The Clare Spark Blog

May 6, 2013

The New Left activist scholars

activist_scholarshipIt was once my fantasy that scholarship entailed a thorough comprehension of the field under discussion, and that recent events were the purview of journalists, not scholars (who were supposedly waiting for the opening of archives and all primary source materials before rushing into print).

But with the antiwar movement that was contemporaneous with the student strikes all over America during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the activist scholar came into her own.  I remember one such, Temma Kaplan (author of The Anarchists of Andalusia), introducing herself to a seminar at UCLA as “an activist” (or possibly as “an activist scholar”).

Assistant Professor Kaplan’s self-introduction suggested a sea change in the teaching of the humanities and social sciences. It is true that it is difficult to escape ideological biases, but Hugh Thomas’s mammoth book on The Spanish Civil War used sources from the Nationalist Right, interviewed many of the survivors, some of whom lived in Franco Spain, and was careful to footnote many accounts that might differ from his own generally moderate narrative and interpretations. (For instance, I call him a “moderate” because he blamed socialist factions for not cohering to prevent the rightist nationalist rebellion led by General Franco in July 1936 that finally prevailed over the Spanish Republic in a conflict that rocked the world. For some estimates of the HBO treatment of the Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/. I saw the movie as another bow to the Popular Front that formulated interwar and postwar conflicts as ‘the People’ vs. ‘Fascism.’ ).

But with the New Left there was no such eclecticism or acknowledgements that recent events might be too polarized for a relatively objective reading, not to speak of the usual inaccessibility of government or other official documents, hoarded by interested parties or descendants protecting the reputations of their illustrious ancestors.

Alexander Saxton, my own Stalinist dissertation director, upon seeing my first draft of an introductory chapter, explicitly ordered me to delete criticisms of his ideological allies (e.g. Ellen Schrecker), and never to praise his enemies (e.g. John Dos Passos, author of the USA trilogy). Later, he also let me know that he and his [communist?] wife had met one of my chief Melville revivers and his wife (Jay Leyda and Si-Lan Chen) and liked them very much.  I pressed ahead and devoted a long chapter to Jay Leyda, an outspoken and versatile Stalinist, and after years of stubbornly sticking to primary sources (some either previously restricted, misreported, or only briefly opened) got my dissertation approved. It was a Trotskyist scholar of international fame who agreed to be my co-chair after Alex Saxton retired. (Saxton even wrote a strong letter in support of my dissertation, telling me that I was the first student for whom he had done such a favor.)

Mine is not an unfamiliar story in academe. Since I had been studying multiculturalism during the period of my dissertation research (1984-1993), and had objected to its racialist discourse in various academic forums and conferences (sometimes to the screams or taunts of tenured left professors in both public and private spaces), I discovered that David Horowitz and Peter Collier were publishing a periodical called Heterodoxy that accurately described the PC takeover of teaching. At that time, Horowitz was living in my neighborhood, and running into him with some family members, I introduced myself to him as a reader of his work, which jibed entirely with my own experience as a hounded graduate student.

Somehow word got out that Horowitz and I were allies, since he and his wife April came to my first book talk at Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood, shortly after 9-11-2001. Not long after that, I was interrogated by two well known Marxist professors (one a sociologist, the other an art historian) whether DH was a friend of mine. I take friendship very seriously and resent interference with my choices.  I should have known that I was likely being marginalized by the academic left as at least an “unreliable” or “uncontrollable.” The final blow came when Christopher Hitchens gave a talk at the Horowitz Wednesday Morning Club in favor of the Iraq war, and numerous old friends, activist scholars and journalists, saw that I had entered the Devil’s realm. In retrospect, it was not surprising that Verso Press backed out of publishing my book on the Melville Revival (after telling people it would be published), because I refused to downplay the importance of John Milton, or to puff F. O. Matthiessen and Lewis Mumford. This was during the mid-1990s. To my sorrow, none of my once close allies, gathered when I was program director at KPFK (and had power, it seemed to them), lifted a finger to criticize Verso, which after all was publishing their work.

As an experiment (to test an old but languishing friendship), I invited one of the academics who was a close friend in the 1970s to friend me on Facebook. From what I can gather, he visited my FB page, and was appalled that I was writing about Fox News and continued to link to articles from Horowitz’s Frontpagemagazine.com, and announced that he was going to block me, but that we might still be friends, and that he welcomed a face to face discussion of our political differences (where he would have an opportunity to tell me to my face that I was now an enemy to the working class?). I responded that I had not changed; that I was still doing class analysis, and still defending the cultural freedom of every individual. Then I asked him if he had read at least part of my book. He responded that he had, but was too busy to read much of it. That did it. I thought that I understood what impelled the second wave of feminism. Here was my reasoning: he liked me before I was a scholar and had no tools to question his anti-art, anti-bourgeois cultural politics. I supposed that I was a worshipful female in his eyes. Now that I too was a scholar, I surmised that he was too burdened with committee meetings and other academic responsibilities (complained about in one of his many e-mails) to expend any effort on a book that purportedly changed Melville scholarship forever, and moreover, notwithstanding that it was mostly written from the Left (though not with any orthodoxy)! (In a subsequent email exchange, he denies that he thought any such thing.) As for my claim that my book changed Melville scholarship, I make no apologies. That is what scholars are supposed to do: find new sources and revise all previous scholarship! If they can’t do more than take other scholars  down, without providing a reconfiguration of old problems, and providing new syntheses, then they are not scholars at all, but ideologues parroting some party line. You can be a scholar, or a journalist, or a party hack, but not all three at the same time.

Join us

I have told these stories because I want my readers to know that activist scholars have designs on their students, and must be outed and opposed. These activists use academic freedom to abuse it, and to smother all dissent, even among themselves. (Ironically, before his death, my dissertation director, wrote to me with great affection and appreciation as he enclosed his last book. But then he had the soul of an artist, and every now and then, it peeped out from some chinks in the Stalinist armor. I have forgiven his erratic conduct–sometimes censorious, sometimes approving– long ago. Bottom line: Saxton allowed me to write a Melville dissertation in the history department. No English department would have allowed me to write about “a major figure.” Such erratic conduct as Saxton demonstrated ironically fit in with Melville’s own wavering between aristocrat and democrat.)

Therefore, “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

July 29, 2012

GIRLS, or, the new lost generation

Lena as shown by her mom

If you have time, watch http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/video/lena-dunham-first-season-girls-338688.

HBO’s new series, GIRLS, has been nominated for three Emmy awards. In this blog, I raise some questions about the writing and what it tells us about the so-called Millennial generation (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Y) . They remind me of the decadent world made familiar to us by Ernest Hemingway in his first novel The Sun Also Rises (1926).

Lena Dunham comes out of the “indy” film world, having made a film entitled Tiny Furniture, which seems to refer to her artist mother’s work. (Dunham’s mother is Laurie Simmons, while her father is the well-known artist Carroll Dunham.  See http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=1652.) I have now seen that first film, and was simply appalled by its defense of an entitled generation, demanding and yet submissive to male desire, literally taking it in the ass.

I must say that my resistance to this set of seemingly aimless and apolitical young women as depicted on HBO, is partly shaped by the high seriousness of my own generation, for we were the offspring of fathers and mothers who were one way or another shaped by the second world war, and before that, the Great Depression. Hence my impatience with those young people who grew up in comparative affluence, and without a compulsory draft or the Viet Nam war that politicized the Baby Boomer generation, leading to permanent political changes in our country, and moving the Democratic Party sharply to the Left. I can’t understand why the four girls are not talking about important books, or feminism, or the civil rights movement, let alone engaging US foreign policy. Their attention is all on sex and relationships, an attention that is also typical of the touchy-feely ideology promoted in progressive schools and in the media today. (It must be said that many feminist artists of the 1970s focused on sexuality, not to speak of lesbianism.)

Lena Dunham has been praised mightily by John Podhoretz in the pages of The Weekly Standard (see http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/girls-are-all-right_647320.html?nopager=1.). He thinks that she is a marvel of accomplishment in her generation, while I see her and the three others as overly self-absorbed. And to be fair, the script does allow for such a view, to her credit. And as one of my children observed, she makes herself vulnerable in a way that is rare for any of us.

Many have enjoyed these ten episodes, and as I continued to watch them, I must admit to being drawn into their world. But I still question two things:

  1. The “indie” film world produced Lena Dunham. But what does “independence” signify to the young filmmakers who send their work to Sundance and similar showcases for the    more “spiritual” film auteurs? Much of what I have seen of their work is boring, horribly written and, as we used to say on the left, “self-indulgent.”  The main virtue, as I read the situation, is the “independence” from [Jew-ridden, Big Money] Hollywood. One thinks of “community radio”, similarly liberated from ‘corporate greed’.

2.Lena Dunham was educated at progressive Oberlin, and before that, in a progressive artsy school, St. Anne’s in Brooklyn. She must have been exposed to the “postmodern” world of academe that touted transgressiveness as the standard for high art or moral seriousness. In other words, a true rebel once again shouted “Merdre” at the [‘Jewified’] bourgeoisie (see Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi). This cri de coeur is old and tired, and in a world where the vanguard has yielded to primitivism, minimalism, and other forms of moral suicide masquerading as self-sacrifice, or a leap into the unknown, or worse, pseudo-solidarity with the oppressed, I wonder what mores remain to be flouted? For more on this theme, see https://clarespark.com/2012/10/03/the-sexual-revolution-2/.

Lena’s father

June 26, 2012

Aaron Sorkin’s [Scottish blood]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Newsroom_(U.S._TV_series), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Sorkin.

Aaron Sorkin

I watched Sorkin’s latest, The Newsroom during its debut on HBO, June 24, 2012. It was among his most improbable scripts, and a triumph in progressive chutzpah. For its mission statement is no less than the setting of America on a course that would have pleased the most significant ultra-liberal theologians of the last three centuries.

Among its implausibilities is the phenomenal memory of its lead character, “Will McAvoy” played by Jeff Daniels, who slightly resembles the author himself. “Will” is on a panel at Northwestern University, flanked by a Republican on one side, and a Democrat on the other. He is allegedly the moderate Republican who wants to please everybody. But when queried by a blonde co-ed, who hopes he will ratify her notion that America is the “greatest country in the world”, Will, at first mumbling something about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as revolutionary, switches his rap and goes off on a tirade quoting the low ranking of the US in achievements, a ratatat of rankings displaying a memory like a computer. He was coached by an unidentified woman in the audience who holds up signs indicating that we could be the greatest country in history, if we [repent ] and recognize our deficiencies. Obviously, Sorkin has designs on the HBO audience, who, sadly, probably will eat this stuff up.

Jeff Daniels

Turns out that Will McAvoy is the anchor of a nightly news show on a fictional cable network named for Atlantis (ACN). He returns to the newsroom only to discover that his staff has decamped with his co-anchor, leaving a saving remnant. Sam Waterston plays the head of the News division, and lingers on the greatness of Murrow and Cronkite, hoping to resuscitate their integrity as fearless purveyors of the truth. The rest of the episode is devoted to the astonishing feat, aided by his new, at first unwanted, “E.P.” (executive producer, “MacKenzie McHale” played by Emily Mortimer), in delivering the kind of exemplary investigative reporting that will make us proud to be liberal Americans.

We suddenly find ourselves back in summer, 2010 at the moment of the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A very young producer, of Ivy League background, turns out to have contacts with both BP and Halliburton, the latter are manufacturers of the ostensibly defective concrete that allowed the catastrophe. Through the swiftly achieved cooperation of the mostly young people in the newsroom, ACN scoops the rest of the media with not only authoritative interviews with honchos, but, thanks to Will’s almost magical ability to do arithmetic in his head, gets an inspector of the oil platforms to admit that the inspection team assembled by the [evil] oil company could not possibly do its job. Competing networks, devoid of these fast-thinking, high-minded, adrenalin-hyped news gatherers, must do with limp reportage of “search and rescue” operations.

Aaron Sorkin has created two new superheroes, both with Scottish clan names. Thus Will and MacKenzie are doubles, and ex-lovers. Braveheart anyone? Not to worry about the 2012 election: America is back on the path to Freedom from Big Oil, at least on HBO at 10pm, Sunday nights. For the agenda being served by Sorkin and his affinity group, see http://tinyurl.com/7ryo95l . [Added, 7-24-12: in episode 5, Sorkin glorified the uprising  in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, as well as the uprising of the teachers union in Wisconsin. In HBO “Buzz”, Sorkin reaffirmed his belief in a pre-Bush America [that now has lost its way, with the rise of Fox News and the Tea Party]. Read this blog along with https://clarespark.com/2012/08/26/democratic-party-talking-points-2012/.

Emily Mortimer

March 16, 2012

Index to blogs on popular tv shows

Dick Wolf and Judith Light

I haven’t commented on all the crime shows. It is enough to say that we are to believe that good cops will eventually triumph over bad cops, and that most criminals are tracked down and punished. I.e., the State is looking out for you and me, with all the tools that modern science (including profiling) can muster. Law and Order: Criminal Intent (not analyzed here) adds a flourish: the Vincent D’Onofrio character is often dissatisfied with normal procedures, co-opts Freud, and seemingly obeys a higher (more compassionate) law.

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/15/the-christianization-of-ziva-david-ncis/

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/02/roman-polanski-and-his-critics/

https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/

https://clarespark.com/2010/10/24/mad-men-and-the-jewish-problem/

https://clarespark.com/2010/12/12/hbo%e2%80%99s-in-treatment-and-boardwalk-empire/

https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/

https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/

https://clarespark.com/2011/07/07/network-and-its-offspring/

https://clarespark.com/2012/02/04/blue-bloods-freud-trauma-911/

https://clarespark.com/2012/02/09/glee-goes-la-raza/

https://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/

https://clarespark.com/2012/06/26/aaron-sorkins-scottish-blood/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/03/andy-griffiths-greatest-performance/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/23/homeland-and-the-idea-of-the-fifth-column/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/29/girls-or-the-new-lost-generation/

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/14/is-there-a-culture-of-violence/

https://clarespark.com/2013/01/26/decoding-call-me-ishmael-and-the-following/ (Read this first)

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/25/potus-michelle-and-the-end-of-the-democratic-republic/

https://clarespark.com/2013/04/26/the-television-season-goes-dark/

https://clarespark.com/2013/05/27/smash-the-perfect-liberal-backstage-musical/

https://clarespark.com/2013/06/20/james-gandolfini-as-tony-soprano/

https://clarespark.com/2013/09/22/the-newsroom-season-two/

https://clarespark.com/2014/03/24/the-good-wife-and-bad-timing/

https://clarespark.com/2014/06/25/penny-dreadfuls-sinister-significance/

December 12, 2010

HBO’s In Treatment and Boardwalk Empire

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 9:02 pm
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Enoch "Nucky" Johnson

 Both these series are pitched to HBO’s hip left-liberal audience—an audience that prides itself on its pacifism, its social responsibility, its concern for the weak, its unflinching gaze at the American past, and its willingness to make sacrifices to advance its generally collectivist agenda. One would think therefore that the relief of human suffering (as in the healing professions) and a strict adherence to the rule of law would be moral anchors for the evaluation of their edgy productions. Sadly, this is not the case with two of HBO’s most lauded series: In Treatment and Boardwalk Empire.

    First, In Treatment: the first two seasons were adapted from an Israeli series; the third season, completed last week, was not. In the last episode, Paul Weston, a clinical psychologist, doubts whether or not he should remain in his profession, for he has no objective way to evaluate the accuracy of what his clients are telling him. This is postmodernist uncertainty and existentialist despair, pure and simple. Whereas at least one of his patients in season one (the teen-age gymnast) was pulled back from the brink of suicide through therapy, in season three, Sunil, the Indian father-in-law of the blonde and assertive “Julia,” has tread lightly on the truth in order to get himself deported back to his home country, thus triggering a failure of nerve in Paul. We are left hanging in the season finale, as Paul, rejected as a sexual partner by his latest female therapist, melts into the Brooklyn street, a street inhabited by hoi polloi. Such a dim view of therapy can only bolster the anti-psychiatry movement that does not base its critique on something persuasive, such as the clinical emphasis on the immediate family as opposed to the family as it operates in an abundance of confusing and failed institutions (schools, the justice system, state-imposed bureaucratic rules that strangle production and innovation in general).

   Boardwalk Empire purports to represent the social history of Atlantic City as it existed in the year that Prohibition was passed–1919 onward.  It is, however, yet another tinsel town story of civic corruption that sends a double message, very much like The Sopranos. On the one hand, we are supposed to be revolted by the graphic mayhem, decadence, racism, ethnocentrism, and sexism, while on the other hand, we are likely to identify with the criminals (and their wardrobes), simply because that is how stories work when the writers are sophisticated. Just as Tony Soprano had a mean mother, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (the character based on city boss Enoch Johnson), had a malicious, violent father. The most obnoxious character in this first season was not a killer politician or bootlegger, it was the Calvinist federal agent from the Internal Revenue division, assigned to enforce the Volstead Act.  He is a sadomasochist, a Puritan, and a murderer who takes the law into his own hands as he drowns his second-in-command, a Jew who is secretly working for Nucky, while black Baptists look on without intervening in the gradual dunking and murder of the Jew who refuses to convert to Christianity. If the Jew disbelieves in fallen flesh and original sin, the opening titles– inspired by Magritte’s iconic figure of the ultimate bourgeois–will bring the optimistic liberal back to the guilt that is appropriate for the worldly and the damned. [See Magritte’s The Healer, illustrated above. So much for the amelioration of suffering in the social practice of “liberals.”]

    By comparison with agent Van Alden (an old Dutch-American name), Nucky and his chief lieutenant, a returning wounded veteran of the first world war, are model citizens, for they are home-loving and monogamous; the audience will side with these amiable Irishmen against their Italian and Jewish thug enemies. That is how stories work. Even if the protagonists are anti-heroes, their “good” sides and damaging family histories will encourage the audience to identify with them. (Recall the anxiety that many fans experienced at the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos.) The audience will root for them, just as they root for the lawless celebrities and political leaders who are standing up for “law and order” in today’s endlessly cynical political culture —a culture that condemns the Puritans as narcissists and killjoys, while elevating the pornography of sex and violence as some kind of artistic breakthrough in mass entertainment.

Younger Nucky

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