero agreement among practitioners as to what constitutes sound protocols in either of those fields. All my prior blogs have addressed this problem (see the entries on panic attacks, sadomasochism, social psychologists defining civilian morale and preventive politics or psychoanalyzing Hitler, embedded antisemitism, the Pacifica memoir, etc.).

Whatever I have learned throughout my long life about the human heart and its tangled emotions, the most original contributions have been gleaned from very close reading, particularly during the many years spent with Herman Melville (1819-1891), both as  man and writer. One reason that Melville has been claimed by readers and propagandists with incompatible politics is his constant switching from one point of view to another, changing sides or positions with breathtaking speed.  As I have argued throughout my book on the so-called Melville Revival, he never feels safe or at home wherever he may be on the questions that agitated the American nineteenth century–Jacksonian political styles and mass politics, westward expansion and Indian removal; abolitionism, Civil War, and Reconstruction; angry de-skilled artisans and a potentially mutinous new working class; evolution and the higher Biblical criticism; nascent socialism in Europe; naval discipline; and the growing power of women in the family–especially in their role as moral reformers, to a degree, displacing paternal authority.

[From Hunting Captain Ahab:]  The switches from one unsafe prospect to another are diverting. As “White-Jacket” (1850), Melville abruptly rejected the piecemeal reform he had just been advocating: his proposed ban on flogging could not end injustices meted out to enlisted men whose class interest in pacifism was “essentially” opposed by glory-seeking officers. White-Jacket fatally defined the situation that class collaborationists, fascist and antifascist alike, have ever attempted to render invisible:

“…can men, whose interests are diverse, ever hope to live together in a harmony uncoerced? Can the brotherhood of the race of mankind ever hope to prevail in a man-of-war, where one man’s bane is another man’s blessing? By abolishing the scourge, shall we do away with tyranny; that tyranny which must ever prevail, where of two essentially antagonistic classes in perpetual contact, one is immeasurably the stronger? [i]

Moreover as the black cook “Fleece” pointed out in Moby-Dick, “the sharks” did not care to be converted. Such “dark” perceptions were dangerous but essential to a morally ambitious artist faithful to social reality. If moral reform is only a blast of hot air, then structural transformation is on the agenda.

[i] 19. Quoted by H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim As Criminal And Artist, 39. Franklin uses this passage to make a claim for Melville as primitive communist. In Chapter XVI of his unpublished biography, the Progressive Henry A. Murray revealingly distorted the passage, minimizing Melville’s description of a structural antagonism. Rather, Melville is describing point of view as dependent on one’s place in the hierarchy: “War, for example, which offered officers their only opportunity for glory, was anticipated more eagerly by them than by the seamen.” Although Harvard professor Alan Heimert has identified Ahab with John Calhoun, neither White-Jacket nor Ahab condones coercive harmony. However, noting the differing interests of sailors and officers does not make Melville a Marxist. Cf. John Calhoun’s defense of slavery as a positive good: “…there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other…There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict.” Quoted in Frederick Jackson Turner, The United States 1830-1850 (New York: Norton paperback, 1965), 197. [end book excerpt]

In my last blog, I distanced myself from the postmodernists, particularly those who rejected modernity and Enlightenment as elevating the protofascist “mob society” to use Hannah Arendt’s famous term. Melville, in one of his many personas, could do that too, perhaps because he suffered from double-binds that seemed specific to a science-driven world that was challenging the traditions that once made people feel at home in their skins. Astonishingly, in all my reading in the cures offered to “neurotic” or “nervous” patients from the late nineteenth century on, I found no recognition of the conflicts that Melville himself had identified throughout his oeuvre, but most blatantly in his “crazy” novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), which I view as Moby-Dick brought home to the family, with the writer Pierre as analog to Captain Ahab, two of Melville’s traveling company of Prometheans.

A good teacher is supposed to state clearly the hoped-for outcome of a curriculum (and this website is a sort of syllabus), so here goes:

Ideally, readers of my blogs should be able to identify ambiguities or conflicts (reconcilable or irreconcilable) specific to modernity. These include the search for truth vs. (upper-class) Order; intellectual independence vs. unswerving loyalty to family or state; capital vs. labor (? I used to think that this was so); science vs. religion; and (“rootless”) cosmopolitanism vs. narrow “racial” or “ethnic” identification or “pluralism” as “rooted” cosmopolitanism.  To the extent that the pseudo-moderate men attempt to reconcile conflicts that may be irreconcilable, they place citizens in Orwellian double-binds:  inverting knowledge and ignorance, praise and humiliation, freedom and slavery. It follows that participatory politics and other processes intended to legitimate authority are stymied if these inversions operate inside us.  So we end up with unquestioned allegiance to a favorite pundit, and relinquish thinking for ourselves.

It is not my claim that no reforms should be advanced short of total structural transformation by which I mean a revolution in social property relations; it is a question of conceptual clarity.  Tactical compromises and coalitions are pointless unless located in the realm of the possible; utopian fantasies of unattainable social harmony lead to disillusion and perhaps despair followed by violence or apathy. Social conflict should be analyzed with a view to real difference of interest: ethnocultural or gender categories as the primary source of “identity” are not only essentialist; they mystify internal class conflicts in that group or gender or nationality and sink the dissenting individual (e.g., as modern artist or scientist).

Moreover, insofar as “identity politics” posit self-contained “communities” such categories deflect attention from interdependence with other groups and with nature.  But most crucially, the search for “identity” is an imperative formulated by reactionaries worried about “continuity” and “cohesion” in those modern societies that continually question authority; the modernists (deemed iconoclastic by their opponents) seek new forms of order that may “de-skill” kings and clerics.

How do competing “historicisms” alleviate or worsen the pressures of double binds? I contrast two of them: one is now dominant in the humanities, while the second one promises potential advance in our undercivilized war-ridden world.

A. Historicism as “blood-and-soil” pluralism or “ethnoculturalism” or “ethnopluralism”: the “identity politics” created by the pseudo-moderate men.  Defining itself against the New Unpredictability, i.e., the open-ended inductive methods of science, the new civil liberties and miscegenating “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the radical Enlightenment, ethnopluralism denies the existence of universal truths or ethical standards since there are only “group facts”; hence there can be no conflict between the independent thinker and the group.  These corporatist[1] thinkers (pluralists and cultural relativists) may attempt to restore a racially or ethnically homogeneous “community” which is innocently erotic, harmonious, pre-capitalist, myth-loving and patriarchal (i.e., ruled by the wisely integrative good father); free of the disintegrating Enlightenment (Hebraic, radical Protestant, technocratic, consumerist) intellect: everyone is protected, rooted and comfortable with her/his place and modest possessions, not tormented by the expectation of autonomy (which is caricatured as leading to anomie or the insatiable will-to-power or masochism).

B. Historicism as critical historical analysis. We should understand that the imagination has a social history that must be retrieved if we are to transcend the irrational politics of the past.  A critical history will not simply look at class, “race,” and gender in a static fashion to detect “positive” and “negative” images, or heroic myths, or gender/racial/ethnic archetypes, or instincts for “innate aggression” or “Thanatos.”  Rather, a critical history examines all the institutions that limit or expand opportunities and choices; people and their emotions are in motion, (partially) accepting or rejecting inherited narratives that diagnose difficulties and recommend solutions.  Even if some human characteristics are proven to be genetically transmitted, aggression for instance, it should be explained why some people seem out of control while others master their instincts in the interest of peaceful conflict-resolution: What are the ideological and environmental conditions that limit or expand choices?  Unlike some postmodernists or “new historicists,” I do not conclude that people are stamped or inscribed by discourses/ environments, even though individual and social conflicts are historically concrete and require site-specific contextual analysis.  Nor does this historicism automatically preclude comparisons and contrasts with institutions and conflicts in other cultures and earlier periods as some conservative cultural relativists would have it.

My final goal is the reclamation of the amelioration, critical thought and universalist ethics promoted by the Radical Enlightenment: Can there be a preformulated good myth, a “narrative of resistance” (Richard Slotkin), or is perpetual improvisation and the open-ended process of anti-mythic narrative (analysis, revision, and reconfiguration of past and present) the enlightened alternative to the Symbolist politics of the Progressives?  For example, their paternalistic “reform-or-ruin” prescription for preventive politics (Lasswell and Murray) does not remove, however gradually, what may be structural causes of conflict, hence is a form of psychological and political warfare, not the social and individual progress it wants to be.

I will end with some deathless words from Melville’s character, the abolitionist Father Mapple:

“Delight is to him- a far, far upward, and inward delight- who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges.”

In the context of this particular blog, the “sin” is yielding to another, however admired or adored, our critical capacities as citizens with both rights and duties.

[1] Corporatist does not refer to modern corporations and their power, but to the institutional style associated with  medieval Europe and the Christian-Platonic tradition.  It is the cultural style of the organic conservatives who believe that hierarchies are natural and beneficial; all diversity the gift of a perfect God.

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