YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 20, 2014

Role models, Talcott Parsons, and Structural Functionalism

Tinguely construction

Tinguely construction

The persistent theme of this website is to decode the propaganda of all political factions, tracing their histories back to the invention of the printing press, when ordinary people first became at least partly independent of “traditional” hierarchies. So began the modern world in my lexicon, where anything can happen in relations with “authority” and new strategies for “order” were invented by threatened elites.

Reading comprehension (my strongest suit) became my preoccupation, for language, music, and visual symbols are powerful forces that may either aid emancipation from illegitimate authority, or may fasten “ordinary people” to bad “role models” as they are called today.

The phrase “role model” is constantly trotted out as THE solution to upward mobility for “victims” of capitalism and the modern world in general. The “leaders” we encounter are held to mold our characters and desires: parents, teachers, entertainers, artists, the media, public intellectuals. These figures may be forces for positive growth as unique individuals, capable of seeing through confidence men, or, as now-and-then rebels/protesters, they may relieve the negative aspects of “tradition,” allowing us to blow off steam—a process that leaves oppressive elites undamaged.

Or these designated role models may be so ambiguous as to be indecipherable, even as they appeal to our needs for safety and sense of belonging to what is called either “family” or “community.” It is my view that multiculturalism is one pervasive elite strategy that appears to “include” everyone in the “international community”, but in practice, divides groups from one another. Enter cultural anthropology and its spin-off: “interdisciplinary cultural studies” that avoid “economic determinism” like the plague.

For economic factors are too central to understanding the material world we live in, and too close to science, especially to the empiricism that strengthens “ordinary people.” They also buttress the claims of classical liberals (the Founders and framers of the US Constitution); try to read the Federalist papers without understanding the economic disaster of the Articles of Confederation, or without understanding the liberating conception of equality under the law—and the laws are at bottom about economic factors and their interpretation.

One reason I mention the moderate men so frequently is not out of antagonism toward moderation as such, but because “moderate conservatives” (the progressives) changed their spots with particular effectiveness at the end of the Red Decade (the 1930s), in order to lure “ordinary people” away from either communism or “laissez-faire capitalism” as it was derisively called by its elite antagonists. (FDR, a conservative reformer, called his opponents “economic royalists,” all the while courting allies such as Harvard social psychologist Dr. Henry A. Murray, whose notes on Melville’s White-Jacket insisted that ordinary people were not “trained to rule.”)

Central to that project of counter-Enlightenment were the fields of social psychology, social relations, and sociology. No longer would professionals in these fields follow the procedures of science (either “pure” or “applied”), following material evidence to its logical conclusions, but now, echoing British Tories and Whigs, their aims were “social cohesion” and “political stability”—sometimes called the Third Way.  If this meant abandoning the authority of (unreliably changeable) science, so be it. After all, materialist procedures buttressed the arguments of the Enlightenment (see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/.) Here are some of Parsons’s other achievements: 1. The declaration that free speech should be tolerated solely in a psychiatrist’s office; 2. An essay in a volume on antisemitism that described the Jewish God as domineering and genocidal; and 3. The blaming of native Nazism on “romantic puritans”. These claims were not hidden away in private communications or notes, but published in 1942, where I found them, with my eyebrows raised to my hairline.

Indeed, the great achievement of progressive sociology (as exemplified by Parsons and other authoritarian “liberals”) was to place the academic reader in a double bind: society was ideally a self-contained smoothly functioning machine, similar to that of the plant world. But social bonds were mystical, not materialist as the puritan romantics would have it.

Enter the role of language: “communities” substituted for identity of material interests, let alone the rule of law.  “Role models” became a useful form of identity formation, stopping moves toward individual judgment, for role models originated within “the system”—hyper-“individualists” must be outside agitators, troublemakers too reliant on their sense impressions and readings of key texts.

Indeed, the Parsons cohort had elaborate plans to enhance “national morale” that effectively identified gritty individuals before they ascended to positions of power. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/ followed by https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/. These are excerpts from my book on the Melville Revival and are unknown or off limits to most researchers.)

Is it any wonder that artists have resisted the process by which they were invited to enter the machine world of the structural functionalists and their allies in the progressive movement, even as they, like Jean Tinguely, proclaimed the superior “social” qualities of the “self-sufficient” world of the artist? http://www.moma.org/pdfs/docs/press_archives/4149/releases/MOMA_1968_July-December_0081.pdf?2010. Would they have been exhibited under a different banner?



April 1, 2012

Secularism and the Affordable Care Act

I asked my FB friends what they thought the word “secular” meant, and got a number of responses suggesting that it meant one thing: atheism.

It appears that the culture wars have done their job: to most of the responders, “secular” signifies atheism, which may indicate narcissism, nihilism, and amorality to them. But in its older meaning, pre-culture wars, “secular” simply referred to matters of this world, as opposed to other-worldliness in religions that emphasized heaven and hell. But more significantly, secularism is a political science term that refers to the separation of church and state, meaning that no religion has priority over others, and that no religion is the established state religion. In the U.S. we enjoy religious pluralism. But triumphalist religions have managed to minimize the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the separation of church and state. And culture warriors such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich have turned “the secularist” into the bogey man, insisting that the Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence before it, was divinely inspired, rather than the institutionalization of natural rights. But read the Federalist papers and see that Hamilton puts ultimate authority in the people, which is another word for popular sovereignty. Just as (later) in the French Revolution, power, knowledge and virtue had passed from Kings and Church to the People, who would then comprise the red specter to this very day, at least in the U.S. The U.S. Constitution was written to create a strong and effective national government, and owed its inception to epistemological materialism and to the Enlightenment. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/09/02/spinoza-as-culture-critic/.)

Alexander Hamilton was a church-goer, but to his most venomous critics he was not just a bastard-upstart, a foreigner, and a monarchist; he was a crypto-Jew, i.e., a variant of the anti-Christ. Recall that the Reformation convulsed Europe, with protestants (of many stripes) being defined as heretics by the outraged Catholic Church, who went on to purify their practice in the Counter-Reformation, a development that went on to censor such as Spinoza and other freethinkers at a time of burgeoning literacy among the lower orders.  (See Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel’s 2001 book on Spinoza and censorship throughout Europe following the underground publication of his works; there is now a shorter work published in 2009 treating the Radical Enlightenment and the roots of democracy. But I view J. Israel as a social democrat and doubt that we have the same genealogy for democracy and free thought, since my vanguard includes such as Hayek, von Mises, and the Friedmans, but not Maynard Keynes.)

For decades, I have followed the academic assault on empiricism, medicine, and psychiatry (including the “historicizing” and discrediting of all of the mental health practitioners, Freudian and non-Freudian alike). Doctors do not share any one religious or non-religious orientation, but they do focus their training on healing the sick, which means studying the human body in various states of health, trauma,  and disease. Theirs is a secular profession, but one that finds itself in conflict with those religions that see sickness and health as dispensations from God, as part of God’s plan for the individual and for the world. Thus we find unresolved and perhaps unresolvable conflicts over such practices as abortion, contraception, abortifacients, embryonic stem-cell research, and assisted suicide in the terminally ill.

I find it odd that in all the publicity over the Affordable Care Act that these culture war issues have not been emphasized, yet the cost of medical care and what is covered or excluded is related to larger conflicts over appropriate professional intervention in the processes of life and death. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition to the ACA comes from the religious Right that correctly fears government-run “death panels” or other instances of rationing (see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/29/james-pagano-m-d-on-affordable-care-act/). They are not paranoid in this respect. In an ironic coalition, God-Squads and Doc-Squads may find themselves on the same side.

Illustrated: Top: Jonathan Israel, Middle: Spinoza toy; Bottom: Joel Strom DDS, organizer for www.docsquads.org.

October 9, 2011

Vox populi, vox Big Brother: Terry Moe’s new book

In a prior blog (https://clarespark.com/2011/08/01/alexander-hamiltons-rational-voice-of-the-people/) I quoted from Federalist #22, written by Alexander Hamilton. The last paragraph is especially striking:  [Hamilton:] The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Hamilton’s emphasis. p. 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]

[My comment on the prior blog:] “…what inspires me is the “elitist” Hamilton’s final remark affirming popular sovereignty (see Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, for commentary on what he calls a “hackneyed” expression. I look at Wood’s book here: https://clarespark.com/2011/10/30/collectivism-in-the-history-establishment/). Throughout The Federalist we find the same commitment to reason, specifically to concrete analysis of the material challenges that faced the new nation. Though they are often labeled as elitists by those who identify with the debtor class, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison did not appeal to “tradition” that had ever favored King and Church as the fountainhead of “legitimate authority.” Even though the men who argued for the Constitution were sharply at odds over some policies, they agreed that the American republican experiment was unprecedented, and the most enlightened in human history. Measures for educational reform, insofar as they construct a better curriculum, cannot ignore the fundamental rationalism and materialism of the Founders. “Live free or die,” is not merely the motto of New Hampshire; it is the very essence of American exceptionalism.” [end prior comment]

Now comes Terry M. Moe’s recent book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011). The author is a Stanford U. political scientist and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, who offers an institutional analysis of teachers unions, identifying them as the single most powerful special interest in the country affecting education, one that has successfully blocked efforts at education reform of the kind that would put the interests of students ahead of jobs for teachers. But the book ends on a hopeful note: not just globalization that has highlighted the deficiencies of American public education will turn the tide, but the internet will, over time, destroy the heretofore unbeatable teachers unions, through an unprecedented decentralization of power, accountability and choice for learners.

Here is where I find Moe’s utopia short-sighted, though of course I am on his side. Because he is an analyst of institutional structures and political power, and also, between the lines, a self-described progressive (he subtly aligns himself with the achievements of the New Deal, p.345), he is unable to identify the damage done to American children and their [progressive] educators over the last 120 years or so. For unlike the Founders, modern educators, fed by populism, statism, and ethnic or racial politics, have been anti-materialist and anti-rational; my website has been preoccupied with documenting this flight from science and from critical thought throughout the populist and progressive movements.

Terry Moe does not tackle either the curriculum that is everywhere contested, nor the fragmentation of vox populi, nor the nonstop partisan propaganda issuing from a multiplicity of groups, each vying to control what their children learn about past and present, almost invariably identifying the enemy as “narcissistic.” Big Brother is alive and well, and not just on the social democratic left that Orwell was worried about. Moe addresses a constituency that is dangerously polarized: the inevitable outcome of irrationalist political/social movements that do not always say directly what they really want.

Nevertheless, authoritarianism, whether it comes from the Left, Right, or “moderate middle”, is threatened by the proliferation of computers and the increasing possibility of self-education;* Moe is right about that. But before the much anticipated revolution in learning can be realized, students will have to learn to read and decode, i.e., comprehend,what they are seeing, whether words or images, or admired personalities, including their parents, teachers, and other idols.

*Larry Sand reminds me: “The change that Moe and most other online learning enthusiasts envision is one of ‘blended learning.’ In this model, students still attend school but  learn from online teachers and then have back-up from a live in person teacher.” He is correct, so the online research, properly conducted, does make it possible to become more self-directed and informed about competing historical narratives for all controversial events and partisan interpretations, including the words we use every day. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/15/making-mobs-with-bad-words-and-concepts/.

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