The Clare Spark Blog

December 19, 2015

Still Looking for Mr. Goodbar: the fear of individual liberty and self-direction

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Mr_GoodbarI was much influenced by Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom (1941). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_from_Freedom. Wiki leaves out Fromm’s theory of working class authoritarianism to account for Nazism and makes him a typical social democrat, critical of experts and advertising whose origin and targets are “the mobocracy.”) This blog is about the nostalgia for monarchism providing definite authority and the novelty of free market economics. It is not about Fromm’s notion of the authoritarian personality, a preoccupation understandable in the face of Nazism and related isms.

Like most of my readers and FB friends, I have been trying to situate myself somewhere in the current political campaign for president. I am particularly interested in the Frank Luntz focus groups, for a variety of ordinary people seem to be seeking a manly, stable “leader,” whatever the flaws or evasions in his social policy views.

This last week, I read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962), which is a systematic defense of free markets and untrammeled cultural freedom, an outcome that Friedman finds inseparable from capitalism in its most laissez-faire mode. (I agree with most of what he writes, but wonder if “choice” is invariably wise, given the fatal possibilities of succumbing to quacks and other “professional” frauds.)

At the same time, I have been studying very old fights among historians about the major turning points in the history of our sorry species. My most vivid recollection is that of Louis XIV and the prestige of his absolute despotism as the embodiment of the State. It occurred to me that we have, in spite of our Constitution, not progressed very far from Louis’s [vulgarity], using the magnificence of Versailles-like splendor, for instance, to wow the masses and the King’s underlings, rather like the glitterati, “traditional” mansions, and “special effects” in film celebrated especially during the holiday season to induce spending, notwithstanding the solemnity of religious observance.

individual

Back to Luntz’s focus group regarding Trump and his competition (broadcast on Fox 12-18-15, on The Kelly File). Numerous persons in the Luntz focus group referred to “the people” as the preferred source of authority. But through the centuries, “the people” have been acted upon by elites, and the efforts of individuals to assert liberty have been criminalized as demonic and sneaky. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/.) Moreover, there is no such animal as “the people”: that is a construction by “traditional” organic conservatives seeking a compact mass to dominate. Friedman, like Charles Sumner before him, favored small government, and saw “society” as a collection of individuals.

Is it not the case that we are, more often than not, scared to death of asserting our individual rights, in what Fromm correctly called an escape from freedom?

davidbogbig-picture-300dpi

David Bog Big Picture

 

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May 2, 2015

Mosby, multiculturalism and the persistence of feudalism

A populist take on feudalism

A populist take on feudalism

I have been  reading both older and newer scholarship on European history from late antiquity to the late Middle Ages, and am struck by several features that persist in our political culture: obedience to “authority” (stable hierarchies); and the search for “leaders” reminiscent of the Good Kings of feudal times—the King who, unlike “the Jews,” was not money-mad or selfish. Populists from Left to Right yearn for his return, for he makes us feel safe in an unpredictable and hostile world.

It has occurred to me that the nostalgia for the Middle Ages that I have noted earlier (see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/ or https://clarespark.com/2013/05/30/nostalgia-for-the-middle-ages/), is not nostalgia at all, but a sign that capitalism, individual opportunity, self-reliance, and mass participation in politics as individuals weighing facts (as opposed to ethnic identification—the hyphenated Americans) has not yet been achieved, though such 19th century figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote about “self-reliance.” (http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm.)

How does multiculturalism undermine the virtues we attribute to market societies, and the rule of law for rich and poor alike, equality that is presumably built into our Constitution and the notion of “liberty”?

First, we might go back to the late 18th century and look at Herder and other German Romantics (all reactionaries fearful of “materialism” and the singularity of the rootless cosmopolitan).  For it was Herder and his followers who popularized the notions of ethnicity and national character—collectivist notions that would be institutionalized in the Aryan supremacist Nazi State (a time when Herder’s notions were revived, and in vogue, though the 19th century racists had already become popular).

But the major impetus to multiculturalism in the US was the fear of proletarian internationalism and a feisty new industrial working class (much of it immigrant), that seemed to be taking power after the American Civil War unleashed industrial development and then after the Soviets mounted their revolution in 1917, prefigured by socialist movements in the US and Europe. So such figures revered by liberals as Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen stressed the long-standing idea of ethnicity as way more important than class conflict or even so an elastic concept as “class interest.”

What does this have to do with black nationalism and the future of the six black cops in Baltimore, charged by Marilyn Mosby in the death of Freddie Gray?

malcolmx

The most relevant feature of cultural nationalism is the belief that each “ethnicity” or “race” is incomprehensible to members of other designated groups. Out goes any potential agreement on “facts” in the upcoming trial of the black cops, for black nationalists will view the three black cops as “race traitors” who should have acknowledged that the forces of law and order are out to get them in the interests of “white supremacy.” All of a sudden, Marilyn Mosby, State’s Attorney for Baltimore, has no particular bias as an opportunist taking advantage of token reformism as a response to the condition of blacks in Democrat-run urban ghettoes, for all blacks, like all whites, share the same (class) interests in the argot of multiculturalism/racism.

Such is the deadly logic of multiculturalism with its outdated, but persistent, notion of “ethnic” tribalism, a leftover from pre-capitalist periods in history, periods notorious for their hostility to dissent, innovation, and agreement on universal facts (independent of “perspectivism”/“point of view”). Is it any wonder that we are polarized to the point of collapse of the rule of law, for decades and centuries of indoctrination and experience have convinced much of our black population that there is no justice and no peace.

Maoist conception of the vanguard

Maoist conception of the vanguard

March 30, 2014

What makes America strong?

self-reliance2Fox News Channel has been playing a documentary all weekend (March 28-30, 2014) on the subject of America’s surrender to permanent [leading from behind]. It ended, however, in a strongly optimistic note from neocon Charles Krauthammer, who predicted that getting our act together would reverse what appears to be decline and even doom.

This blog reviews the sources of “American” strength, and makes the case that it is our intellectual and cultural diversity that constitutes “American exceptionalism.” In other words, the protections afforded by the First Amendment to the Constitution were not only unique in world history, but continue to protect us against authoritarian forces of every type—but only if we make the effort.

It is possibly the case that our species tends toward the tribal and the local over the utopian notion of international unification, as expressed in the rhetoric of “international community” that demonstrably does not exist, and probably will never exist. The Left wants us to believe that the WASP elite that emerged after the Civil War, forcibly “Americanized” immigrants to a form of buccaneering capitalism that deracinated them, throwing over all ancestral cultural ties in order to conform to a murderous and immoral “system” run by extreme white supremacists. Why is this argument repeated over and over in interdisciplinary studies in the humanities and in school textbooks? The red specter still lives in fervid imaginations.

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Oddly, multiculturalism or “ethnopluralism” was advanced by progressives as an antidote to claims of proletarian internationalism asserted by leftists from the late 19th century onward, and even before the Soviet coup of 1917. That story has been repeated over and over on this website. I view it as a greater threat to national unity than any other single factor.

Liberal nationalism versus conservative nationalism. In past blogs, I have contrasted the German Idealist notion of national character with classical liberal notions of the relatively autonomous individual. The Germans followed Herder’s notion of the rooted cosmopolitan, a notion that led to Wilsonian internationalism and more recently, the United Nations.

Conservative nationalism entails control over specific territories, staking its claims with arguments of blood and soil. Geopolitics emphasizes fights over borders and possession of the land since time out of mind. Blood and soil nationalism is collectivist in its vocabulary, even though the territory claimed contains wildly different populations with respect to world-views and ideologies. Thus “post-colonialist” scholars and pundits use the vocabulary of Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, etc. and deem “the West” as scheming totalitarians and exploiters of lands and resources that were conquered through militarism, and its handmaidens of science and technology.

Liberal nationalism is a child of the Enlightenment, and was not invented by the Progressive movement that emerged in America during the early 20th century. It was best articulated by the modernizing Senator Charles Sumner who saw the State as limited in scope. The American government was above all a collection of individuals seeking safety from foreign invaders, and possessed of equal rights under the law. The human rights of individuals come out of this Enlightenment tradition. The “human rights” of groups come out of Herder, the mis-named German Enlightenment, and lead into organic conservative and reactionary directions. Social democrats do not fret over this distinction, but promiscuously resort to collectivist statements such as “the people” whom they pretend to defend with their lives and reputations (see https://clarespark.com/2012/11/09/race-and-the-problem-of-inclusion/). Similarly, they have co-opted the language of classical liberalism, deeming their opponents to be termites eating at the foundation of the “republic.”

I view social democrats (today’s “liberals”) as reactionaries, and the source of American division and decline. “America” taken as a collective entity, should always be viewed as a collection of diverse individuals, whether these be conformists, rootless cosmopolitans, or alienated artists.

It is the notion of the unique, irreplaceable, seeking individual, educated to self-reliance and free to choose among competing beliefs, that is the true and only source of American strength and viability in the future decades. To deny this, and to give in to fantasies of decline and apocalypse, is to abandon our children and our ancestors too.

apocalypse2

February 1, 2014

Harvard ed school leads in vaguely dumbing down

ED. cover Winter 2014

ED. cover Winter 2014

The Winter edition of Ed., the journal of the Harvard Graduate School of Education proudly announces in its featured article “All Along,” the existence of an innovation to the curriculum—one expected to remedy the discarded  one-size fits all curriculum and teaching methods that fail, they say, to make allowances for disabled students and those with English language deficiencies.

Using the new neurosciences, Universal Design Learning will supplement Common Core, and allow for true individuality and its associated benefit: “point of view.” (On the Common Core debate see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/05/american-fascism-and-the-future-of-english-and-american-literature/.)

The long article is remarkably vague, however, about whether there is any method to their innovation, which I view as leveling down, while pretending to be leveling up. Dropping the name of Howard Gardner, resident “genius” who, as I have described in another blog,  believes that girls are talented narcissists, while black boys are great at basketball (see  https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/arne-duncans-statism-part-two/), Harvard is remarkably vague about the actual content being dropped on the newly individualized schoolchildren.

“These days, [Jeff Mundorf, a teacher of fifth grade in Naples, Florida] presents information to students in a variety of ways and lets them present what they’ve learned in ways that fits their learning preferences. For example, during the unit he teaches on the US Constitution, he gives his students a choice of reading or listening to an audio recording from the textbook, watching an explanation that he has prerecorded, viewing a video on BrainPop.com, or listening to a musical explanation of the Constitution on Flocabulary.com. The difference in his classroom has been stark. Discipline problems are “almost nonexistent” because…each student is engaged with learning. “Once you think about it, a one-size-fits-all –approach to the curriculum becomes kind of silly…We need to help students understand their own learning and give kids their own path to explore. I have no control over the standardized curriculum, or who’s assigned to my classroom. What I can control is the flexibility of my goals, my methods, my materials, and my assessments.” (pp26-27)

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Another authority ends the article with this hope: “We want to see this approach to be the norm, we want these tools to be available to everyone. We want to see UDL as a reform initiative, one that we hope will really take hold nationwide and worldwide.” (The author of this piece, one Katie Bacon, has written for such liberal outlets as The Atlantic, the NYT, and The Boston Globe.)

Dear reader, you can wave goodbye to debates over the content of the US Constitution, or whether or not fifth graders are even intellectually ready to grasp the fine points of our founding document.

UDL2.jpg

June 30, 2013

The origins of “political correctness” (2)

political-correctness2[Update, 9-20-13: rules against “hate speech” were enforced by the institutionalized censorship in the movie industry long before the 1960s. “Entertainment” was sharply differentiated from “propaganda” or any movie that portrayed other countries unfairly. I.e., “Love” trumped “hate”. Amor vincit omnia. Thank you Will Hays and Joseph Breen, and lately, Loretta Lynch!]

The Paula Deen affair has returned the subject of “hate speech” and “political correctness” to the headlines. In part one of this sequence (https://clarespark.com/2013/06/23/the-origins-of-political-correctness/ and https://clarespark.com/2013/07/04/independence-and-the-marketplace-of-ideas/.) I tried to correct the widespread impression on the Right that “cultural Marxism” was responsible for what is considered to be an infringement on the First Amendment. Indirectly, I sharply criticized “paleoconservatives” for aligning themselves with such as Willis Carto’s Liberty Lobby that blamed the imputed Jewishness of the German “Marxist-Freudian” refugees for gagging white, Christian Americans. (This was especially notable in Bill Lind’s piece on the origins of PC. See the dissemination of his line here: http://monroecountydailytest.blogspot.com/2011/06/politically-correct-attitudes.html. For more on Willis Carto see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willis_Carto).

In this blog, I will extend my discussion, taking into account 1. The hypocrisy of punishing Paula Deen for using the “N” word long ago while liberals deploy a racialist discourse that fails to criticize the very notion of “race”; and 2. The understandable confusion arising from the politics of the [Comintern initiated] “Popular Front” against fascism in the 1930s, wherein communists and New Deal liberals were seen as one coherent political entity, which they were not. Both were statists and bureaucratic collectivists, but whereas New Dealers were conservative reformers trying to stabilize capitalism, communists were revolutionary socialists, hoping to turn the world upside down.

First, the question of hypocrisy. Even before the Soviet coup, it was the progressive movement that dreamed up the notion of the hyphenated American in the nineteen teens (1916). Their purpose: to counter the then left-wing generated notion of proletarian internationalism with the notion of ethnicity. Out went the melting pot, and in came the hyphenated American, thanks to such as Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen (the latter a teaching assistant to William James, the pragmatist philosopher).

(See https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/, and https://clarespark.com/2009/12/18/assimilation-and-citizenship-in-a-democratic-republic/. The latter blog quotes Horace Kallen.)

American nationality was thus redefined. The syncretic melting pot American was out. The hyphenated Americans were in. There would be a mosaic or salad of grouplets, sharing the same capacity for love and compassion. Hence was born “multiculturalism” prefigured by the German Romantics as a weapon against rootless cosmopolitans. The very notion of the individual was erased, for “individualism” was associated with narcissism, selfishness, jingoism, and hateful big business, the latter allegedly disgraced during the Gilded Age. The “individual” was all Head and no Heart; such a demon atomized society, leaving in its wake the lonely crowd. He was the generic “Jew,” and was indistinguishable from the WASP elite.

As a further weapon against class politics during the Great Depression, the big liberal foundations adopted the notion earlier popularized by William James as cultural pluralism: that social conflict could be managed with better intercultural communication: there would be no problem with “compromise” if we understood each other better. Later progressives would see that abusive language hampered the rational state of mind that would allow warring parties to submit to mediation. Ralph Bunche saw through the intercultural strategy in his lengthy memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal (ca. 1938-1940), and was stigmatized as an “economic determinist” for his pains in Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944). (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. Also https://clarespark.com/2011/06/16/the-antiquated-melting-pot/.)

Thus the stage was set for Ivy League professors and big liberal foundations to bargain with troublemaking blacks during the late 1960s. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/.) I have shown in this review of progressive politics that there was no critique of race or ethnicity, but rather an assault on the dissenting or “different” individual. Paula Deen was caught like a fly on flypaper, and no public figure has, to my knowledge, criticized the liberal media for hypocrisy, for it is they who persist in the racialist language of groupiness, and who believe that keeping the “N” word to oneself will solve major structural problems, e.g., the opposition of teachers unions to school choice and/or merit pay.

Second, the confusing Popular Front. Some readers were unconvinced by part one of this blog sequence. They persist in seeing a purely communist lineage for PC. For many on the Right, the boundaries between social democrats and communists have been blurred. For this, we can blame the Comintern that initiated the coalition of bourgeois parties and revolutionary parties from 1934 onward. But make no mistake: the Democratic Party remains a bourgeois party, making strategic gestures that only appear to be anti-racist, but this strategy will not bear close scrutiny as I argued above.

This passage from Hugh Thomas on Spanish politics at the time of the Popular Front (1934) may help to explain why there are divergent views on the origins of political correctness:

“At this time, with the shadows of war and fascism alike growing, the Soviet Union had a good reputation in Spain as elsewhere among Left and progressive people. The great Russian experiment did not yet seem to have betrayed its ideals. Thanks to an extraordinary programme of propaganda and unprecedented secrecy, the facts of agricultural collectivization were as yet unknown, and the persecution of Trotsky not understood. The communist party was to claim that they were responsible for the pact of the Popular Front which fought the Spanish general elections of February 1936. But it required little prompting for the socialists to adopt the salute with the clenched fist and bent arm (originated by German communists), the red flag, the revolutionary phraseology, the calls to unite in the face of international fascism demanded throughout the world by communist parties. ‘Anti-fascism’ and ‘the Popular Front’ were becoming powerful myths, almost irresistible to those who both loved peace and liberty and were impatient with old parties. Equally important on the Right were the myths of empire and national regeneration. The appearance in the Cortes elected in 1933 of a fascist and a communist was a portent and a warning.” (p.117, The Spanish Civil War)

In Thomas’s account, communism and social democracy bled into one another, thanks to the [preventable] polarization in Spain. Extend that bleed to Europe and to the United States, and you have the impasse of today.  Bereft of history, but armed with groupiness, the First Amendment becomes an item in the arsenal of demagogues where “ignorant armies clash by night.”

Paula Deen is road kill.

Paula Deen

May 10, 2013

Losing focus and mass media

mass-media1This blog is about how journalism can break our concentration on the most vital subjects, simply through its format. Nothing gets treated in adequate depth, anchors don’t press their guests to answer questions in any detail, and other events are interpolated that are de-politicizing and hence impede ameliorative action or curiosity about those debates that are crucial to our personal safety and survival as a putatively democratic republic.

Why elites hate mass media. Mass illiteracy in reading print and in reading other forms of media (including photos) is a present-day emergency, but I can’t get anyone excited about this. Many academics (the Frankfurt School critical theorists, for instance) blame totalitarianism on mass culture, by which they mean newspapers, radio, television, and movies. Today, add to that list the internet and social media. Why? Because religous authority, the Church that diverted attention from this world to life after death, suffered the greatest crisis since the Reformation at the point where visual and audio media became cheap and popular, promising large financial rewards to its technicians, writers, and artists.

Once naturalism and realism overtook mysticism and symbolism, accelerated by the world-shaking innovation of mass literacy that began to build after the invention of the printing press, democratic sects sprang up in Europe as part of the Reformation. (Read the communist historian Christopher Hill’s semi-classic The World Turned Upside Down that detailed such as Gerard Winstanley’s Diggers and other radical puritan sects of the 17th century, and which Hill clearly hoped would inspire current day readers to adopt their collectivism, including the notion that the earth was a common treasury. Such a historical reconstruction and popularization was surely meant to counter the growing individualism that leftish Romanticism and free markets had encouraged.)

In prior blogs I have shown how popular television shows not only instil fear of the internet and social media as a goad to “malignant narcissism” and serial killers, but that many series create an atmosphere of paranoia (“you are being watched” says Person of Interest every episode). Paranoia erodes basic trust, without which self-confidence and the search for truth are effectively undermined. We can’t count on our own senses, even when we reflect upon them and do research, for “we see through a glass darkly.” Thus, the old religious fears of “worldliness” and the terminal acceptance of insoluble “mystery” is reinforced: We won’t solve the mystery until we get to Heaven. (For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2013/04/21/fascism-what-it-is-what-it-is-not/, and https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/.)

Why I wrote this blog. This blog, however, is not a defense of the potential democratizing mass media as currently practiced, but rather a different kind of warning about their effects, for this criticism comes from a historian who must focus, if necessarily, obsessively, on a significant problem before any writing can begin, and even after that, one’s writing is constantly interrogated with the same concentration, lest distortions and false claims be laid upon readers, readers who are expected to act upon this new knowledge that has been dug up, chewed over, tested and retested, and usually read by sympathetic but critical colleagues prior to publication.

What concerns me the day after the “explosive” hearings on the Benghazi affair, is that no sooner has the viewer or listener or reader absorbed new and potentially destabilizing information, than the subject is suddenly changed to a “human interest story” that invariably arouses strong emotions and causes the new facts on State Department misconduct to disappear from memory. So it was yesterday: the Jodi Arias verdict, the continuing drama of the Cleveland kidnappings, new facts on the Tsernaev brothers, all jumbled together with Democratic Party accusations that the hearings were a Republican stunt over a phony affair that was already moribund, and that nobody could have saved the four Benghazi victims, even if Clinton and the military had acted immediately upon being notified. (What is of course ignored is the prior cries for enhanced security sent to the State Department and then refused. A few commentators have emphasized this point, but only a few.)

Hence rational political discourse is discouraged, not only because the French Revolution is still on, producing only mobs, or because the nation is polarized over economic strategies or illegal immigrants. We are hampered from focusing on those preconditions that make citizenship possible: the close scrutiny of all our relationships, the desperate need for education reform, and the knowledge gap between most of the electorate and the specialists who make our society hum.

Without basic trust in our (educated) abilities to make sense of conflict; without proportion and a sense of appropriate scale so that we can discern between national emergencies and local problems, all talk of “participatory democracy” is an obscene joke. At one time, our opinion leaders knew this. (See Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, publ. in 1922, and my blog about Chomsky’s attempt to take it down: https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)

media overload

This was a letter from your surrogate mother. Happy Mother’s Day.

July 24, 2012

The cracked and cracking loner as mass murderer

Today is July 24, 2012. The Aurora, Colorado massacre happened early Friday morning, July 20, 2012, and we know almost nothing about the perpetrator’s past; his politics, if any; or how his brain works; but already writers for mass media and on the internet are abuzz with diagnoses suggesting the following: James Eagan Holmes was an inexplicably evil person, perhaps possessed by the devil, as (the Promethean) Lord Byron was supposed to be by his antagonistic contemporaries; Holmes was a “loner” who “cracked” or “snapped”; his crime was ideologically driven as an Occupy Wall Street anarchist (a photo purporting to be Holmes taken from Occupy San Diego has been circulating on the internet); he is a malignant narcissist; he carried the sociopathic “violence” perpetrated by “Hollywood” [a.k.a. the Jews]. In time, I suppose the Holmes story will be assimilated to the mad scientist narrative so popular after the French Revolution.

The loner as a force for disequilibrium. Here is a side of the “classical liberal” F. A. Hayek, generally regarded as a major anti-collectivist economist, that makes me uncomfortable. It is not without relevance to the diagnoses or quick assessments made by pundits in the wake of the “Movie Theater Massacre.” What Hayek does is deny the existence of an individual able to stand outside himself and man-made institutions to make sweeping statements that have truth-values: Hayek’s is a demon whom we have met before in the history of the West. The following quote from F. A. Hayek was originally an endnote in my book on the so-called Melville Revival, for Captain Ahab has been read, especially in tandem with progressive capitalists going over to Keynesian economics starting in 1939, as precisely the type of loner/terrorist who is held to be on a monomaniacal crusade, in Ahab’s case, either to find the truth, or to “quarrel with God” and his surrogate institutions in the State:

[Hunting Captain Ahab endnote:] See F.A. Hayek, Individualism: True and False (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946) for a concise enunciation of the main principles of libertarian conservatism in which science is annexed to hierarchical organic conservatism and the rule of expertise. His recommended lineage for “true individualism” is Locke, Mandeville, Hume, Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. Hayek has undermined the search for legitimate authority based on common understanding and checks from below.  Man is innately incapable of grasping totalities; only deluded and false individualists would claim such an achievement. These include rationalist philosophes and utilitarians, along with the “original” German Romantics, similarly looking to coercive, bureaucratic state power to impose order, destroying checks and balances attainable through spontaneous voluntary organization at the local level. The only role for the state is negative: to prevent any one group from arrogating to itself the excessive power that destroys equilibrium. Describing the conditions that enable true individualism, Hayek explained: “[It is absurd to think that] individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society (7)…The willingness to submit to [flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree], not merely so long as one has no definite reason to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse, and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand is also an indispensable condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion…coercion can probably only be kept to a minimum in a society when conventions and tradition have made the behavior of man to a large extent predictable (23-24).” [end, Hayek quote]

When I did my dissertation research into the construction of the humanities curriculum between the wars in the 20th century, I noted that Marx was less controversial than Freud, who did postulate such a thing as the “observing ego” capable of standing outside itself to describe processes once thought to be mysterious or impenetrable in the world that was in reality held to be the Devil’s lair. Here was Freud’s unpardonable [Jewish?] hubris, for Christian theology insisted upon humanity’s weaknesses, not its strengths. Moreover, the scientific revolution of the 17th century created a rupture in human history that alarmed organic conservatives, along with such as Hayek or Edmund Burke, who looked to loyalty to traditional institutions and hierarchies in order to prevent revolutions (i.e. ruptures) from below. (And what is the Tory David Hume doing there? he loathed Locke, whose Two Treatises on Government later helped to legitimize the American Revolution, yet Hayek does not see the dissonances in his list of philosophic father figures.)

“Traditionalists” don’t like ruptures, and they don’t like loners, yet every major artist I have studied sought solitude, running away from censorious families to find and relay their own pictures of reality. And like Byron, they have been often vilified as violent abusers of their families, drunkards, dope fiends, madmen, you name it.

My heart goes out to these “alienated” figures, for they and their reputations have suffered much at the hands of conformists and other fearful persons unwilling or unable to look inside themselves, or taking the risk of massive retaliation by publishers and readers, to examine dysfunctional institutions and relationships, including the major violence we call wars, or the smaller, more subtle violence that we commit every day in relations with our closest friends and relations.

None of us knows what stirred inside the brain of James Eagan Holmes that caused the atrocity of June 20, 2012, an event that has stirred often well-meaning, educated writers to jump to conclusions. But I have no doubt that an understandably overwrought public will eat up premature ejaculations comparing Holmes to cold-hearted “isolatoes” or mass murderers of the past, who, like Captain Ahab, have failed to beat the devil.

Ptrick Stewart’s Ahab

October 9, 2010

David Riesman v. Friedrich Hayek

David Riesman, public intellectual

It is a revelation to compare David Riesman’s conception of American character in The Lonely Crowd (1950) and the possibility of individuality with that of Friedrich Hayek’s stubborn seeker after truth in The Road to Serfdom (1944).

Riesman’s book (co-written with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney) identifies three social character types, all of whom could be found in postwar America: the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed. Since I had used the last two terms in previous blogs, I checked his book to see if my memory was correct: whether or not the inner-directed type (with which I identify myself) was a desirable type, in Riesman’s view. It turns out that he doesn’t believe that this “Puritan ascetic” bourgeois is an independent thinker at all, but rather one who has internalized the goals injected by his parents. Oh, oh, I thought. So then I wondered, what was his father’s occupation?

But before I get to that remarkable fact, I was not surprised to see that Riesman’s affinity group included many of the names in the burgeoning social sciences that I had analyzed in my book on Melville as read between the wars: Harold Lasswell, Gardner Murphy, Henry A. Murray, T. W. Adorno, Erik Erikson, and others who did not appear in my work, such as refugees Erich Fromm and Leo Lowenthal. All of these figures saw [Hayek’s] “individual” as pathological in some way, especially when, as Lasswell put it, they caused crises of deference by questioning authority.

Friedrich Hayek had written one of the great books of the twentieth century (though it would not be in Robert Hutchins’s list of must-reads): in no uncertain terms, Hayek warned that the totalitarianisms of Europe had made huge collectivist inroads in the United States, and the project of his book was to save classical liberalism from the new misnamed “liberals” whose statism had almost erased the conception of the 19th century individual as understood by those influenced by Adam Smith: Macaulay, John Stuart Mill, and Gladstone, to name a few. What particularly endeared me to Hayek was his recognition that German culture had been pushing both Prussian militarism and volkisch notions of “community” in order to displace the Renaissance/Reformation notion of the peace-loving, innovating, self-reliant individual for several centuries, and that Hitler, Mussolini, and American progressives had not invented anything new in their statist remedies for the social problems of industrialization.

Back to David Riesman, whose achievements as a young man had already identified him as future member of an intellectual elite: his editorship of the Harvard Crimson, his making Harvard Law Review, his clerkship for (Progressive) Louis D. Brandeis, for instance. But since he denied that the inner-directed person was self-reliant, but rather the puppet of his parents and then the flotsam and jetsam of consumerism, I looked up his genealogy and could only get some material on his father, a noted physician and Professor of Clinical Medicine in Philadelphia (The University of Pennsylvania Medical School), where he had been raised. His father’s name was also David Riesman, and Wikipedia simply states that Riesman (fils) was a Jew. The name Riesman does not evoke the Eastern European recent immigrant, but rather the German Jews who came to America perhaps in the 19th century, where they rapidly achieved upper-class status (even though they were excluded from WASP playgrounds and much of corporate America). Moreover, Jews are not allowed to name their children for themselves, and Riesman fils did not even get the Junior appended. But he did go on to write a book claiming that in the new postwar consumer society, no one was free, nor were their ancestors.

According to Riesman fils what the now stigmatized inner-directed parent (along with female teachers) did wrong was to plunge their unknowing offspring into the anxiety-ridden, constantly shifting world of the fashion-driven “other-directed” society of consumerism. Recall now that the Frankfurt School refugees had blamed the rise of fascism on the revolt of the masses, unlike themselves, gullibly consuming Nazi propaganda and loving every minute of it. Whereas Hayek, deeply suspicious of these same recent refugees, warned his readers that they were communist/fascists of the most dire collectivist mentality.

In Riesman’s sad, lonesome world, no separation from illegitimate authority is possible (after all, he never did it): there are only masks and mutual manipulation. In Hayek’s world, such separation from authoritarian collectivism is the test of the civilized individual. And toward the end of his book he cites John Milton several times, who once wrote that “the mind is its own place.” Milton, Hayek noted, was being repudiated in the new collectivist America, shades of the turn against Melville’s Captain Ahab.

I finally stopped reading the Riesman book, for it seemed to me that he was painfully struggling with his own problems, and had no evidence to back up his frequently changing view of “the American social character.”

Hayek with students at London School of Economics, 1948

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