YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 24, 2013

Culture wars and the secular progressives

Marianne, symbol of the French Republic

Marianne, symbol of the French Republic

Walter Hudson has written an essay for Pajamas Media ( http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2013/01/15/whose-morality-is-it-anyway/) touting religion as the sole building block of social order, the only belief system that prevents “evil.”  Hudson, like many other believers, holds Communists (and by implication, “secularists”) responsible for wanton killing and mass death, perhaps of the kind we have seen at such locales as Newtown, Connecticut, or in the underreported incident in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as perpetrated by Nehemiah Griego (the fifteen-year-old killer, whose father was a local pastor and reportedly  liberal).

It is true that communists have inveighed against religion as “the opiate of the masses” that holds workers in bondage to a fantasy at best, or terrorizes them at worst (with threats of eternal hell), but Hudson’s privileging of religion as the sole source of morality is repugnant to me. I am one of the dread secularists, which puts me in the same category as those who drafted the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, that forbade any established state religion. It is cultural pluralism that has enabled diverse immigrant groups to come to America, and protected them from forced conversion to a state religion. Has Hudson forgotten that “equality under the law” was a salutary innovation that protected all of us from murder and from what Hudson regards as “evil” in general?

But worse, Hudson’s essay negates the Enlightenment, which removed truth, absolute authority and “virtue” from Kings and established Churches, instead investing knowledge, power, and (potential) virtue in the People and their political institutions.  This disestablishment of monarchs and clergy was laid at the feet of the rising bourgeoisie (themselves the children of the French Revolution), who were then attacked by both the deposed monarchists of the ultra-right and future hard leftists. The new popular freedoms were associated by the ultras with the Cult of Reason (symbolized by Marianne), cannibalism, and a host of other horrors, including parricide and deicide.  And so Mary Shelley wrote her famous Frankenstein;  or the Modern Prometheus, while Herman Melville fretted about his own Promethean impulses throughout life. (For more on this theme see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/26/decoding-call-me-ishmael-and-the-following/.)

Much of what Hudson has written is directed at Ayn Rand, her followers, and “Objectivism” in general.  I conclude that it is the “atomized” individual (along with free market society) that is his target. This so-called “atomized” individual was also the target of the moderate men, the Progressives who hoped to stave off Red Revolution through a compassionate welfare state, that would stop just short of turning the world upside down,  and would co-opt religion in the service of those buzz-words “social cohesion” and “political stability.”

Not all moderate conservatives believed that modernity and capitalism would lead to widespread mayhem. See for instance the social thought of Charles Sumner, the anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, whose moral code embraced all of humanity, and most particularly slaves and then the freedmen, while his bosom enemies sought to return the freedmen to new forms of bondage after the Civil War. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/ )  Sumner was a visionary, and for his sacrifices to humanity at large, he has been assailed as a carrier of Jewish blood by his major 20th century biographer.


If Walter Hudson and those who agree with him want to improve morality, he should come down on the authoritarian family and all those institutions that fail to educate their children to the obligations of citizenry, or those families who believe in demonic possession as the explanation for mental illness. We need more science in our thought patterns, and less regression to pre-capitalist forms of authority, authority that cannot be made legitimate through any appeal to Reason as embodied in the laws, laws that men and women of all colors fought for and formulated out of an abundance of experience.


October 1, 2011

Updated index to Melville blogs




https://clarespark.com/2009/09/03/advice-for-the-lovelorn-with-thoughts-on-hero-worship/ (Retitled Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty?)





















https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/ (Hobsbawm’s reading of Moby-Dick as great indictment of capitalism/imperialism.)




September 1, 2009

Blogging with a difference

Hayden White, 2005

Walter Benjamin once remarked that fascism allows the masses to express themselves (see his famous essay, The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction). This rings in my ears as I contemplate the new universe of blogging, for I see this revolution as both a great innovation and a dangerous outlet for irresponsible opinion. So a few words are in order to separate out YDS blogging from those of political partisans and other activists with designs upon the reader.

     1. On “activist” scholars. The late Budd Schulberg left the Communist Party because party functionaries were demanding that he change his writing, for instance, What Makes Sammy Run (1941), because he was not foregrounding “the progressive forces” in Hollywood. And when the second wave of feminism got started, there were women artists who, knowing the history of the authoritarian Left, worried that they would be expected to follow some party line. As for the postmodernists who ruled while I was in graduate school at UCLA, there was a widespread view that “the archive” itself was a social construct and inevitably biased toward the ruling class. The same cohort averred that “science was a swindle” and I, the defender of empiricism and archival research, was derided as “the last positivist.” And yet all these activists loved “the people” and believed themselves to be their emancipators.

     During the final stages of expanding my doctoral dissertation for publication, I discovered that the furious Tory response to the American and French Revolutions was directed at “autodidacts” who were now reading books for themselves and drawing conclusions about the social order not dependent upon the opinions of their  betters.  These same autodidacts were held to be assassins and demagogues, stealthy, bloody, tyrannical, and inept in the fine art of reading, so naturally, the mandarin class was poised to set them straight, that is, to be as deferential and docile as they supposedly had been before the seventeenth-century and the Scientific Revolution or the Radical Reformation (those precursors to the Enlightenment). 

    And during this same period of research, I learned that it was considered bad form to include long quotations from primary source materials. This struck me as very odd: can you imagine a scientific discovery being published without fully informing the reader as to all the materials and procedures that led to the experimenter’s conclusion, along with an accurate description of those prior conceptions that were now revised in the light of new knowledge? Yet the humanities frowned upon long quotations from the sources, and writers still apologize for them. Readers of the blogs on the YDS website will note that I do quote liberally from my sources, so that the reader can check upon the accuracy of what I draw from them, and then correct my readings if they distort the source or otherwise misinterpret them. (Postmodernists will find my practice hilariously retrograde, so I say to them, “you don’t think much of the rule of law, do you? And of course they don’t for the state is nothing more than the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. See my blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: rival visions of national unity” for the Charles Sumner understanding of liberal nationalism.) 

     Back to the activist bloggers or activist scholars. I once met an important art historian, who told me of a lecture he had given at Yale on British landscape painting of the eighteenth century. “I start,” he said, “with bourgeois society.” Huh? I thought. What about starting with the object and looking at it carefully, not missing any details, surrendering to its power, and then moving on to personal biography and all the institutions that might impinge on the making of a book or a painting or a musical composition or any other cultural artifact? After all that, going back to the painting, etc. and looking some more, perhaps seeing it even more deeply and understanding its appeal (or threat) to others. In other words, for my friend, “bourgeois society” was self-evidently evil, and anything that was made under its awful spell was bound to be tainted. It is true that patronage is important to artistic production, but if ever there was a comparative free-for-all in art-making it was a by-product of market economies and the marketplace of ideas. (Many readers will wince at this. Oh for the days of the Popular Front when–briefly– the bourgeoisie was viewed as a progressive class.)

   Now switch to how we encounter persons who may disagree with us on the heavy issues of the day. Too often my activist friends (and I have some) are too quick to dismiss anyone who does not share their judgments on this or that policy issue, let alone the larger questions that are currently roiling the world. Such impatient partisans may lack curiosity about the life experience and upbringing that might have led to the current polarization or “culture wars,” just as they may lack insight into their own preferences or need to belong to something big and heroic. One of the most damaging consequences of the fashionable existentialism after the second world war has been the notion that we cannot think ourselves into the heads of any other person, let alone understand our own motivation, or, get this: write history. Yet how can there be a civil discourse without some degree of mutual- and self-understanding, let alone a relatively accurate picture of the past and how we got here? In a “culture of despair” (to recall a title by Fritz Stern) desperation leads to catastrophe.

    To conclude this first point about YDS blogging, nearly all my posts strive toward objective scholarship, and invite the reader to test my work, by checking my readings of the sources, and then determining whether I have drawn reasonable conclusions from the evidence I provided. I understand that this stance is not fashionable, and I do not care. I am not working to please any establishment, and write for citizen-autodidacts and fellow-professional scholars.

   2. Language matters. Many postmodernists believed that I was doing work similar to theirs. This is true: language affects emotions and political will, and it is a constant struggle to resist the power of words and images that purport to represent “reality.” Therefore, I get very testy when persons I otherwise respect as sincere advocates for their policy du jour, refer to their opponents as loons, fanatics, crazies, wingnuts, moonbats, etc. Leaving aside the insensitivity to the suffering of real psychotics and their support systems when these epithets are tossed around, when I was at Pacifica radio and had the program director job, I tried to explain that the First Amendment was not intended to enable libel and slander (see the correspondence of Jefferson, John Adams, and Abigail Adams on this point), but to advance the search for truth so that citizens could make informed choices in their representatives and support policies that advanced the public interest (not that the public interest is easily determined). In other words, free speech was not an excuse for venting, but a rational means toward a rational end. And I never said that would be easy. Where I diverge from the postmodernists and other irrationalists is my view that we can get better as readers and to a degree, overcome our subjectivity* and get to closer and closer approximations of  reality. If we can’t do that, how can we save the planet?

*Hayden White describes himself and his postmodern colleagues as “radical subjectivists,” that all history writing conforms to literary genres, while he, with other postmodernists, believes that there is nothing “outside the text.” Cf. Immanuel Kant who insisted that we can never encounter “the thing in itself.” In my own work, I agree that particular historical narratives are deployed for purposes of persuasion, and of course believe that these must be identified as misleading and either deliberately twisted, or as simply ideological. [Added August 1, 2010: Benjamin Shepard disputes my reading of Kant and cites this passage from the Prologomena as evidence: ” The dictum of all genuine idealists from the Eleatic school to Bishop Berkeley, is contained in this formula: ‘All cognition through the senses and experience is nothing but sheer illusion, and only, in the ideas of the pure understanding and reason there is truth.’ The principle that throughout dominates and determines my Idealism, is on the contrary: ‘All cognition of things merely from pure understanding or pure reason is nothing but sheer illusion, and only in experience is there truth.’ ” More on this later as the question now arises: why has Kant been so frequently misdescribed by subsequent philosophers (at least the ones I have read)? And what does he mean by “experience.” The same as Locke?]

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