YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 8, 2012

Hobsbawm, Obama, Israel

Hobsbawm in worker's cap

Hobsbawm in worker’s cap

I. Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps the most famous and influential of all the communist historians, died Ocober 1, 2012. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hobsbawm. He was eulogized by leading liberal newspapers as one of the most “eminent historians” of the world, but was denounced by David Horowitz and Ron Radosh, who asked their readers to avoid his history-falsifying works. I thought that I should see for myself, so read his famed “tetralogy” published from 1962 on, ending with his (then) final word on modernity in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These were The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, and The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991. I found the same line put forth by the UCLA Department of History where I earned my doctorate, and throughout the textbooks now used by countless students interested in American, European, and world history. (In his autobiography (2002), Hobsbawm credits George Soros with partly funding the last book in the series, Age of Extremes: suggesting that EH had adopted the “moderate,” i.e., social democratic, line)

Notable about the four books is the target audience of educated lay readers. Hence his [big] claims are not footnoted, but he does provide bibliographies and indices. What is most striking about the tetralogy is his range: he fused economic history, political history, social history, the arts, mathematics, and sciences. In those cases where my own scholarship is competent (the arts and intellectual history), I found his opinions to be either sketchy, derivative, or ideological and hence distorted and present-minded.  (See https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/,  https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/. For a drastically different reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)

For most of the four books, I thought that EH was conforming to the “antifascist” Popular Front strategy initiated by the Soviet Union after 1935; that would explain his praise of the post-1945 synthesis of Left and Right as embodied in social democracy, but that “Golden Age” of capitalism would end in a new crisis of the 1970s and 80s, almost as bad as “the Great Slump” of the 1930s, now worsened by Reagan and Thatcher.

The ending pages of such an ambitious project are worth summarizing. Hobsbawm is deeply worried about the future, which is up for grabs, and yet “dark.” Overpopulation is not only straining the food supply, but the industrialized world, everywhere, is likely destroying the planet. The nation-state is obsolete (globalization having been created by the 19th century industrial bourgeoisie), and yet there is no international agency that could impose the necessary regulations that would ensure the survival of our species.

The competition inherent in neoliberalism, Adam Smith’s elevation of the market, and Darwinism are his targets. EH distances himself from Stalin’s terror, but holds fast to Lenin. This is crucial, for Barack Obama is very close to Hobsbawm in his own political project, i.e., redistributionist (in the interest of social justice), Green-friendly and internationalist in its preferred outcome.

"The Lord's Prayer," Hans Haacke, ca. 1984

“The Lord’s Prayer,” Hans Haacke, ca. 1984

II. Consider now Hobsbawm’s continual ribbing of “the Jews”, nowhere more evident than in the short paragraph he devotes to Israel, which transmits the strangest summary of the Jewish state’s founding and subsequent history that I have ever seen, not to be exceeded in nastiness by the most jihadist of Israel’s enemies. Indeed, this ratattatat is indistinguishable from jihadism, and speaks poorly of the Left, to which Hobsbawm has ever remained attached.

From Hobsbawm, AGE OF EXTREMES, (Penguin, 1994) p. 359. (EH”s “extremes” refer to “laissez-faire capitalism/neoliberalism” on the one hand, and Soviet communism as its rational, enlightened antithesis.) Throughout the four books (but especially in the last two), Hobsbawm identifies himself with the oppressed and exploited “undeveloped world” that has been polluted and otherwise abused by the imperialistic “developed world”. Vehement as is his critique of neoliberalism, Reaganism and Thatcherism, his dislike of Israel is even more pronounced, as in the following, bizarre description of Israel, its founding, and its relations with neighbors.

“…the USSR had been among the first to recognize the new state of Israel, which later established itself as the main ally of the USA, and the Arab or other Islamic states, Right or Left, were united in repressing communism within their frontiers. The main force of disruption was Israel, where the Jewish settlers built a larger Jewish state than had been envisaged under the British partition (driving out seven hundred thousand non-Jewish Palestinians, perhaps a larger number than the Jewish population in 1948), fighting one war per decade for the purpose (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982). …Israel also turned itself into the most formidable military force in the region and acquired nuclear arms, but failed to establish a stable basis of relations with its neighbor states, let alone with the permanently embittered Palestinians within its extended frontiers or in the Diaspora of the Middle East. The collapse of the USSR removed the Middle East from the front line of the Cold War, but left it as explosive as before.”

Here EH, of Jewish parentage, creates a brief narrative that is not only false, but jumbles together discrete conflicts that no professional historian would fail to analyze in context. EH goes out as not only an ideologue, but arguably a prime example of Selbsthass. Could anything be more transparent than the image of the Jewish state as pushy, grabby, destabilizing, ungrateful, and world-destroying?


January 9, 2012

Denying the Nuclear Age

Thanks to Tom Nichols, political scientist, for this guest blog.

I love teaching, and I especially love teaching undergraduates. (Watching young people discover something for the first time is an exciting part of the job.) But it’s a frustration beyond words that younger Americans have no historical memory at all. That’s probably why no one seems to care about nuclear weapons anymore. Not only do many of my students no doubt think that my accounts of the Cold War sound like “crazy grandpa” stories about the Kaiser and the Huns, but they seem to think we’ve solved all those problems now, and that the biggest threats to the planet are things like carbon emissions and Wall Street’s executive bonuses.

In other words, they worry about things that could make us uncomfortable and change our lives by a few degrees over the next 50 years, and remain oblivious to the things that could increase the planetary temperature by ten million degrees in the next 50 minutes.

I suppose there’s plenty of blame to go around. The media, of course, are always a good choice: when Ronald Reagan was president, there wasn’t a day that went by that news anchors like Dan Rather didn’t tell us all to have courage even though that nutty old man was going to blast us all to bits. Once the Cold War was over, and Clinton told us all it was the economy, stupid, nukes went away (just like the homeless, who seem to vanish from the media during Democratic administrations). Journos didn’t rediscover the nuclear danger until George W. Bush started up about nuking the “Axis of Evil”  — a self-inflicted wound typical of the Bush 43 administration — but by and large, the media doesn’t understand nuclear issues and doesn’t care about them. (And yeah, FOX News, I mean you, too.)

Now we’re facing the possible creation of an Iranian nuclear bomb, which would be an epochal event that could get a lot of people killed a lot faster than a notional rise in beach temperatures. No one seems to know what to do about it; Rick Santorum says he’ll bomb them, Ron Paul says we should mind our own business (and that the Iranians are just afraid of the Jews, anyway), and the President, as presidents do, is expressing “deep concern.” (On that last one, I recommend we all cut President Obama some slack: this situation sucks, and it’s not of his making. I don’t want him to say anything definite one way or another; I’d rather let the Iranians have to wonder about that, rather than seeing POTUS paint himself into a corner. That’s how deterrence works — I hope, but that’s an issue for another day.)

But on the bigger issue of nukes in general, I have a bigger worry. I think people don’t care about nuclear weapons because we’ve just gotten used to them. We’ve learned to accept things that no sane person should accept.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I was an anti-Soviet nuclear “hawk” in my early career in the 1980s, because I believed that the sons of bitches –that’s a political science term — who ran the Kremlin didn’t scare easily, and if nuclear weapons were needed to keep the peace, so be it. I had no love for anti-nuclear activists, whom I thought of in the main as harebrained political menaces. No one remembers Helen Caldicott, the then-famous anti-nuclear activist, but I do: she was (I am not kidding) an Australian pediatrician.. She was also a person of staggeringly silly politics, and I firmly believe that if she had been listened to in her time, we’d all either be working in Soviet lumber camps or rooting around for canned goods in radioactive ashes. The Cold War was already a nerve-wracking series of games of chicken, and the last thing we needed back then were screechy kibitzers grabbing the steering wheel and telling us to just make nice with Yuri Andropov and the other murderers in the Soviet Communist Party.

But even then, we were in danger of being infected by our own propaganda. It’s one thing to warn the Soviets not to screw with us or our NATO allies, it’s another entirely to think you could go, as Major Kong said in Dr. Strangelove, “toe-to-toe with the Russkies” and pull it off. I knew guys back in the day, during the height of the last stage of the Cold War, who really bought into things like “limited” scenarios where “only” 10 or 12 million people die on Day One. This tended to be the kind of thing the middle-level nuclear operators and wargamers were especially fond of, but Reagan’s senior advisors weren’t that crazy; before he died, Paul Nitze — not exactly a wobbly liberal on this stuff — admitted that he privately told Reagan never, under any circumstances, to use nuclear weapons, not even in retaliation for a nuclear attack.  (I think the reasoning here is that if all was lost, there wasn’t much strategic, or moral, point in massacring 100 million Russians on the way down.) It wasn’t something you wanted to say out loud in earshot of the Soviet marshals, but it was certainly the right thing to believe.

The ease with which we think about this stuff today, however, does not speak well of any of us. We don’t need to play this game of nuclear stoicism any longer. I once gave a lecture a few years back where I described a hypothetical attack on the U.S. land-based missile force, and I said it would probably kill 40 million people. A young Air Force major walked out of the lecture with me and with a disapproving look said something like: “Well, you know, sir, that number’s high, it’s probably only 8 million or so.” And I said, with all the dryness I could muster: “What a relief. For a moment there, I thought it was going to be really bad.” He didn’t get it. Among the many casualties of the Cold War, irony was clearly one of them.

We live in a better world today, no doubt about it. In 1968, the United States had over 30,000 nuclear warheads; today, it has 5000. By treaty, we and Russia will only deploy 1550 each. But here’s the thing: That is still an insane number of weapons. If we and the Russians ever lose our minds and exchange just a fraction of that, say 500 weapons each, we’re going to exterminate the Northern Hemisphere. We can’t even clean up New Orleans after a flood, for heaven’s sake. We’re certainly not going to “recover” from a couple of hundred nuclear strikes. (Don’t get me started about missile defense. It doesn’t work, and will never work enough to matter in a nuclear crisis. The Russians know it too.)

Even China can ruin our day, with its little arsenal of 25 or so ICBMs. Some people a lot brainier than me over at the Federation of American Scientists and the National Resources Defense Council have estimated that if we try to take out those Chinese missiles, we’ll kill something like two million people, and that’s lowballing. And if the Chinese get one missile loose against a U.S. city — and I mean just one — they estimate that 800,000 Americans will die, and that doesn’t even count the long-term effects of things like the destruction of infrastructure, the loss of irreplaceable records and national treasures, and all the other things that will stick around long after Los Angeles is a red zone. For reference, that’s more than the total U.S. casualties of World War II, and we’re talking about it all happening in minutes, not years.

People don’t realize that the momentum for change is actually on the side of nuclear reductions. If Bush 43 dropped the ball on military intervention as a means of stopping proliferation, Obama has likewise let American leadership on nuclear reductions dissipate the same way. It’s not a sexy enough topic, and it costs a president, any president, a lot of capital to champion it; to be fair, Obama’s not going to get mired in nuclear issues now that he has the Republicans climbing up his leg for destroying the U.S. military, which is — Irony Alert, Part Two — actually not an accurate claim. You don’t see it much, but if you scout around, you’ll find a lot of the progressives are venting in the leftist media about how Obama has reneged on what they thought were his promises to them to slash the military. (They’re right, but that’s a good thing.) And let’s face it, nobody is going to occupy Zuccotti Park over this. (Irony Alert, Part Three: People used to hold sit-ins against nukes, back during the Cold War — at exactly the time they shouldn’t have. The Soviets loved that stuff and even instigated some of the protests themselves, the clever devils.)

For most people, nuclear weapons are just “out there,” an undefinable problem that’s too technical to grasp. Younger voters would rather listen to Ron Paul’s crackpot conspiracy theories — I am deeply queasy over how many of his supporters are young people who are attracted to his simplistic nonsense — than tackle something that really could change the world. Right now, the nuclear “club” has 10 demonstrated members: The U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, and South Africa. (Yes, South Africa. The crazy white regime built six of them before dismantling them when apartheid collapsed.) There are over 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and at least one more country determined to get them. And credit card ATM fees are our big worry?

The old Cold War hawks know the nuclear threat better than anyone, because they helped build it. And that’s why people like Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and many others are now desperately trying to tell us to get rid of the damned things. But no one’s listening.

Last May, Kissinger, Shultz, Perry, and Nunn hosted a major conference of retired generals, diplomats, statesmen and others in London to try to re-energize the nuclear reduction movement. Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans noted ruefully that there wasn’t a person there under 65. (For the record, I am 51, the same age as the President.) Evans lamented that people from all political parties, from every country (including Russia, I would add) have managed to put aside their other differences to concentrate on this apocalyptic threat, but that no one currently in power seems to be interested in seizing the moment. At the conference, former British defense minister Des Brown summed it up: “People who used to be something really want to tackle this issue. The trouble is that those who are something don’t.”

I’ll just close with a moment from a great old Cold War movie, Seven Days in May. It’s a classic, about a military coup in the United States, staged by General Scott (a glowering Burt Lancaster) against President Lyman, who Scott wants forcibly removed from power to prevent the signing of an arms treaty with the Soviets. Once the plot is put down, Lyman says:

“He’s not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe: they’re not the enemy. The enemy’s an age – a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness.”

We can turn our eyes from it, but we still have that helplessness; it’s a learned response. Right now, there are hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear weapons around the world on high alert. One mistake, one miscalculation, and there’s going to be hell to pay, quite literally.

The late Lawrence Eagleburger, one of America’s great diplomats, said shortly before his death a few years ago: “One nuclear war is going to be the last war, frankly, if it really gets out of hand. And I just don’t think we ought to be prepared to accept that sort of thing. But I’m not at all sure that there are very many people who look on this as being as terribly dangerous as I do, so I may be exaggerating the whole thing. But I just don’t think we can tolerate it.”

He was a great American, a conservative, and a tough and smart U.S. diplomat. And he was right. If people showed a little more concern about the future of humanity, and did a little less complaining about student loans and their smartphone data plans, we might actually be able to get something important — really important — done before it’s too late.

Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. He blogs at The War Room (tomnichols.net/blog/). His opinions are his own and do not represent the U.S. Government.

December 15, 2011

Gingrich and the socially-constructed “nation state”

Ferdinand Toennies, German sociologist

A discussion has opened up on a Humanities-Net discussion group, “ The History of Antisemitism, “ regarding Newt Gingrich’s remark on a cable channel (“the Jewish Channel”) that “the Palestinians are an invented people.”  Liberals and leftists in the group associate such a remark with the far right. This blog seeks to historicize the notion of the nation state, arguing that each has a distinct history and that nation-states cannot be lumped together as all being “socially constructed”  as one list member has argued.

“The nation-state” has long been a target of both revolutionary socialists and social democrats, who both prefer some form of internationalism (either proletarian or Wilsonian); think of Marxist Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” or, in the liberal camp, the advocates for the League of Nations, then the United Nations. But the British Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote famously about the distinction between conservative nationalism and liberal nationalism. The latter, he wrote, allowed for the progressive ascension of movements against arbitrary privilege, while conservative nationalism was solely about the control of territory and resources. Ferdinand Toennies, writing in the late 19th century, made a similar distinction when he contrasted Gemeinschaft with Gesellschaft.*

Sadly, it has been the fashion of the post-1960s academy to support Gemeinschaft (an irrationalist racialist discourse denying individuality) against the more rational Gesellschaft (a rational state based upon equality before the law, and susceptible to adjustment and revision; viewing societies as collections of individuals, not races). Hence, the reign of identity politics since the New Left takeover of the humanities, with its “multicultural” emphasis on the constructed category of “race” as against objective class and gender interests. (See my blog https://clarespark.com/2009/12/18/assimilation-and-citizenship-in-a-democratic-republic/.)

As for Israel, its origin is grounded in a mixture of factors that is very confusing to the uninformed. To say that it was simply like other recent nation-states, i.e., socially constructed, is inaccurate and reductive. Many persons on both Left and Right would argue for historicizing each nation state, without subsuming them under one overarching epistemology. Gingrich was accurate about the invention of the Palestinians as a distinct people, but it was tactless of him to make that claim, as most Palestinians are likely, in this time, to be convinced of their peoplehood, and that is the diplomatic situation facing us.  Other conservatives, Charles Krauthammer for one, have made this precise point and are distressed that Gingrich said what he did; but recall that Gingrich was speaking on the Jewish cable channel, and obviously hoping to get “Jewish” votes (https://clarespark.com/2011/06/17/the-famed-jewish-vote/), positioning himself against the current administration that has been openly hostile to Israel’s current government, and apparently ignorant of the history of the region.

* See Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Civil Society, ed. Jose Harris, transl. Jose Harris and Margaret Hollis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2001. Originally published in 1887, Tönnies’s book is considered to be a classic work of sociology, but not until after the first world war (xxviii-xxviii) was it canonized. At first seen as a “communist tract,” it was taken up by German “ultra-nationalists,” and in America during the 1930s was read as “an essay in consensual structural functionalism.” The editor of this edition seems favorably disposed to this elusive and mysterious work. Tönnies was the son of a merchant banker, and given his hostility to modernity, one wonders how much of his disgust with the modern world was intertwined with his feelings about his father. In 1892 he “helped found Society for Ethical Culture, the vehicle for his life-long involvement in various co-operative, social reform, and self-improvement movements.” (xxxi-xxxii)

June 3, 2011

Neo-isolationists and the Jewish Problem

Here is a comment from a Pajamas Media reader, responding to Debra Glazer’s article (6-3-11)  regarding an Orange County, California Jewish organization that has been  funding anti-Israel propaganda:

[Comment from “Nickel”:]  “It is time for the Jewish community to clean its’ own house before the looming war in the Middle East asks thousand(s) of young Americans to die fighting to help protect Isreal [sic]. The majority of Americans are willing to fight to defend Israel but not if those that are funding and organizing the destruction of Israel and the destabilization of the entire Middle East are also part of the recognized Jewish American community. Communism is not a religion it is a mental disorder and it is about time the Jewish community world wide purged its members.”

Here is the comment I left in response to this one and to another one that referred to “Jew-haters” among Jews:

[Clare:] Not all American Jews are “Jew-haters.” Recall that the major period of Jewish immigration to the U.S. lasted a short time, starting in the last few decades of the 19th century and stopped by the 1924 Immigration Act, a law that reacted to presumably communistic “Polish Jews.” Many immigrants were poor and lived in tenements and worked in sweatshops. Their descendants, thanks to the Jewish tradition of respect for education, experienced astonishing upward mobility, but that mobility was limited by a WASP elite, so that Jews were successful in the professions and in the new culture industry (radio, film, television) that WASPS spurned. In order to succeed many assimilated to the populist-progressive movement and its attendant statism (including the legitimating of labor unions), while others (especially during the Depression) became activists on the Left. The situation is now changing as the Islamic threat is obviously making headway. I hope that the comments above are not repeating common antisemitic tropes, such as the belief that Jews are a people apart. There is no “world wide” Jewish community or “Jewish Americans” with the power to purge its members. Jews are scattered, and often at odds with each other. Here is one of many blogs that takes up these matters: https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/. [end comment, slightly corrected]

To elaborate on these points: the comment I quoted reiterated common antisemitic tropes,  that could be applied to collectivist rhetoric in the description of other minority groups. There is no such thing as a world-wide Jewish community. The phrase “Jewish Americans” is part of the ethnic nationalist/ multiculturalist project that separates out the hyphenated Americans from regular Americans. (On assimilation see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/02/glossary-to-some-terms-in-dispute/) now retitled “The Mass Culture Problem.”

The notion that Jews are so organized that they can purge their “communist” members reflects the myth of the all-powerful  International Jew.” Moreover, and most importantly, persons of Jewish descent who become communists renounce any ties to a Jewish identity and marry themselves to proletarian internationalism. The fact that they are still considered to be Jews is an example of “scientific racism.” “The Jews” remain defined by others because of a widespread  belief in the inheritance of racial character.

After decades of genteel antisemitism, finally, there are Jews in the Republican Party. Upper class Americans, until the Shoah, excluded all but a few Jews from their corporations, playgrounds, and secret societies in the Ivy League, not to speak of the imposition of race-based quotas in the better colleges’ admission policies. And while the “progressive”  patricians invented the New Deal and multiculturalism (with the aid of useful assimilating Jews), they neglected to put antisemitism in their reformed civil rights-inspired curricula, though a few schools sponsor “Holocaust Studies” while at the same time, further peace studies and conflict-resolution, ignoring all irreconcilable conflicts, especially those between Israel and its Arab and Iranian neighbors.

My last observation on “Nickel’s” comment: he is almost sounding like Patrick Buchanan, Ron Paul, or earlier, Charles Lindbergh in his famous America First speech, delivered on September 11, 1941 in Des Moines. “Lindy” was arguing against American involvement in a world war to save the Jews.*  Similarly, the Nazi propaganda campaign emphasized world war 2 as started by “the Jews” who were out to exterminate the German people.

“Nickel” has not gone that far, but in his racialist assumptions, he has made a disturbing linkage between the existence of Israel and all the other tumults in the Mideast, either caused or aggravated, one might assume, by the existence of the [expansionist?] Jewish state. Has Israel asked for Americans to sacrifice their lives to save them? Was the second world war an enterprise through which Americans saved the Jews of Europe? I don’t think so.

* [excerpt from Lindbergh’s speech:]”It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.

Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.

Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.

I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to  involve us in the war.

We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.” [end Lindbergh excerpt]

Did you get that, gentle reader? Jews and the New Deal [a.k.a. Jew-Deal] are alien and unassimilable to the true America.

May 20, 2011

The Mentalist, Melville, Blake, and Israel

Simon Baker as The Mentalist

SPOILER ALERT. The popular CBS show The Mentalist had a razzle-dazzle finale ending its third season. Not only was Captain Ahab mentioned, and the Blake poem that had ended the second season reiterated, but Patrick Jane confronted his White Whale, Red John, and shot him point blank in a shopping mall. (It turned out to be a bad man, but not Red John.)

Melville’s Moby-Dick has come up several times in this series, as has the problem of vengeance, and it is the question of “vengeance” and the problem of evil (the dark side of humanity) that is being talked about today on the internet.  As I wrote in my prior blog on The Mentalist, the Blake poem, The Tyger* was written in 1794, and whatever religious resonances it contained, it also clearly referred to the Reign of Terror as perpetrated by the Jacobins. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/.) Today’s undereducated television audience is probably more attuned to the Devil or fallen flesh (our purported dark interior) than it is to specific historical provocations that stir a poet, so today’s blog will try to pull together some themes that question the morality of “vengeance.”**

If there is an archetype for humanity seeking to stamp out evil, it is the Promethean Captain Ahab, his leg torn away by “Moby Dick.” His detractors (Ishmael, Starbuck, and the majority of Melville scholars, including those on the Left) have seen him engaged on a vindictive, futile, hubristic, and suicidal quest to abolish evil. If one understands that Melville wrote his masterpiece after decades of antislavery agitation that threatened to sunder the Union, one must concede that Melville had a very specific evil in mind, and that was the Slavocracy, as Charles Sumner and other antislavery men termed the national government as controlled by Southern slaveholders.

It is not irrelevant that Melville was sometimes read as “Jew” or “Hebraic” and identified with Ahab, or that David Herbert Donald, Sumner’s biographer, hinted that he was driven by Jewish blood through his mother (See Vol.1 of Donald’s biography, published 1960; the tone abruptly changed in Vol.2, published 1970, possibly because of the civil rights movement.)

The Mentalist is no New Age mystic, indeed is not a psychic as some viewers would like to think. He is rather something very like Captain Ahab: a “fighting  Quaker,” a materialist, a loner, and a shrewd mapper of his environment and the correlation of forces arrayed against his individuality. He sees corruption in high places, and cannot count on the legal system to catch the serial killer who murdered his wife and child; indeed, the legal system is hand-in-glove, he thinks, with evildoers, and is compromised by procedures at best. Thus the analogy I am making here with Melville as moralist, horrified by the institution of slavery, but also constrained by his family’s connections to take a public stand against it, except through indirection in his novels.

Consider now the hatred directed against the Jews of Western Europe after their emancipation in the 19th century. The polarizing Dreyfus case was only one example of the failure of a civilized government to enact justice. It was from this crucible that the journalist and playwright Theodore Herzl conceived the daring mission to create a Jewish state.  What role did the civilized nations play in the accelerating events that led to the horrors of the 20th century, and that threaten the Jewish state as I write this? The “Christianized” West was either complicit or indifferent to the murder of the Jews, and continued their indifference when the war was concluded, notwithstanding the supposed U.S. or U.N. support for the Jewish state. It was the willingness of Jews to take casualties in 1948 (plus arms supplied by a briefly friendly Soviet Union with its own agenda) that made the State of Israel possible, not helpful Western intervention. Writing in the early 1940s, Harvard’s star sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose “structural functionalism” still rules in academe, and who was cited favorably by David H. Donald, in Sumner Vol.2,  described the Jewish national character as reflective of a vindictive, savage God. One wonders how many liberal Jews today are fleeing from that archetype, joining in the anti-Ahab chorus as they imagine themselves to be assimilating and therefore acceptable to the American ruling class, those “moderate men” who hold to “virtuous expediency” (as Melville would have derisively put it).

Which brings me back to the higher law. John Locke wrote of the right to resist authority when the constituted government breaks its contract with the people. What makes Patrick Jane such an interesting character to me, is his uniqueness in popular television crime shows (with the possible exception of Bobbie Goren). You don’t see many apparent atheists depicted as the hero of a series, by necessity taking the law into his own hands, appealing to rough justice, or perhaps the higher law of Truth and Justice, as Sumner would have seen it. (Compare this series with Blue Bloods, frankly Irish Catholic in its sympathies, and where everything is done “by the book.”)

What do we mean, then, by “vengeance,” and who defines its legality?  And is the unforgiving Bruno Heller/Patrick Jane a writer who is running ahead of public opinion, indeed running ahead of his own authorial instincts? Melville, insofar as he identified with his mad Captain Ahab, surely was.

*Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye.
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright.
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye.
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

** On 6-2-11, CBS replayed the episode “Red Moon” that ended with a serial killer, set on fire by a guard, reciting some lines from “The Tyger” as he is dying. This episode was written by Bruno Heller and directed by Simon Baker. After the poem is heard, “Patrick Jane” looks extremely disturbed. I suspect that both actor and author are more interested in “the dark [Satanic/vengeful] side” of our species than in exploring the moral dilemma of a man seeking justice in a society where the law is unevenly applied. See recap here: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_mentalist/recaps/310/recaps.php?season=3. To sum it up: without religion, the hounds of hell are released. “The mentalist” is an anti-hero, not meant to be an exemplar, and he is often read that way by viewers, as Red John himself. But as a regular viewer of the show, I prefer to think that both Heller and Baker know what they are doing, and that their view of [Ahab] coincides with mine.

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