YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 17, 2013

The Illusion of National Unity

Max Beckmann paints Paris 1931

Max Beckmann paints Paris 1931

In this brief blog I will address those still potent divisions that the “turn to culturalism” has masked. I will, as usual, reject the inheritance of the “organic nation,” or the misnamed cultural pluralism that goes by the name of “multiculturalism,” as well as such terms as “national identity,” “group identity” or “zeitgeist.” All these terms are the effluents of German Romanticism, or the “Aufklärung” as it is misleading named. The German” Enlightenment” is a misnomer for it asserted itself against the all-too “bourgeois” “mechanical materialism” of the French and English Enlightenments.

No one with even a passing knowledge of US history can imagine that we are a unified entity unless they are chauvinists who revel in the notion of American superpower status, as opposed to celebrating the good sense embodied in the American Constitution, with its checks and balances, separation of powers, and frankly materialistic approach to conflict (see the Federalist Papers that made almost no mention of “God.”) Nor did the framers of that Constitution have any illusions about human nature. Federalist #10 made the conflict between creditors and debtors clear enough, and the Left loves to cite Madison’s contribution as proof that capitalism is elitist and opposed to the interests of the common man; that the Constitution is an elitist document). What are the real divisions that complicate the controversies swirling around us and that are masked by “culturalism” and its rhetoric?

Besides the ongoing structural conflict between creditors and debtors that often takes the form of populism, already mentioned, First, there is not a [jewified] communist party versus a capitalist party, as some on the Far Right would have it. Two capitalist parties confront one another, with differing strategies for wealth creation: one generally looks to state-imposed Keynesian demand-stimulus economic remedies for economic downturns, while those Republicans who are not overly indebted to “progressives” look to free markets and supply-side economics. (For living economists exemplifying the latter, see Larry Lindsey’s latest book, or the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal 9-17-13 by Martin Feldstein.) The fact that Keynesians may be found in both parties owing to the bipartisan origins of progressivism, complicates the picture.

Second, there is a strong argument for the South having won the peace through the popularity of the paternalistic organic society that Southerners asserted as superior to the “wage-slavery” of the urbanized, capitalist, puritan North.

Gemeinschaft beat out Gesellschaft during successive phases of the progressive movement, culminating in the New Deal, hence the collectivist vocabulary that may be found in advertising and political speeches. Ayn Rand railed against this, to little avail. She was preceded in the 19th century by the antislavery Senator from Massachusetts, the descendant of Puritans: Charles Sumner.

Thus we have an ongoing conflict between the country and the city, with many protest movements flavored by agrarianism and nostalgia for the allegedly neighborly and unified small town (compare to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, 1919). Sumner took liberal nationalism to mean a government that protected the rights of individuals as opposed to collective entities. For this (along with Sumner’s proposals for “Radical Reconstruction”) Sumner has been read out of the canon of great Americans until very recently.

Third, anyone who thinks that the Reformation was settled long ago, and that there is no deeply rooted religious conflict today is uneducated about the history of immigration and of religiously defined conflict in general. Sectarian divisions within and between the major religions impinge on all the other conflicts. I could go on, but won’t, for too long a blog would emerge. I will mention, however, the omnipresent sentimentality of our popular culture, whether this is reflected in the worship of “romantic love,” “the happy family,” “the community,” adorable babies, or pets–all attempts to find internal unity in divided selves. Community-and-Society It is difficult to navigate oneself politically through all these intertwined conflicts. But it would be true progress to admit that they exist. On Toennies see https://clarespark.com/2011/12/15/gingrich-and-the-socially-constructed-nation-state/.


December 15, 2011

Gingrich and the socially-constructed “nation state”

Ferdinand Toennies, German sociologist

A discussion has opened up on a Humanities-Net discussion group, “ The History of Antisemitism, “ regarding Newt Gingrich’s remark on a cable channel (“the Jewish Channel”) that “the Palestinians are an invented people.”  Liberals and leftists in the group associate such a remark with the far right. This blog seeks to historicize the notion of the nation state, arguing that each has a distinct history and that nation-states cannot be lumped together as all being “socially constructed”  as one list member has argued.

“The nation-state” has long been a target of both revolutionary socialists and social democrats, who both prefer some form of internationalism (either proletarian or Wilsonian); think of Marxist Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” or, in the liberal camp, the advocates for the League of Nations, then the United Nations. But the British Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote famously about the distinction between conservative nationalism and liberal nationalism. The latter, he wrote, allowed for the progressive ascension of movements against arbitrary privilege, while conservative nationalism was solely about the control of territory and resources. Ferdinand Toennies, writing in the late 19th century, made a similar distinction when he contrasted Gemeinschaft with Gesellschaft.*

Sadly, it has been the fashion of the post-1960s academy to support Gemeinschaft (an irrationalist racialist discourse denying individuality) against the more rational Gesellschaft (a rational state based upon equality before the law, and susceptible to adjustment and revision; viewing societies as collections of individuals, not races). Hence, the reign of identity politics since the New Left takeover of the humanities, with its “multicultural” emphasis on the constructed category of “race” as against objective class and gender interests. (See my blog https://clarespark.com/2009/12/18/assimilation-and-citizenship-in-a-democratic-republic/.)

As for Israel, its origin is grounded in a mixture of factors that is very confusing to the uninformed. To say that it was simply like other recent nation-states, i.e., socially constructed, is inaccurate and reductive. Many persons on both Left and Right would argue for historicizing each nation state, without subsuming them under one overarching epistemology. Gingrich was accurate about the invention of the Palestinians as a distinct people, but it was tactless of him to make that claim, as most Palestinians are likely, in this time, to be convinced of their peoplehood, and that is the diplomatic situation facing us.  Other conservatives, Charles Krauthammer for one, have made this precise point and are distressed that Gingrich said what he did; but recall that Gingrich was speaking on the Jewish cable channel, and obviously hoping to get “Jewish” votes (https://clarespark.com/2011/06/17/the-famed-jewish-vote/), positioning himself against the current administration that has been openly hostile to Israel’s current government, and apparently ignorant of the history of the region.

* See Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Civil Society, ed. Jose Harris, transl. Jose Harris and Margaret Hollis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2001. Originally published in 1887, Tönnies’s book is considered to be a classic work of sociology, but not until after the first world war (xxviii-xxviii) was it canonized. At first seen as a “communist tract,” it was taken up by German “ultra-nationalists,” and in America during the 1930s was read as “an essay in consensual structural functionalism.” The editor of this edition seems favorably disposed to this elusive and mysterious work. Tönnies was the son of a merchant banker, and given his hostility to modernity, one wonders how much of his disgust with the modern world was intertwined with his feelings about his father. In 1892 he “helped found Society for Ethical Culture, the vehicle for his life-long involvement in various co-operative, social reform, and self-improvement movements.” (xxxi-xxxii)

March 28, 2011

Index to multiculturalism blogs

As I have shown throughout this website, the turn to “cultural history” or “multiculturalism” marked a sea change in the writing of American history. But few have traced the intellectual history of multiculturalism. I attribute this to an upper-class “moderate” response to movements from below. Here are a few of the blogs I have written that trace this widespread social pedagogy to its origins in the reaction of German Romantics to the “mechanical materialists” of the earlier 18th century French Enlightenment, though tribalism (ethnic ties) has a long history in human history.






https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/ (quotes Herman Melville’s White-Jacket)












https://clarespark.com/2011/12/15/gingrich-and-the-socially-constructed-nation-state/ (on Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft as defined by Toennies)



https://clarespark.com/2013/02/27/american-exceptionalism-retold/ (Read this first!)





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