YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 17, 2016

House of Cards and cynical Democrats

Claire and Frank go to Moscow, season 3 House of Cards, Netflix

Claire and Frank go to Moscow, season 3 House of Cards, Netflix

I have just binge-watched House of Cards seasons three and four, set during the presidency of upwardly mobile, cynical and manipulative poor white trash Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey co-starring with Robin Wright as his teammate Claire—- a former “Dallas debutante” with a preternatural understanding of how “the system” really works. Both Spacey and Wright are actually from humble backgrounds, and perhaps retain much of their repressed rage/nihilism).

I also saw the much-preferred UK original on PBS, so long ago that I remember most of it only vaguely, but who could forget the shocking murder of the young journalist? (At least my polled Facebook friends liked that version, nearly all finding the US adaptation boring at best; I disagree, all long series are uneven, but the writing is often compelling).

Ian Richardson as PBS villain (1990)

Ian Richardson as PBS villain (1990)

So I am in the uncomfortable position of questioning my own taste for television series, which turn out to be relatively highbrow compared to the “lowbrow” network offerings. (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/is-i-house-of-cards-i-really-a-hit/284035/)

What frightens me most about House of Cards (I have now seen all versions, entirely), is my own naiveté as a historian and reader of texts. I have often called attention to our limited access to relevant documents as we attempt to interpret and present the past and present, but I didn’t factor in silent, underhanded deeds and interactions that confront the reader/viewer with unmitigated evil. There is enough nastiness in my own life history to temper my disbelief that such behavior could exist. Frankly, I don’t know how the writers got so much of our political situation down with conviction, for in spite of my “realism” about what to expect from other people, I could never imagine such degrees of immorality, even from “Big Government.”

What is most surprising is that the actors and writers are associated with the Democratic Party (presented as rife with corruption, including mayhem), or perhaps they lean left, like many artists confronting the philistine bourgeoisie/modernity in either political party. There is a punkish, oppositional sensibility at play in the writing and acting, though one wonders if life offers more than an Artaudian scream or Brechtian ruthlessness.

Although the plot line is said to be “implausible” I find the series, like Billions (a Showtime offering that has completed its first season), to have ripped the mask off our elites, with enough ambiguity to satisfy any educated, fearless student of human nature.

No wonder I am attracted to the writing of Herman Melville, who ventured on the dark side more than most of his nineteenth century “optimistic” contemporaries, with attention to his life and art only made possible after the horrors of World War Two. And no wonder that the trashing of his masterpiece Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) had to be denounced in 1947 by FDR-allied psychologist Henry A. Murray, whose lies I have reluctantly exposed on this website.  (https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/).

Call me Isabel.

Advertisements

December 24, 2014

“blood on their hands”?

Anti-Iraq war image depicting Tony Blair

Anti-Iraq war image depicting Tony Blair

What is incitement or “fighting words” and who does it? Some statutes state that it is illegal to incite others to commit crimes. Voices from both sides of the increasingly polarized political spectrum are accusing personalities or groups of having “blood on their hands”—yet the punditry continues to classify “peaceful protest” promoting hate as an exercise of free speech. I was stunned to discover that there are actual laws in the UK, Canada, and the US warning that such acts as spouting “fighting words” are tantamount to encouraging crime (though less so in the US). (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incitement (on British law), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fighting_words, comparing Canada and the US, with case law examples.)

Tell that to Hollywood writers, journalists, or to academics of any political stripe. It is not widely known that wealthy liberals, through their foundations, had resorted to better communication as the favored strategy in solving “the Negro problem” as it was called in Gunnar Myrdal’s famous book, An American Dilemma (1944), a study said to be a landmark in “race relations.” One of Myrdal’s less publicized warnings to readers was a direct threat to hidebound Southern conservatives. Myrdal was neither a revolutionary socialist nor, pace one biographer, an optimistic moralist appealing to Christian consciences. Rather, in one rarely quoted passage, the Swedish social democrat and economist was explicitly cautioning “Southern conservative(s)” who had better heed the lessons of history and to

“…begin allowing the higher strata of the Negro population to participate in the political process as soon as possible, and to push the movement down to the lowest groups gradually…also to speed up the civic education of these masses who are bound to have votes in the future.…political conservatives, who have been successful for any length of time, have always foreseen impending changes and have put through the needed reforms themselves in time. By following this tactic they have been able to guard fundamental conservative interests even in the framing of the reforms. They have thereby also succeeded in slowing them up; changes have not overwhelmed them as avalanches. They have kept the control and preserved a basis for the retention of their political power. Southern conservatives should further learn from history that, over a period of time, the conservative forces in society cannot afford to abstain from the tremendous strategic advantage of forming the party of “law and order.” This is such an immense interest for conservatism that if–for constitutional and other reasons–the law does not come to the conservatives even when they are in power, the conservatives had better come to the law.

“But the great majority of Southern conservative white people do not see the handwriting on the wall. They do not study the impending changes; they live again in the pathetic illusion that the matter is settled. They do not care to have any constructive policies to meet the trends. They think no new adjustments are called for. The chances that the future development will be planned and led intelligently–and that, consequently, it will take the form of cautious, foresighted reforms instead of unexpected, tumultuous, haphazard breaks, with mounting discords and anxieties in its wake–are indeed small. But we want to keep this last question open. Man is a free agent, and there are no inevitabilities. All will depend upon the thinking done and the action taken in the region during the next decade or so. History can be made. It is not necessary to receive it as mere destiny.” [End, Myrdal quote, his emphasis]

Myrdal, like his patrons, the Carnegie Corporation, wanted to forestall incitement by red agitators who, preying upon real grievances, would incite race riots and other forms of disruptive protest.

But these words were written in the early 1940s (probably by Myrdal, not Bunche, his chief assistant, then a radical), and we face a more subtle brand of incitement today. Its form is the cynical belief, shared by academics, movie and television writers, hip journalists, and perhaps many politicians (all catering to minorities and women, certainly not the white working class), that not only is everybody corrupt, motivated solely by the will to power, but that the American future is hopeless, for we are led by criminals masquerading as businessmen and the politicians who protect them. It is they, these bold [populist] speakers of truth to power, who give each other cushy professorships and other trophies indicating excellence in the arts, while inciting hatred of the American past and present, with no analysis of effective or ineffective social policies.

As published in Rolling Stone

As published in Rolling Stone

Recall the worshipful popularity of The Sopranos, or that James Spader (“Red Reddington”) in the popular series The Blacklist, informs the female FBI agent he is protecting that the world is run by criminals. I have just seen American Hustle which ends with the lines “The art of survival is a story that never ends.” I assume that the writers view themselves as surviving in a specifically American business environment that rewards con artists like themselves. The same could be said of the hit Netflix drama House of Cards that weaves an intricate tale of secret deals between power-seekers who have zero interest in social policy, except for the obligatory nod to feminism through a failed effort to get anti-sexual assault in the military through Congress. In the fashionable bleak mood even Democrats are phonies. Holden Caulfield has won hearts and minds.

While stopping for a moment to eat lunch, I heard Neil Cavuto on Fox lamenting the cynicism of the young, who have lost faith and trust in [earthly] “leaders.” I am suggesting something different: that cynicism is a form of incitement. Rightists correctly blame POTUS, Eric Holder, Al Sharpton, and Bill de Blasio of playing the race card while (at times) calling for national unity. But there is nothing peaceful in the protests of black supremacists and their self-righteous, indoctrinated young white allies, masked as crusaders for social justice.

girlwithradiomind

More than “faith” or “trust” in “leaders” we need to teach the young to distinguish between cynicism and healthy skepticism. Cynicism may produce well-made, clever and lucrative “art” and entertainment, but it is rational skepticism that leads to healthy, rational citizen participation in democratic processes.

September 26, 2013

Cultural pluralism vs. multiculturalism

Pandora's_box

[Update: see https://clarespark.com/2017/04/10/a-reassessment-of-a-critique-of-pure-tolerance-42-years-later/, for this is a better antidote to the prevailing New Deal phony liberalism that goes by the name of cultural pluralism/multiculturalism.]

Abstract. Multiculturalism imitates cultural/religious pluralism, while undermining it by denying that we can understand persons of different “races” or genders, for each category is self-contained and indecipherable to other groups. Cultural pluralism should be about lots and lots of competing political parties and religions. The very fact that there is no state religion can call into question dogmatic upholders of any one belief system, religious or otherwise. Intellectual diversity can freak out the true believer, no matter how affiliated or indoctrinated.

Several Facebook friends have asked me to define my terms more carefully, because I assume too much when using academic jargon that is unfamiliar to them.  Today’s topic is “cultural pluralism.”

Cultural pluralism is a confusing term because of the word “culture.” Much of this website is devoted to tracing the history of the term “culture” as a substitute for a more materialist analysis of our society and its institutions (i.e., substitute secular for materialist to distinguish me from a dialectical materialist). As currently practiced, cultural pluralism is almost synonymous with “multiculturalism,” which is adhered to by those envisioning a happy cooperating system of grouplets based on race or ethnicity. The multicultural assumption is that the race or ethnicity they name is free of internal divisions or divergent and/or incompatible economic interest. Thus it may be imagined that all “African-Americans” think alike, have the same economic and gender interests, and are “different” from other Americans, even though the (better) Founders and their 19th century admirers imagined that we would all live under the rule of law as distinct individuals endowed with inalienable rights.

A better term than cultural pluralism, not weighed down with “cultural” differences, would be intellectual diversity or “the marketplace of ideas.”

But in order for the marketplace of ideas to work, all participants need to be able to decode propaganda, whether the propaganda is transmitted through buzz words like “family” or through images that compel our allegiance or frighten us.  Herbert Marcuse’s theory of repressive tolerance remains useful, but when first presented, it aroused a firestorm of opposition because Marcuse wanted to ban (most?) all but left-wing speech. Can anything be reclaimed from his theory? My view is that we lose when we allow the opposition to define the terms of the debate.

We are familiar with such tactics today, as Harry Reid and others define the Republican Party as “obstructionists” or “anarchists” or “defiant.” Reid and his ilk could define the competing ideas that motivate different political factions today (for his own party does not think as one), but he cannot do that, for he MUST smear the opposition in order to 1. present a united front of Democrats; and 2. to please the political class that supports him. It is the way things are done in Washington DC today. I could point to some polarizing Republicans as well.

These are hard times for intellectual diversity.  That is why I admire Eva Moskowitz’s notion of having her charter school kids learn how to extract the message of a poem in grade school! Reading comprehension has never been more important. I could add to that the decoding of images.

Another confusing tactic use by authoritarians of either party is the accusation of “power-seeking” as an end in itself.  I have been watching House of Cards on Netflix, and “Francis Underwood” talks to the viewer explaining that he is not out for money but “power.” But in a few episodes later, we learn that he has risen up from Southern “white-trash”.  So his delight in “power” is all about revenge for the snobbery, bullying, and exclusion he undoubtedly experienced as a boy.

Displaced aristocrats (or those working for them) originated the notion of the organic society, or the organic nation, or “races”. For wannabe “aristocrats” today, nothing is so forbidden as reasoned differences of opinion, or as I call it intellectual diversity, including the summoning of “facts.”  For once you open Pandora’s Box, there is no telling what monstrosities will fly out. Better to keep that box shut tight, lest the inquiring mind acquire the legitimacy that it occasionally enjoyed in eighteenth century England, parts of the United States, the Netherlands, and France.  (On Pandora in Greek mythology see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandora.)

Collage, Clare Spark, early 1990s

Collage, Clare Spark, early 1990s

September 25, 2013

Ted Cruz, Generational conflict, and Remarque

GermanWarPosterWhile Ted Cruz was calling Republicans to arms to overturn Obamacare, I was watching the movie version of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), in its uncut version.  (Ben Urwand insists that Universal pictures caved to German pressure to remove certain incendiary scenes that impugned the older generation for mindless nationalism that slaughtered their young soldiers. I watched the uncut version that attacked the upper class older generation for murdering their unprepared lower class young men, through glorifying sacrifice for the Fatherland, teaching irrelevant subjects in schools, and for inadequate training, food, leadership, hygiene, and medical care while in combat.)

The original uncut movie reminded me of the pacifism that moved the formation of Pacifica Radio immediately after WW2. Such Remarque-like antiwar sentiments lack an analysis of the lead up to wars, but imagine an undifferentiated class of enlisted men, badly led by undifferentiated old and middle-aged men.  Indeed, Remarque himself was born into a Catholic home (his father was a bookbinder, not a politicized worker), then after his recovery from wounds in the war, went on to write numerous novels after his autobiographical first novel (that of course was banned and burned by the (relatively young) Nazis in power. His brazen book was riotously protested before the Nazis were put in power by…old men: the monarchists and conservative nationalists of Germany who hoped to control Hitler and his hotheads in order to destroy communism and the independent working class movement that opposed the Nazis.

Remarque, a handsome fellow, went on to a successful career as an author and affairs with glamorous movie stars. In trying to place him as if he existed later in the 20th century, I would have to locate him in the counter-culture, not in any political faction. In the 1960s, boys like him might have been draft dodgers or protesters against the Viet Nam conflict. But the more politicized would have had a more sophisticated analysis of WW1. For instance, they might have looked to rival imperialisms, or to the failure of the Socialist Parties to oppose the war in 1914, voting for war credits in Germany.  Or if more attuned to the errors of diplomats, they might have come to agree with Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War.

By the time Remarque wrote his novel, disillusion with the idea of progress pervaded what we now call the Jazz Age. Hemingway had written two antiwar novels (The Sun Also Rises about an aimless generation), then A Farewell to Arms (more overtly antiwar and vaguely autobiographical).  I have found one quote where Remarque prefigured the anti-technology sentiments of the counter culture, arguing for a vague humanism and faith in humanity; he was no nihilist.

paulandyingcomrade

The conflict du jour is over whether or not Ted Cruz is a hothead and ambitious for personal power. I am reminded of a line from the much lauded House of Cards remake, offered by Netflix to its subscribers. This time, a ruthless Southern Democrat, “Francis Underwood” (played by Kevin Spacey), explains to the audience that he isn’t in it for the money but for “power”.  Such is the charge now leveled at Ted Cruz by an older generation that hews to a more bipartisan approach to the management of social policy.

We know much more about this political war than Remarque knew about his war as an eighteen year old Catholic boy.  Given what I have studied about the moderate men—i.e, the older generation in charge today, it is difficult not to call them out for utopianism.  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/.)

finalshot

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.