The Clare Spark Blog

August 16, 2014

Ferguson MO, Masters of Sex, and the dilemma of the white liberal

Imipassioned integrationist demands action from white doctor

Imipassioned integrationist demands action from white doctor

[For my first take on this series, see https://clarespark.com/2013/10/22/masters-of-sex-and-70s-feminism/%5D

By an odd coincidence, the last episode of Showtime’s hit series Masters of Sex (10 August, 2014), took on the problem of race relations in St. Louis Missouri at the same time that the suburb of Ferguson was exploding in looting and confrontations between “militarized” police and blacks.

This blog is about the double bind white liberal writers are trapped in, given the particular history of race relations in the US. Should they rescue the black population from bigotry  (e.g., Huckleberry Finn, Intruder In The Dust, affirmative action/multiculturalism/whiteness studies) or is it up to blacks to save themselves (e.g., the Black Power movement “by any means necessary”)? (For my blogs on the black power movement see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/15/index-to-black-power-blogs/)

In the last episode of Masters of Sex, Courtney Vance plays Dr. Charles Hendricks, the head of Buell Green, a “Negro” hospital in St. Louis, who has hired the twice disgraced William Masters, expecting him to carry out (Vance’s) specifically “integrationist” project. But Dr. Masters doesn’t see that convincing his white patients to follow him to a dubious neighborhood in the era of segregation is not his, but Hendricks’s priority, a point missed by the Los Angeles Times recap (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-masters-of-sex-recap-racial-tension-flares-at-bills-new-hospital-20140810-story.html.) Masters tells Hendricks that he has his own battle ahead in pursuing his tabooed research on the physiology of sex, while handing off to his mistress the task of persuading his old patients off to follow him to an all black hospital. Virginia, stereotypically enough, is more emotionally attuned and hence more manipulative than he is. The last shots show “Hendricks” leaving in a huff, for the second time pulling down a flyer that Virginia Johnson had put up, soliciting volunteers for the sex study that she and Bill had initiated, and that is, like her, “ahead of her time.”

Disgusted "Hendricks"

Disgusted “Hendricks”

[Earlier in the episode, Masters had shown himself to be unusually empathic with blacks by chastising his reactionary wife “Libby” for forcing her black maid to wash her hair (under the delusion that “Coral” had brought lice into the house). She half-heartedly apologizes to Coral’s protective ‘boyfriend’, who classifies her with hopelessly insensitive “white people.” Yet both Bill and Virginia are seemingly floored by the request to adjust their priorities, putting militant integrationism ahead of their sex project.]

The producers and writers of Masters of Sex are nothing if not present-minded, inventing situations and characters that are the essence of political correctness. Seizing on snippets of the real history of the Masters and Johnson collaboration and then their ultimately failed marriage (divorced in 1992), the creators populate their series with assertive women struggling against the odds, repressed authoritarian males, closeted lesbians, tormented homosexuals pretending to be straight then seeking “conversion,” aging women, prostitutes, oppressed but passive-aggressive blacks, outspoken blacks—all characters who have starred in the social movements of the 1960s and 70s; the target audience is presumably fascinated by the transformations they believe they have wrought via their activism.  

But with the presence of the ardently integrationist “Charles Hendricks” (who sees himself as a pioneer like William Masters) Showtime has placed itself in a political quagmire, for the American polity (both Left and Right) has no idea how to proceed in the romantic project of making up for generations of slavery, then Jim Crow. The real history of the Masters and Johnson collaboration is interesting enough, but present-mindedness (judging the past through the lens of present mores) is the real spoiler. Like the shows on HBO, Showtime delivers soft porn and the frisson, whatever literary merit surfaces now and then (and it does in the episode where, through Virginia’s skillful extraction, Bill exposes his relations with his cold, abandoning father).

(PS. I could find zero pictures on the internet showing angry confrontations between Libby, Coral, or her ‘boyfriend’ Robert (really her half-brother as we will discover in episode 6), even though these tense encounters are in the script of episode 5. Real life does not imitate art.)

Sunny view of Libby-Robert confrontation

Sunny view of Libby-Robert confrontation

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April 12, 2012

The Donkey Serenade and Buffett’s Rule

 Illustrated: Joe’s parents sing “A Fellow Needs a Girl” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (1947).

For The Donkey Serenade, see this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyHNlfT6B9E&feature=related.

With apologies to Rudolf Friml and the lyricist who named this delightful 1936 song to a mule (mules being the infertile progeny of horse and donkey!), my blog will try to pull together what may seem utterly disparate themes: the pseudo-scientific Buffett Rule (cooked up by POTUS), the related notion of “the fair share” (another Obama Revival of an old refrain), Melville’s Whale Song, and the fairy tales of Oscar Hammerstein II, the State as love object, Tales of the South Pacific and its spin-offs, Oscar Hammerstein’s mom, and Romance as the glue that holds society and psyche together. Can this odd chorus line have legs? Maybe it will be too non-linear for some readers.

But first, a nod to the “Whale Song” with which Melville ended the Extracts to Moby-Dick: “Oh, the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.” In the first (London) edition, these are the last (ironic, surely) word in the text, whereas in the American edition, numerous changes were made: Melville added an Epilogue allowing Ishmael the narrator to survive, and the Extracts were moved almost to the front of the novel. This makes a huge difference, for the notion that “might is right” encompasses the greatest debate in world history. That is, Leviathan (or the State, not a good thing in Melville’s view—see his chapter  “The Whiteness of the Whale” and the several quotes from Hobbes in the Extracts) defines what is and what is not moral or just, what is a right and what is a duty, universalist ethics be damned.

So if the President, bereft of rational reasons to drastically increase taxation upon “the rich” trots out “the fair share” meme, are we not entitled to look back on the phrase’s emotional resonances? I asked my Facebook friends to riff on what they thought “fair share” means, and the responses varied, but several mentioned parental apportionment of toys to siblings. It is my view that when people hear the phrase “fair share” they respond as a child might, resentful of the attention given either to older or younger siblings, and wanting the parents to “level the playing field” through “sharing” or “redistribution.” Of course Marxists ostensibly live by the rule “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” but that was so abstract as to justify the allocation of resources by whatever bureaucrat was in charge of the command economy du jour. Catholicism after Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum partly echoed this view in order to stave off a repetition of Jacobin-style red revolution.

[From the King James Bible, 1 Corinthians,13:11] “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (The next line warns, I suppose, that we shall not see clearly, either the world or ourselves, until we meet Christ face to face in heaven. These are not my views, but the proposition is one with which Melville struggled all during his writing career, for instance in the opposition of Ishmael and Ahab. Paul’s is a warning against empiricism/materialism/vanity, while Ishmael’s survival strikes a blow for piety and submission to the King of the Sea. As for the Promethean and antiracist/abolitionist Ahab, he was out for the truth, and hurled his defiance at Kings and Churches who would block his vision.)

Assimilated and Christianized as Oscar Hammerstein’s family undoubtedly was, young Oscar held tight to his favorite things, especially to the lost beautiful gentile mother (of Scottish and English descent), who not only died during his adolescence, but put him out to live with other relatives when her second child was born, for her health was fragile.

Although postwar theater critics made much of Oscar Hammerstein’s preternatural sympathy for “the common man” including “people whose eyes are oddly made,” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4cqTBA6L44*) his collaborations with Richard Rodgers have nothing to with the hard-bitten naturalism and realism of nineteenth century authors and painters, let alone the rough, modernist songs of Brecht and Weill (and somewhat carried forth by the ever disillusioned Stephen Sondheim). Rather, Hammerstein was a fabulist, whose ever-praised “integration” of words and music or stage dialogue with musical numbers was not about adult love at all, but rather about the lost paradise of his mother’s touch and attention. Such favorites of his and his biographers tell the story: “What’s The Use of Wond’rin’” (Carousel) and “A Fellow Needs a Girl” (Allegro). The object of the male’s fantasy life is the “girl” who mirrors back his idealized self, while “all the rest is talk”. As for the paradisaical Bali Ha’i, that is the wet dream of the sexually repressed James Michener, whose famed Pulitzer Prize winning “tales” drastically distorted the real lives of characters he met as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and who were further reshaped in the greatest musical ever, R & H’s South Pacific (1949).

Betta St. John and Tabbert

To wind up this blog, the major theme of the modern musical theater is Romance (including the return of the lost object: the beautiful mother who has spread her attention too broadly), and is now realized in the formerly forbidden theme of miscegenation, which can apply to class as well as race.  By appealing to the audience’s longing for an impossible unity (of the fragments of self, of classes and “races” and genders and sexual preference), popular culture makes “healing” and “unity” not a distant paradise, but a possibility in the here and now, should we elect another Democratic (progressive) President, one who attains family harmony through a yearly potlatch on April 15. And who enforces this fantastic cohesion of self and society? Who else but Leviathan and the Rule of [reformed] Buffett? Such are the skills of the new, new Promethean. (For more on Lieutenant Cable and unity, see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.

*In the original Tales of the South Pacific, the Princetonian and Philadelphian Lt. Cable can’t bring himself to marry the Tonkinese Liat, ever, but in the R& H musical, that renunciation of his class and “race” takes place, to the consternation of those who called it a communistic play. Of course, in all versions of South Pacific, Cable is killed off, but the solidarity of humanity, along with its ethos of self-sacrifice for the good of “the People” is reaffirmed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

Block, Jeffrey. Richard Rodgers. New Haven and London, 2003.

Ewen, David. Richard Rodgers. N.Y. 1957.

Fordin, Hugh. Getting to Know Him. N.Y. 1977.

May, Stephen J. Michener’s South Pacific. Gainesville Fla. 2011.

Michener, James. Tales of the South Pacific. N.Y. 1947.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: a Life. N.Y.  1998.

February 11, 2011

“Undoing” multiculturalism

Houdon's Condorcet, 1785

In my last blog, I summarized those who benefited from the institutionalization of “multiculturalism” (https://clarespark.com/2011/02/10/multiculturalism-cui-bono/).  By referring to the Freudian conception of “undoing”, I do not substitute one form of magical thinking with another. Symbolic gestures designed to change behavior are no substitute for a complete renovation of our conception of democracy and its reparable flaws.

I begin by reviewing my own history of the subject. As program director of Pacifica radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, I was told to implement “multiculturalism.” In my naïveté, I thought that meant that the history of minority groups, women, and labor would be integrated into all of our programming. This was no impulsive gesture: I had already heard and seen the rise of cultural nationalism and its feeble opposition in the academy.  Although the other program directors of the five Pacifica stations ratified my resolution to use the integrationist approach throughout the network, I was immediately red-baited by David Salniker, then the Executive Director of the Pacifica Foundation.  I am convinced that my ongoing insistence on scientific thinking over myth-making was the major cause of my firing in the summer of 1982, eighteen months after my hiring.

In graduate school at UCLA, I was appointed to represent all the students of the University of California system in the Committee on Affirmative Action Hiring and Programs. I introduced a similar resolution there: in those appropriate subjects, all professors would be expected to integrate into their classes the recent discoveries regarding the history of women and minorities, rather than shunting off these new or updated histories to separate departments and leaving the current curricula untouched.  To be unaware of such new scholarship, I argued, would be tantamount to hiring a biologist who hadn’t yet learned about DNA. This resolution was unanimously passed, but I later learned that it was derided by the UC Academic Senates as an impingement on academic freedom and refused.

I had thought that my resolutions at Pacifica and the University of California were innocent and intellectually sound enough, but I had entirely underestimated the power of an ideology and its internalization by conforming academic administrators and their analogs in the liberal foundations. So I systematically went about tracing the history of the concept, and the scales fell from my eyes. The results are found throughout this website, with quotes from the sources of those responsible for perpetuating this social policy, now being disavowed by key European heads of state.

The magnitude of our endeavor can be only briefly sketched here. Here is a preliminary list; the points are all interrelated.

1. We must recover the conception of the autonomous individual, trained in all the skills of citizenship, which in turn suggests the study of the history of individual psychology versus “social psychology.” It is the latter “discipline” that reflected and perpetuated the statist and collectivist notion of “community” and cast the “rugged individualist” as the Indian-killer/enslaver of blacks par excellence. If “white” people have individuality, so does everyone else (potentially), but tribalism and/or premodern economies stunt the growth of individuality, and multiculturalism is tribalism writ large. We need to draw a hard line between ourselves and our ancestors. Their achievements and atrocities are not ours, whatever the reparations/social legislation crowd that controls the teaching of “interdisciplinary” history and “cultural studies” may argue. (For more on this last point, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/. )

2. We must end “liberal guilt” and the social democratic (foggy) conception of “social justice.” The past is past, and although many atrocities are part of our history– atrocities that have the capacity to traumatize the descendants– the conditions and laws that made the atrocities possible have mostly been removed, and yet some prominent academics have made a career dwelling on the past as if it lingered in the present, with no countervailing structures and/or diminishing prejudice, hence “whiteness studies.”  There is no such thing as American identity or “national character” apart from our laws. Such counter-Enlightenment/anti-science notions as the folly of “the search for truth” emanating from postmodernists and their sympathizers must be countered with a renewed insistence on the clear definition of political rhetoric and the history of its usage in propaganda.

3. We can’t solve our gigantic problems with original sin smoking up our minds. Nor can we acquiesce in the religious notion of an uncluttered “free will.” Each of us has had a personal history since infancy, and some of that history has been either traumatic or has created inhibitions that make problem-solving difficult if not impossible.  We must stop thinking of mental health services as a Jewish invention useful primarily to New York Jews. Effects have causes, even if there are many causes that influence the present, and even though it is hard, if not impossible, to disentangle them. Victimhood exists, but so does survival and resilience, with help from our friends.

4. We must restore the useful idea of the melting pot. Culture is syncretic: we learn from each other and borrow that which is enriching and bonds us as individuals with other individuals. We may admire, but not hero-worship.  Such idealization of heroes or other celebrities inevitably leads to disillusion, apathy, intolerable stress, and depression. It is a learned helplessness that erases the very notion of a democratic polity. We are all Americans who live under our Constitution and defend it from its enemies. That implies the erasure of the hyphenated American, but not before its depoliticizing, divisive, antidemocratic, and anti-intellectual bases are widely understood.

[Illustrated: the martyred Marquis de Condorcet, avatar of progress, science, anti-slavery, feminism, and enlightenment.]

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